Zwischen Den Zeiten
After the explosion of the New Theology after the First World War, Karl Barth, along with his good friend Eduard Thurneysen, and later Friedrich Gogarten, began a theological journal entitled Zwischen Den Zeiten, which means Between The Times. The purpose was to highlight the tension within which we Christians live “between the times” of the crucifixion/resurrection and parousia/eschaton. With the rise of the Nazis and their Christian sympathizers (including, for a time, Friedrich Gogarten) and those Barth in particular considered unconscious apologists (specifically fellow Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner), the journal collapsed. Nevertheless, the perspective at the heart of Barth’s project is one with which we just don’t wrestle enough. We Christians are people who live in constant tensions between the promise of the resurrection and coming consummation and transformation of the New Creation all the time immersed in this reality of sin, evil, and death.
This tension does not just have an ethical, evangelical, or dogmatic dimension. It has liturgical and ecclesial dimensions as well. We experience this in our churches when conflicts arise, and conflicts arise all the time. There are two main things that cause more conflict in local churches than any other: money, and music. Money is a constant worry, an existential threat to the ongoing work of the local church. While certainly a sign of the tension within which we continue to live, the conflicts over music in worship bring out that tension in surprising, sometimes hurtful, ways.
Often, the conflict revolves around demands that music and hymnody remain “traditional”. Yet, it is precisely this word – tradition – that creates so much confusion. The history of music in Christian worship is as old as the Scriptures; St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Corinth to include hymn singing in their worship. As the church spread, then engulfed, Europe, and as music composition and musical literacy spread and codified harmonic and melodic relationships (the birth of the tempered scale was a real breakthrough in the west) offered opportunities for creating compositions not only of subtle complexity, but transcendent beauty.
After the Protestant Reformation, there was an explosion of hymn-writing, in particular from the Lutherans (Calvin and the Reformed traditions preferred lining Psalms, not feeling the need to create new songs of praise). In Britain, after the religious wars settled down, with the rise of the Wesley’s reform movement that came to be known as Methodism, there was yet another explosion of hymn writing. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, some of which continue to be beloved by congregations of many traditions.
In the United States, religion and slavery spread together, and converts to Christianity heard the theme of resistance to evil, and created their own set of hymns and songs of praise, defiantly singing their demand for freedom, and the dream of a real place of freedom in this world, away from the tyranny of the slaveholder.
When we hear people who wish to keep our “traditional” songs in worship, it is these last that are often meant. Songs that comfort through familiarity. Songs that bring us back to a time when our faith was untroubled by the worries of life. Songs through which we feel the Spirit touch and speak of comfort in the face of change and trouble.
And there is nothing wrong with this. This is a service of the healing work of God in the life of the congregation that cannot and must not be ignored. At the same time, it is not only the purpose of Christian worship to soothe our troubled hearts, or provide only a space of comfort and rest. If our liturgy only comforts without confronting us with the reality of our mission, then we have not heard the Good News that God will be with us.
The rise of so-called “praise music”, a commercial product from the song-writing factories of Nashville, certainly fills part of the gap in the need to sing that new song the Psalmist repeatedly tells us we need to hear.
There is no reason to reject this out of hand, despite it being primarily about making money for Nashville-based song-writers. It feeds the hearts and is watered by the Spirit in congregations across the land; no one should gainsay its power for all its earthly and earthy origin and intent.
All the same, there is, quite literally, a world full of music and types of music that can and do speak to people where they are, asking the questions we don’t hear asked often enough; saying the things that need to be said, yet aren’t out of fear of offense.
We in the churches need to be open to the movement of the Spirit singing, playing, rapping the Word to us, even in ways that don’t comfort. Maybe in words that make us acutely uncomfortable. Precisely because we live in between the times, we cannot rest in any one place because both comfort in the presence of the Spirit and discomfort by the risen Christ exploding our assumptions about who and what we are and what we are to do. This is our lot. No, more: This is the call to us as those baptized in the blood and raised in the water of eternal life that is not yet ours. For that reason, we need to hear all these, and so much more, as we worship the God who gives the power to give them voice.