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
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.
Lately, it’s been very necessary when the music is playing and we’re supposed to be singing, you know, to God. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Maybe all the “seekers” are enjoying it, but I’m finding it hard to sincerely engage in anything resembling worship.
Instead of feeling the joy of joining with other believers in offering praises to the Almighty, I often feel insulted, bored, and disconnected from 2,000 years of worship history. And just when I think that maybe it’s just me having a selfish and sinful attitude — a very real possibility — a flamboyant electrical guitar solo breaks out. I’m left deciding whether to waive my iPhone and buy the t-shirt or just shut up and go home. – Bill Blankenschaen, “Why I’ve Stopped Singing In Your Church”, Patheos.com, July 15, 2012
Among the many challenges the contemporary church faces is worship. Specifically, how do we construct worship services that are faithful to the goal of worship, offer something both for the regular attendee as well as those who come only occasionally or the newcomer, is rooted in the Gospel and Biblical witness, and is faithful to over 2,000 years of church history even while speaking – and singing – in an idiom that is recognizable. Clergy, worship planners, and church musicians face these challenges each day as they struggle with the balancing act necessary to make worship just that even while preventing the experience from being either stale or nonsensical. If anyone thinks this is easy, I’d invite them to try it just once.
In the article linked above, Bill Blankenschaen gets to the heart of part of our problem: church music in “contemporary” worship services. The article has over one thousand comments, and while I won’t pretend to have read them all I will say that the discussion covers the gamut that has been at the heart of discussions and arguments about church music since New Testament times. That this is not a new issue is cold comfort, however, to those who are forced to work with limited material resources, limited ability among many church musicians, and limited appreciation from many congregants. The responses, too, seem to suggest that the matter of church music occurs in a vacuum. What some, like me, are left with – despite some excellent beginning suggestions from Blankenschaen – is little more than recognition that we are at an impasse where church music is concerned and little direction other than an understanding of church history on the one hand and the contradictory requests/demands from church members about what they would like.
One of the lessons I’m learning from reading Adorno on music is that the best music confronts us with the truth of our contemporary world. Thus, for example, for Adorno Beethoven is the true Hegelian composer, offering not just the antitheses of early 19th century, but their synthesis in a hopeful, Enlightenment-infused belief in the secular perfection of humanity through a combination of reason and sympathy (thus the first stirrings of Romanticism in Beethoven’s later works). At the other end of the spectrum, Arnold Schoenberg shows Europe in the early 20th century the collapse of the Enlightenment project through the use of atonality; Schoenberg offers no solutions – music, like all art, isn’t a problem solver but rather a problem-definer – but precisely because of the clarity of his musical vision, his works are rejected because who wants to hear the truth that one’s world is collapsing?
Our church music should be no less cognizant of the social realities of our time than is the best secular music. Indeed, what has always made the best music in church is the confrontation between the Biblical witness and the contemporary world as the hymn or song writer experienced it. Even as we praise God, we should always be doing so with an understanding that our praise is limited by our ongoing life lived this side of the eschaton. We cannot escape the world, with all the ambivalence the Bible ascribes to that world, in which we live. Nor should we; it is this world in which we live and to which and for which we should be living as a church. Our music, no less than our prayers, should resonate with St. Paul’s dictum that we just don’t know how to do it as we ought. We should be willing to approach Jesus and ask, “Teach us to sing,” no less than the Disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.
Finally, as a guide toward a path through the thickets of opinions, ideas, suggestions, demands, theological and Biblical concerns, and a history that is as confounding and contradictory as all history tends to be, I would suggest that this is a “problem” without a solution. There is no answer to the question, “What’s the best way to offer music that praises God while engaging the congregation?” There is only the experiences, good and bad, of churches who keep working on this conundrum, week in and week out. No one gets it right. Many get it very, very wrong, but at least they keep trying. Being thoughtful, knowledgeable, aware both of the needs of the congregation and the world in which it worships and works, and most of all prayerful – these are the best ways to begin moving forward in the full knowledge there is no end to the path, and it is always one surrounded by thorns, steep cliffs hidden in shadows, and mobs of angry church-goers who are quite ready to demand something different even if they don’t quite know what that might sound like.
[Patti Smith] has spoken about how the Bible is “very resonant” today.
“It has everything – creation, betrayal, lust, poetry, prophecy, sacrifice,” Smith told The Independent. “It doesn’t really matter what religion you are or if you have no religion, those stories are still relevant to what people go through in their lives and they’re also beautifully written passages.” – Jess Denham, “Pope Francis Invites Patti Smith To Play At Vatican Christmas Concert”, The Independent, November 14, 2014
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands. – Isaiah 42:9-12
The difficulty of defining the musical office has often been regarded as a liability. Then an attempt at definition forces the musician into “prophetic” or “priestly” molds, which is a mistake. The lack of clarity here is part of the lyrical genius of music and a reminder of the balance needed. It points to the Christian people, their story in song, and their character as pilgrims who never can nail things down too precisely without falling into idolatry. Easy distinction between singer and leader of the song is different from them, complementary to them, and equally needed. – Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum:The Church and Music, p. 34
It is a story tailor-made for the main concerns of this site: The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, the Spiritual and Episcopal leader of one billion Roman Catholics around the globe has invited little old Patti Smith from northern New Jersey, a poet, a performer, a model, a mother, to perform at a Vatican Christmas concert to be held December 13. If ever there was an example of a church leader heeding the call to “sing a new song”, this is it. That Smith’s heyday as a musical performer is nearly four decades old now is neither here nor there; it is the wonder, the gratification, and the surprise that Pope Francis would find in her music – originals and covers – spiritual meaning and depth (which I would argue was always there; that’s what gave her power and appeal) and is unafraid to declare to the world, “Here is a new song. Join with us,” is a testament not only to the Pope’s courage, but to the change not only in the Roman Catholic Church but in the cultural milieu in which it has to exist. Considering Francis occupies the same office as Pius X who, a little more than a century ago, insisted that the best church music was Gregorian-style chant, I do believe this story should be taken lightly.
Yet as Paul Westermeyer notes in his history of music in the Church, musical decisions are fraught with complications. Some of those complications can create havoc in churches. We as a believing people are called to song; the Bible is filled with song. Our faith cries out to be sung. As for instructions about how that song is to be played . . . That’s where things get messy, cause arguments, even get folks leaving one congregation for another. One of Westermeyer’s central points is that music in the Church has always been music “of the people”, whether it was the Psalms which emerged from folk-styles, the hymnody of the Reformation (not counting Calvinist practice which reserved sole pride of place to simple musical settings for the Psalter), or even the current trend of praise music. Decisions have to be made about what is appropriate: theologically; liturgically; and most of all what “fits” best with the preferences of the congregation without losing sight of the Biblical call that, living in a new creation, declaring with the prophet that the God of Israel is doing a new thing, demands we sing a new song. It is here the distinction between priestly and prophetic, between pastoral and proclamatory, becomes most distinct. It creates hundreds of questions, and few guides other than the history of what has gone before to help us through the morass of problems and possibilities.
As someone who is working through the theological and liturgical possibilities of all music, not just so-called “sacred” or “praise” music as worthy of being the songs of the congregation before God, Pope Francis’s decision mollifies me even as reaction to it highlights the very real problems facing the acceptance of allegedly “secular” songs as part of the Church’s repertoire. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, and certainly not unChristian, in wanting to keep the music of the congregation something separate from that which is outside the walls of the church. After all, the church is the ekklesia, those gathered together who have been called out, called out of the world in order to give glory to God for the salvation brought to the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Divine Act calls for sacred acts on our part in response.
At the same time, we must always reckon not only with the Biblical call for new songs, but the Christological reality that, by being both fully human and fully divine, Jesus Christ – as described metaphorically in the tearing of the curtain in the Temple – breaks down the barrier between our fully human understanding of what is “sacred” and what is “profane”. This world, so beloved by God, is no longer in the grip of sin and death, but already a New Creation. New Creation calls for new thinking, new worshiping. It calls for new song, sometimes even challenging our notions of what praises God and what merely satisfies personal preferences without challenging a congregations inertia and comfort. There is nothing wrong with loving those hymns that have brought us comfort, or remind us of the round of liturgical seasons, from Advent through Ordinary Time after Pentecost. We have such a rich bounty of sacred music from which to bring forth praise worthy of God. At the same time, as pastoral leaders and church musicians wrestle together, hopefully along with the congregations they serve, with the ever-present possibilities offered in new songs – new styles of music, new ways of praising God, different ways of singing praise from other cultures – all should keep their minds and hearts open to the possibilities inherent in the Gospel we profess and proclaim – that God’s salvation is to all, for all, and makes the dead not only in to the living, but discards the old for something never before seen.
