Preference Is An Expression Of Meaning: A Reply To Jonathan Aigner

One of the things that I find puzzling about the whole worship conversation is all the put-on sympathy when it comes to worship practice. “You might prefer traditional worship, but I enjoy contemporary. Stop trying to force your preference on everyone else.” But everything we do in corporate worship has theological implications that are inescapable. – Jonathan Aigner, “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference”, Ponder Anew, January 21, 2015

One of the things I find puzzling is the way people make up quotes to frame particular discussions in ways that make their opponents look facile, superficial, and even ignorant.  Whether it’s about ISIL and terrorism, or the on-going “worship wars” in mainline Christianity, few things are as aggravating as proclaiming that the position taken by those with whom one disagrees just isn’t deep enough.

Such it is with Jonathan Aigner’s “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference”.  If “preference” is not an expression of meaning, what is it, then?  It couldn’t be meaning, however, because . . . well, because Jonathan says so, apparently.

When a church holds two services with different musical “styles,” the intention is to cater to various personal tastes in the congregation, but the inescapable reality is that they are also offering different theological meaning. Whether those meanings are right or wrong is perhaps up for discussion, but it is time we moved past framing the “worship wars” as merely a difference of taste, as if we were choosing a flavor at Baskin-Robbins.

Except it would be nice to have some examples of people writing or saying these things, i.e., that preference is a matter of “taste”, as if that has not always been an important consideration in aesthetics, at least since Immanuel Kant.  As if both preference and taste were not both expressions of how a particular art form is meaningful for some people and not others.  While I agree that we lose something by our exclusive, either/or approach when incorporating music in to worship; while I agree that this bespeaks theological positions that are important in their differences; while I agree that our singing together is an expression of our faith, and has been thus since St. Paul first admonished congregations under his care to “sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” when they gathered; accepting all this, I still believe Aigner’s position is deeply flawed, not just aesthetically, but theologically.  It also flows against the current of recent theological scholarship examining contemporary popular culture, discovering new depths even in its music.

To dismiss matters of taste and preference as personal quirks that should play no part in how we structure our corporate worship is to do the one thing that Jesus did not do: As a friend of mine always said, Jesus went to the people, never demanding they come to him.  When he went to them, he didn’t demand they change.  He went to them, listened to them, sat and ate and drank with them, cried and laughed with them, and most of all he refused to demand they change to suit his needs.  Rather, he offered them a vision of a life together, in which all persons were accepted and acceptable as they are.  Being beloved of God, the only requirement is that we exist; the rest, well, that can come with time, always with the understanding that it is a work in progress.  Our Churches, proclaiming themselves the Body of Christ, should be no different, worshiping in Spirit and Truth as we are who we are.  If that means we sometimes swing across the centuries of music offered to the Body to sing, up to and including contemporary music, musical styles, and even songs outside the traditional ideas of “Christian music”, that isn’t a matter of taste or preference.  It is a question of meaning, of what expresses who that congregation is, and how it believes it best to express it praise to God, its lament to God, its plea for the silent God to hear.

I’m saying I believe emotions are secondary. Emotions are good. They’re actually very good. The problem is that we’ve decided that happy feelings about Jesus are the ultimate measuring stick of authentic worship. Churches are now stuck on the treadmill of having to provide that kind of experience every week. And that’s a pretty terrible position to be in. As soon as our production value slips, we’re in trouble.

In what universe are emotions separable from how we think?  Why is it that “emotions” are something we should not express in songs to God, particularly since the songs in the Bible, particularly the Psalms, are songs overflowing with emotions: joy and sorrow, pain and rage, loneliness and community, despair and hope.  One cannot have an “emotion” without thought.  One cannot think without having the emotional wherewithal to feel.  Even psychologists recognize this.  The idea that the church’s music should eschew appeals to our emotions would dismiss so much of the musical repertoire of the church’s history, from the Biblical songs through the revival songs to the great hymns of Watts, Wesley, Crosby, and Wren; the passionate music written for the church by Taverner, Rutter, Handel, and so many others.  While it is true enough that churches shouldn’t feel themselves trapped in a cycle in which they feel the need to create – or recreate – extreme spiritual experiences through the whole of corporate worship; on the other hand, we are worshiping God, and that is a great, and fearful, and courageous, and humbling, and freeing, and terrifying thing.  That our worship shouldn’t contain at least an element of understanding that the gathered congregation having the boldness of faith through grace to declare its praise to God is also a terrible thing, facing the Creator of the Universe with our paltry gifts of word, sacrament, and song.

I’m saying I believe some music is more fitting than others for Christian worship. How we do music carries theological meaning. So does the music itself. I appreciate what Kenneth Hull says about this, “When [music] stands alone, its gestures and contours still carry an expressive potential that is capable of cultural and theological interpretation.” This is admittedly a difficult issue, but it’s one we can’t ignore.

