Tag Archive | Christian Worship

The Worship Wars And The Black Church

The choir of New Rochelle United Methodist Church

The choir of New Rochelle United Methodist Church

Much time, energy, and emotion is expended in mainline and evangelical church circles over what is known as The Worship Wars. Challenges to traditional hymnody and styles of worship have been ongoing for more than a generation now, yet the conflict continues precisely because, as I noted yesterday, there is still much emotional baggage attached to the old hymns churches have been singing for generations. Much of the discussion surrounding matters of worship styles and music rests firmly within those binary categories about which I wrote yesterday: the sacred and profane. Categorical statements about the organ being the preferred instrument for Christian worship, and traditional hymns the only proper songs to be sung.

Visit a historically African-American Church, however, and you will see little to no evidence of the worship wars. Carrying their own tradition of home-grown worship and their own history of hymns and spiritual songs, regardless of denominational label, more than likely a visitor will hear “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” alongside a Gospel song like Andrae Crouch’s “Jesus Is The Answer” or The Winans’ “Everything You Touch Is A Song”. Piano is often accompanied by a drum, perhaps other instrumentation as well. There is little to no fuss about what is and is not proper, not because the African-American churches are immune to the sacred-profane dichotomy; rather, as Wynton Marsalis has said, to be black in America necessitates improvisation. In order to survive in a hostile legal, social, and cultural environment, African-Americans have had to make it up as they go along, to use what was at hand or to create their own ways of doing things because so much of what passed for “religion” in America spoke only to white America.

All the Sturm-und-Drang over worship in our white churches could be avoided if we looked to our African-American sisters and brothers. Their rules for what is and what is not sacred largely hinge upon what is and is not useful. Even in traditionally black denominations such as The Church of Christ, in which no instruments are allowed, hymns and spirituals are still sung, sometimes lined by the pastor, sometimes in a call and response style. Each tradition has adapted to its environment in order to serve the needs of the people without surrendering theological or musical integrity. Rather than adhere to a rigid ideology of sacred/profane, black churches, by forcing constantly to adapt have become comfortable with the variety that is their worship and musical environment.

Which is not to say that historically African-American churches are immune either to the consumerist ideology of our capitalist society or the sacred/profane split. On the contrary, Gospel music is a multi-million dollar music, making stars of its performers who become little different from “secular” performers. Many African-American secular performers, from Sam Cooke through Whitney Houston to Snoop Dogg grew up singing in their church choirs. Some, like Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin, began their professional careers singing Gospel music. When they made the switch away from gospel to soul and rhythm and blues, it caused more than a little controversy. The sacred/profane line was as less about commercial or stylistic questions – so much of soul music is embedded within the history of the Gospel music, thanks in no small part to Ray Charles turning popular Gospel tunes in to popular song by changing the lyrics – than it was what they were singing about. Many African-American singers and performers have included recordings of Gospel or sacred music in their repertoire, much as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded music from their Pentecostal childhoods.

By and large, however, we could learn so much by listening to and talking with historically black churches and how they have continued to adapt music and worship within changing historical circumstances yet always against the background of white supremacy. We could do far worse than to silence our categorical demands and learn that even here and now in our midst is evidence that what we white mainline and evangelical Protestants insist is timeless and true is nothing but our own blinkered preferences gussied up for God.


A Rock Concert Is Not “Like” Church

I got to go to the Macklemore concert on Friday night. If you want to hear about how that went, ask me, seriously, I want to talk about it until I die. . . .

[I]t reminded me of church. – Dannika Nash, ” An Open Letter To The Church From My Generation”, “I Said I Don’t Know” – And Other Hard Questions To Ask, April 7, 2013


If this is your idea of church, I'm not sure I want to go there.

If this is your idea of church, I’m not sure I want to go there.

It is one thing to be moved by a positive statement about an issue of importance. It is yet another thing to be in the moment at a concert, allowing yourself to release your inhibitions. These, however, have nothing to do with worship. Few statements demonstrate our failings as a contemporary Church than that someone could confuse the genuinely ritualistic aspects of the concert setting and Christian worship. Doing so in the name of a generation, pleading that older folks hear the need younger people feel both for positive, inclusive statements as well as a worship experience that energizes them says that we may have well gone just a bit too far toward entertaining congregations rather than leading them to the Throne of God.

Good concert experiences can be emotionally satisfying. The thrill of being with other people who like a particular artist, seeing and hearing him or her or them performing songs you like, it’s a kind of flash-community, all sorts of different people joined together because of their love for this particular band or person. The lights, the visuals, the crowd, and the music overwhelm the individual and people get caught up in the moment, raising their hands, nodding their hands, moshing, screaming all propriety set aside as the audience lives out being an audience.

Christian worship, however, is something very different. It is a community united not by specific aesthetic tastes; a congregation doesn’t meet just in passing, but live through generations; most important, they are gathered through the power of the Holy Spirit in order to praise and worship God. All elements of worship are not designed to celebrate the people as they are. Worship is designed for all to hear the Word of God, to gather at God’s table, to present ourselves as a living sacrifice worthy for the work of Discipleship for the Glory of God. No matter how much we might wish to hear any particular message, the reality is that worship doesn’t exist to satisfy any particular need we might have. Words of grace, of course, are part and parcel of the Word of God. If you go to worship, however, to have your particular prejudices or preferences affirmed, you aren’t doing church right.

Yet I think a whole lot of responsibility for this failure of understanding, the ridiculous idea that worship should be entertaining and uplifting for us lies right at the feet of . . . the church. Whether we use “traditional” or “contemporary” worship styles; whether we sing hymns or Praise songs; whether we confess together the Apostle’s Creed or read something cobbled together by a worship leader –  none of it should be for the edification or satisfaction of anyone in the congregation. If you aren’t uncomfortable during some part of worship – the prayer of confession, say, or perhaps singing a stanza from a hymn or song that convicts you of something of which you weren’t previously aware – then you aren’t paying attention. Most of all, if you’re looking for emotional uplift and joy and celebration as the reason you’re going to church, then someone has failed to tell you what worship is all about. Should a person feel uplifted in worship; if a person is moved to cheer, to cry, to clap; these are all good things and should be indulged. The presence of absence of these and other things does not make worship. The presence of the Holy Spirit, the Word proclaimed in Spirit and Truth, and the open table available to all: These are the marks of worship.

Church isn’t about having our prejudices confirmed. If the Church speaks of justice and inclusion for all, it does so out of faith. If younger people aren’t hearing these words or seeing these actions, it might well be they aren’t paying attention. How many clergy, even Bishops in the UMC, have risked their orders, their ministries in order to act out their conviction that ours will be a truly faithful Church only when we truly are open to all? If you’re looking for this kind of thing in worship, however, you’re in worship for all the wrong reasons. Head back to the concert hall. The is the Church of Jesus Christ, not the Church of the Millennials looking to be satisfied.

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.

Allan Bloom On Contemporary Music

Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. – Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p.71 (.pdf)


I was in search of something about the contemporary music concert – rock or hip-hop – as a liturgical experience, when it occurred to me I wanted to reference something from Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind.  I was happily surprised to find the entire thing available online as a .pdf document.  There are many deeply disturbing aspects to Bloom’s book, but his chapter on music is particularly disturbing not least because of the sheer ignorance he demonstrates on the subject of rock music.  To quote both Plato and Nietzsche favorably on the alogon character of music – that it is without reason, and therefore an aspect of human barbarism – demonstrates an enormous ignorance not just of music in general, but the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and even profundity of so much contemporary music, whether it be rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, post-rock, and even country music.

His analysis is not only ignorant, it is elitist, insisting that his students – to whom he expresses joy when he introduces them to Mozart – suddenly find themselves in a completely different world, ignoring the fact that Mozart, no less than the Rolling Stones, is alogon, perhaps just a tad more refined barbarism.  Considering Mozart’s lifestyle, that isn’t too far off the mark, either.  As a description of the philosophical position regarding music through Nietzsche, the following is a generally true thumbnail, although not without veering off-base by missing so much of the Christian and Muslim discussions of music during the High Middle Ages:

