Leonard Sweet is one of those multifaceted, influential, gifted people who seems to have gone through the line several times when talents were doled out. Sweet — known to many as Len — is a theologian, scholar, professor, thinker, scientist, pastor, speaker, online-learning pioneer and prolific writer (50 books, 200 articles, 1,300- plus sermons) — not to mention husband and father. Sweet’s newest book is The Well-Played Life (Tyndale Momentum), in which he explores keys to experiencing God’s presence and pleasure in the hardscrabble ups-and-downs of everyday life. He’s no newcomer to the Homecoming family, having shared insights at several events, and he is set to be the Sunday speaker at Family Fest 2014 (May 23-25 in Gatlinburg). His previous book, Jesus: A Theography, was an Editor’s Pick in Homecoming last April. Voted “One of the 50 Most Influential Christians in America” twice, Sweet’s creatively crafted bio is worth quoting at length: He was …born of a mixed marriage: his mother was a fiery Pilgrim Holiness-ordained preacher from the mountains of West Virginia and his quiet father a Free Methodist lay leader from the Adirondacks of upstate New York. After a deconversion at 17, when Len set about less sowing wild oats than planting prairies, he became an atheist intellectual and scholar dedicated to exposing the nincompoopery and poppycockery, if not tomfoolery and skullduggery, of all religions. After this seven-year period of liminality, Len came back to the faith of his ancestors, where he has been ever since, exploring the “interstices” and “semiotics” of religion, culture and history. He uses two words to describe himself: semiotician and interstitial. In other words, he is obsessed with two questions: “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going?” Where Sweet is going in the following pages is on a wide-ranging conversational ride with Gloria Gaither, exploring the fascinating roots of God’s “singing” (hint: it involves both quantum physics and a Nazarene carpenter) and what it means to re-tune our lives to experience the song that Christ has designed us to sing.
GLORIA GAITHER: Thank you for talking to us today; I know we have covered you before in the magazine, but you’re just such a great resource — what can I say? We’re back again!
LEONARD SWEET: (Laughing) Thank you.
GLORIA: This issue we’re asking, “Does God sing?” and of course, you came to my mind immediately because of that amazing talk you did at Praise Gathering a long time ago called, “We are a Song.” We talk about the music of God everywhere — music in the cosmos, music in the tiniest, minute things, the music in all of creation. And then, of course, I was thinking of the new research — and I know there is a lot of controversy about it — that the original form of matter was a song. I would like your take on all that — does God sing?
LEONARD: The greatest example of God singing that we’ve missed — and I don’t know how we’ve missed it — the psalms of Israel were on Jesus’ lips when He died. I spend a lot of time talking about this in Jesus: A Theography. We can ask people, do you have images of Jesus praying? Oh yes. Do you have images of Jesus healing? Oh yes. Preaching? Yes. Eating? Yes.
GLORIA: Yes, absolutely.
LEONARD: Well, we ought to banish those, because they’re all part of one psalm. Those seven last words — most of them, except for “Mother, behold your son, son behold your mother,” and “Today you’ll be with me in paradise” — the rest of them are from Psalm 22! Jesus is singing this psalm, and so we have a great example of God singing right here, with Jesus on the cross … this incredible moment of song. He ushered Himself into eternity singing the psalm of Israel!
GLORIA: That’s great! I wonder what happened at the foot of the cross, because I have a feeling He was really singing. I don’t know what tunes those songs had, for those people…
LEONARD: Some people have put tunes to some of the Psalms, what they would actually have been like in the first century when they sang. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I’ve done a little research on it, just to listen to what it might have sounded like. We know He sang before they went out of the upper room, the Hallel Psalm…
GLORIA: On the way to Gethsemane…
LEONARD: Yes, Psalms 114–118 … we don’t know if He sang all of them or just one or more. So we have these incredibly rich images of Jesus singing that are totally lost, and I don’t know how we’ve lost them. Here’s the other problem— we’ve made “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” … this moment of God-forsakenness on the cross. Well, no, the God-forsakenness came in the garden, when He sweat blood.