Pope Francis’s invitation is a marvelous example of precisely what I would love to see done more: bringing not only contemporary styles of music, but even allegedly “secular” musical style and performers within the church walls, and hear them in a new context, a new setting, and perhaps open ourselves to the possibilities that they, too, are offering God praise. We should allow ourselves to be surprised.
After the explosion of the New Theology after the First World War, Karl Barth, along with his good friend Eduard Thurneysen, and later Friedrich Gogarten, began a theological journal entitled Zwischen Den Zeiten, which means Between The Times. The purpose was to highlight the tension within which we Christians live “between the times” of the crucifixion/resurrection and parousia/eschaton. With the rise of the Nazis and their Christian sympathizers (including, for a time, Friedrich Gogarten) and those Barth in particular considered unconscious apologists (specifically fellow Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner), the journal collapsed. Nevertheless, the perspective at the heart of Barth’s project is one with which we just don’t wrestle enough. We Christians are people who live in constant tensions between the promise of the resurrection and coming consummation and transformation of the New Creation all the time immersed in this reality of sin, evil, and death.
This tension does not just have an ethical, evangelical, or dogmatic dimension. It has liturgical and ecclesial dimensions as well. We experience this in our churches when conflicts arise, and conflicts arise all the time. There are two main things that cause more conflict in local churches than any other: money, and music. Money is a constant worry, an existential threat to the ongoing work of the local church. While certainly a sign of the tension within which we continue to live, the conflicts over music in worship bring out that tension in surprising, sometimes hurtful, ways.
Often, the conflict revolves around demands that music and hymnody remain “traditional”. Yet, it is precisely this word – tradition – that creates so much confusion. The history of music in Christian worship is as old as the Scriptures; St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Corinth to include hymn singing in their worship. As the church spread, then engulfed, Europe, and as music composition and musical literacy spread and codified harmonic and melodic relationships (the birth of the tempered scale was a real breakthrough in the west) offered opportunities for creating compositions not only of subtle complexity, but transcendent beauty.
After the Protestant Reformation, there was an explosion of hymn-writing, in particular from the Lutherans (Calvin and the Reformed traditions preferred lining Psalms, not feeling the need to create new songs of praise). In Britain, after the religious wars settled down, with the rise of the Wesley’s reform movement that came to be known as Methodism, there was yet another explosion of hymn writing. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, some of which continue to be beloved by congregations of many traditions.
In the United States, religion and slavery spread together, and converts to Christianity heard the theme of resistance to evil, and created their own set of hymns and songs of praise, defiantly singing their demand for freedom, and the dream of a real place of freedom in this world, away from the tyranny of the slaveholder.
When we hear people who wish to keep our “traditional” songs in worship, it is these last that are often meant. Songs that comfort through familiarity. Songs that bring us back to a time when our faith was untroubled by the worries of life. Songs through which we feel the Spirit touch and speak of comfort in the face of change and trouble.
And there is nothing wrong with this. This is a service of the healing work of God in the life of the congregation that cannot and must not be ignored. At the same time, it is not only the purpose of Christian worship to soothe our troubled hearts, or provide only a space of comfort and rest. If our liturgy only comforts without confronting us with the reality of our mission, then we have not heard the Good News that God will be with us.
The rise of so-called “praise music”, a commercial product from the song-writing factories of Nashville, certainly fills part of the gap in the need to sing that new song the Psalmist repeatedly tells us we need to hear.
There is no reason to reject this out of hand, despite it being primarily about making money for Nashville-based song-writers. It feeds the hearts and is watered by the Spirit in congregations across the land; no one should gainsay its power for all its earthly and earthy origin and intent.
All the same, there is, quite literally, a world full of music and types of music that can and do speak to people where they are, asking the questions we don’t hear asked often enough; saying the things that need to be said, yet aren’t out of fear of offense.
We in the churches need to be open to the movement of the Spirit singing, playing, rapping the Word to us, even in ways that don’t comfort. Maybe in words that make us acutely uncomfortable. Precisely because we live in between the times, we cannot rest in any one place because both comfort in the presence of the Spirit and discomfort by the risen Christ exploding our assumptions about who and what we are and what we are to do. This is our lot. No, more: This is the call to us as those baptized in the blood and raised in the water of eternal life that is not yet ours. For that reason, we need to hear all these, and so much more, as we worship the God who gives the power to give them voice.