Classical philosophy did not censor the singers. It persuaded them. And it gave them a goal, one that was understood by them, until only yesterday. But those who do not notice the role of music in Aristotle and despise it in Plato went to school with Hobbes, Locke and Smith, where such considerations have become unnecessary. The triumphant Enlightenment rationalism thought that it had discovered other ways to deal with the irrational part of the soul, and that reason needed less support from it. Only in those great critics of Enlightenment and rationalism, Rousseau and Nietzsche, does music return, and they were the most musical of philosophers. Both thought that the passions— and along with them their ministerial arts—had become thin under the rule of reason and that, therefore, man himself and what he sees in the world have become correspondingly thin. They wanted to cultivate the enthusiastic states of the soul and to re-experience the Corybantic possession deemed a pathology by Plato. Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. (p.73)

From there, however, he turns off the path in to Lala Land in the paragraph immediately following:

This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists, such as economists, are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. There is no need to fear that “the blond beasts” are going to come forth from the bland souls of our adolescents. But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not ems, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later. (op. cit.)

It’s like Bloom heard Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and decided that was all he needed to know.  For a philosopher, a paragraph such as the above is deeply disturbing, presenting ignorance as wisdom, facile description with penetrating insight, and ancient philosophy as somehow relevant to our contemporary, post-Industrial capitalist age.

The following paragraph, from page 74, is both disturbing and ironic, considering it was written by a deeply closeted gay man who never married, raised a family, and seems to have been attracted to, ahem, younger men.

Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement.

While I do not dispute that sex is a large part of rock, hip-hop, and country music, ’twas ever thus with folk music.  Rock and its variants is little more than our folk music, with occasional pretensions to be something more.  Whether it was the risque blues, the bawdy songs of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia that eventually morphed in to country and western, or something more explicit like the following:

What is made explicit in Nine Inch Nails was always present in “Handyman Blues” or any of a hundred bawdy Mountain Songs.  This is hardly a mark against it.  It is, rather, a way of seeing what role the music and its variants play in our current society.  Oh, and I’m quite sure Mozart would have appreciated “Closer”, if for no other reason than he came very close in some of his operas to writing those very same lyrics.

My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music— whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education. The first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life, and they are the link between the animal and spiritual in us. The period of nascent sensuality has always been used for sublimation, in the sense of making sublime, for attaching youthful inclinations and longings to music, pictures and stories that provide the transition to the fulfillment of the human duties and the enjoyment of the human pleasures. Lessing, speaking of Greek sculpture, said “beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” This formula encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it. What the senses long for as well as what reason later sees as good are thereby not at tension with one another. Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point. Rock music encourages passions and provides models that have no relation to any life the young people who go to universities can possibly lead, or to the kinds of admiration encouraged by liberal studies. Without the cooperation of the sentiments, anything other than technical education is a dead letter.  (pp.79-80)

One can still find critiques of contemporary music that mirror Bloom’s, although they are given far less credence than was once the case.  Except, alas, within our churches, where the examination of the music is both ignorant and superficial; examples are often of the most extreme genres – death metal and urban/gangsta rap  are two favorites in this regard – without regard to context; and rather than actually engaging what our young – and older – people are actually hearing and listening to, we receive repeated condemnations, not just of popular musics, but attempts to “baptize” them and bring them in to our worship spaces and provide congregations with a musical style that is familiar and up-to-date, as opposed to organs that, for all their beauty and the fullness of their sound, are ancient instruments that are as much of a turn-off as contemporary instrumentation is for some older folks in churches.

It is important to go through Bloom’s nonsense, if we are going to make any headway in understanding where we in the churches are in our discussions regarding music, liturgy, and theology.  Bloom’s pernicious influence is still there, poisoning far too many minds with its non-contextual rejection of a music about which he knows nothing, the spiritual and intellectual content of which continues to impress (with the occasional exception of bands like Insane Clown Posse, with their now-infamous line, “Fucking gravity, how does it work?”).  That Bloom’s idea of “liberal education” is even more dated than his view of music should strike few as surprising.  A professor of the classics, Bloom was far more comfortable in the male-dominated cultures of ancient Greece, in particular, where maleness and homosexuality were not just celebrated but encouraged (just read Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates admits sleeping with the most beautiful young man in Greece, although not having sexual relations with him as a sign not of his moral but intellectual superiority).  Bloom was far more comfortable with the comfortable illusion that certain kinds of orchestral music were superior to the popular musics of the west, even as such a view would certainly have surprised the composers of such music.  We in the church suffer from similar illusions, similarly misinformed, similarly expressed.  Only by moving through the obvious errors in Bloom can we start to move the conversation forward.


