Setting Aside The Idea Of “War” Over Worship

It seems to me that our concern with the music includes, but does not begin from, the way that it is used: in other words, the aesthetic question is primary, as I have suggested in the introduction.  Our concern has to begin from the sounds, because until we cognize the sounds, until we have created an internal representation on the basis of their assimilation, we have no musical entity to care about, or to which to give value.  Once sounds have been produced, nobody is in a position to exclusively determine how they are to be taken (the appropriation by racist skinhead culture of millenarian reggae is a prime example).  This does not mean that the musical text may be considered to arise ex nihilo.  It is produced by groups of musician working in social contexts, but they are not my primary concern.  I am far less interest in uncovering  the circumstances which produced the music that I am in exploring how listeners may respond to it.  As listeners, although we must recognize and exteriorize our grounds for cognizing the text, this does not imply that we will all do it in the same way.  How we do it will depend on the style to which we assign that text, and our competence within that style . . . .  I therefore make no apology for my emphasis throughout being on the sounds themselves, nor for attempting to provide for any interpretation of them a theoretical underpinning that does not assume one particular established musicological theory to be congruent to the music at all points (and thus correct), merely because of apparent surface similarities between he melody, chords or rhythm used used by Schumann (say) and the Beatles.  I shall ‘dram on sociological research to give my analysis proper perspective (Tagg 1982: 40) but, for me, the aesthetic question has primacy. – Alan F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, Developing A Musicology of Rock, 2nd Ed., p. 17


Too many churches either desire to be, or actually believe, they are both as competent and expressive as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Too many churches either desire to be, or actually believe, they are both as competent and expressive as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Christmas Eve, 2013 found me at my childhood home, attending Christmas Eve services at the United Methodist Church in my hometown.  The sanctuary was packed to overflowing.  The service was not your typical candelight service.  In the midst of it all, the chancel choir – about 10 people – offered selections from Handel’s Messiah.  When the “Hallelujah!” was sung, I stood with the rest of the congregation and sang along.  All the same, I was both sympathetic and sad.  Sympathetic because this small town church choir was certainly attempting to offer musical praise worthy of the moment.  That they just weren’t up to the task, however, is what made me sad.  Handel’s oratorio needs an enormous, talented choir, a suitable orchestra to capture the flavor of the accompaniment, and for all they were game to try, the folks at the Waverly, NY UMC just weren’t up to the task.


Last Christmas season, the Rev. Christy Thomas, in one of her “Mystery Worship” pieces that run concurrently in her local Denton, TX newspaper, wrote:

I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today.

In defense of this statement, she offers the notion that we in the West, particularly our elites, are far less Biblically literate than were elites (and common people as well) were in the days when Handel composed his mighty work.  While I believe that is true, I offered, in comments, the idea that Handel’s Messiah could not be written today not out of Biblical illiteracy but rather because musical styles have changed, musical tastes have changed, and music itself has changed radically over the centuries.  Any attempt to create something like The Messiah today would run up against multiple barriers, not the least of them being a general inability to accept large musical structures.  Contemporary musical styles and idioms are not able, by and large, to work within parameters set by the needs of something like the original libretto for the oratorio.

After reading again Alan Moore’s “Introduction” and much of the first chapter of Rock: The Primary Text, I have come to see that so much of our discussion about music in church – what has come to be called “the worship wars” – lacks the kind of understanding of what Moore calls “the aesthetic dimension,” i.e., the sounds qua musical sounds to make our discussions about music in worship anything other than people stating personal preferences and appealing to (theological and historical) authority, tradition, and other non-reasons rather than paying attention to how the sounds we hear might well work in particular ways.

This past Sunday, while my wife and I were serving as greeters for the 11:00 a.m. service at Christ UMC, an acquaintance came out and mentioned the chancel choir that sings at the 9:30 service had performed Vivaldi’s Gloria oratorio.  I smiled and noted how nice that was, while inside I was wondering why in heaven’s name such a feat was even attempted.  Yet, it is part of our particular idiocy regarding music in church that we continue to separate “traditional” from “contemporary” music, as if a performance of Vivaldi were part of our United Methodist heritage.  Such an act, it seems to me, has little to do with the music itself.  It is, rather, an expression both of class and personal preference without regard to how the music itself might or might not be meaningful.

None of which is to say that there is anything intrinsically wrong with performing Gloria, or The Messiah, or any other piece of music from the Western orchestral tradition.  It is, rather, to say that our clergy and music leaders aren’t learned enough about questions of musicology to ask such pertinent questions as whether a particular piece of music has any meaning for listeners beyond satisfying a quirky sense of superiority among (largely) educated and (predominantly) white North American Christians.  It might be the case that some, perhaps, among the listeners had a spiritually meaningful experience because the music itself was meaningful.  I would continue to insist, however, that most listeners – and in churches, musicians, ministers or leaders of corporate music and worship, and clergy – are less attentive to matters of musical style and meaning than they are to statements of personal preference without reference to the sounds themselves.

Part of the reason for the title of this post is to insist that, rather than continue our stale and irrelevant dualisms – “traditional” versus “contemporary” – it might be the case we need to stop, take a step back, and about matters of style, the music itself and how that music as a human construct following particular harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and timbral rules, serves as a vehicle for meaning.  Only then, it seems to me, should we then take the next step and ask about matters of personal or corporate taste, based not so much in simple “like” or “dislike” categories as much as they might be in a real understanding of the working of music as music.

Theology and musicology have to work together to move us through this particular impasse that bifurcates our congregations, drives some people out of some churches, and cannot be satisfactorily ended precisely because no one is talking about the music as a conveyer of meaning.  I am not suggesting at all that I have any such competence.  I do believe, however, there are resources available for some people, at least, to begin such a discussion.  Only then might our discussions over worship and music be served well, and perhaps become fruitful for clergy and laity alike.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.
%d bloggers like this: