Friday, January 04, 2008

Old Is Better

Derek Thomas asks the question, is the old better? in this month's UTT. "Is this longing for the past merely a whimsical nostalgia for an age that seems purer to us than our present one?

By Derek Thomas @

A few days ago, a kind lady in the church called and asked if I’d come and examine her LPs (Long Playing Records). There must have been several hundred classical LPs in pristine condition reflecting years of careful purchasing. Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, George Szell, André Cluytens, Arthur Rubenstein, Glen Gould, Tatiana Nikolayeva … the names kept on coming. Naturally, I picked out some treasures and brought them home.

There was that déjà vu experience: holding the vinyl in my hands, the fabulous 200 gram black beauties transports you to another place and time, long before the record’s started playing. Memories of thirty, forty years ago flood back: the black velvet cloth to remove the dust from the playing surface; the sound of crackling as the diamond stylus hits that first groove; the stroboscopic light ensuring that the speed is exactly 33⅓ revolutions per minute...And then the sound!

It had been a while since I’d played an LP. I’d forgotten just how “real” the sound was. Even the familiar hiss and the occasional pop added to what had been once the cutting edge of stereophonic sound. I was transported to my teenage years transported back to a cold, wintry day in 1974 when I tried to woo my, what is now my bride of thirty-two years, by playing for her my latest purchase – Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring! The crazy things I did when I was twenty one!

You see, among these LP’s I had been so kindly been allowed to look at was a copy of this very LP that I had purchased thirty years ago. It’s too long a story now to tell, but it was just a few months after this attempt to win the love of my life to Stravinsky (it didn’t, by the way but she was very kind and said all the right things!) that I was persuaded by a zealous brother in the faith to part with all my beloved records as an act of consecration. Music and collecting LPs in particular, he said was “worldly” and if I was serious about my relation to Jesus (and I was), I would do get rid of them. All of them! And I did!

It was something I would quickly come to regret as a more informed world-view took hold of me, one which encompassed music as one of God’s gifts to be enjoyed and placed in proper perspective so long as I didn’t make an idol of it. And as I played The Rite once again, on the very same record as once I had owned – it wasn't exactly the same record, you understand, but to all intents and purposes I imagined it was – I found myself saying, nerd-like, “old is so much better than new.” Of all the many hundreds of CDs I own (a couple of thousand perhaps) none sounded as sonically real as this! I know this is not true. Deep down somewhere, this remark begged for re-evaluation. The convenience of CD or digital is in a different league. But I found myself agreeing with audio-geeks that there is something about vinyl that is more … what exactly? Something about the sense that among the background noise (and how quickly my ears adjusted to it), there is a sense that you are there and not cocooned behind some, albeit gossamer veil.

The old is better! I have reached the point where I now sound just like my parents. I had promised myself that I’d never be like that. But there a host of things which I would be willing to return to in a heart-beat: flying without security checks, fruit and vegetables that had taste even if they were occasionally blemished by spots; cars that had “character’ if not quite the fizz of their more modern cousins; and worship … well, I’d better not go there.

This all sounds impossibly Luddite. We are destined to progress, to “go boldly where no man has gone before” as Captain James T. Kirk might say. Cute as the Amish are, none of us wants to live like that for any length of time. We value our cell phones, iPods and modern means of internet communication too much to go back. When I was a student in the United States in the mid-seventies, phone calls to the “mother country” were impossibly expensive and letters took ten days to get there by air, several months if insufficient postage was applied and they were sent by sea instead.

Is this longing for the past merely a whimsical nostalgia for an age that seems purer to us than our present one? We are more than capable of romanticism with respect to the past that carefully blots out those features of it which were less than ideal, and if truth be told, down-right Neanderthal. For me, these include having to drink warm milk in school every day by order of the state; cod-liver oil syrup that was meant to make a scrawny, gangly child into something resembling superman (it didn’t!); and perhaps, especially, These are my memories of British life in the late fifties and early sixties that may not resonate with you, but you can provide your own list of howlers.

