The most committed (and often the most obstinate) defenders of contemporary worship is rapidly becoming the older generation. While their influence remains in many places, it is waning. Within a few short years, contemporary worship will have lost its original impetus and driving force.
Millennials are seeking old ways of doing things. This (thankfully) doesn’t mean a return to the church of the 1950s, but it (thankfully) means an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool. – Jonathan Aigner, “3 Reason Contemporary Worship IS Declining, And What We Can Do To Help The Church Move On,” Patheos, September 4, 2015
Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of the voices, which the nightingale or the mockingbird, or whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. – John of Salisbury (1120-1180), Bishop of Chartres, quoted in Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church And Music, pp.124-125
But certain practitioners of the new school, who think only of the laws of measured time, are composing new melodies of their own creation, with a new system of note values, that they prefer to the ancient, traditional music. The melodies of the Church are [now] sung in semibreves and minims and with grace notes of repercussion. Some [composers] break up their melodies with hockets or rob them of their virility with discant, threevoice music, and motets, with a dangerous element produced by certain parts sung on text in the vernacular; all these abuses have brought into disrepute the basic melodies of the Antiphonal and Gradual [the principal chant books]. These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere. . . . – Pope John XXII, Papal Bull Docta sanctorum patrum, 1324
If you’re following the revived Bloom County you’re probably aware that Opus and Bill The Cat are running for President. Again. You’re probably also aware that Opus believes he’s found a “wedge issue” he can use to increase his standing in the polls. For those who may not know, a wedge issue is a topic to which people react out of all proportion to its social or political value, and one that tends to be impervious to legislative solutions. For Opus, it’s the matter of how many spaces appear after a period. Cutter John lost a girlfriend over the issue. It certainly seems to be something that really does get folks aroused online.
You want to get some church folk all stirred up? Forget sex or politics; offer an opinion on styles of worship and church music. Congregations have been known to split apart over the matter. Battle lines are drawn and there seems to be little room for any kind of middle ground. Defenders of traditional hymnody are portrayed as fuddyduddies out of step with the times, technology, and the people. Proponents of contemporary worship styles and music are often portrayed as theologically shallow, offering entertainment rather than worship, and songs that have very little theological meat on their catchy tuneful bones. That these same “praise songs” are part of a multi-billion dollar industry usually also comes up, portraying people as unwitting dupes of a massive capitalistic swindle. That both these portraits contain a whole lot of fact certainly doesn’t help. Articles like Jonathan Aigner’s above are all too common. Like Dick Cheney’s statement that the Iraqi resistance was in its “last throes” just as that same resistance entered a period of heightened violence, we too often allow our wishes to dictate how we see the world.
That’s why historical perspective is important. In the mid-12th century, the Bishop of Chartres wrote scathingly of developments in church music. Another 12th century cleric, a Cistercian monk named Aelred, wrote similarly. It is from Aelred the title of this post comes. Two centuries later, Pope John XXII issued a Bull regarding church music, quoted above. While extolling Chant and Plainsong (something that Popes tend to endorse, right up to the late-19th and early-20th centuries), John referred to “the ancient, traditional music” which was the very style John of Salisbury found so horrific.
For us United Methodists, more recent history (over the past century and a half or so) includes, first, the introduction of staved music our hymnals; the introduction of the “Catholic” organ; the introduction of the “sinners” piano; including popular religious songs like “How Great Thou Art”; the controversy over the 1987 Hymnal; the creation of a separate hymn and song book for the African-American churches. Up through the mid- to late-19th century, clergy either lined unfamiliar hymns or congregations sang them to accepted metrical songs. That’s why there’s still and Metrical Index in our hymnal. It wasn’t until the flowering of 19th century hymn-writing that tunes became set.
In John Wesley’s “Rules For Singing”, he admonishes congregations to learn common hymn tunes; if people knew hymns using different melodies and harmonies, he instructed them to learn the new ones as quickly as possible. Uniformity certainly helps unify a group geographically diverse. All the same, it does remind us that “the way we’ve always done it” has no more meaning in worship music than it does in any other area of church life.
