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Revolution is in the Details

Written by Michael Cline : March 22, 2008

marshmallowpie.jpgAs a member of the University Chorale at Indiana Wesleyan University, I had the opportunity to be led by one of the most passionate men I have ever met, Dr. Todd Guy. Not only was Dr. Guy at the top of his game and could turn any run of the mill portion of music into a chorale masterpiece, but he saw such a gift as his unique act of worship—God had blessed him with an amazing ability to shape notes and conduct groups beyond the skill set of most average human beings, and the least he could do was offer it up back to his Creator. Anyone willing to be under his direction would have to play their part in offering such a sweet aroma back to God. Perhaps it was this type of vision that led him to push us so hard. Dr. Guy had two quotes that I can still hear in my sleep: “Good is not good enough where excellence is expected” and “Excellence is in the details.” (Google tells me that Perry Paxton and George Allen lay claim to the second quote—which is an unnecessary detail—but in light of the topic, it must be included to allow this piece to reach “excellent” status). Needless to say, we drilled over pieces of music like we were gearing up to storm Normandy.

Dr. Guy understood that the small things, the details, can determine the outcome. It wasn’t enough just to get a feel for A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, one had to pour over it, search it to its depths, and find the latest trouble spot to iron out. It was necessary to go over the entire composition with a fine toothed comb before a song could be rightly considered “ready for performance.” But when this level was reached, and our performance rang through the streets of England as it did that Spring, revolution took place. People would stop what they were doing and gather around the choir to hear more. Perhaps they had heard the song before, but not in this style, not with this level of intensity behind it. They had read Psalm 23 since childhood, but never had it impacted them with such force until they heard it sung that day. We would sweat every detail, so when that time arrived, revolution would take place in the ears of the hearers.

Much of what is said on Jesus Manifesto or other “radical” sites can come off nit-picky. Just when we’ve inspired a group of people to start taking the Sermon on the Mount more seriously, we push them off a cliff into the details of how economic sustainability, American consumerism, and climate change can all contribute to the plight of the poor. It can all seem a bit daunting. But I’m convinced that the details are what determine our success. The holistic good news as identified by Jesus will never come to fruition if we don’t take a similar fine toothed comb to our lives and communities. If it will help, we can use the language of “spiritual formation” or “discipleship” when combing through such areas. It may help it go down a little smoother (at least, this has been my experience working in the mainstream church).

Consumer culture knows how important details are—they pay millions a year just to map out all the details just to know what to sell you next. And little by little, the details get subverted by the consuming impulse rather than by the Church. It’s a whole lot easier to sell something when you can convince everyone they wanted it to begin with. A conversation with my wife revealed a perfect test case. The four year old she cares for had a party at his Catholic school. Every child was to bring a treat to share with the rest of the class; think of it as a potluck for little ones. The school only had one rule: The food had to be store bought, not made. Now it may seem like a small detail to pick out, and I’m sure the Catholic preschool had its reasons, but let’s analyze this:

  • Rather than cultivate a spirit of imagination, the children selected prepackaged products.
  • Rather than experience quality family time in the kitchen, most children were dragged to the grocery store in a last second mad-dash before school.
  • Rather than celebrate the uniqueness of humanity and our gifts, the pot luck turned into a “who can buy the most original thing from the same mass producer” competition.

Any essence of the gathering that could be properly labeled “Christian” (and there are many other angles to analyze than the ones I listed above) was negated by not taking the time to really think through the message we send in the little things…in the details. Chances are, the decision by the school was more pragmatic, perhaps even more safe (you never know what four year old is baking up toxins in their cake), but at what cost? As nit-picky as some of the details can appear to be, we must constantly look at them anyway. It may issue charges of being “legalistic,” but to ignore such things would be to rob the gospel of its all-encompassing significance, and to allow the prevalent consuming culture to astutely subvert the Church rather than the other way around. Revolution, like excellence, is in the details.

  • So what are some of the details that we often overlook in our daily lives that could be tweaked for more Kingdom impact?
  • What seemingly small areas need to be combed through in your personal daily journey?
  • Are there particular details that we knowingly ignore or neglect in the Church and mass society?
Michael Cline is a former co-editor of Jesus Manifesto. He's currently the Pastor of Young Adults at a Wesleyan Church in Minneapolis. When not contributing at JM, he's doing even more reading and writing towards his MDIV from Bethel Seminary. His blog can be found at www.reclinerramblings.blogspot.com


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    I like the nit-picking. One of the most glorious attributes of good Christian doctrine is that it is internally consistent, and it is only by nit-picking that this truth is revealed. That said:
    1. My kids also can only bring store-bought food to share at school. it's a stupid rule that reveals how fear-motivated most people are in their decisions.
    2. Pagans don't have anything else to live for except consumerism. Let's not take that from them. Simultaneously, the church ought not to live like the pagans do. So, let's work not for change in public policy which discourages consumerism, instead let's work for change within the church which demonstrates our peculiar ethic and courage as opposed to fear.
    3. Finally, it is not the improvements in production allowed by economies of scale in some industries which are evil. Rather, where there are state protected legal privileges firms can grow beyond what would normally be an optimally efficient economy of scale to the detriment of smaller firms, and overall welfare.
    In other words - bigness is not badness necessarily, and we need to be careful to guard against a proclivity toward believing that in every situation. Instead, we need to recognize that the introduction of force - through activity of the state - is what creates an injustice through creation of legal privilege.
    Nathanael Snow
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    I would agree wholeheartedly with your post, Michael. Having done two years of choral music at the high school level, I remember how nit-picky my teacher would before choir festivals. Any group can sing through a song using the right notes. It takes a director to form it, mold it, and bring it to beauty. It reminds of Balthasar and his thoughts on biblical exegesis. He argued, unlike many modern biblical critics, that unity of the scripture was found in treating it like a score---with different parts having different functions to bring beauty to the whole piece. Thanks for your great thoughts.
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    "Bigness is not badness necessarily..."

    I would totally agree Nathanael. My problem is not so much the corporations that get to benefit from our lack of creativity as demonstrate by the Catholic school rule, but the very lack of creativity as a whole. It's disappointing and robs the children and family structure of imagination. It's like the family picnic or church potluck where everyone brings Original Recipe KFC. Bland.

    Coldfire (It's Danny isn't it?), I haven't read much of Balthasar (shame on me). Sounds like N.T. Wright's narrative take (and many others) but with musical terminology. Am I right?
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    nathanael, you open up an interesting discussion about the use of terms like "pagan" for me. Perhaps a post on that kind of rhetoric would be fun one of these days. Particularly that "pagans don't have anything else to live for except consumerism." Hmm...
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    *Completely and totally off-topic*

    Mike,

    I saw this and thought of you

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,340869,00.html

    Looks like your marriage is safe, Mike. :)

    *End off-topic*
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    For more on the use of "Pagan" see "The Mainspring of Human Progress" by Henry Grady Weaver, or "Discovery of Freedom" by Rose Wilder Lane - daughter of Laura Ingals Wilder.
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    That is hilarious, somasoul. While Mike is certainly a cute guy. I can attest to the fact that his wife is even cuter.
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    I believe the football analogy for this phenomenon is what my friend called "out-punting my coverage."

    You might as well marry upward.

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