A Matter Of Taste

No one taste should be considered “Christian,” but to consider musical quality as completely relative is to not understand the importance of the aesthetic in human life and religion.  [Frank Church Brown] proposes the cultivation and maintaining of a creative tension between opennness to aesthetic diversity, while still seeking to be discerning and discriminating. – Maeve Louise Haeney, Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word, p.244

I came across this quote while slogging my way through a very long chapter on theological aesthetics.  It occurred to me that matters of taste, at least when it comes to music in church, become confused with matters of theological explicitness and aesthetic preference rather than a set of criteria to which all – or at least most; “all” is an ideal toward which we should reach – could agree upon as setting minimal standards, without any necessary reference to matters of “style” or preference.  It used to be that “taste” was reduced to the perceiving subject; yet the necessity of intersubjectivity in matters of congregational music is necessary liturgically, pastorally, and theologically.

If you don’t believe me, consider the following, a song that pretty much fails any and every criteria of “taste” I, for one, can imagine, except perhaps humor

What is most difficult to explain to people is that, in fact, most contemporary music is not at all like this.  Broadening the category “contemporary” to describe “popular music of the past half-century” – I know that might be a bit too broad for some, but some leeway needs to be made here – consider the following as a starting point:

If ever a “popular” song rang throughout with theological meaning, it is this simple, beautiful song.

We can jump ahead a generation and take a listen to yet another singer/songwriter, Amos Lee, wondering where God might be:

I’ve begun with some easy ones, in order to make sure we don’t move too fast.  The inclusion of popular music in our Christian lives, including our worship and liturgy, our meditation and prayer life, even just those quiet moments when we sit and listen and something might strike our ear, has to begin with those things that are most comfortable and, perhaps, most familiar.  Thus acoustic guitars, mentions of God, even a prayerful attitude toward life.

Yet, sometimes a prayerful attitude can be angry.  Consider this from the band Living Colour.  While entitled “Open Letter To A Landlord”, it is the kind of song that demands justice for a community being shut out of its home, something I, for one, would think, would be an issue around which congregations of any color, but most assuredly African-American churches, could rally.  Yet, it is very different from the above:

There are songs that are simple praise songs, part of larger song cycles that nevertheless fit within a context of praise to God, even if the language used is strange, and the music is unfamiliar:

There are those songs that praise those we polite bourgeois white churches work so hard to exclude:

There are those whose rage at injustice, at a world that denies the humanity of far too many, and churches far too complicit in this dehumanization, often under the names of “mission” and “disicpleship”, that it comes out in an angry shout that God, rather than being a Creator through and out of love, hates this world and all those within it.

There are those who struggle with what it means to live as a Christian in a world as compromised as ours.

Some of these songs would certainly fail on some level – the use of vulgar language, for instance; the use of what is commonly understood as blasphemy – even as I would insist they have a place in some part of our Christian life.  This is not just a matter of me liking heavy metal and hard core Hip Hop.  These songs, I contend have as much aesthetic, theological, and yes liturgical and pastoral value as “Blessed Assurance” and the Doxology.  I would go further and insist that, should our churches have a wide-open discussion, they would discover real theological depth, real questions, real beauty in all these songs.

There is nothing wrong with resting comfortably with the latest Chris Tomlin song, yet if we aren’t even willing as congregations to move back a quarter century to what’s below, and hear the faithfulness within, I would suggest all our music is nothing more than going through the motions.

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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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