Contemporary worship and praise music entered the life of the church for a number of reasons. I think it’s important to remember that it did so because it served a need for people, to worship and sing to God in ways that connected their lives more closely together. For all that at least some CCM, as its called, is fatuous and theologically questionable, one could say much the same about many hymns, not only those dropped from more recent publishings, but more important those no longer included. During the quadrennium leading to the final proposed 1987 UM Hymnal, both “I Come to the Garden” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” were dropped from several initial proposals. The reasons the committee offered were theologically sound. The church, however, wasn’t quite ready for such changes, sentiment overriding theology. Using traditional hymns less and less is not necessarily a sign of American superficiality or a surrender to commerce over content or a sign of dwindling theological understanding. It can be, of course. That doesn’t mean it is. On the contrary, there are excellent theological reasons for using contemporary instrumentation and songs rather than relying on sometimes centuries-old hymns and tunes. For one thing, we aren’t 17th century German Reformed Christians, 19th century Anglicans, or late-19th or early 20th century church and social reformers. We’re early 21st century Americans who need to sing our faith in our own voice. The Psalms and Prophets often call for “new songs”, for being ready for God to do “a new thing” that has never been experienced. At the end of the Revelation of St. John, from the throne the Father says, “Behold! I make all things new!”. New things can always be a sign of innovation for its own sake. It can also be a sign of the coming Kingdom. Because we are always between the times, living our lives with both the “already!” and the “not yet!”, because our lives – the whole Universe – is both on its way to salvation yet still sinful, it can be both at the same time. We should never be so dedicated to a particular theology, style of worship, or how music is used and sounds in worship that we refuse to hear the whisper of the Spirit.
To all those who insist that “contemporary worship” is “on the way out” or facing its imminent demise, I can only say, “Enjoy the wait!” As long as it serves sound worship and theological purposes, it isn’t going anywhere. On the contrary, the greater challenge is going to be teaching both clergy and congregations how better to integrate differing musical tastes and styles, instrumentation into wholistic, meaningful worship experiences. If you think that the emotional and intellectual impact of the whole worship experience for the people isn’t important, then perhaps you need to rethink why you’re worshiping at all. Yes, worship is about the people offering God the Glory God is due; if our worship is either bland or shallow, or if our people are either disengaged or too emotionally or intellectually engaged, how is that worship offering God a living sacrifice? Of all the things about which our churches bicker, wouldn’t it be far better if folks sat down and asked, “How do we worship in an age of computers and sampling? How do we bring the voice of the people together when the people’s voices all sing different tunes?” Far better than declaring for one “side” or another because there are not “sides”, we should be working to offer worship worthy of God. That would include the enthusiastic and theologically sound words and music that all the people can sing together.
Seeing as yesterday was Mother’s Day, after an enormous country breakfast at a local restaurant – they use Mason Jars for their large orange juice! – we attended a worship service that Lisa chose. So, we went to the early service at Court Street United Methodist here in Rockford. The pastor, Rev. Cal Culpepper, was Lisa’s Associate her first year at Cornerstone. The service itself was marvelous, the sermon both educational and thought-provoking, and the feeling of welcome and the church’s sense of itself being in vital ministry to the local community as well as to the world was both heart-warming and comforting. To be in such a place, to be welcomed, to hear members proclaim their participation in so many good works, is to be in Church.
The order of service is traditional, as were the musical offerings. Both the United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing songbook were used, accompanied by organ. A chancel choir sang, and the offertory was a beautiful piano-trumpet duet. Having been immersed in contemporary worship order and musical accompaniment the past five years, it felt a bit like coming home. The church itself is physically enormous, the sanctuary ornate, a huge balcony wrapping most the way around. The stained glass windows shone beautifully. the pipes of the organ looked grand behind the chancel. The pulpit, a gorgeous shining wooden structure, was raised above the lectern. It really was not so much an old-fashioned church service as it was something that reminded me, both in terms of the surroundings as well as the service itself, of going to church when I was a child and youth.
It reminded me, again, that the carrying on about worship styles and musical styles in our worship is so misguided, carried on far too often by people who, having some kind of personal stake in the game or bias, demand that choices be made in just how we worship, and how our songs are lifted to God. It is more than OK to gather together, well-dressed and at least semi-formal, in a beautifully appointed old sanctuary, and have our combined voices raised to God with the sound of an organ to lift our songs even higher. indeed, I have come to the conclusion that, how we worship doesn’t matter nearly as much as that we worship. That we gather together as this particular incarnation of the Body of Christ, using the tools with which we are most comfortable (and occasionally being challenged by those with which we are not), to hear the Word that we are saved, to offer our confession, and to be challenged by the Good News preached and received, to go out to the world and live it. Whether it’s a pipe organ, or a piano and other instruments, or an electric band; whether we choose to sing traditional hymns with all the gravitas they carry or raise our voices in a contemporary idiom; that we do so is enough. That we are open to the Spirit’s movement is enough. That our lives are refreshed and renewed is enough.
We should, clergy, church musician, and lay, set to one side the whole idea of “worship wars” (as I’ve written before, several times) and learn the many merits of the variety of ways we human beings can worship our God. Shedding our prejudices and sense of vested interest, we might actually learn things. We might discover that what God wants – as the Old Testament prophets said over and over again – isn’t empty ritual done a particular way. What God wants from us in our worship is that our worship is honest; that we come to God with open and contrite hearts. We can have follow a rigid order of service. We can allow the service to move forward under the power of the Spirit. We can use Hymnals accompanied by organs. We can read words off a screen while a band of electronic and electric instruments plays. What matters is that we confess our sins with honesty. What matters is that we hear the Word proclaimed and feel ourselves moved. What matters is noticing the presence of the Holy Spirit moving among the congregation, that presence of the Risen Christ promised to any group, small or large, who gather in his name.
