iTunes Christianity

I am not one to buy things whole.  I like iTunes, where I can download a song, rather than buy a whole album. If I like 2 cuts from a CD, I don’t need the other 10, right? I occasionally buy a Greatest Hits album, but with these, I know I like (or should like) most of the songs.

Which leads me to religion: I have been thinking about religion for the last 12 hours or so. I’ve made conscious efforts to be barely-controversial in the religious stuff I’ve posted in the last year because… I don’t know why? Maybe I didn’t want to offend anybody, or open any “cans of worms”  so to speak.  I didn’t want to start a firestorm that centers on my faith. So I’ve been mostly quiet about my own beliefs.

I frankly have been in a time of percolation for the last dozen-or-so years, developing my own theological thoughts and shaping my own heresy. Am I an iTunes theologian? Do I like to pick and choose? When you pick and choose, you may find yourself with a heap of nothing.

Case in point: last night I downloaded that famous crooner’s love song, N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”. It has a certain attitude toward the gendarmes, and what sort of sexual intercourse we, as a society, should have with them. Helpful hints, those! Why did I download it? Because I’m a completist. It was on the Rolling Stone magazine’s List of 500 Greatest Songs. I’ve been working on getting all the tracks on the list for a few years now.  I’ve had them for free, but now that I’ve given up my piratey ways, it’s taking some time to reassemble the thing for money. It gives me comfort, somehow, to buy the whole thing.

Yet, I can’t say the same of Christianity.

Part of the Reformed faith (the branch of Christianity to which I’m most closely aligned) is the Apostles’ Creed, which reads like this:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.


A creed, for those who don’t know the jargon, comes from the latin word credo, or “I believe.” That’s exactly what the statement is: twelve cardinal beliefs of the orthodox (used with a small O here) Catholic and Protestant believer. It’s about 1300 years old and for the masochistic, can be memorized (and for the ultra-masochistic, can be sung):

My question is, does all this matter? The Catholic Church divides the credo into twelve statements (a nice Biblical number–one for each disciple, and for each tribe of Israel). What really needs to be believed? any of it? None of it? I guess if you want to buy Christian orthodoxy, you’d buy the whole thing. Is that the cutoff point to attain your Fire Insurance, so you spend eternity floating on a cloud?

I’ll be honest: after years of struggle, I can take or leave some of the Apostles’ Creed (I’ll keep the Mozart C minor Mass all the same, thanks). I don’t believe it’s crucial to one’s Christian-ness to, say, insist upon a Virgin Birth. My friend Dan, a Lutheran Minister, recently posted about Mary, and her virginful ways. We tend to get hung up on this detail. And, to go back to the iTunes analogy, how important is the Virgin Mary track to the album as a whole?

Another thing–do you think it’s fair that Pontius Pilate–a minor Roman official–gets to be immortalized? Why don’t we say “betrayed by Judas Iscariot”? or “suffered under the Romans” (which was probably the point when the thing was written–to point out the sheer Roman-ness of Jesus’ suffering). Do Christians worldwide need to recite the name of this guy, or suffer the wrath of eternal damnation?

I know some chunks of Credo landed there specifically to combat specific heresies: the born, suffered, crucified, dead–all that “body” language keeps Christians from going down a Gnostic/Ascetic path. Chunks of credo: I like that. Sounds like a scene that might happened in the Star Wars movies.

Notice, also, the Creed nothing about Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) being God. Christians needed later Creeds (the Nicene Creed, for one–it gets a lot longer treatment when sung) to clarify the point of “oh yeah. Jesus? he was God, too.”

And, hey! What about the “Descended into Hell” bit? Do we need to believe Christ conquered Hell in order to be a Christian? Or is Christianity, at its heart, a rather violent concept of redemption through blood? We Christians love us some action words.  The first 8 or so parts of the Credo read like a story of the life of Jesus as told by Matthew and Luke. Is the story manufactured? Is it wholly important? Or is real heart of Christianity the communion of the saints and the forgiveness of sins?

Do we get to choose our iTunes Greatest Hits version of Christianity? Or do we have to buy the whole album for $15.99 (plus tax)? Are you willing to shell out some cold, hard belief credits? or, like so many others, can you do without the tracks altogether?

John Lennon (who represents, with this statement, more people than Christians may realize) had the following to say: “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” John Lennon, by the way, has very few tracks available on iTunes. The Beatles were a major online music holdout. I wonder what kind of deal Apple had to broker in order to get them to paste their music online? Good old Apple.  Did Steve Jobs give the world what it needed, or what it wanted?

Black Sabbath, by the way, is not yet available on iTunes. I wonder if they have an Apostles’ Creed too?

This post was inspired, in part, by two friends: Dan Pool and Susan Isham.  Visit their blogs, if you have the time.


5 thoughts on “iTunes Christianity”

  1. Here is a joke familiar to Eastern Orthodox Christian Americans that you might enjoy:

    One Sunday, a/an (enter your preferred adjective of Eastern European/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern ethnicity here) _________ Orthodox Church in the US decided to say the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in English rather than in the traditional language of the Church back in the old country. One middle-aged man, a cradle Orthodox third-generation American parishioner, began reciting the Creed in a language he understood for the first time in his life. However, just words into it, he was heard to interject a quizzical “what” into the Creed. As the recital of the Creed progressed, he repeated the interrogative several more times, the tone of his voice becoming increasingly agitated, and at the end he said, “I don’t believe any of that!” and walked out of the church.

    Without beginning a debate on whether the first letter of the word “tradition” should be capitalized, I think there is a certain danger that comes of picking and choosing one’s beliefs from an assortment of religious and secular systems without the guidance of tradition. A Yankee friend of mine has managed to cobble together a personal religion from sundry encounters with spiritual practices during his travels around the world. While I truly enjoy shooting pool, downing a few beers, and bs-ing about American football with him, discussing things spiritual is an exercise in yawping (while the degree of barbarity depends on the amount of beer consumed, roofs have never come into play––although a playground slide once did). To talk with him about his religion is to flit over the planet and through past lives in such an incoherent, undisciplined manner that I doubt whether the ancient Gaia could produce order out of his private chaos. There is no core, no center or tradition to guide him other than a handbag of eclectic beliefs and his own shifting perspective.

    You mentioned heresy in your blog, and that’s one thing my friend is not guilty of since he makes no claim at being a Christian. Blame it on deconstructionism, multiculturalism, pluralism, whatever “ism” you like, one of the things we postmoderns have difficulty doing is understanding ideas that were once generally accepted. Yet the 4th century C.E. episcopacy of Christ’s body who formulated the Church’s belief into Creed did so with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and an understanding that arose from the then uncanonized scriptures as interpreted according to accepted sacred tradition. The Nicene Creed provides a core definition of Church belief, a standard rule by which ideas can be measured to find out what degree of truth, or heresy, they contain.

    For those of us who have come into the world after the formulation of the Creed, the canonization of the scriptures, and the episcopal stamp of approval on certain beliefs and practices, it is often tempting to label the official historical line of Christian belief as dogmatic (a word often said with a huff, a sarcastic tone, and a little rolling of the eyes). However, it is important to realize that what the Church came to recognize as truth grew out of the faith and practices of generations of early Christians who through study of the scriptures, fasting and prayer, and sacramental celebration tried to put on the life of Christ, and countless believers paid for their love and imitation of Christ as martyrs. What some might deride as dogma is often times the fruit of an earlier generation of Christians who wrote about their faith and practices in order to assist the next generation of believers as they followed Christ. Out of the faith of early Christians flowed practice, and together, if in keeping with what was recognized by the episcopacy as accepted truth, they formed the tenets and sacred traditions of the Church that were eventually affirmed through the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

    While every church and every believer has to work out how to live a life in Christ in their time, one of the challenges that comes with the doctrine of sola scriptura, at least in the Baptist denomination I was raised in, is how to understand Scripture without the aid of the sacred tradition in which the bible was written and canonized. In a sense, sola scriptura makes every man his own pope. A pope, however, without the anchor of sacred tradition to keep him from being blown about by temporal passions and tempests. Think about how much the western world has changed since the first Protestants began cutting ties with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. It has been said that the Church of England was founded in the codpiece of Henry VIII. The marital issue (or male lack thereof) of a monarch divorced an entire country from the traditions of the church and allowed for new ones mired in the concerns of the time to be set up in their stead. The fracturing continued as people disagreed with the new church and, modeling their monarch’s behavior, split from the established church to form new groups. Some of my ancestors on the Mayflower did not think much of the Church of England and wanted to separate from it. If they did not like the Church of England nearly 400 years ago, what would they think of it now? (I know several people who have left the C of E because of the changes it has undergone in just one generation.) Seven generations after my English separatist ancestors settled on the North American east coast, a group their descendants, members of a newly organized Baptist church left eastern Massachusetts for the wilds of central New York. What would those Baptists think of the faith and practices of Baptists six generations later? Which Baptist brand would be most akin to their own? Or would they opt for an independent Baptist church, or perhaps a non-denominational community church? Or would they, as my great grandfather did, just sit in the car in the parking lot reading the Bible by himself while waiting for my great grandmother to come out of the church on Sunday.

    Newton once quoted a medieval saying when he credited earlier research for enabling his achievements: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” My sense from talking with people in the sciences is that they are more apt to recognize the debt they owe preceding generations in their fields than those who dabble in the humanities and soft sciences. Ironically, it may be the advances in the sciences that have encouraged other fields that once upheld and and were guided by tradition to estrange themselves from their history and to become wedded to the specious feelings and speculative trends of the now. Post scientific/industrial/French revolution citizens of the world, freed of social constraints and armed with a democratic bill of rights, feel free to disregard authority and label whatever they deem unacceptable as spin, or twist as you say John Lennon put it. Few of us rarely manage to see far enough beyond our own issues to begin to get a vision of things greater than ourselves, but we excel in recognizing some perceived injustice and whinging about what obstructs us or keeps us from expressing who we feel we are. It is as if the dwarfs have gouged out their eyes, jumped off the shoulders of the giants and now run about kicking the giants in their toes.

    One of the points the above joke makes is about the futility of taking part in a tradition without understanding. How much time do we postmoderns spend in worthwhile contemplation of materials that have stood the test of time: the Greco-Roman classics, the scriptures, or the church fathers? How much time do we spend listening to classical or liturgical music, or looking at liturgical art? How does time spent on those things compare with the time we give to the products of modern entertainment (distraction) culture: the “next big thing” that publishers tout; the most recent musings of the Yahoo! Contributor Network; the latest and greatest releases of the music industry; the Hollywood blockbuster of the week; or the works of the newest benefactor of an NEA grant?

    In an age less literate than ours, it was the sacred tradition of the church rather than private readings of books that guided the faithful. In a society where illiteracy was the norm, regular attendance of services was how the average parishioner discovered “the mind of the Church” and learned how “to put on Christ.” Church leaders recognized this, and sacred tradition played an important role in the decisions the episcopacy made as they organized the calendar for the church year with the lectionary readings, the feasts and fasts, the commemorations of saints, and the troparia and kontakia (hymns) used to celebrate the life of Christ and to illuminate the faithful.

    As you point out, the Creed focuses on mainly on the life of Christ, and throughout the ecclesiastical year the Church arranged for twelve great feasts to be celebrated (eight in honor of the Lord and four in honor of the Theotokos (the Mother of God, or God-Bearer)) in addition to the greatest feast, Pascha. Since you brought up St. Mary, let me use the example of the feast celebrated on 21 November, the Presentation of the Theotokos into the Temple, to show how the liturgical and patristic teachings and traditions of the Church help one to interpret the Holy Scriptures. This feast celebrates the day Sts. Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, presented her at the Temple in Jerusalem. According to tradition, her elderly parents placed her in the care of the temple community (of which John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, was head priest) in which she was raised from about age three until ten years or so later when she was betrothed to Joseph. For the Church, the entrance of the Mother of God into the temple marks the end of the time when the Jewish Temple was the dwelling place of God on earth. During Vespers on the eve of the feast, one would not grasp the mind of Church as it interprets and comprehends the Scriptures (Exodus 40:1-5, 9-10, 16, 34-35; 1 Kings 7:51, 8:1, 3-4, 6-7, 9-11; and Ezekiel 43:27-44:4) if he only understood the verses in their original context within the Old Testament. The Church sees these verses as symbolizing Mary, the God-Bearer, who became the living temple of God when Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and her Ever-Virgin self. (Even before the St. Jerome wrote in the 4th century the Church saw Ezekiel 44:1-2 as describing the ever-virginity of Mary––like the eastern outer gate, the womb of the Theotokos was shut because the Lord God had entered the world by it.) At Matins, the Gospel reading is from Luke 1:39-49, 56, and it is here that Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who venerates Mary as the Mother of God. Finally, in the Divine Liturgy both the Epistle (Hebrews 9:1-7, which is about the Mosaic Tabernacle and priests’ liturgical duties) and the Gospel (Luke 10:38-42 and 11:27-28) are read with the Virgin Mary and the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in mind. Unlike Martha in Luke 10, her sister Mary was not distracted and troubled by many things and instead chose the good part, the one thing needed, listening to the Word of God. The Theotokos heard and kept the Word of God, and for this, like the woman who called out from the crowd, all generations call her blessed.

    The traditional hymns sung in evening during Vespers and the next morning during Divine Liturgy further instruct the faithful the mind of the Church and the interpretation the Scriptures:

    For Vespers:
    Today Anna bequeaths joy to all instead of sorrow
    by bringing forth her fruit, the only ever-Virgin.
    In fulfillment of her vow,
    Today with joy she brings to the temple of the Lord
    the true temple and pure Mother of God the Word.

    Today the universe is filled with joy
    At the glorious feast of the Mother of God, and cries out:
    “She is the heavenly tabernacle.”

    For Divine Liturgy:
    Today is the preview of the good will of God,
    Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
    The Virgin appears in the temple of God,
    In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
    Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice,
    0 Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.

    The most pure Temple of the Savior;
    The precious Chamber and Virgin;
    The sacred Treasure of the glory of God,
    Is presented today to the house of the Lord.
    She brings with her the grace of the Spirit,
    Therefore, the angels of God praise her:
    “Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.”

    Additionally, the holy festal Icons that are displayed for veneration on the day of the feast depict the teachings of the Church as heard in her music and read in her Scriptures. The Icon in the center of the church on this feast day will be of the Presentation of the Theotokos. The Icon shows Joachim and Anna presenting Mary to Zacharias at the Temple. (On 2 February, the Icon in the center of the church on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord shows Joseph and Mary presenting Christ at the Temple, usually with Simeon and Anna nearby. One of the things these two Icons show is the continuation of traditional practices from one generation to the next.) The Virgin Mary is the climax of the history of the ancient Jewish peoples, from the day that God promised to Abraham that in his seed the Gentiles would be blessed. On the front wall above the altar in an Orthodox Church one will usually see an Icon called “Platytera,” or “The Mother of God more Spacious than the Heavens.” The Icon shows the Theotokos with her hands uplifted in prayer and an image of Christ, the Creator of the Universe, in her womb. In keeping with the old custom an expectant mother offering thanks to God for the new life in her womb, after being venerated by Elizabeth, Mary held her hands up in prayer and the sang the Magnificat. The praises sung by the Theotokos (Luke 1:46-55) echoed those sung by generations of Jewish mothers since the day Hannah gave thanks to God for her son (1 Samuel 2:1-10).

    The man in the above joke who walked out of the Orthodox Church could stay away for several more decades, but suppose he returned toward the end of his earthly life, what would he find? It would be the same Church that he left (the same in terms of traditions and belief, different, perhaps, in terms of the language used in the services). It would be the same Church his parents, immigrant grandparents, and all his ancestors belonged to since Christianity came to his people in the old country however many hundreds of years ago. Abraham, Hannah, Joachim and Anna, Mary, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Martha and Mary, Luke, the writer of Hebrews, the Apostles, St. Jerome, these and others as countless as the stars of heaven who through practicing their faith in God and putting on Christ formed the holy traditions of the church, gathered together the holy Scriptures, wrote the hymns and painted the Icons used in worship of God today. None of these moved with the times but instead founded their lives, their faith, and ultimately the Church on the truth God had revealed to man over the ages. They were not distracted by the world. They held fast to the one thing needed, and it is part of their eternal reward that the Light they passed on to the next generation remains in the world.