LEONARD: And “Father, let this cup pass from me,” but then, “Not my will, but thine be done.” But on the cross, if you look at the whole psalm — in many ways, Psalms 22, 23 and 24, an ensemble of psalms — you’ve got the two mountains and the valley, is how the Hebrews used to talk about them. This is a psalm that ends with these words, “It is finished,” but it’s a victory psalm. It’s not Jesus going out with a whimper here; He’s being ushered into eternity by crying, “The victory has been won!” psalm and singing that on the cross. So we not only don’t have the image of Jesus right, but we don’t even have what He sang right in this last moment, when He cries out the victory. It’s really a victory psalm, Psalm 22 is. It’s really a shame that we’re not more biblically informed and literate.
As for the science thing … I could really get so excited talking about this, but when you start mentioning superstring physics, people — I don’t know what happens, Gloria — they kind of zone out a bit. (Laughing) But, the idea that matter—this is the current, reigning definition of matter — is vibrating strings of energy. Well, wait a minute! So if that’s what matter is… I mean, first of all, there’s no matter to matter. But what is matter? Anything that vibrates has frequencies, and frequencies create sound. You’ve got this whole superstring physics, which is now the reigning paradigm—saying that matter is music. That basically, God was a
GLORIA: And that first “word” of creation really was a “big bang” — a sound. So in John 1, when we thought John was a wonderful poet using great metaphors … turns out that he’s actually a literalist discussing physics when he says, “In the beginning was the Word…” If all matter is actually broken down into vibrating sound waves, then the beginning….
LEONARD: We’ve so misunderstood that, too, with logos. One of the worst translations for logos is “word.”
GLORIA: Which brings up, what happens if we are sick — mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally — as you have said once long ago, out of tune with ourselves? What is the universal tuning fork?
LEONARD: Right, and that is Jesus. “In the beginning was the” — it’s better to translate it to song, actually, or to “sound.” But, in the beginning was this tuning fork to the eternal — God’s perfect pitch, who is Jesus, the Christ. And that’s the problem we’ve got — we translated it “word,” and then we didn’t make the Word flesh, we made the Word more words. So we’re so far from the original meaning of that incredible… You know, in First Corinthians 14, Paul says — and these are his exact words — “Nothing is without sound.” We translated the Greek as “language,” but the NRSV gets it right. He says, “There are many kinds of sounds in the world, but nothing is without sound.” So you have this understanding of the universe as a soundscape that is embedded in the Bible.
If you start tying things together, I mean, how did the walls of Jericho come tumbling down? Well, what’s more powerful? Sound, or steel, or stone? Well, sound! That’s why soldiers break step when they go over a bridge, because the song can bring down a steel structure. Look at what happened to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. A song can bring down steel and stone — a song is the most powerful. For me, to look at discipleship — what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? The chief developmental task of a disciple is to discover the song that God made you and to sing it ravishingly to the glory of God.
GLORIA: And what an orchestra that makes! What unity that brings out of our diversity — that’s another total topic.
LEONARD: That’s why Southern Gospel music is so powerful. So much praise music is just the melody line — no, you’ve got to sing in parts!
GLORIA: There is, I think, a theological reason why we have to sing in harmony.
LEONARD: Exactly! It’s a theological mandate, because worship really is singing school, where you learn that you sing in harmony, that you don’t all have to sing the same note, you don’t have to sing in the same beat, you don’t even have to sing the same words! Sometimes you’re not even on the same page, but you’re singing the same love song to Jesus. The early church fathers liked to describe Jesus as a singer. They saw Him as a singer with a great voice and perfect pitch. And what He did at the Incarnation was that He joined this really awful choir... (laughing) … but He transformed it from within. The power of His voice and the perfect pitch brought everybody in that choir to sing in harmony.
GLORIA: There are so many scriptures that basically say, “Tune yourself from within.”
LEONARD: Yes, and in many ways, Jesus brings not so much a new repertoire, but the human repertoire; He brings it alive in a new and beautiful and transforming way.