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?

Channeling And Disciplining Ecstasy

You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped. – St. Augustine, Confessions

I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing about transcendence, its limits, and the place of mystery and ecstasy in Christian worship and our common life.  In fact, looking back I was amazed at how much I’d written, including a narrative of my own ecstatic experience.  I’m left with the odd sense that much of this contradicts itself, that I’m offering both the insistence on personal and communal transcendence as well as the impossibility and limitations both on the event itself as well as how far we can interpret and understand it.  I think that’s due in part to my own sense that, unless we as a church understand transcendence not so much as “a thing” or even “an event”, but a part of our corporate life that is available through the Holy Spirit, we are stuck in an individualistic mode of thought, unable to communicate these realities to others.  We need not be Pentecostal to live and experience this going beyond, to feel together the overwhelming power of God in our corporate worship.  Indeed, it can be that still small voice during the sharing of the elements in the Sacrament; perhaps it will be that collective, “Yes!” the congregation offers when the Word is proclaimed both in power and in Truth.  Ecstasy comes in many forms, mystery is the hope with which we live as Christians that, gathered to offer God the praise due the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we shall encounter in the here and now a glimpse of what is to come.

The chancel at Christ UMC has the altar, with a cross on top, surrounded by an oval of kneelers (I think it’s oval rather than circular due to size constraints).  Each week when I celebrate the Lord’s Supper and partake in the feast offered by God for all Creation, I go to those kneelers and am reminded of the vision of St. John on Patmos of the Heavenly throne room, in which the Thrones of the Father and the Lamb are surrounded by a circle of flame.  Inside the circle are the cherubim who sing eternal praises; outside the witnesses are called to lie down, offering obeisance and praise.  Not every time, certainly, but every once in a while, I get this feeling, this frisson, go through me that I am not just in the chancel at Christ UMC on Alpine in Rockford, IL, but that I am also in that heavenly throne room.  This opportunity is offered not just to me, but to all of us, through the gift of the Sacrament shared and the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the things that stands out in Roy Hattersley’s biography of John Wesley is the constant need to find new class leaders and lay preachers because those appointed by John had fallen away, some rather quickly, from the faith they proclaimed that moved them to become a part of the Methodist movement.  This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  I think we’re all familiar with what are called “mountaintop experiences”, and what happens when we come back down from the mountain.  While I believe that Wesley was always a fan of the disciplined approach to the Christian life, I think his experience of high turnover, constantly searching out new leaders from among those who claimed the faith pushed him to become even more insistent on the necessity for believers to follow particular practices.  Not as an authoritarian, at least as we contemporaries might understand the term.  Rather, it became necessary to inculcate the practice of a disciplined life in order to maintain that faith that first grasped them on that mountain top.  Only by meeting with fellow believers, celebrating and mourning together in prayer and praise, and following the lead of John Wesley, who understood many of his own faults and failings and his own need for disciplining the faith and channeling that initial “WOW” moment in to the productive life of spreading the Gospel to all who wished to flee to wrath to come.

We are inheritors of a tradition that understood both the promise and perils of mystery and ecstasy.  We are the inheritors of a tradition that tried, through a disciplined communal life, to channel not only the emotions but far more importantly that faith to the making of disciples of Jesus Christ.  Wesley understood both the beauty and power of ecstasy, that moment when we transcend our normal run of experiences and catch a glimpse of The Eternal, as well as the need to harness that through inculcating a habitus of common sharing of our life of faith.  Ecstasy, transcendence, mystery – it’s all there in Wesley’s experiences.  How to deal with them constructively in order that the Holy Spirit might use them for the uplifting of the people, the making of disciples, and the transformation of the world – that’s all there, too, in Wesley.  There’s no reason not to harness those traditions in new ways, offering our congregations once again the reality of those Spirit-filled moments when we come face to face with the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of Fallen Creation, and the Love that flows from both to all that is.  It isn’t just transcendence and ecstasy and mystery that pose a problem for the churches; it is our inability to offer people the opportunity not only to share them, but to use them for uplifting the Body of Christ.  We have the tools, as Wesleyan Christians.  No reason in the world not to use them.

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.