The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, April 28, 2023

Music, Old or New?


Just take those old records off the shelf
I'll sit and listen to 'em by myself
Today's music ain't got the same soul
I like that old-time rock 'n' roll


About fourteen or fifteen years ago I was talking with a young lady when the topic of conversation turned to music.  I don’t recall exactly how we got started on the subject but I’ll never forget her response to something I had said.   After commenting that a band I had mentioned was the sort of thing her father listened to – she was seven years my junior, mind you – she said that she made a point of never listening to any music from before 1995.


I didn’t really know what to say to that.  I had, of course, heard young people dismiss the music of their parents before but to declare oneself to have purposely shut oneself off from all the music from prior to what at the time would have been less than the last fifteen years, that was new.   To be fair to the young lady, about a decade later when I found myself seated fairly close to her at a concert it was of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven.   I refrained from reminding her of her previous words.   Perhaps her tastes had matured or perhaps she had distinguished between popular and classical music, excluding the latter, when making he statement.   There is a third possibility but it would be uncharitable to spell it out.


Thinking over the conversation later it struck me that she had expressed the exact opposite sentiment to that in the Bob Seger song quoted above.   It is interesting to observe that while “Old Time Rock and Roll” has demonstrated itself to be a true classic – a song that is timeless and never really gets old in the sense of past its time – the examples provided within the song of the “today’s music” which “ain’t got the same soul” have not weathered the test of time nearly as well.   The next stanza goes:


Don't try to take me to a disco
You'll never even get me out on the floor
In ten minutes I'll be late for the door
I like that old-time rock 'n' roll


Disco was an early antecedent of electronic dance music named after the type of nightclub in which was played throughout the 1970s.   Think the BeeGees and Studio 54 and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977).   It remains permanently associated with the 1970s, having reached the apex of its popularity at approximately the same time that Seger recorded “Old Time Rock and Roll” after which it sharply tanked, at least in North America.   The Last Days of Disco (1993) the third and final instalment in a trilogy - in the loosest possible meaning of this term - of films by Whit Stillman, is set at the very beginning of the 1980s.    Music so closely associated with a particular decade is dated rather than timeless.


Interestingly, however, eleven years after Bob Seger’s song was first released the Australian Princess of Pop, Kylie Minogue, recorded the song “Step Back in Time” on her third album Rhythm of Love.  This song, which was written by the London production firm of Stock Aitken and Waterman with which the soap actress turned diva had begun working after her cover of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” had become a hit three years previously, is similar in sentiment to “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” except that the negative flip-side, the not-so-subtle rejection of “today’s music” is absent and the sentiment is directed towards the very music rejected in Seger’s song.  Here is the refrain preceded by the bridge that leads into it:


Remember the old days?
Remember the O'Jays?
Walkin' in rhythm
Life was for livin'


When you can't find the music
To get down and boogie
All you can do is step back in time

Ball of confusion
When nothing is new, and
There's nothing doin'
Step back in time


Some have found it amusing for Kylie to sing these lyrics.   She would have been four years old when “Love Train”, the only O’Jays single to reach the number one position in the charts, was released (3) and she was singing for an audience younger than herself.  The song would chart the path for her future career, however.  The following year she covered “Love Train” herself in her world tour and she would continue to pay tribute to disco right up to her last studio album which is entitled Disco (2020).   Bob Seger, incidentally, would have been roughly the same age during the years of “that old time rock ‘n’ roll” that Kylie was during the years of disco.   Don Maclean, who is the same age as Seger, paid tribute to the same music in his “American Pie”, although in his case he noted his having been merely in the early days of adolescence at the time Buddy Holly died in the lyrics which he wrote himself, with his reference to learning it from the pages of the newspapers he delivered on his paper route.


If asked to identify the sentiment shared by these two songs most people would probably say it is nostalgia.  This is not quite right, however, because while nostalgia shares with this sentiment the element of looking to the past with fondness, it also includes an element of sadness. (4)   The sadness of nostalgia is the sadness of loss.   It is the sense that what one looks back to with affection in the past is lost in the present and will never come again.   Think of the sentiment expressed by A. E. Housman in the fortieth poem in his A Shropshire Lad:


Into my heart an air that kills 

  From yon far country blows: 

What are those blue remembered hills, 

  What spires, what farms are those? 


That is the land of lost content,

  I see it shining plain, 

The happy highways where I went 

  And cannot come again.


This sad sentiment is notably absent from the songs we have been discussing.   Both are upbeat, neither assume that the old music they are praising is something lost to time.   Indeed, they assume the contrary.   In Seger’s song he defiantly declares that he will “sit and listen” to those old records “by himself” and Kylie’s song calls on the listener to “step back in time” as a genuine possibility.   If there is a name for this sentiment, like nostalgia but without the sadness, it escapes me.   There should be one because the distinction is important.   Music that is truly timeless cannot be the object of true nostalgia..


For an example of a song that expresses a similar rejection of newer music to Bob Seger’s but with actual nostalgia, or at least imputes such to its title character, consider the following from the Bellamy Brothers’ 1985 country and western hit “Old Hippie”:


He gets off on country music
'Cause disco left him cold
And he's got young friends into new wave
But he's just too friggin' old
And he dreams at night of Woodstock and the day John Lennon died
How the music made him happy and the silence made him cry
Yeah, he thinks of John sometimes
And he has to wonder why


Even more obvious an example is a song we have already mentioned, Don MacLean’s folk rock classic “American Pie” originally recorded and released in 1971.   Like Kylie’s song, MacLean’s is not critical of newer styles of music the way Seger’s is.   It expresses a sense of sadness and discontent and while this has to do with much more than changing styles of music, the lengthy song relating a number of events representing the sweeping societal and cultural changes of the volatile era through which the artist had lived, it does so through the lens of nostalgia for the music of his early childhood,  the same old time rock ‘n’ roll Seger’s song references.   As with the character in the Bellamy Brothers’ song, the nostalgia is focused on a tragic death that symbolizes the closing of an era, in MacLean’s case “the day the music died”, i.e., the day in 1959 when a single plane crash took the lives of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens.  

A third song that expresses nostalgia towards older music is “Video Killed the Radio Star” which was originally released by The Buggles the same year as “Old Time Rock and Roll”.   In this case the nostalgia is not directed towards a style of music but an era of music distinguished from that which succeeded it by stages in the development of media technology.  Also, the loss expressed is not primarily the loss of the singer expressed in the first person, but the loss of the radio star, left behind by technological advancement, which is expressed in the second person in the stanzas and the third person in the chorus:


Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can't rewind we've gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VCR


We have just discussed five songs that have one thing, at least, in common.   Whether nostalgically or not, whether coupled with criticism/rejection of the new or not, they all express an attitude of fondness towards older music.   Other examples could be given.  Country music abounds with songs of this type.    The title single of George Jones’ 45th album, Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes (1985), is a good example.   How many country singers since 1953 have not paid tribute in one way or another to Hank Williams Sr.?   Not many.


How many songs, I wonder, express the opposite sentiment, that of my friend from the conversation mentioned at the beginning of this essay?


Not too many come to mind.   The year after “Old Time Rock and Roll” was released, Billy “The Piano Man” Joel, recorded “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me” which was number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a couple of weeks.   The timing of the two songs made it seem like the one was an answer to the other.  This may or may not be the case, but even if it is true, Joel’s answer is to assert continuity between the new music and the old rock ‘n’ roll, not to set the two against each other like Seger but picking the opposite side.   The following lines should demonstrate that conclusively:


Hot funk, cool punk, even if it's old junk
It's still rock and roll to me


In fact the only song that really stands out as expressing anything remotely similar to the contempt for older music shown by my friend – and this is ironic for several reasons as you will see if you go back and re-read the first few paragraphs of this essay – is “Roll Over Beethoven”, originally written and recorded as an R & B single by Chuck Berry in 1956, but covered several times, including by The Beatles in 1963. 


While it hardly surprising when young people have a preference for newer music and see it as their own,  the contrast is almost always with their parents’ music rather than older music in general much less all music prior to a certain recent date.  Usually, the only people you will hear painting older music with a broad brush so as to condemn it wholesale, are left-wing activists or academics, with a political axe to grind against anything they associate with dead, white, males.   The reverse, where someone says that newer music has all gone to pot after such-and-such a date is much more frequent and there is a reason for this.   The position that older music is better and newer music is corrupt, while it can easily be articulated in such a way as to show the person speaking up to be a fool, is intellectually defensible.   The opinion that all older music must be rejected as bad – or, and this is worse from the perspective of those holing this kind of opinion, irrelevant – and that only the music of today is worth listening to instantly and always demonstrates the stupidity of the person who expresses it.   Most people, of course, would reject both of these viewpoints usually on the basis of a general consensus that likes and dislikes in music – and art and culture in general for that matter - are entirely matters of taste, that taste is 100% subjective, and that most or all attempts to evaluate types of music objectively, merely disguise the subjective tastes of those doing the evaluating.   I disagree with this consensus, but even if it were accurate, I would say that there are still a couple of differences between the two viewpoints that make the one more obviously stupid than the other.   First, the person who rejects all older music in favour of today’s music, is deliberately shutting himself off from the vast majority of music ever made for reasons that are either superficial (it is no longer fashionable), solipsistic (it is not relevant to me), or political (it was made by dead, white, males) with the only one of these reasons that bears any resemblance to an objective complaint against the rejected music being the worst of them all.   The person who dismisses today’s music in favour of the old shuts himself off from a much smaller percentage of the music out there even if his reasons are no better than those of the other person. The second difference between the two viewpoints is that the person who rejects today’s music rejects that which has yet to prove itself whereas the person who rejects the music of the past rejects that which has already proven itself.   Music, like all other art, is not automatically entitled to our acceptance.   For these reasons, even if there were no objective “better” or “worse” when it comes to music, the person who writes off today’s music wholesale is objectively less stupid than the person who writes off the music of the past wholesale.


The person who writes off today’s music may do so for reasons that are no better than those of the person who writes off the music of the past.   There are, however, better reasons available to the person looking to objectively justify rejecting at least some of today’s music.   This is because the idea that there is no “good” or “bad”, “better” or “worse” when it comes to music, or any other kind of art, that all is subjective, simply does not bear up under scrutiny.  Consider the history of the types of music that have come up in this discussion so far.   With the exception of Beethoven, all are types of popular music, and with the exception of country and western, all the rest came about after World War II.   The “old time rock ‘n’ roll” itself, the first stage of what is now just known as rock music, was subjected when it first came out, not merely to aesthetic criticism of the professional sort that all art and culture receives, but to moral condemnation as well, coming primarily from parents and clergymen, especially fundamentalist preachers.   These have been mocked in popular culture ever since, but were they wrong?


Although many people, probably most, assume that they were, it would be very difficult to make an intelligent case for this.   The fundamentalists warned that rock ‘n’ roll was contributing to the overthrow of sexual morality and respect for parental authority and religion.   To this day such preachers are mocked for their warnings of seventy years ago and the basis of much of the mockery is the tameness of the objects of their homiletic wrath at the time compared to what is normal now.   This, however, is the textbook example of a self-defeating argument.   Look around at society today.   The traditional sexual morality of keep it within marriage by the traditional heterosexual definition of the word and if you can’t do that at least have the decency not to flaunt your indiscretions in public has indeed been overthrown and replaced with an identity-politics based one in which “slut shaming” is condemned rather than sluttiness and every conceivable alternative to heterosexuality and to even being male and female comes with high status points.   Parental authority is at all-time low and here in the Dominion of Canada progressive nincompoops are promoting Bill S-251, currently before Parliament, which would abolish parental authority altogether.   In North America and throughout Western Civilization we are far more secular today than we were at the end of the Second World War and secularism itself has evolved from a tolerant, classical liberal, secularism towards one more resembling the intolerant secularism we used to associate with Communism.   We have arrived, basically, at exactly where the fundamentalists of the 1940s and 1950s said we were headed, and the fact that the music and movies and culture in general of today is far worse by the standards of said fundamentalists than the kind they actually preached against, hardly demonstrates them to have been wrong.   The point, to be clear, is not that rock ‘n’ roll caused the moral collapse of civilization.   It is that the forces which were moving us towards this collapse were already in motion in the 1940s and 1950s, that the fundamentalists of that era correctly perceived rock ‘n’ roll to be in alignment with those forces, and so the objective moral grounds of their preaching against it has been borne out by history.  


The fundamentalist complaint that rock ‘n’ roll was undermining parental authority has particular bearing on the “it is all subjective” argument.   The moral position of the fundamentalists was based upon the Fifth Commandment – “Honour thy father and thy mother”.   The fundamentalists maintained that rock ‘n’ roll was influencing young people to break this commandment.   Rock’s identification with rebellion against authority, especially parental, would become much more explicit in the 1960s, but the earlier rock ‘n’ roll marked the beginning of the generational conflict that has so persisted ever since that it is often assumed to be part of the unavoidable “the way things are”.   A good case can be made that the “It is all subjective” argument has more to do with fatigue brought upon by this conflict and the desire to escape it than with the nature of music and musical taste.


In the 1995 comedy film Clueless, which borrows the plot of Jane Austen’s Emma and loosely translates it into the world of rich, 1990s, Beverly Hills teenagers, the matter of the generation conflict is raised by one of the minor characters in one scene.   The main character had just given a presentation in class on Haitian refugees, the teacher played by Wallace Shawn had asked the class for “further insights”, and the character of Travis, who corresponds to Austen’s character of Mr. Martin and is played by Breckin Meyer as a Jeff Spicoli type (referencing an earlier movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, from the same director) offers the following, off-topic remark:


OK, like, the way I feel about the Rolling Stones is the way my kids are going to feel about Nine Inch Nails, so I really shouldn't torment my Mom anymore, huh?


The assumption behind this is that kids always hate the music their parents listened to when they were their age.   It has been my experience that this assumption does not have much  validity except for kids whose musical preferences fall within pop, rock, and other genres derived from or closely associated with these.   It certainly wasn’t valid for me when I was a kid.   My first musical preference was for country and western and while I listened to artists like Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Dwight Yoakam who were the new face of country at the time, with the exception of Steve Earle my favourites were mostly those of my father’s era – Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels and especially Johnny Cash and Ray Stevens.     Even with pop and rock, to the extent I had any use for them at all at the time, it was certainly not ‘80s music, which I did not appreciate until I could look back on it from a distance, but my mother’s music, especially Elvis, that I liked.  Of course I recognize that my experience was atypical.  I was born with a thoroughly reactionary disposition and even before I reached my tenth birthday took, or at least affected, a curmudgeonly attitude towards the pop/rock favourites of my peers as “the devil’s music” that would have put the best fundamentalist preacher of the ‘50s to shame.   That having been said, I can think of people I have known over the years who are musically inclined from the creating and performing end of things, and these almost always have had a very broad appreciation for music of all types and eras and shown no evidence of the sort of attitude the Clueless character was talking about it, exemplified to the nth degree by the friend mentioned at the beginning of this essay.   While classical music was for me an acquired taste, one that I developed in college – except, of course, for that which I acquired from Bugs Bunny and other cartoons as a meme my sister recently sent me reminded me  – I did know a couple of people who were classical music aficionados from childhood.   There is considerable overlap between these and the creative types just mentioned but my point is that it is difficult to conceive of someone whose musical taste has been classical from childhood experiencing the kind of generational gap in taste that seems to go with pop and rock.   Indeed, it is comical to imagine it.   Try and picture someone attending the first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth in Vienna in 1808 and then going home and mocking his father for having attended the premiere of that stuffy old “Jupiter” (Mozart’s 41st) back in 1788.   It would be “inconceivable”, to borrow from another Wallace Shawn character (Vizzini the Sicilian in The Princess Bride) but use the word correctly.   The loose equivalent to what “pop”, “rock”, “disco”, “hip hop” and the like are to popular music in classical music are Baroque (Bach, Vivaldi, et al.), Classical Proper (Haydn, Mozart), and Romantic ((Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, et al.) with Handel as a transitional bridge between the first two, and Beethoven as the same between the last two.   This is an oversimplification, but the point is that the principle classifications within classical music speak of eras each of which could contain within itself the whole of the period that saw all of these styles of popular music rise and replace each other.      


Newer classical music, whatever one might think of it – as a rule I am not too fond of classical music composed after the nineteenth century – is not written and performed to set kids against their parents and produce generational strife.   Nor is newer country and western music.  As different as classical and country and western are both are living traditions in which respecting the past is expected of present artists. 


So why did rock ‘n’ roll music and its progeny do this?  


To understand this it is helpful to recognize that the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll coincides in time with the development of the LP record.  While ways of recording sound had been discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century, and commercialized following Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, it was the LP – what we just called a “record” when I was a kid and now, since its recent revival, usually call vinyl – that really introduced the factory, mass production, mindset into the music industry, because their far superior storage capacity and playback quality made them far more suited to this than their predecessors.   This turned popular music itself into a mass consumption commodity.   The production companies saw young people as the largest market for record sales and began making music to be marketed to young people as their music, a marketing strategy that ended up pitting young people against the parents, a result that become more extreme over time.   Shortly after Columbia introduced the first LP in 1948, record companies began to release music oriented towards adolescents under a number of new style names of which rock ‘n’ roll caught on the most, sometime around the mid-1950s.   Histories of rock music tend to focus on the race politics of the era of its origin, some from a liberal perspective (rock ‘n’ roll bringing black rhythm and blues and white country together in the last days of Jim Crow) others from a hard left racial grievance perspective (rock really beginning with black R & B but not taking off the way it deserved until “stolen” by white artists like Bill Halley, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly), neither of which is entirely wrong although both contain a lot of codswallop.   The real story is that more than any other older types of popular music, rock music, beginning with R & B rock ‘n’ roll, was far more the product of the marketing strategy of the firms that distributed it than of the artists themselves, despite the “No True Scotsman” fallacy employed by the many who claim that “real rock” is distinguished from pop by the independence of its artistic creators.   While the fundamentalist preachers of the ‘50s blamed the Communists, the real villain was capitalism.   Capitalism is far more effective at accomplishing the evil ends of Communism than Communism itself.


Now, there are those who would insist that the arguments I just laid out are not really better than those of the person who rejects the music of the past and accepts only today’s music because they are not about the music itself but the way it is made, the intentions of the producers, and social and civilizational ills with which the music was associated but which it did not cause. To fully and consistently maintain that the arguments raised over the last seventy years or so against each new wave of rock music are invalid, however, requires the separation of lyrics from music because it would be insane to claim that today’s music is not much worse than that of decades ago in terms of lyric content.   This separation is indeed at the heart of the case made for Christian rock.   I remember having a heated debate in the dormitory at Providence College on the subject of Christian rock in the very year my previously mentioned friend thought of as the cut-off point before which no music was worth listening to.   I took the con position, my opponent took the pro position.  In the interest of full disclosure, while I was not arguing a side simply for the sake of arguing, i.e., as devil’s advocate, my music collection at the time did include cassettes by Petra, the Newsboys, and One Bad Pig (Christian punk band – the album in question was the one in which they did a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black” with Johnny himself joining in the vocals).   My position on Christian rock is that it belongs to two categories, Christian music and rock music, within both of which it is generally inferior with a few exceptions – the examples just given not being among them – that prove the rule.   My opponent’s argument, or the portion of it that did not consist of accusations of legalism and similar rhetoric, reduced to the idea that music is neutral with goodness or badness found solely in the lyrics.   It is an argument that is well suited to the music of ApologetiX – basically the Christian version of Weird Al Yankovic.    It is deeply flawed when examined on its own merits, however.   In music, all the component parts are put together to make a whole.   Someone can make music without including words just as he can make music without include a piano or without including a guitar or stings in general or percussion.   Once it has been made, however, the words are as much a part of the music as the notes played on whatever instrument is used.


Furthermore, instrumental music speaks in the same way lyrics do.   Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is entirely instrumental but it tells the story of the event it was written to commemorate – Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in 1812 and Tsarist Russia’s successful repulsion of the invasion.   Johnny Mandel’s “Suicide Is Painless”, better known as the theme song for M*A*S*H is just as horribly morbid and depressing when Michael Altman’s lyrics are omitted – as they were in the television series – as when they are included, as they were in the original 1970 film. I defy anybody to listen to the karaoke track of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” without it inspiring the urge to go out and punch someone in the face.  The message spoken by the instruments may complement and support the message of the lyrics.   This is the norm.   Sometime it can contradict the message of the lyrics.   This is usually inadvisable, but it worked for John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival with “Bad Moon Rising” (1969) and for pretty much the entire oeuvre of Sheryl Crow.   Whether in harmony or discord with the lyrics, the instruments speak, and this makes the claim that sans lyrics music is neutral, utter nonsense.  


Ultimately, however, the most important standard by which music and art in general must be evaluated is the aesthetic.   This is not a cession to the subjectivists, not if one accepts the view of the Ancients, that Beauty, like Goodness and Truth, is what it is and is not what we decide it is.   This is why the distinction stressed earlier in this essay between the timeless and the dated is so important.   Remember the difference between the two.   Both are old in the sense of having been around for some time.   A song or genre that is dated, however, is also old in the sense that it belongs to the time that produced it.  A song or genre that is timeless, belongs to all ages, being appreciated today in the same way it was yesterday, a quality that can only be discerned with the passing of time.   This is directly related to the aesthetics of the ancients because if Beauty is what it is and is not what we decide it is then it is the same to everyone, everywhere, in all times.    Saying, therefore, that a song – or a poem or a painting or a statue – is beautiful, is not the same thing as saying that I like the song – or poem, painting or statute.   Not necessarily at any rate.  When I say “I like X song” I could be saying that X song appeals to the part of me that recognizes in X song that eternal, fixed, transcendental quality that is Beauty and which is the same for everybody, whether they recognize it or not.   I could, however, be saying that it appeals to something else in me, an emotion or passion or such, in which case I am not making an aesthetic statement.


It is not always easy to recognize this difference, especially in an age like ours which has gone to war with the Ancient universals.   Similarly, it is not always easy to tell whether a song is timeless or dated.   There is middle territory, or at least a number of ways in which something that is dated can partially escape its datedness.   A song or book or movie may, for example, develop a cult following that remains attached to it long after the wider culture has set it on the shelf belonging to yesterday.   Or it may undergo a temporary revival like a retro look in fashion.   Or it might attain a lasting value that is not the same as timelessness but is derived in a meta sort of way from its own datedness, in a manner similar to how camp (stuff in bad taste that is appreciated for its own, often exaggerated, bad taste) works, in this case the music having to first become dated in order to be valued in a nostalgic way.   Remember the other distinction that I made a point of stressing earlier in this essay.   That which is truly timeless can never be the object of true nostalgia because it is never lost to us, never out of date.   That having been said, a little common sense goes a long way towards distinguishing between the universal appeal of true Beauty and that which appeals to what is base in us.   If the reason you like music is because of the adrenaline rush produced by negative emotion of some sort that it stirs up in you, or because its lyrics are profane, obscene, rebellious or violent, then you can mark that down on the non-Beauty side of the ledger.


I think that what I have said is sufficient to demonstrate that preferring older music and taking a wait and see approach to that which is new, looking for timelessness and Beauty,  while treated as a sign of crankiness by the masses, is a far more sensible approach to the opposite, so amusingly expressed by my friend of years ago.  So I will conclude with the words of Bob Seger:


Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I'm old-fashioned, say I'm over the hill
Today's music ain't got the same soul
I like that old-time rock 'n' roll




 (1)   George Jackson, Thomas E. Jones III, “Old Time Rock and Roll”, recorded by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band on the album Stranger in Town, 1979.

(2)   Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, Peter Waterman, “Step Back in Time”, recorded by Kylie Minogue on the album Rhythm of Love (1990).

(3)   Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco closes with a memorable scene of Chloe Sevigny and Matt Keeslar dancing to this song on a literal train, a subway, after the disco era has ended, but so infecting the rest of the passengers with their enthusiasm that they all join in. 

(4)   The “alg” in nostalgia comes from an ancient Greek word, the one Homer uses in the second line of the Iliad for the suffering and woe which Achilles’ dreadful wrath caused to the Achaeans assembled at Troy.

(5)   David Bellamy, “Old Hippie”, recorded by the Bellamy Brothers on the album Howard & David, 1985.   The Bellamys would later record several sequels to this song providing the characters entire life story.

(6)   Bruce Woolley, Geoffrey Downes, Trevor Charles Horne, “Video Killed the Radio Star”, recorded by The Buggles on the album The Age of Plastic, 1979.

(7)   Billy Joel, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, recorded by Billy Joel on the album Glass Houses, 1980.

Friday, April 21, 2023

The Problem with Sermon-Centric Worship


What is sermon-centric worship?


Think of a church where every week the minister decides he wants to preach on topic X on the following Sunday, then picks Scripture readings for that day based on his topic and instructs the organist or choir director or praise and worship leader or whoever happens to be in charge of music to pick music that corresponds with the theme of his sermon.     Everything else in the service is subordinate to the sermon.   People who go to this church go there, first and foremost, to hear the sermon.


This is sermon-centric worship.   For many conservative Protestants, especially Calvinists and fundamentalists, this is the only way of ordering a worship service, deviation from which raises the suspicion of a weakening of standards of doctrine and practice.   This raises the question of what is being contrasted to the sermon-centric order of service.   If the sermon is deemphasized for something novel and contemporary, some gimmick chosen in order to appear more relevant and up-to-date and user-friendly and seeker-sensitive and whatever other such gibberish is currently in vogue, then our Calvinist and fundamentalist friends have a point.   When this sort of thing is done it is often, perhaps usually, a good indication that orthodoxy and orthopraxis have dropped a few places in the hierarchy of priorities of a parish and its leadership.



Suppose, however, that the alternative to sermon-centric worship were not anything novel, contemporary, or gimmicky.   Think of a church where the Scripture lessons are not chosen to support the topic of the sermons but where the preacher is expected to give a sermon explaining the Scripture lessons assigned to that Sunday in a lectionary designed to take the church through the written Word of God within a set period.   Think of a church where Holy Communion is treated not as something to be tacked on at the end of a sermon-centric service once a month or less but as something that should be done as often as possible, preferably whenever the church meets, and ideally every day, and of at least equal importance to the sermon and probably greater because it is the ministry of the Word as a whole, in which the sermon takes a subordinate position to the Scripture lessons, with which the Sacrament is on par.


The preceding description is what was generally the case with all churches in the first millennium of Christian history, remained true of the ancient churches other than the Roman after the first millennium, and from which the Roman church deviated not by adopting sermon-centric worship but rather by twisting Communion-centric worship into a caricature that provoked a response in the Protestant Reformation that gave birth to sermon-centric worship.


Calvinists are unlikely to be deterred from thinking their sermon-centric model of worship to be the only valid one by this fact.   Although the need for a greater stress on preaching – and for higher quality preaching than what had been the norm – was a common theme of all branches of the Magisterial Reformation, it was the Reformed far more than the Anglicans and Lutherans who developed the sermon-centric model, and the separatist sects, even those who would be appalled to consider themselves “Calvinist” in theology, usually took their cues on matters such as these from the Reformed.   Today, conservative Reformed theologians more than any other conservative Protestants point to what they call the return to the primacy of preaching, in explaining what was good and necessary and right about the Reformation.


Now in the late Medieval period, in the centuries immediately prior to the sixteenth which saw the Protestant Reformation, bad doctrine and bad practice concerning both preaching and the Sacrament became prevalent in the Roman church.   This is why the Calvinist position cannot just be dismissed wholesale.   Calvinism, however, has a tendency to lump doctrines and practices common to all the ancient churches, not just the Roman but those whose communion with Rome was broken in the first millennium, in with the errors particular to the late Medieval papacy.   The Protestant Reformation was a needed response to the errors of the late Medieval papacy, but Calvinism went too far in rejecting what was common to all the ancient churches.   Typically, when Calvinism rejected something common to Rome, the Eastern Orthodox, and the ancient near Eastern churches, it was not because it could demonstrate that the Scriptures opposed it, but because it could not be shown that the Scriptures required it.   This is a very bad way of approaching traditional doctrine and practice.   Doctrines, such as the truths confessed in the Nicene Creed, and practices, such as an annual celebration of Christ’s birth and Resurrection, common to all the ancient churches, should be regarded as good and sound and worthy of being retained and perpetuated unless it can be shown that the Scriptures are explicitly against them.   The rejection as “popish” of doctrines, practices, and traditions common to all the ancient churches rather than distinctive of Rome in the late Middle Ages is hyper-Protestantism, and is typical of both Calvinism and fundamentalism, the most sermon-centric movements within Protestantism.


Let us consider the difference between Protestantism and hyper-Protestantism as it pertains to that which was ubiquitously the focal point of church services prior to the Reformation – the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  What the Protestant Reformers objected to in Roman practice going into the sixteenth century was that while the Mass (the liturgy of the Eucharist) was said daily, the laity seldom took Holy Communion.  They were obliged to attend Mass regularly, but the only obligation with regards to taking Communion wat that they had do it once a year.   When they received Communion it was in one kind – the cup was withheld from them.   Their part in the Sacrament was, apart from the once a year obligation to receive it in this mutilated form, was to gaze on it and adore it.   All of this was particular to the Roman church and a fairly late development.   The practice of withholding the cup from the laity, for example, was no older than the eleventh century and the official banning of the laity from receiving the cup came barely a century prior to the Reformation.    Obviously, the reform called for here was to insist that both bread and wine be offered to the laity and to encourage the laity to receive Communion regularly rather than just adore the Sacrament.   De-emphasizing the Sacrament, however, so that it is no longer the focal point of the service, goes against the practice of all the ancient churches, not just against the errors of Rome.   A similar observation can be made with regards to the doctrine of the Sacrament.   The Protestant Reformers objected to the Roman doctrine of Transubstantiation – that during the Eucharist the bread and wine are transformed into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ with only the appearance of what they were before remaining.   What all Protestants agree is objectionable in the doctrine of Transubstantiation is the idea that after the consecration the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine – the Real Absence of the bread and wine, if you will.   There are many different Protestant views as to what actually does happen which I will not be listing here as it is largely beside the point.  Suffice it to say that hyper-Protestants are usually drawn to Zwingle’s view of Communion as a mere symbol remembrance of the death of Christ, a view Calvin rejected although it is hard to discern a real difference between his view and Zwingle’s, which interpretation rejects not merely Transubstantiation and the aforementioned Real Absence of the bread and wine after consecration, but also the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the elements of the Sacrament, which all the Church Fathers taught and which all the ancient churches hold to, with all but Rome generally regarding it as a mystery that does not require an explanation of the sort Transubstantiation was thought up to provide and for which such an explanation would be an impiety.


It should be clear from what we have just seen that the move to de-emphasize Communion to the point that it becomes something infrequently tacked on to a sermon-centric service arises out of the hyper-Protestant rejection of the doctrine and practice common to all the ancient churches – that which is truly Catholic – rather than mere Protestant opposition to the late errors distinctive to Rome.


Now with regards to sermons themselves, the Reformers taught that the clergy must not neglect the duty of giving sermons, that the clergy needed to be better educated so that they could better explain the Scriptures, that the sermons needed to be delivered in the vernacular, and should faithfully preach Jesus Christ and not merely serve some political agenda of the papacy.  There were all valid points and that they were all made indicates that the quality of preaching had declined significantly although the picture that is often painted of preaching in Western Europe on the eve of the Reformation is probably exaggerated.   It is doubtful, for example, that outside of university pulpits sermons were given in Latin to congregations that could not understand it, rather than being preached in the vernacular to congregations but when published put in Latin for a literate readership.   Certainly, the Reformers’ emphasis on the need for an educated clergy bore good fruit in the academic institutions established at this time for the purpose of educating clergy in the Scriptural languages and the art of interpreting them.


The hyper-Protestants, however, again took things too far.   In their doctrine of the primacy of preaching they elevated the sermon above the very Scriptures the sermon is supposed to interpret and explain.   Consider the difference between the two models outlined earlier in this essay with regards to the relationship between the Scripture lessons and the sermon.   In the sermon-centric model, the lessons are chosen to support the preacher’s topic.   In the traditional model, the preacher composes his sermon to explain the given Scripture lessons.   The traditional model has the sermon subordinate to the Scripture lessons, the sermon-centric model suggests that the Scripture lessons are subordinate to the sermon.   In some forms of Puritan theology this was spelled out explicitly.   The Puritans were the original English hyper-Protestants.  In The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, his response to Puritanism, Richard Hooker addressed at length arguments from a leading Puritan of his day to the effect that the mere reading of Scripture in the lessons is insufficient to quicken the spirits of men, that the Scripture had to be preached, i.e., in a sermon to be effective.  As crass and blasphemous as this notion is – it translates into the idea that the very words of God are ineffective but human interpretation of those words is effective – it is frequently encountered among the sermon-centric.


As with all such errors the idea that the Word of God is ineffective unless preached in a sermon has its “proof texts”.   These are Romans 10:14-15 and 1 Corinthians 1:21.   The first of these is where St. Paul asks how they shall call on the Lord if they have not believed, then how they shall believe if they have not heard, how shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach except they be sent, with the point of course to each of these questions being that they will not, that it is necessary to believe to call on the Lord, it is necessary to hear to believe, and to hear one needs a preacher who has been sent.   The second proof text is the verse where St. Paul says that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe”.   What can be said about the Puritan, hyper-Protestant, abuse of these texts is that it illustrates the Reformers’ argument about the need for a better educated clergy. 


The word “preach” in these verses does not mean “give a sermon”.   It is a word that at its most literal means to do the work of a herald, to proclaim.   In these verses it basically means to tell other people about Jesus.  It is hardly confined to the concept of giving a formal address to a congregation.   Indeed, the implications that are often read into 1 Cor. 1:21 are hilariously comical when the verse is read in its context.   The sermon-centric read it as if the unbelieving world regarded preaching in the sense of the act of delivering a sermon as “foolishness” but God has shown them up by using what they consider foolish to accomplish His saving ends.     This is nonsense of course.   The ancient world did not regard preaching qua preaching, i.e., delivering an address to an audience as foolishness.   On the contrary, they held it in the highest regard.   If you don’t believe me, read up on Demosthenes, Cicero, and the role of the art of rhetoric in ancient education, including the schools of Plato and Aristotle.    The only difference between a sermon and any other sort of public oration is the subject matter.   For a Scriptural example, think of St. Paul before the philosophers at Mars Hill in Acts 17.    Those who ridiculed him did so because of what he preached to them, i.e., the Resurrection, not because of the form or manner in which he presented the Resurrection to them.   In 1 Corinthians 1 it is just as clear I the context  that it is the content of what St. Paul preached that the unbelieving world regarded as foolish, and not the mere act of preaching.   Note earlier in the passage, the Apostle, who is rebuking the factionalism that had emerged in the Corinthian church, says that Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach the Gospel, adding that he preached the Gospel “not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect”.   In other words, the power to save in his preaching came from the cross of Christ, and not from his oratorical ability.   The verse immediately after that spells it out – it is the preaching of the cross that is foolishness to them that perish, but to the saved it is the power of God.  


Again, when the New Testament speaks of “preaching” as God’s instrument in bringing people to faith and salvation to people, “preaching” merely means telling people about Jesus.   It could take the form of what we more commonly call preaching today, that is, giving a speech in which an entire crowd is told about Jesus at once, like when St. Peter addressed the multitude on Pentecost or what Billy Graham became famous for doing in our own time.   It could also just be you having an informal discussing with your neighbor and telling him about Who Jesus is and what He has done.  


The disingenuity of those who conscript these texts about God using the preaching of the Gospel to bring salvation into the service of their case for sermon-centric worship is further evinced in that the examples from the book of Acts of preaching that is used by God in this manner are all of sermons that are addressed outward to audiences other than the church.   St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon illustrates the point well.   The entire church at the time was already assembled with St. Peter in the upper room.   After the Holy Spirit descended upon the church, however, the sermon St. Peter gave which yielded the fruit of about three thousand converts baptized and added to the church, was not addressed to those with him in the upper room, but to the multitude gathered outside.   Later in the chapter, when it says that those who believed “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” this is where we get our earliest glimpse of what the first church did when she gathered together to worship.   Their continuing “in the apostles’ doctrine” means that when they gathered they were instructed in the faith by the Apostles.   This is the beginning of what we think of as the sermon in the regular church service today.   Addressed to those within the community of faith that is the church, rather than outward, its purpose is didactic rather than evangelistic.   Together with fellowship, the Sacrament of the Eucharist (“breaking of bread”), and prayer, we have here the basic elements of the traditional order of service.


A frequent accusation which hyper-Protestants level against traditional liturgical, Sacramental, worship is that it is a show put on by priests acting out a prescribed role in which the laity are observers rather than participants.   This adds a level of deep irony to their advocacy of sermon-centric worship.   The word “liturgy” which we use for the order-of-service of traditional, priest-led, Sacramental services comes from combining the Greek words for “people” and “work” and involves far more participation on the part of the laity than a non-liturgical service.   Throughout the liturgical service, the clergy and laity interact with versicles and responses, mostly consisting of the words of Scripture, which introduce or close or both, Scripture lessons, collects, and other prayers.   For example even the Anaphora – the Eucharistic Prayer in which the elements of the Sacrament are consecrated – opens with a preface that begins with the priest and laity interacting in the Sursum Corda (“The Lord be with you” “and with thy spirit” “lift up your hearts” “we lift them up unto the Lord”,  “Let us give thanks unto our Lord God” “It is meet and right so to do”) and ends, the preface that is, with the Sanctus hymn sung or said by choir and/or congregation.   The single largest element in the liturgical service in which the laity plays a merely passive role is the sermon.   In a sermon-centric service, this part is extended and emphasized, and the interactive, participatory, liturgy is minimized or eliminated, so that such a service is far more limited in terms of lay participation than a traditional liturgical service.   A similar irony, directly related to this one, is that hyper-Protestants regard the priest-lay distinction as being an offence against the unity of the church that divides Christians into two classes with one being unjustly subject to other in violation of the “universal priesthood of believers”.   Apart from being unscriptural – the establishment of the Apostles as governing order of the church and their establishing two other Holy Orders under them is clearly recorded in the New Testament – and illogical – the nation of Israel was described as a nation of priests in Deuteronomy and this did not preclude the Levitical priesthood, therefore the universal priesthood of Christian believers cannot preclude the special priesthood of the Apostolic orders of ministry – and contrary to the universal practice of every ancient church for the first fifteen centuries of Christian history, this Christian era version of the sin of Korah resembles the Communism that is its secular counterpart by producing, whenever it is acted upon, a far greater gap between minister and congregant, than exists in the ancient, traditional, order against which it rails in the name of “equality”.


Finally, one telling indicator that the sermon-centric model of worship is deeply and dangerously flawed, is the language that one often hears when such preaching is discussed.   It is not infrequent to hear the sermon described in such a way as would suggest that the sermon itself is the Word of God.  Let us be clear.   The Scriptures are the Word of God.   The sermon is someone’s interpretation and explanation of the Word of God.   When the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel lessons are read out, this is more properly called “preaching the Word”, than when the homilist gives his talk on what these lessons mean, no matter how sound his hermeneutics may be.    The two must never be confused.  

Friday, April 14, 2023

The Fifth Article – The Victory of the Christ


In our discussion of the fourth Article of the Creed we noted that the Creed speaks only to the what of the Son of God’s suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial for us, and not the question of how this accomplished our salvation.  We looked at the controversies that arose over this question long after the period which gave us the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds.    I mentioned that the late Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware had offered a number of helpful questions for evaluating the different theories or models proposed to answer this question and applied the first of those questions, “does in envision a change in God or us?” to the Anselmic model of satisfaction and subsequent models derived from Anselm’s such as the Reformation model of penal substitution and observed that the Metropolitan’s question shows us how far to take the language of analogy employed by these models.    Metropolitan Ware’s third question was “does it isolate the Cross from the Incarnation and the Resurrection?”    It is a weakness in the model if it does this and so it is good to observe again that in the Greek and Latin original texts of both Creeds the third, fourth, and fifth Articles are part of the same sentence.


That the Cross should not be isolated from the Resurrection is of particular importance when it comes to the subject of the Victory of the Christ.   The Cross should never be thought to have been a lost battle before a final victory.  In both the Cross and the Resurrection Jesus Christ is Victor.   On the Cross Christ’s victory was accomplished but concealed, in the Resurrection Christ’s victory is openly revealed.


It is important to keep this in mind when we consider the fifth Article of the Creed.   In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed this Article reads καὶ ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ κατὰ τὰς γραφάς which is rendered in the English of the Book of Common Prayer as “and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures”.   The phrase κατὰ τὰς γραφάς or “according to the Scriptures”, taken from St. Paul’s summary of the Gospel he preached in 1 Corinthians 15 was not present in the original Nicene Creed but was added by the Council of Constantinople.   The Apostles’ Creed does not include this phrase and it begins with a phrase not found in the conciliar Creed.   The Latin text of the Apostles’ Creed is descendit ad inferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis which in the English of the Book of Common Prayer is “He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”    


While there are some who think that the traditional division of the Articles is mistaken in assigning descendit ad inferos to the fifth Article with the Resurrection rather than the fourth with the suffering, Crucifixion, death and burial, this viewpoint is wrong.   The descent belongs with the Resurrection as part of the open revelation of the victory of Christ.   We shall address this at length momentarily.   First, however, the Modern controversy over the descent clause and its translation needs to be addressed.


The traditional English translation of descendit ad inferos as we have seen is “He descended into hell”.   Squeamish Moderns dislike this translation and have suggested such alternatives as “He descended to the dead”.   While this would not be a mistranslation of the clause taken in isolation from what precedes and follows it, it is not a good translation of the clause in its context.    When, later in the clause “the dead” is incontrovertibly used to denote those from among whom He rose again, it is a mortuis in Latin, not ab inferorum.   This is the ordinary way of saying “the dead” in Latin.   The adjective inferus means “lower” or “below”, and the masculine plural when used as a substantive as it is in the Creed literally means “those below”.   This was understood by Latin speakers to mean the souls of the dead who were “those below” because they were in the underworld.    While it was more common to use the neuter plural to indicate the place and the masculine plural to indicate its inhabitants the one implied the other.   The traditional translation of “hell” is better than “the dead” here because following “was crucified, dead, and buried” and preceding “The third day he rose again from the dead”, “He descended to the dead” does not really say anything in English that is not already affirmed in these other clauses.


Some evangelical teachers have rejected this clause and the doctrine of the Descent into Hell for reasons other than the Modern squeamishness referred to in the previous paragraph.   Wayne Grudem, past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and the author of a very popular one-volume Systematic Theology, has said that this clause should be removed from the Apostles’ Creed.   John Piper has said that he omits the phrase when reciting the Creed.   Both claim that the doctrine lacks Scriptural attestation, a position that can only be taken by those who assert that “Hell” can only refer to the punishment of those who finally reject their redemption in Jesus Christ and should not be used of the Hebrew שְׁאוֹל‎ (Sheol) or the Greek Ἅιδης (Hades), i.e., the underworld, the land of the dead.   This is an untenable and absurd position for many reasons.  For one thing, in Old English the word Hell had the same meaning as its Danish, Germanic, and Norse cognates which all derived it from their common proto-Germanic root, and that meaning was identical to that of the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades.   For another, it retained this meaning after it came to be also used for what the Book of Revelation calls the Lake of Fire, and continues to have both meanings in the general culture to this day.  Finally, the concepts of Hades and the Lake of Fire while distinct are not so unrelated that a common term cannot serve for both.   Hades is the realm of the dead and death throughout the Scriptures is the punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17, Ez. 18:20, Rom. 6:23).   After the Book of Revelation describes Death and Hades as being cast into the Lake of Fire it says that the Lake of Fire is the Second Death.   That Jesus was in Hades between His death and Resurrection is a fact found in the very first Gospel sermon preached by St. Peter after the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost (Acts 2:24-31).


Grudem and Piper are both Reformed in their theology, that is to say, adherents of the version of Protestant theology enshrined in the canons of the Synod of Dort.   This type of theology is often called Calvinist, although it arguably owes more to Theodore Beza’s interpretation of John Calvin than to John Calvin himself.   Beza was an early proponent of excising the Descent clause from the Apostles’ Creed.   Calvin was not himself in favour of this, but his interpretation of the clause was very different from the traditional understanding.   He understood the Descent into Hell to refer to Christ’s suffering the penalty for sin as man’s substitute.   Interpreted in this manner, it must either a) refer to Christ’s sufferings on the Cross up to and including but completed by His death or b) mean that the payment for man’s sin was not complete when Jesus died and had to be completed in Hell.   The second of these is so obviously unacceptable that the only person I can think of who actually taught it was a very heretical televangelist.  Calvin understood it the first way.   If this is what “He descended into hell” means, however, then it is rather conspicuous for being the only item in a long list of otherwise consecutive events not to chronologically follow what preceded it.   Calvin’s fundamental error here was that he, with his lawyer’s mind, focused solely on Hell as a legal penalty for sin and so read the Descent into Hell as part of Christ’s Passion, His voluntary submission to suffering and death for us.   In a long tradition going back to the Fathers, however, the ancient Churches – including the ones that do not make liturgical use of the Apostles’ Creed – have understood it to be the first step in Christ’s Exaltation rather than the last in His Humiliation, as part of His Resurrection rather than His Passion.


To understand the traditional view of the Descent, it is best to personalize death, that is to say, to think of Death as a person.   Since St. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 26 and 55) and St. John does this in the Apocalypse (6:8) there should be no objections to this on Scriptural grounds.   Then think of Hell – in the sense of Hades, the underworld, as Death’s kingdom.   To be more precise, think of Hell as one of Death’s two kingdoms, the other being the Grave.   In the Grave Death holds the bodies of men captive, in Hell he holds captive their souls.  God decreed to man in his Innocence that if he disobeyed God he would die.   Thus Death has a claim on the bodies and souls of all who sin.   Adam sinned and passed sin on to his descendants so that Death claimed them all (Rom. 5:12ff – another passage in which Death is personalized).      Then the Son of God became Incarnate as a man.   Born of a Virgin, He was the promised Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), Who inherited human nature but not Adam’s sin, nor did He, although He endured Temptation (Matt. 4:1-11, Lk. 4:1-13, Mk. 1:13), sin Himself (Heb. 4:15).   Death, therefore, had no claim on Him.   He, however, Who was without sin, allowed the sins of the world to be placed upon Him (2 Cor. 5:21, I Peter. 2:24) and voluntarily submitted to arrest, trial, scourging, crucifixion, and death.   That His submission was voluntary is stressed in the Scriptures – the Prophet Isaiah declaring in prophecy that He would be led like a Lamb to the slaughter and open not His mouth (Isaiah 53:7) and He Himself told St. Peter in Gethsemane that He could call upon His Father to send more than twelve legions of angels to His rescue (Matt. 26:53).   This is important because, again, the Passion of the Christ was not a temporary defeat before the final victory, although it had that outer appearance.   The Passion was Christ’s Victory.  By voluntarily submitting to all this injustice He forced Death to claim the body and soul of Someone over Whom Death had no claim – and Who, being God as well as Man, Death could not possibly keep captive.   When Death claimed Him, he forfeited his claim on anybody else.   So when Christ entered Hell, Death’s kingdom, it was not as captive but Conqueror.   He had already defeated Death, and was now revealing that victory, first of all to those whom Death had held captive in Hell and whose liberty He had just secured.


This is the understanding of this event that can be found throughout the pages of the Patristic writings and in artistic depictions in Church buildings around the world.   The typical portrayal of the “Harrowing of Hell” in art features the Gates of Hell smashed to pieces, on top of a figure who may be either the personalized Death or the devil, with Christ, often standing on the smashed Gates, extending His arms to a procession of the captives He has liberated, led by Adam and Eve.


The next step in the revelation of Christ’s Victory was the Resurrection itself, linked with the Descent into Hell in the Apostles’ Creed, and the sole event mentioned in the fifth Article of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.   Unlike the Descent, historically controversy over the Resurrection had been between believers and unbelievers, over whether or not the event took place, rather than between believers over the interpretation of the event.   In the last century or so liberals have re-interpreted the Resurrection by saying that it meant that Jesus lived on in the hearts of His followers while His body remained in the Tomb but this too is a controversy between believers and unbelievers, since such liberals are not believers, but unbelievers trying to disguise their unbelief as faith.   If you do not believe that after Jesus literally died on the Cross, and was buried in the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, on the third day His spirit and body were re-united, His body was restored to life, and He left the Tomb empty of all but His grave clothes, you do not believe in the Resurrection.


In the Resurrection, Jesus was raised from the dead in His body, but not merely to the same state in which He was prior to His death.  His body also underwent a transformation.   The same will be true of everybody else in the Final Resurrection on the Last Day.   St. Paul in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians explains this in terms of the analogy of a grain planted as a seed.   The grain “dies” when it is planted, and springs to new life as a plant.   The Scriptures do not spell out all the details of the difference between pre-death and post-Resurrection life.  In His encounters with His followers after the Resurrection Jesus was recognizable, although in some instances, such as with Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the Tomb (Jn. 20:14-16) and the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-31) the recognition was not immediate.   This could indicate that His outward appearance was altered in some way, although the nail prints in His hands and the spear wound in His side remained (Jn. 20:27).   The most important difference is that prior to His death His body was mortal, after His Resurrection it was incorruptible, no longer subject to disease, decay and death.


Like the Creation of the world, the Resurrection is represented in Scripture as an act in which the entire Trinity was involved.   While most often the Scriptures speak of God the Father as the Agent Who raised Jesus His Son from the dead, Jesus did speak of actively raising Himself from the dead (most obviously John 10:17-18 but this is also the import of His saying that He would raise the Temple in three days), and St. Peter speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Agent in the Resurrection (1 Pet. 3:18).   St. Paul also speaks of the Holy Spirit in connection with the Resurrection in Romans and his wording may suggest that the Spirit’s role was instrumental in a way similar to that of the Son in Creation.


When St. Paul wrote “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10: 9) he summarized the Gospel with the Resurrection.   The Resurrection is the one Gospel truth that contains all the others.   That God raised Jesus from the dead necessarily means that Jesus had to have died, and for Him to have died means that He had to have come down from Heaven and become Incarnate as a Man.   As well as encapsulating the entire Christian faith in a single truth, the Resurrection is the evidence of the truth of the faith.   When Jesus was asked for a sign to prove His claims for Himself and His authority to do the things He did it was the Resurrection to which He pointed when He spoke of Himself building up the Temple after three days and the sign of the prophet Jonah.   As the evidence for the truth of the Christian faith as a whole, the Resurrection remains one of the best attested facts of history being attested not only by an abundance of evidence of the legal-historical type – such as the eyewitness testimony summarized by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15  - but by nature itself.   The Resurrection took place on the third day after the Crucifixion, and the Crucifixion took place on the Jewish Passover, which falls on the Ides of the month the Hebrews originally called Aviv – spring.   Spring is the season in which the trees bud and grow leaves, the flowers bloom and the grass turns green, the birds come back and animals awake out of hibernation after winter, the season of coldness, barrenness, death and decay.   While rationalistic skeptics have tried to write the Resurrection off as another myth symbolizing the renewal of life and fertility in spring after the barrenness of winter, they got this exactly backwards.   The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event that occurred at a known time, in a known place, in a province of the largest empire of the civilized ancient world.  Therefore the natural renewal of life in springtime to which countless pagan myths point must itself have been made by nature’s Creator, God, to point to the Resurrection of His Son. (1)


The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of our hope as believers.   To the ancient pagans Hell – the underworld – was the final destiny of all people, the wicked and the just alike, after death.   In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses, visiting the underworld before death, encounters the other Greek heroes of the Trojan War, including Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes, who gloomily tells him that it is “better to serve on earth than rule in hell”.   The hope of the pagans, such as it was with this gloomy worldview, was to achieve glory that would survive them in this world.  In the Old Testament, Hell – Sheol –similarly awaits all after death, but there are passages that indicate that this is only a temporary destination.   Job expresses the hope that he will be raised from the dead, King David expresses similar hope in several of the Psalms, and Daniel spells out clearly that at the end of time the dead will be raised to either everlasting joy or everlasting shame depending on the outcome of the Last Judgement.   In Christianity, the Old Testament hope of resurrection was made solid and certain by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the first fruit of the Final Resurrection.   In the closing chapters of the Apocalypse St. John gives his vision of a new heaven – the heaven visible to the eye – and a new earth, that will replace the old heaven and earth, to which the New Jerusalem, the City of God, which is basically the same thing as the heaven that is invisible to the eye, i.e., the location of God’s throne, the place of His immediate presence, will descend to the earth, and so heaven and earth will be one Kingdom of God.   The hope of the believer is not bliss in a disembodied state but to be raised bodily to live in this Kingdom of God on the New Earth, or, as N. T. Wright puts it, not life after death, but life after life-after-death.   The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the pledge to the believer of his certain hope to participate in this resurrection.   Indeed, even in this life we are told to consider ourselves, who have been baptized into Christ’s death, to be raised with Him into newness of life, and so His Resurrection is the basis of the faith in which we walk, as well as of our ultimate hope.


(1)    The realization of this is what brought C. S. Lewis to his conversion to Christian faith.