Saturday, March 24, 2018

Call and Response

Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline is not the most intuitive choice for a hockey arena anthem. It goes over so well for one reason: audience participation.

NEIL: “Sweet Caroline ...”

18,000 FANS: Bah bah bah

NEIL: “Good times never seem so good.”

18,000 FANS: So good, so good, so good!

You get the idea. It’s call and response, and people love to join in. The “response” part was not built into Diamond’s original lyric; it seems to have evolved over the years as fans got increasingly comfortable with the nightly routine of familiar tunes and started improvising on them.

Primordial Expressions

Evolutionary psychologists would probably tell you the song is tapping into a primordial expression of corporate identity, or some such blather. The Christian simply says, “Oh, wait, I’m familiar with that kind of thing,” and promptly turns to Psalm 136, where we find the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever” repeated 26 times, once after every unique line the psalmist has penned.

That’s call and response. The psalm was a public expression of praise that gave the listeners something with which to engage and some part to play in acknowledging the truth of the psalmist’s assertions about God:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
 for his steadfast love endures forever.
And so it goes. The psalm is about the various ways in which God’s love is expressed, some of which have historically not been all that wonderful for Israel’s enemies:
“To him who struck down great kings,
  for his steadfast love endures forever …
There was probably a moment or two when Og, king of Bashan took issue with the whole “love” angle in the process of being smitten to the last man by Moses and his troops. To be fair, the subject of Psalm 136 is God’s enduring love to Israel, not God’s enduring love to the Amorites. Jehovah had already put up with several hundred years of Canaanite child-sacrifices, giving these wicked nations ample opportunity to repent. Only love does that, so perhaps the “response” part of the psalm is not quite so odd after all.

More Than Verbal Punctuation

Responsive readings were common when I was growing up. They were printed in the backs of many older hymnbooks to allow congregations to share in the experience of enjoying scripture aloud together in a single English translation. It’s been many years since I was involved in one — the last was at a high church funeral — and I think we may have lost something in abandoning them.

Similarly, the word “amen” serves as more than verbal punctuation when the people of God gather today.

Amen is one of those weird words that is exactly the same whether you’re looking through a Greek or Hebrew concordance. It’s of Hebrew origin, and the Greeks picked it up and used it to mean the same thing. In the King James it is often translated as “verily”. It is an affirmation of agreement. It simply means “indeed”, “so be it” or “absolutely”. Sometimes it means Yeah, me too. I feel that exact feeling, I think that exact thing and I want exactly that to happen. “Amen” is convenient shorthand for all that.

Modern translations omit the amen from the last verses of all four Gospels, where it resided for years. The earliest available manuscripts do not have them. Still, one can easily imagine an enthusiastic young scribe (or KJV translator) feeling the urge to add his own (rather unnecessary) approval of the Holy Spirit’s various accounts of the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God. If not quite a kosher practice, it is at least understandable.

Amen with a Purpose

We probably don’t say it as much as we might these days, but we should: a resounding amen serves a multitude of purposes, and sends its message in all sorts of directions.

It tells the speaker, “You’re getting this right. We got your back, bro. Keep going!” It tells Heaven, “We confirm with our personal experience that the word of God is the eternal truth.” It tells the passive Christian audience around us, “Get motivated about this! Why are you just sitting there like nothing significant has been said?” It tells the unsaved in the room that what has just been said is not merely some lame notion cooked up by the guy on the platform; it is the word of God affirmed by the people of God down through the centuries. And saying an amen reminds us that when we express verbal agreement, there is a corresponding obligation to go home and live that truth out, otherwise we are hypocrites and culpable for our false expression of consent.

Most of all, it reminds us that we are not just a roomful of blessed individuals, but a redeemed, incorporated unity. We are one body in Christ. When one of us speaks the truth, the rest of us affirm it.

Facts Worth Affirming

Saying an amen is not commanded of Christians, though we find the word plenty of times in the New Testament. What sorts of circumstances warrant it? Well, Paul uses it to mark statements of particular importance or universality. The Creator is blessed forever? Amen to that. The Christ is God over all, blessed forever? Amen to that. Such things are always worth affirming, though there are no hard rules about this sort of thing. If it’s true, and important, and you’re feeling it (or know you should be), I don’t think it hurts to let that fact be known.

On the other hand, we do find this caution to tongues-speakers in 1 Corinthians:
“How can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?”
What works about Sweet Caroline is that it says something relatable in a form with which everyone present is familiar. Try getting the same enthusiastic response at a hockey game with sitar music and set of lyrics in Urdu. Never going to happen.

Self-Expression or a Common Voice

The principle applies not just to tongues-speakers, but to others incapable of making themselves generally understood when they address the people of God. The church of God is not a place where my desire for self-expression ever trumps the purpose for which God has placed his people together in one body: to build each other up in Christ. If we take the opportunities given to us to speak up publicly, we have an obligation to do so with sufficient clarity to enable our fellow congregants to either agree or disagree with us (obviously agreement is preferable, at least when we’re speaking accurately). If we cannot at very least do that, we should take the remedy Paul prescribes for tongues-speakers with no interpreter: “keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”

When we speak to one another and to God in church, we ought to do so with a common voice. Yet some of us are inarticulate. Some are still early in the learning process. Others have trouble distinguishing important ideas from less important ones, though they sure know the truth when they hear it. Still others are forbidden from participating audibly in church. But we can all join together to express our agreement and unity in a single two-syllable sound: “Amen”.

A fairly important word, no?

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