Cotton Candy

A certain elderly lady once remarked that though she remembers seeing cotton candy at county fairs, she herself had never experienced it.  Thinking that this would be a fun treat for her 104th birthday, her family arranged to bring her a sample of the airy confection.  But her reaction was a bit of a let-down: “Hmm – Not much to it, is there?”

Not much to it — that assessment could be applied to a lot of things that we enjoy.  In fact, in the case of cotton candy, the insubstantial quality is really the whole appeal.  Similarly, we sometimes select movies or read books that are purposely ‘fluffy’ – we don’t want to be challenged — just entertained and to end up feeling good.  That’s, of course, perfectly fine in moderation, but just as a diet of cotton candy doesn’t provide necessary nutrition, our minds and spirits also require some substance in their diet.

Christians sometimes struggle with the tradeoff between appealing platitudes and nourishing truth, and this commonly shows up in disputes about what music is appropriate for worship.  Now our focus here is not on questions of musical styles or performance, but on content.  Consider, for example, the inspirational anthem Let There Be Peace on Earth by Harry Connick Jr.:

Let there be peace on earth / And let it begin with me
Let there be peace on earth / The peace that was meant to be
With God as our father / Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother / In perfect harmony

Now you’d have to be some kind of ‘grinch’ to not appreciate that this is a lovely song with a very positive and uplifting message.  So why would anyone be ambivalent about whether this is an appropriate song for use in worship?  After all, it even mentions “God as our father” – isn’t that what we believe?  But on closer inspection, what does this song actually tell us about God and how He relates to us?   Nothing, except perhaps that He is some kind of benevolent figure that approves of humans getting along.   While that certainly has some truth, it has nothing to do with the true message of the Gospel — that salvation is found in Jesus Christ.  Suggesting that human fulfillment can be found in simple brotherhood is even more dangerous than suggesting that a diet of cotton candy can sustain a healthy life.

Jesus had some shocking things to say on the subject of peace and harmony:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. “  (Matthew 10:34)

Now from the context in which this passage appears, it is clear that Jesus was dramatizing His warning that those who followed Him would inevitably be regarded with suspicion and even hostility by those who didn’t.  Jesus was not into ‘cotton candy,’ and we are not being His faithful disciples when our desire to enjoy peace and harmony with others causes us to water down the truth of God’s Word to make it more appealing.

Martin Luther was a very strong proponent of the value of music as a vehicle for preaching the Gospel, and in fact single-handedly restored congregational singing to the Church (a remarkable story in itself).  And that’s why Lutherans have traditionally taken a very dim view of church music that lacks a clear Gospel message.  Our ideal is that every song be a complete and nourishing sermon in itself.

Well, that can also be overdone.  Just as Jesus used engaging every-day stories to teach spiritual truths, we can at times press secular music into sacred service.  For example, Let There Be Peace on Earth can be a memorable application of Jesus’ many injunctions to love our neighbor.

However, the danger of ‘cotton candy’ is when it becomes a substitute for real food.  Though spiritually mature Christians can discern the Spirit of Christ in every aspect of their lives – even the frivolous – others can all too easily be deluded that ‘good feelings’ are the same as spiritual nourishment.  Thus, we in the church have an obligation to our brothers that we do not allow the appeal of ‘cotton candy’ platitudes to become a substitute for the authentic message of salvation in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

“ … addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs …”  (Ephesians 5:19)

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