Do, Re, Mi :: Thoughts On Theory And Practice

A couple weeks ago I was having this great conversation with a friend over coffee. It was mostly about music theory, which for me is a great conversation because I’m a nerd like that. It brought back some memories of my music courses in college. If you are ever feeling over-confident and think that you are in need of some public humiliation, I recommend taking an Aural Skills class. This horrifying experience is also known as sight singing and often accompanies music theory classes. The general idea is that you are training your ear to hear the intervals that you are seeing on the page when you are reading a piece of music. In this class everyone is subjected to public disgrace on a regular basis. You are forced to stand and sing a melody (chosen at random) in front of the class using the solfege syllables (that we all know from Mary Poppins – Do, Re, Mi, Fa…. You get the picture) while conducting and trying to stay in the same key you started in. The only comfort any of us had was that we weren’t alone in our shame because everyone sucked at this. Everyone except for Caleb. This dude somehow made that junk sound good. It almost brought tears to your eyes, like it was some kind of opera in a different language that you didn’t understand. He would finish and everyone would just sit quietly, despising him for his talent, and praying to a just God that they would not be called next. I sat near Caleb for the first few days of class and thought that we would be friends, until we had the first singing test and then I was too ashamed to speak to him again. Anyway, after a whole semester of this torture, the professor told me that since I was taking theory classes as electives that I didn’t really need to take the course at all. I was about to go Mortal Kombat on her for not telling me that 4 months ago when the stupid class began and then I remembered that she was my old roommate’s Mom and that wouldn’t be cool. Otherwise, it could have gotten crazy. That’s all I’m sayin’.

I did actually get a lot out of that class, and all of my theory courses. I love stretching my understanding of how music works, but more than that, I love playing music. That may sound obvious but it is crazy how often we seem to prefer theory to practice. Almost every leader reads the same books (or at least has the same books on their shelves, so people will think they read them) but only a few will ever practice the principles they discover. Before you have your first child, people tell you all kind of theories and recommend all kinds of books on parenting. Yet, most parents have no strategy or plan for how they are raising their children. They might know tons of different theories, but they practice none. There are a ton of Christians that love to talk about deep theological ideas or debate about end times prophecy, miraculous spiritual gifts, or whatever… But, in practice, they do little or nothing that would point to Christ working in and through their lives.

I heard Matt Chandler say once that “people always want new revelation, what they don’t want is to do what they already know.” And it is all too true. We always want some new thought, new idea or new theory. Some understanding that sets us apart from the rest, that puts us in a more exclusive group. That kind of learning is really more about pride than knowledge. And I’ve been as guilty as anyone could be of this. It’s just so much easier to learn theory than it is to do something with it. Learning doctrine and theology is something you have control over. You read the books, you put in the time, you come out with the knowledge. But practicing love, compassion, missional living…. Those kind of things require the more uncomfortable disciplines, they require inconveniencing yourself, they require sacrifice.  And they involve the unpredictable variable of other people.

Now I’m all for learning and studying theology, and digging into the controversial issues to find out why you believe what you believe. I think every Christian should be an aspiring theologian, because practice without understanding can be misguided and has dangers of its own. But there are far more sobering warnings in the scriptures towards those who know truth but don’t live in light of that truth.

All in all, theory is easy. It’s practice that’s hard. Well… practice and sight singing.

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