    As a former Protestant, I understand some of what you say about iTunes Christianity. Pick and choose the tracks you like and trash the rest. You won’t have an album collection anymore but you will end up with some really cool playlists that suit your tastes and moods. However, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian who has come to appreciate the way that sacred tradition has helped to compose the things that instruct me in the mind of the Church, I prefer another analogy. Fortunately, digitized music saves us from annoyance of hearing CDs or albums skip. Imagine, for example, what Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata nr. 2 would be like if one trashed the Allegro? Or even worse, how it would sound with randomly deleted measures or bits moved around between of each of the four parts? What remained would still be from the Baroque era, would be marginally attributable to Bach, but it probably wouldn’t be pleasant to listen to (especially if you let other people trash or relocate different measures according to their preference) and it certainly wouldn’t be what Bach had intended it to be. And there would probably be some not progressions that would be impossible to play. In a sense, as descendants of our fallen ancestors Adam and Eve, we resemble a discomposed, discombobulated Bach piece. We still possess some of the goodness and nature God created us to have, but in the Fall some pieces went missing and other bits were disfigured. Christ became man not merely make us whole and restore us to our place in the created universe but to make us worthy to live with God in heaven. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is foundational for putting on the life of Christ with the mind of the Church. Ultimately, this is where the analogy breaks down for me: If I pick and choose what I want from the Rule by which generations of Christians have been measured and guided in the Faith, how can I call myself a Christian?


  2. Pardon my mixing the metaphor in advance. There are albums that are a cohesive piece of work (Dark Side of the Moon, 90125). They have really good hits, but to fully appreciate them you need to listen to the whole album. Then there are Albums that suck but have one really good hit (Dexy’s Midnight Runners). The latter gets added to a playlist that might include a mishmash of completely unrelated but harmonious songs.

    With regard to Christianity, I was raised on the album. I liked the album as a whole until recently. Then some of the darker tracks, “Sucks to be a Canaanite” & “Leviticus” & “Hell’s Bells” started to bother me.

    I have moved some of my favorites, “Beatitude Dude”, “Ecclesiastes Blues” and “Parable” to a new playlist. The real question is what to call that playlist. There are not enough tracks to call it Christianity, but it plays well with some other songs I like, “Evolution Revelution” & “Buddha’s Belly.”


  3. First, I love how you manage to include multi-media so seamlessly in your blogs. Show me how? I grew up on the Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Creed in the Episcopal church. I think the important things that maybe cause you to question are things Jesus’ coming fulfilled out of the many prophecies about Him. It’s important to remember those things because they are the touchstones that let us know He really *did* come, and we’re not waiting for another. But as individual items, no, they aren’t important. But why separate them? Is it so important to dissect the smaller details from the whole? I agree that the coming of Christ was to cause the “forgiveness of sins and the communion of saints”, but without all the other parts happening first, (I like Dan’s point about Pilate grounding Jesus’ crucifixion in real history) the restored fellowship with God wouldn’t happen.


  4. Brian, interesting post and thanks for the nod. The Apostles’ Creed is not something we heard much about in our past lives in Pentecostalism. But I believe it is the sine qua non of historic Christianity. No, Pilate is not a very significant figure in the history of everything, but his name grounds the crucifixion in real history. I don’t see the descent into hell as something that we should over-explain. It simply suggests that Jesus has conquered hell for us. But we must not waffle on the virgin birth. If Jesus is only an ordinary dude, He wasn’t God, and we are lost in our sins. By the way, Lutherans divide the Creed into three sections (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).


  5. Some very interesting thoughts here. I will say that I agree with a lot of your sentiments, if not your conclusions. Christianity has made an art form out of majoring in the minors, so to speak, ie putting far too much emphasis on things that are only of marginal importance in Scripture, such as the fabled Trinity doctrine.

    Personally, I have found much intellectual refuge in coming to the realization that the front of the Book hasn’t been abolished/done away with/made so we don’t have to do it anymore. If you get a few moments, you should check out my blog. It’s dedicated to giving Christians the information they need to come to intellectually honest conclusions about the Bible, as well as fighting the slander that inevitably follows.


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