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Felix Hell and the Worship War (commentary by Uwe Siemon-Netto) (5 year old article?)

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  • Felix Hell and the Worship War (commentary by Uwe Siemon-Netto) (5 year old article?)

    NOTE: this is not my own words,

    This article may be 5 years old or so but is still very interesting.


    Commentary: Felix Hell and the Worship War

    by Uwe Siemon-Netto

    WASHINGTON, April 17 (UPI) -- A young German wunderkind named Hell is a combatant of sorts in a worship war that is raging in America's churches.

    At issue is: How do you best laud the Lord? With "praise bands"? Or with heavy metal clamor? Would polkas be appropriate in a church? Should there be inane cowboy services, where the ushers are costumed as cattle herders and the congregation emits appropriate howls? Or would it make more sense to stick to the familiar roar of the mighty pipe organ?

    Felix Hell thinks it would. Hell is only 15, but his mastery of the King of Instruments has been astounding audiences from coast to coast for three years.

    On one side of this conflict, you have the church-growth movement whose adherents in assorted denominations have been busy ripping the organs out of their sanctuaries as they transformed them into multipurpose halls. "These are the folks who have been floating the lie that everybody hates the organ," Paul Westermeyer, professor of music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., told United Press International Tuesday. "They and the new mega-churches claim that the organ represents the old order and has to go. They are working on the presupposition that Christianity sells best with the help of a commercial musical style," he said.

    By his very youth, Felix Hell is proving them wrong. He reinforces the other side of the divide by turning teens into enthusiasts of the pipe organ, an instrument invented some 2,300 years ago by the Alexandrian Greek Ctesibius.

    Organ enthusiasts uphold "that worship should not be an entertainment evangelism, in which the congregation does not participate," Westermeyer explained. "They view church music in the tradition of Luther and Bach. It should not be entertainment but played and sung 'solo Deo gloria' (to give God glory alone) for the edification of humanity."

    In the traditional form of church music, the congregants sing, accompanied by the organ. Their hymns and chorales are designed as theologically sound responses to the message from the pulpit.

    And guess what? The pipe organ lovers are doing surprisingly well. They are busy rescuing instruments the church-growth wing is throwing out.

    The leading force on this side of the worship war is the 20,000-member American Guild of Organists. Would it be that other cultural organizations in the country were as resourceful in educating people as this unique group! In fact, due to efforts of this guild and allied organizations, "we are now witnessing a pipe organ renaissance," its executive director, James Thomashower, said in a telephone interview. "Aided by the booming economy in the last eight years, there are now long waiting lists for churches wanting to buy new organs. If you placed your order today, you'd get the instrument installed in five or six years' time," said Thomashower.

    So there appears to be hope in a seemingly catastrophic situation where "the commercial culture has snared us into perpetual adolescent and a faulty anti-historical bias," as Prof. Westermeyer has put it.

    Into this standoff stepped Hell, a cheerful German adolescent whose name gives Anglo-Saxon Christians cause for a chuckle. It may have a sinister ring to them; but in Germany, of course, the word "hell" has another meaning. It signifies bright or light. Hell loves it: "It's a name nobody forgets."

    It is also a fitting description for this boy genius who first came to the United States three years ago, astounding audiences with his mastery of the instrument deemed outdated by the praise-band adulators. When he tours the country playing Bach or Cesar Franck, kids treat him like a rock star. "They throw stuffed animals at me. They find our where I am staying and then call my room," he said in an interview in New York where he pursues a bachelor's degree in music at the prestigious Juilliard School.

    So how does he fit into America's worship war? Well, he sometimes serves as bait for a winning program designed to elicit in teenagers an interest in learning to play the organ. Here he is, a real boy with a love for roller blades and Harley Davidson motorbikes, jesting, playing, partying with 13- to 18-year olds who are attending intensive weak-long summer seminars called Pipe Organ Encounter, or POE.

    Five times a year, Thomashower's Guild organizes these encounters on different colleges in the U.S. and Canada. Outstanding organists introduce anywhere from 25 to 40 young participants, all of whom have already had piano lessons, to their instrument. There are guest recitals. There is a hymn festival, there's a tour of an organ factory, and there are ice cream specials.

    Felix Hell said he had a great time eating pizza with prospects for his art in Rochester, Minn., although, unlike them, he was bone-tired. "I had rehearsed all night prior to my performance," he remembered. "I had pumped myself full of caffeine and Mountain Dew, and when I stopped to rest for a while, I heard my father snore somewhere in a pew in that empty church. So I played again to drown him out. My father may be a snorer, but I am louder."

    Hans-Friedrich Hell, 58, a mechanical engineer from Frankenthal in the Palatinate, crisscrosses the Atlantic constantly to act as his son's agent while still pursuing his own career. He had discovered Felix's talent when the boy was seven. With the greatest ease, Felix learned to play the piano. "When my father took me to an organ recital, I knew: that was MY instrument."

    Four years and three teachers later, Felix was invited to play at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City, a mid-town sanctuary famous for both its jazz ministry and its annual Basically Bach series. "The next year I was invited back to New York, and then I won a scholarship from Juilliard," the prestigious music school. At age 14,Felix Hell was a New Yorker, a student simultaneously at Juilliard and the Professional Children's School, a private institution with small classes that specializes in teaching specially gifted young people like Felix.

    At the same time he is an organ intern at Saint Peter's Church where he was confirmed and where after most Sunday services he responds with a beaming grin to the uproarious applause after his postludes.

    "I love this applause," he said, "It keeps me going. Sometimes I do wonder, though, how I manage. I am rehearsing at least four hours every day and eight ore more before a concert. I give 50 recitals per year all over America, and in Germany and even Russia; my mother is Russian." He has played America's most important organs already, including the one in the world's biggest church, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. "It wasn't the best of instruments, mind you, it had bats and water in its pipes."

    At his high school, Felix is an A student. Still, he finds time to play. "I am now working on my pilot's license. I think I'll have it by the end of the summer."

    Does he have time for a girlfriend, too? "I did. She lives in Pennsylvania. But then she became a Lacrosse champion and had to train all the time, and I always have to rehearse. So we have had to break up for the time being."

    This fall, Felix Hell will move to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where there are never more than four students per organ class. There he will continue to study under John Weaver, one of the world's most important organists, who has been teaching him until now at Juilliard. Two years from now, Felix Hell, who has already recorded four CDs, will receive his bachelor's degree simultaneously with his high school diploma. "Then I'll go for my master's and after that for my doctorate," he said.

    What is driving him? Said Felix Hell: "Playing the organ gives you a wonderful feeling of power. I become an entirely different person when I sit down at that console. I feel as if I were on fire, I feel totally free. "This is a gift from God, and it is my duty to eventually teach others that they also have gifts from God and should acknowledge them."

    So friends of praise bands watch out: In America's worship war, there is a wunderkind named Hell determined to show you the light.

    Luther placed justification, the doctrine of God's free grace in Jesus Christ, at the heart of his theology. Man is saved not by anything he does or could hope to do, but by what God has done once and for all in Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, God's accepting the death of Christ in place of the sinner's death has been the hallmark of Protestantism and more specifically of Lutheran churches. Salvationis sola gratia and sola fide. God justifies the sinner purely out of His grace through faith without works. Just as no one raises himself from the dead, so no one makes himself a Christian. God, who brought Jesus back from the dead, alone brings believers to Christ and declares them righteous. Lutherans hold that justification is monergistic, a Greek derivative, which means that a thing has only one cause. God alone converts Christians. He alone justifies believers. This principle also applies to sanctification. He alone makes us holy. God is the cause and content of our sanctification.

    Traditional Roman Catholicism shares with Lutheranism a monergistic view of the general plan of salvation. God alone sent His Son into the flesh (incarnation) and sacrificed Him for the world's sin (atonement); however, the certainty of individual salvation is made dependent on the level of believers' personal holiness. Sanctification requires cooperating with divine grace in doing good works. At the center of this system is a doctrine of sanctification which holds that man cooperates with God for the certainty of salvation. There is no place for the total justification of sinful humanity as God's completed activity in Christ. Man cooperates with God in becoming holy and so sanctification is defined in ethical terms, which can be measured.

    A majority of other Protestant denominations agree with Luther's monergistic doctrine of justification, but like Roman Catholics they see sanctification, the working of the Holy Spirit in Christian lives, in synergistic terms, another Greek derivative, which means that a thing has two or more causes. Believers are required to play a part in developing their personal holiness by living lives disciplined by the Law and by special ethical regulations set down by the church. Christians can and must cooperate with God's grace to increase the level of personal sanctification. Cooperation, a Latin derivative, is a synonym of synergism, and also means two or more things or persons working together. As a rule most Protestants agree with Luther that God alone justifies sinners and initiates the work of sanctification, but many differ in holding that believers are responsible for completing it. They oppose the Roman Catholic view that pilgrimages, novenas, penance and masses as good works; however, they agree with Catholicism that man cooperates with God in his sanctification to attain personal holiness.

    God alone justifies, but sanctification is a combined divine-human activity, which even though God begins, each believer is obligated to complete. In this system, the Gospel, which alone creates faith, is replaced by the Law which instructs in moral requirements and warns against immorality. Justification by grace is seen as a past event and the present focus is on man cooperating with God to reach a complete sanctification.

