Music, Ecstasy, & Christian Worship

It is precisely modernity’s incomprehensibility that art confronts, in one of two ways: either by attempting to stuff modernity back into the clothes of the pre-modern, pretending to a familiarity that is only ideological – in other words, denying reality –  or by acknowledging modernity’s radical strangeness (and estrangement) by direct confrontation via art techniques up to the task,, thereby making critical sense of it.  But to accomplish the latter, new art must make itself strange, because the techniques of old no not permit access to modernity, and this fact results in art’s distance from an audience that social conditions regressively shape.  In an art worthy of the name, production and consumption cannot be productively brought together, Adorno maintains, unless society itself changes.  And he is clear that art itself is not going to change the wordlld – its role is principally diagnostic. – Richard Leppert, “Commentary: Locating Music”, in Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Essays On Music, p.95

Have you ever been to a concert?  Rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, classical, it doesn’t really matter.  Just being together with other people to enjoy the performance of music.  If the music is done well, and if the performers are reaching the audience, something magical can happen: there’s this flowing back and forth of energy and emotion, in which each drives the other forward and upward, making the music better and better, pushing the audience even deeper in to the experience of the music.  You close your eyes and let the sound wash over you; you clap your hands to the beat, sing along, even at heavy metal shows you bang your head and wave your hand in the air with the “devil’s horns” sign.  At its best, music as a communicative art form should transport listeners to the place the music is.  That is why it is such a demanding art form; for all its contingency and the limits on its ability to communicate more than mere emotion and feeling, its purpose is to move listeners and performers alike, only the listeners have further to travel.

As Leppert makes clear in this overview of Theodor Adorno’s general thoughts on music, our modern age has made this all the harder.  First, it has stripped our ability to place what we hear in some kind of historical context.  Music is little more than a product now, and even those most devoted to any particular style of music are still kept at a distance from it by the fact of exchange.  Furthermore, modernity forces even the most “radical” music either to move backwards (Adorno considers Stravinsky to be this kind of primitivist) or make listeners comfortable with the status quo (Adorno considers the neo-classical composers, particularly of the post-WWII era to be this kind of comforting friend of the bourgeoisie).  When music confronts us with the real disjunction and dysfunction of our modern, late capitalist age, it can become almost impossible to listen to precisely because it offers us a view of reality that we understand is true, but do not confront in the normal course of events.  Thus it is that 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and their followers in composing using 12-tone and serial style are difficult to hear precisely because they are, to use Leppert’s term, diagnostic.

Yesterday, a friend of mine posted a link to this article, in which the author states that, for some Christians in some traditions, music has taken on a priestly function, even a sacramental one, which in the author’s words makes it more akin to “ecstatic pagan practices than to Christian worship.”  The biggest problem with this article, besides offering no evidence whatsoever that this is actually happening, beyond a few fliers and some quotes from a book, said quotes also having no actual evidence, is that defining “ecstasy” as “pagan”, and akin to a priestly, sacramental function denies not only the experiences of two thousand years of Christian experience, but even evidence from the Scriptures themselves.  Furthermore, he makes the category mistake of insisting that an expression of deep emotion during hymn or praise singing is what we should experience during the declaration of God’s Word and in the sacraments.

From Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to Sts. Peter and Paul, the Bible has numerous instances of reports of ecstatic experience.  St. Paul’s is actually first hand, in which he writes about being lifted up to heaven.  In the centuries that followed, the anchorite St. Anthony often reported ecstatic experiences.  Martin Luther claims to have encountered Lucifer in his monk’s cell.  St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton and more all have left us vivid accounts of ecstatic experiences that have shattered their understanding of the world and planted their faith in a place far different from that of the rest of us.  To claim, then, that ecstasy is “pagan” is to deny our collective history as Christian believers.

Furthermore, when it comes specifically to worship, the best worship services are those where all elements combine to bring the congregation out of the world, out of our mundane worries and fears and joys and in to the presence of God.  The altar is a stand-in for the throne we read about in Isaiah and Revelation.  The hymns we sing are echoed in heaven in the praise of the cherubim who sing eternally before the throne of God, as St. John of Patmos reports in his ecstatic experience of Divine Worship in heaven.

I’m guessing that Adorno wouldn’t quite know what to make of music in Christian worship.  Whether it’s the use of historical artifacts such as ancient hymns, or the cozy, comforting sounds of contemporary “praise” music, both I think would raise his hackles as attempts to avoid the needed confrontation with our modern age that real music, real art, should present the listener.  The problem, of course, is that it is the whole worship experience that should, in fact, present this confrontation precisely by moving the congregation out of this world, offering the stark contrast between what God promises for us and what we experience.  In this way, Christian worship is little different than Adorno’s understanding of music, except that it is more than “diagnostic” precisely because we Christians are called to go forth and offer others the vision of faith and hope and love we receive in our worship together.  Prayer, our offerings, music, the preaching of the Word – when done well and with the presence of the Spirit, the congregation is moved.  And music is a part of that.

The first video above is of a traditional African-American Ring Shout, an ecstatic expression of faith still practiced in some part of African-American churches.  To deny ecstasy in Christian worship is to deny the very real experience of African-American Christians who experienced the freedom they didn’t have in this world; the love they shared for one another as a bulwark against the hatred of a society that consistently denies their humanity; to celebrate their love for God and God’s love for them when there was little more to celebrate.  The ring shout is more than ecstasy. It is more than just a part of worship.  It is God moving the people to express the freedom and joy that comes to a congregation that believes they are named and loved by God, the Creator of the Universe, and that no amount of dehumanization can take that away, at least at this moment.

The second video, of Freddie Mercury leading a crowd chant at the old Wembley Stadium, is an example of how, when musicians and audience connect through the music, it becomes possible to act as one.  When music in corporate worship moves us to see ourselves before the throne of God, that altar up front, we become like that crowd at Live AID, ready to follow the lead together in the faith that is communicated through song.  Our secular experience of music as an emotionally communicative medium (thus all the discussions about “is music language?”) occurs in our worship as well, readying us by dragging us out of our lives in this world and syncing our voices with those angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts and the Lamb who was slain.”  When we give ourselves over through music in worship, we confront the disjunction and dysfunction of our world with the present and coming Kingdom of God.  This is more than mere political or social ideologies clashing with a sudden insight in to the contradictions of these systems; this is the radical break between our sinful world and the hope and faith and promise of renewal through the power of the Spirit.

To dismiss all this as pagan is not to understand that Christian worship is supposed to grab hold of our whole lives, using all the elements possible, place us really and truly before the throne of God, so that we are ready to go back to our lives in our sinful, broken world and be the hands and feet and voices of God.  If our music isn’t doing this, if it is little more than stately, quiet recitation-in-harmony-and-rhythm, what, then do we do with King David, wearing only a loin cloth, singing and dancing and leading the procession on the entrance in to Jerusalem?  We should never deny the very real place ecstasy has in Christian worship, or the role of music in making this possible.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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