I’d accept this up to a point.  Prince’s “Sexy Motherfucker” probably wouldn’t work in most churches.  That doesn’t mean other Prince songs wouldn’t work.  Furthermore, what should determine what is “fitting” is just that: “fittinginess”, to use a word I read recently in Paul Westermeyer’s textbook history of Church music.  What “fits” changes from situation to situation; from week to week; from congregation to congregation; from denomination to denomination; even within the worship experience itself, there may be movement that proceeds from lament to joy, despair to hope.  That this must needs be expressed in song should go without saying.  What songs “fit” all these varying, and ever changing, contexts, is a matter of theological discernment, aesthetic judgment, understanding the congregation, as well as – on occasion – challenging the congregation to hear the Spirit blowing from an odd place.  For example, I wouldn’t hesitate to use, perhaps an acoustic version or perhaps not, Alice In Chains’ song “Would?” if worship included reflections on addiction.  There are a great many songs about drug addiction out there, and this is just one I might well seriously consider, perhaps as an anthem.  I would do so, however, only if I believed it “fit” with the entire worship experience; if it “fit” with the congregation and its expectations; if it fit with the pastor and other staff and their desire to deliver a message of the demonic power of addiction and its overcoming in and through faith.  One cannot discuss addiction without hearing from an addict what that is like.  “Would?” is just such as song, as is Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and “Sad But True”, and many more I could name.

Worship isn’t about how we feel. It’s not about our likes and dislikes. It’s not about our tastes.

It’s about how we believe.

Actually, worship isn’t about us at all.  It’s about God.  Indeed, the whole of Christian existence isn’t about us.  As I’m wont to say, God loves us but doesn’t like us all that much.  That is to say, answering the call to be a Christian usually involves sacrifices: friends and family, money and opportunities for success, perhaps even safety and comfort for danger and a threat to one’s life.  Our worship had better reflect the reality that it the always inadequate gift we bring to a God of love and grace, but also a God who never relents in the insistence that we get the Word outside the walls of the Church to a world hurting, dying, killing, sick and prostrate, proud and demanding, denying the very existence of God even while always trying to become God.  Some of those gifts are our songs; the church’s music should always be the people’s music, the expression of their faith that even this gift, as tired and worthless as it might be, will be acceptable to the God who died for the healing of all Creation in and through the cross of Christ.  Sometimes that might be a motet by Palestrina.  Or, perhaps, a lament by Curtis Mayfield.

That’s why it’s important. That’s why we have to talk about the meaning behind what we do in corporate worship. That’s why we must ditch the false egalitarian notion that how we worship isn’t important. We can respect differences in belief, but we can’t deny that’s what’s at stake here aren’t just issues of taste or preference, but issues of meaning.

However we worship, whatever we call ourselves – traditional, contemporary, or anything else – we’re not just saying what kind of Jesusy entertainment we prefer.

No, we’re giving away much more about ourselves.

We’re giving away what we believe about something very important.

How we worship has meaning.

How we worship has consequences.

Maybe it’s time we were honest about it. Quickly. Before the meaning is lost.

This ending puzzles me, if only because Aigner continues to rely upon the straw argument that some – and of course those with whom he disagrees – are moved only by matters of “preference” and “taste”, again as if these weren’t precisely how we express our understanding of what is and is not aesthetically meaningful, and in the context of Christian worship, therefore, theologically meaningful.  His entire post, it seems, offers a view of those with whom he disagrees that ignores so much of the work being done in Christian aesthetics, in the theological investigation of contemporary culture, including its music; and with sly condescension directed at those whose “egalitarianism” is false, when in fact the matter isn’t one of egalitarianism at all (and isn’t it funny that he introduces this loaded notion at the end, without either definition or defense?) but of coming to terms not only with our heritage, but recognizing that heritage is a living thing not in and for itself, but through the grace of God.  In precisely the same way, the grace of God can speak to people through all sorts of music.  The task of the church musician, it seems to me, is to have at least one ear tuned to the congregation and its desire to bring before God worship that is meaningful precisely because it expresses their reality.  That this might move through the centuries of music should be viewed not with exasperation but the joyful thought of being challenged.

I agree that separating our worship does a disservice to the congregation.  I disagree about what that disservice is.  The congregation is a whole body; as such, it should be able to accommodate not only the tradition of the Church, but its contemporary life as well.  And, yes, it should also offer its worship in such a way that those outside its walls are comfortable, feel welcome, and even perhaps willing to continue to offer worship to God through becoming a part of a particular congregation should go without saying.  To say that music in worship has no evangelistic role is just ignorant.  It might not have an apologetic component.  All parts of the life of the Church had better include not only the recounting of the Good News, but the invitation to become a part of the Body that spreads that Good News, the music no less than anything else.

I would far prefer a discussion of music in Christian worship not front-loaded with straw arguments, unattributed quotations, and filled with a blatant erroneous view of Christian worship, as well as one dismissive of our emotional reactions to worship and the music of the church, our preferences and our tastes as of no consequence, rather than expressive of our understanding of how meaning is conveyed aesthetically.  Worship is, indeed, about meaning.  Insisting, however, that those who do not find meaning in traditional church hymnody and music and musical styles are “merely” expressing a “preference” without considering the possibility that expressing a preference is precisely how we demonstrate what is and is not meaningful is to ignore the depth of the discussion as well as belittle one’s opponents.  After all, just as one example, isn’t rage in the face of the untimely death of a loved one – including rage at God – a perfectly rational emotional reaction?

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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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