I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today. During Handel’s time, educated people were far more steeped in Bible then we are today. Their sources of information far fewer, the ones they had were more known than ours. When Charles Jennings put together that string of Scriptures that became the libretto to the composition, he clearly did so with an in-depth knowledge of the Bible, of the state of humanity, and of the grace and goodness of God.
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Somewhere, somehow, we need a new Pentecost, one that will teach us once more how to speak the Gospel in languages others know. I believe that it will come. I believe that God still wants to speak peace to the “heathens,” whom I define as any who have yet to come to the healing language of grace, peace and forgiveness. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Denton Mystery Worship Eleven: Reflections On The Messiah And Methodism,” The Thoughtful Pastor.com, December 17, 2014
What becomes problematic for some Christians is the notion that Jesus would even be in places like a club, rap concert, and/or event that was not centered around some church. Some Christians cannot see beyond the four church walls and the programs that run it. So, finding Jesus in these irregular and nontraditional places will be hard to understand. Still, even in these nontraditional spaces, community is happening. And, if we really believe that God is Alpha and Omega, omnipresent, “sell-seeing,” might Jesus be in that smoke-filled strip club trying to talk to the inhabitants there? – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 120
I have another blog where I reflect on what I’m reading. I’m currently reading Daniel White Hodge’s The Soul of Hip Hop. In a recent post on two chapters in that book, I included a video from DMX for the song “Look Thru My Eyes”, about which I wrote:
The rapper is confessing a life lived hard, fast, and violent. He is searching, however, for forgiveness and understanding. He understands why so many are afraid of him, precisely because they should be afraid of who he was. Who he is, or at least wants to be, however, is a daily struggle, made no easier with the knowledge of who he was, which includes a preference for striking out and striking back. As he says at the end, his heart is both good and ugly. Which, in the end, is a description of all of us, unless we are to deny the reality of sin in our lives. The only difference is DMX is both more clear and more honest.
In the song above, DMX has clearly moved on, yet still struggling to be who he knows he can be even as he is immersed in a world that only wants him to be what they tell him he should be: violent, threatening, the very poster-child for our social evils.
In a piece written about attending a partial performance of Handel’s The Messiah at a United Methodist Church in her hometown of Denton, TX, Rev. Thomas wonders whether such a piece could even be written and received today. I would insist that such a question is meaningless, for several reasons. For one thing, it reifies what is historical, ripping Handel’s oratorio out of its place in history and making it not only a commodity, but in doing so making it something it is not – a fetish, something timeless, a thing unto itself (thank you, Theodor Adorno!). Handel wrote The Messiah at a time when the baroque style was exhausting itself across Europe; when the continent itself was undergoing a socio-economic shift driven by aristocratic protests against absolute monarchy; when the move from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was already underway. In short, for all its beauty and power, it is a thing of history, with a past, a present that is our past, and a future that is our present. The meaning of the words has also most certainly shifted, as our understanding of the Scriptural passages has changed over the centuries. Not the least problem is that it was written as an Easter oratorio, not a Christmas oratorio. That alone demonstrates the massive shift in our understanding of the piece.
Furthermore, by searching the conservatories and concert halls for The Messiah, by claiming a need for a new Pentecost without looking around – or better listening around – Thomas misses all the ways contemporary music styles provide all sorts of thoughtful, meaningful Biblical and theological fodder for people younger than we. