I’m a bit more than half-way through Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music, and Time, a book that has opened all sorts of possibilities for thinking and theologizing in new ways about music, worship, liturgy, and reflection on the Christian confession. At one point, however, Begbie points beyond the central concern of time and offers the intriguing possibility of considering “space” as another category through which to consider how we can reflect on how music informs our faith. Specifically, he mentions “orchestration”, by which I assume he means the types and arrangements of instruments, and timbre, or the sounds of the instruments being used.
Now most folks, even those not particularly wed to a faith tradition, think of music in church, they consider the organ.
And, let’s face it, the organ’s sound, especially in a larger space such as a cathedral, does have a quality about it which, through association, we relate to “church”. When combined with a choir, we are even more aware of the religious nature of the sounds we are hearing.
Of course, the going thing today isn’t the organ/choir, but the “praise band”.
A combination of conventional contemporary instruments, played more often than not with enthusiasm rather than ability, the song choices for such groups tend to be limited by the commercial Contemporary Christian Music scene. Chris Tomlin, in particular, is a favorite “composer”. The sound of such bands tends to make up in the joy of performance what it lacks in timbral diversity or, more important for our purposes, volume. While the use of acoustic and electric guitars, electronic keyboards, and drums certainly change the spiritual sense of many conditioned to prefer an organ either with or without a choir, the overall effect is similar: the instruments and vocalists are present to facilitate the congregation’s participation in singing praise to God (often using words that border on narcissism rather than faithfulness, but that’s a story for another day).
What if, however, a congregation were to take a bold step, using modern technology utilizing both volume and timbre to create a sense of space that brings the congregation not only to praise, but to a proleptic sense of singing before the throne of God? In Revelation, we read of John’s vision of the angels and beasts and witnesses singing such that all creation shakes with its power. While opening up all the stops on an organ certainly can shake a church building, there are other, more contemporary ways to do the same thing.
Too often, we fear letting our music create this kind of space, because of the oft-voiced complaint that to do so would slip from helping worship to performance. Yet, my personal experience at many concerts is there is little qualitative distinction between the performance of the musicians and the audience, who often sing along and act in other ways that make the entire concert experience a single event, a performance both of musicians and audience. The sheer volume of a concert helps create this co-performance space by enveloping all present in sound that forces both musician and audience to focus on the music as a means toward the end, not perhaps of entertainment, but of co-participation.
Part of the power of the vision in Revelation of the songs sung before the throne is the reality that our hymns before God, sung in worship, are lifted up, participating in this same never-ending song. Whether a small group with an out-of-tune piano, a cathedral with an enormous pipe organ, or a band willing to challenge a congregation to be in a space created by a combination of sheer volume and a combination of timbres that bring them to their feet while casting them forward to stand before the throne.