Perhaps we should be praying that our worship, however we do it, is acceptable to God. It might well be, however we structure it, that our sacrifices, our incense, our songs of praise, are not acceptable because we aren’t living out our calling to be church because we’re so caught up in doing church. I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Instead of finding another reason to argue and fight and divide, we should be coming together as the worshiping Body of Christ, let the worship order and music be what it will be, and leave room for the Spirit to move among us.
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.
Part of my overall project with this blog is thinking through what it would mean for the church – and by “church” I mean the various Christian churches in the United States – really to wrestle with contemporary society and culture on its own terms and in its own idiom. We in the churches are, by and large, older and – let’s be honest – out of touch with what is currently popular. Oh, we might sit around the television at night and watch various popular television shows. What we do not do, however, is make ourselves really aware of what our youth hear, and understand how that might well impact them, their lives, and their relationship with one another and the churches of which they are a part. Denying this reality, or simply dismissing it – or worse, denouncing it without consideration – does no one any good. Offering the alternative of “Contemporary Christian Music” is becoming more and more problematic precisely because it is more formulaic, less meaningful, with more and more of the songs sounding the same without actually saying anything that might speak to the lives of our youth.
Part of our problem is we are the wrong demographic for cultural products aimed at youth and young adults. I don’t mean that we’re Christian. I mean that the leadership of our churches is older, white, and – can we admit it? – out of touch. When was the last time any of us purposely listened to a Top 40 radio station when one of our kids wasn’t in the car? When was the last time we set aside whatever our personal preferences might be and heard what is around us, yet not heard because we refuse to listen? In refusing to listen, aren’t we denying the very real world our youth and young people inhabit? How can we connect with them if we deny that reality as a legitimate expression of human living in the world?
The number one Hip-Hop/R&B song for the week is Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”.
Right off, that’s a title that’s guaranteed to separate the ages, the races, and bring about enormous shouts of condemnation. Yet, if we listen to the song – I mean really listen – this is little more than a song saying, “Goodbye”, to a woman. What’s interesting are the musical interludes that seem at least to hint that, in fact, he hasn’t quite said all his goodbyes. After one, he even whispers, “Focus”. That the language is a particular vernacular that might shock, perhaps even offend, is less a reflection of the crudity of contemporary culture as it is just a mark of different comfort levels with particularly public expressions that include vulgarities. I mean, at the end of the day, this song is little different from Scandal’s “Goodbye To You”:
That one is from back when I was in a demographic pop music aimed at. It’s perky, it’s got those 80’s-sounding keyboards, its rhythms are simple and direct, and most of all it is so white it’s almost transparent. Musically, it has a different groove and vibe than Big Sean. Lyrically, it might seem miles away, but really it is just expressing the same sentiment. Our youth and young people, however, have become far more comfortable with vernacular in their songs.
Another song in the Top Ten is Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga”:
A song filled with references to drug dealing, violence, and death, I can only say these are themes that have been around in American folk and popular song since long before they emerged in Hip Hop. I mean, the following song is considered a classic
Here’s a song about a man killing his woman because he discovered she’s cheating on him. Please explain to me how it’s OK for folks to think this is a “great” song, yet click their tongues at “Hot Nigga”, which revels in the same themes of violence and death. If you watch the Hendrix video, his performance is so sexual – including playing the guitar with his tongue in a way that should be clear to everyone – that the scandalous nature should be clear enough to everyone. Particularly in the context of his times (the late 1960’s) a young African-American man expressing both violence and sexuality through song would have been dangerous on so many different social and cultural levels, particular since Jimi’s audience was predominantly white.
Finally, there’s Beyonce.
This is little more than a dance song with instructions. Kind of like this:
What this middle aged white guy, for whom this music seems as alien in many ways as something from eight hundred or nine hundred years ago – because it isn’t music meant for me, or that is even supposed to mean anything to me – is that, in fact, popular music continues to revisit familiar themes, from break-ups through violence and death to just having a good time. All folks my age who complain about how awful contemporary music is need to recognize it isn’t bad.
It isn’t for us. And that’s OK. That does mean we need to work to listen, and understand, and reflect upon the contemporary idiom rather than condemn it. We need to attend to the ways our youth and young adults express their feelings, reflect upon their lives, or even just have a good time through the music they like. Understanding isn’t approval. It is, however, the first step toward moving away from simple condemnation and toward a more open, lively communication between the ages, races, and genders.