    Lutherans recognize that Christians as sinners are never immune to the Law's moral demands and its threats against sin, but in the strictest sense these warnings do not belong to Christian sanctification, the life believers live in Christ and in which Christ lives in them. In Roman Catholic and some Protestant systems, the Gospel brings the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, but is replaced by the Law which sets down directives for Christian life and warns and threatens the Christian as Christian. Law, and not the Gospel, becomes God's last and real word for the believer. So Christianity deteriorates into an implicit and eventually coarse legalism and abject moralism. Jesus faced this understanding of an ethically determined concept of sanctification among the Pharisees. Holiness was defined in terms of fulfilling ritual requirements. Sixteen centuries later for similar reasons, Luther raised his protest against medieval Catholicism. At times, the New Testament uses the words sanctify and sanctification of God's entire activity of God in bringing about man's salvation. More specifically it refers to the work of the Holy Spirit to bring people to salvation, to keep them in the true faith and finally to raise them from the dead and give them eternal life (Small Catechism). All these works are also performed by the Father and the Son. Since God is not morally neutral and does not choose to be holy, but He is holy, all His works necessarily share in His holiness. The connection between the Holy Spirit and sanctification is seen in the Latin for the Third Person of the Trinity, Spiritus Sanctus. The Spirit who is holy in Himself makes believers holy, sanctifies them, by working faith in Christ in them and He becomes the sources of all their good works.

    Sanctification means that the Spirit permeates everything the Christian thinks, says and does. The Christian's personal holiness is as much a monergistic activity of the Holy Spirit as is his justification and conversion. The Spirit who alone creates faith is no less active after conversion than He was before.

    Our Augsburg Confession recognizes those things which keep society and government together as good works, but strictly speaking, they do not belong to a Christian's personal holiness and have no necessary relationship to justification. Unbelievers can do these works as can Christians. The works of sanctification are, strictly speaking, only those which Christians can do. They find their source, content and form in Christ's offering of Himself for others and are given to Christians by the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son and who is sent into the world by the Son. Sanctification is a Trinitarian act. God dwells in the believer in order to accomplish what He wants. The petition of the Lord's Prayer that "God's will be done" is a prayer for our own sanctification.

    The Spirit who assisted Christ during the days of humiliation to do good to others and to offer Himself as a sacrifice to His Father is the same Spirit whom Christ by His death, resurrection and ascension gave to His Christians. Jesus, in requiring that we love God with our whole being and our neighbors more than ourselves, was not giving us an impossible goal to awaken in us a morbid sense of sinfulness. Nor was He speaking in exaggerated terms to make a point, but He was describing His own life and the life of His Christians who live their lives and die in Him. Like Christ, Christians trust only in God and sacrifice themselves for others. Sanctification not only defines the Christian life, but in the first and real sense it defines Christ's life. Jesus Himself loved God with everything which He was and had and made us His neighbors by loving us more than He loved His own life. Sanctification is first christological, that is, it is Christ's own life in God and then our life in Him. His life did not follow a system of codes, a pattern of regulations or list of moral demands and constraints and restraints.

    Just as Christ's life had to do with self-giving, our sanctification has to do with presenting our bodies as living sacrifices. Our sanctification finds its closest point of contact in the earthly life of Jesus who gave Himself for us. Christ's giving of Himself is in turn an extension of Father's giving of His Son, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son." The sending of the Son as a sacrifice reflects the Father's eternal giving of Himself in begetting the Son, "begotten of His Father before all worlds." So the Christian doctrine of sanctification draws its substance from atonement, incarnation and even the mystery of the Holy Trinity itself. This self-giving of God and of Christ take form in the lives of believers and saints, especially those who are persecuted for the sake of the Gospel and martyred. On that account St. Paul sets himself and his companions in their sufferings as patterns of sanctification for those to whom they preached the Gospel.

    As magnificently monergistic as our sanctification is, that is, God works in us to create and confirm faith and to do good to others, we Christians are plagued by sin. In actual practice our sanctification is only a weak reflection of Christ's life. Good motives often turn into evil desires. Good works come to be valued as our own ethical accomplishments. Moral self-admiration and ethical self-absorption soon replace total reliance on God. The sanctified life constantly needs to be fully and only informed by Christ's life and death or our personal holiness will soon deteriorate into a degenerate legalism and barren moralism. God allows us Christians to be plagued by sin and a sense of moral inadequacy to force us to see the impossibility of a self-generated holiness. Our only hope is to look to Christ in whom alone we have a perfect and complete sanctification. "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).

    Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto is a religion correspondent for UPI.