GLORIA: Our friend Calvin Miller sure nailed that in his Singer Trilogy. What a classic, and I hope everybody reads that generation after generation.
LEONARD: Yes, and that’s how I look at repentance. You know, repentance means to return, to turn around. I look at that as retuning your life. Every time you go to the symphony, when they take a break and come back, they spend the next 10 minutes retuning their instruments. Each one of us is an instrument and needs to be constantly re-tuned. We get out of tune so quickly; that’s the power of sin. Repentance is a daily re-tuning — returning and retuning, returning and retuning.
GLORIA: I love that. You know, the prophet Zephaniah has this image of God singing over us, and it’s interesting—the context of that is disobedient Israel and how they have rebelled, and God has gotten angry with them and has thrown them out. But He said, “…and I will sing over you with rejoicing and you will come back.” Isn’t that just the most wonderful metaphor for what you’re saying, that God sings over us and re-tunes us, brings us back and makes us sing His song.
LEONARD: Yeah, we can look at confession that way and repentance that way, as God singing over us. I think of David—and nobody sinned worse than David — but it seemed the last words of David in Second Samuel … here’s this king, this warlord, wordsmith, but what defines him at his death is he’s the sweetest singer of Israel, and the Spirit of the Lord sang through him. In his dying words, he doesn’t see himself as a king or a warlord or wordsmith, but as a musician, a singer who sang God’s praises. I just love that — this beloved of God’s heart, whose major identity is as God’s singer.
GLORIA: It’s really interesting if you read First and Second Samuel and the story of David, and match that story up with the Psalms, that he keeps singing his way back home.
LEONARD: Oh, that’s beautiful … I hadn’t thought of it like that, but that’s so true. Oh, that is so good.
GLORIA: I think of Psalm 51 — there have probably been more “praise and worship songs” written out of that text, but when you ask many present songwriters where that came from and what David paid for those lines, so many times, they don’t know. And what a shame, with the whole thing with Bathsheba and losing his son who died, the accusation of the prophet — “that man is you” — that whole story, and then the rebellion of his other son — you’d think he would be bitter, wouldn’t you? And then you find out, after all of that sin, that God calls you the beloved of His heart? The real theme in Psalm 51 is that amazing realization that “God has sung me back.”
LEONARD: Yes. You know, when my mother died, that was on her list. That was the psalm she wanted read to her over and over again. I just sat by her bed, Gloria, and read her Psalm 51 — that whole psalm is so incredible.
I also think that musicians — I don’t know how you and Bill see yourselves — but King David saw you as prophets. In First Chronicles 25, he says to set apart those who should prophesy with lyres and harps and sounds and cymbals. I think God has raised up certain prophets throughout history and sets them apart, and musicians need to claim their role as prophets of the church. That’s how King David saw them, too, and I wonder, sometimes I think that may even be how King David saw himself.
GLORIA: In the temple, when the assignment of jobs came about, the serious assignment of songwriters blows me away when I read how they were commissioned. It said that they would work, 24/7, and therefore should not have other work, because they constantly had to sing people into their places, whatever other people’s places were — I love that.
LEONARD: Yeah, I do too.
GLORIA: I think that your calling to “sing us back into the embrace of Jesus, to make Jesus central…” We are so divided, so polarized in this country and in the church, and there are so many fights over every theological—well, some of them are not theological, most of them are cultural — divisions. For you to come along right now, and I know your life has been as a futurist, but I think this might be a “presentist.” You are saying, “What we need in this time is a total re-singing of the song of Christ.”
LEONARD: Well, I learned that from you and Bill, really, because this is all you’ve done. How have you been able to do what you’ve done, Gloria, the two of you? These events that you do — everybody’s there, every theological stripe — everybody listens to the Gaithers, of whatever theological persuasion. All you’re doing is lifting up Christ, just lifting up Christ. So you’ve been my kind of model, here, in terms of what are we to do. We just lift up Christ, and don’t be derailed and detoured and distracted by all the other things. That’s kind of been the lodestar, since all of a sudden I realized that’s what you all were doing, I said, “That’s what I’m going to do with my ministry.” And everything I do, that’s kind of the filter — is this lifting up Christ or is this lifting up something else? Is this lifting up Len Sweet, or is this lifting up politics? Everybody’s lifting up politics, now, for crying out loud! But I just want to lift up Christ.