Is it true, then, that old is always better? Let’s explore this a little asking ourselves a series of questions that arise from the Scriptures.

First, when it comes to a consideration of the history of redemption, what theologians sometimes refer to as ordo historia, is the old better than the new? The answer is decisively negative. The old covenant is not better than the new. Jesus is “the guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22). All the sacrifices offered under the old covenant administration could only atone for the flesh, but were inherently ineffective to assure any lasting value. They had been offered repeatedly in a complicated daily, weekly and annual cultus involving the most rigorous detail. Only the blood of Christ can “purify the conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:9).

Not one worshipper under the Old administration could attain to the heights of assurance that those under the new covenant may boast: we have the right to call God “Father.” The “Spirit of adoption” enables us to refer to Yahweh or Jehovah (a name that no Old Testament Jew ever dared to pronounce) as “Abba” (Rom. 15; Gal. 4:6). At best, such a thing is only hinted at in shadowy lines of text that must have engendered more wonder and mystery than clarity and understanding.

John the Baptist was a crucial figure at the turning point of the Old Covenant into the dawning of the New Covenant. And Jesus would say of him: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). The least believer in the New Covenant era is in a better position than the godliest believer in the Old Covenant.

The old is not better than the new!

Second, if we were to consider the application of redemption in our lives, what theologians sometimes refer to as ordo salutis, are we entitled to think that the old is better than the new? Once again, the answer is decisively negative. The “Old Man” is not better than the “New Man.” This is how the King James Version translates what the English Standard Version renders “old self” (Rom. 6:6; cf. Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). Perhaps in this instance, the old is better than the new! “Old Man” in these passages refers not simply to what I was before conversion – regeneration; it certainly has reference to this, but it is saying more than that. It is picking up (in the Romans 6 instance in particular) to the Adam-Christ parallel employed in the Romans 5.

What we are by nature is determined by reference to our union with Adam. The first man was established as our representative head. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). In Adam, we sinned. Paul isn’t saying here that as a consequence of our union with Adam we have fallen and therefore inherit a sin-nature which means that we also commit acts of sin. This is true, but it is not the truth that is being taught here in Romans 5:12. Rather, Paul is saying that when Adam sinned, we sinned. His sin was reckoned as our sin. We inherit as a consequence an Adam-like disposition so that prior to our conversion, we are “in Adam.”

But now that our hearts have been quickened (with new hearts, wills, minds and affections) we are “in Christ” – in union and communion with Christ. The Old Man (our identity in Adam) is gone! We are “in Christ now.” As Augustine said to one of his former female “acquaintances” pleased to see him again, saying “is it you, Augustine?’ he replied, truthfully, “It is not I, Augustine.” He was a “new man” now in the sense that Luther once quipped when the devil knocked the door asking for him, he would reply that Luther did not live there anymore; Jesus did!

The old is certainly not better in this instance.

Third, if we were to ask the question in eschatological terms, whether this world is better than the world to come, again we would have to answer that the old creation is not a match to the new heavens and new earth. For make no mistake about it, redemption – the work Christ accomplished on the cross – has in view more than the salvation of souls. It encompasses cosmic dimensions. Paul hears this old creation which has been “subjected to futility … groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:20, 22). John Calvin comments on this passage: “God will restore the world, now fallen with mankind, into perfection … let us be content with this simple doctrine, that there shall be such a temperature, and such a decent order, that nothing shall appear deformed or ruinous.”

Peter expands our vision by urging by reminding us that “according to his promise” we are those we should be “waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 pet. 3:13; Isa 65:17; 66:22). Heaven (a renewed cosmos including a transformed earth) will be so much better than this one. For there, as Scripture promises, “‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ (Rev. 21:4). He intends to make all things new (Rev. 4:5).

It isn’t true, then, that old is always better! But sometimes it is, and a date with a vinyl edition of Mahler’s First symphony is beckoning, with Jascha Horenstein conducting. One more trip down memory lane…

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