GLORIA: Well, I am convinced that, responding to your comment about politics, we are never going to accomplish Kingdom work with the earth’s system. We are to be yeast, and salt and light, in the culture, in the darkness, in the flour, whatever the metaphor is, but we will do that with the simple message of Christ. We will never do it with our political system.
LEONARD: Right. Jesus, the name that calms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease; ’tis music in the sinner’s ears — I mean, I really believe that! The name of Jesus is music in the sinner’s ears, and then ’tis life and health and peace. I really take that literally — that just the name of Jesus is, literally, music. Wesley had it right. That music of that name brings life and health and peace.
GLORIA: Talk to me just a little bit more about — I want to get cosmic now — how Jesus was the walking song of what God was like. Take me back to the original song that made everything in the beginning, before creation.
LEONARD: This is a time before time, when we had this mysterious understanding of God existing in community — even God exists in community. There have been understandings of the relationship of the Singer and the Song and what was sung, and the relationship of all of that together in this triune being. G.K. Chesterton defined paradox as “truth standing on its head with both legs dangling to gain attention” — I just love that.
God is one, God is three, but still there’s this one song. God exists in the relationship to produce that incredible song of beauty, and I think Aquinas is the one who said it best. He called it the “transcendentals of being,” that the three transcendentals of being are beauty, truth and goodness. This original song of creation was just ravishingly beautiful, and brilliantly true and absolutely good. This original song of life, and of love, and of the universe is these three things—beauty, truth and goodness. But then, when God knew God, God conceived, and then the world was born. In other words, there’s this concept of conception. When you truly “know” something, in the Hebrew sense, it means it’s not a head thing, it’s a relational thing.
GLORIA: So it wasn’t the first time incarnation happened, when Christ came to earth.
LEONARD: Bingo. When Adam knew Eve, they conceived. When God knew God, God conceived, and we were — the universe was born. When you truly know another human being, you conceive, and when you truly know God … and that’s what replaces this culture of consumption. We were not put here to consume, we were put here to conceive.
GLORIA: I love that.
LEONARD: And the ultimate thing to conceive is Christ! I mean, we’re all married, we’re all Marys, we’re all called to conceive Christ for the world.
GLORIA: That metaphor is throughout, actually — that God penetrated the womb of the cosmos when the seed of Christ was delivered to Mary. And I think that happens to all of us when we’re willing, that we all have to deliver the seed of God to the world somehow, and care for it. And we care for it by not being dissonant, not disagreeing with each other. No wonder it was so important for Jesus to say, “I want you to be one; I want you to have a strong message.”
LEONARD: Oh, absolutely.
GLORIA: When I finished your book, Jesus, I said this is a reality check, to make us get back on track.
LEONARD: And my book that’s coming out in March … I wanted to title it, You Don’t Work a Violin. I couldn’t get the title as that, but what I’m trying to suggest is that God did not create us to work. Work and labor are parts of the fall, but God put us here to play, and that creativity is play. Musicians play their instruments, and we’ve got to learn to play our faith, not work our faith. So it’s called The Well- Played Life, but I try to take that little musical metaphor of what does it mean to learn to play your instrument? Each one of us, each one of our souls is an instrument … and that’s the problem with church—we’ve been working it instead of playing our instruments!
GLORIA: I can’t wait to read it! Thank you so much; this time with you has been lovely. We’ve been creating this Easter issue, and so, your comments about Jesus on the cross singing … at the very end, He was a song, ending His life here as a historical song, and then starting a new song with His commission for His disciples to go sing the song. It’s perfect.
LEONARD: And I’ve loved chatting with you, Gloria, thank you. Love to you and Bill.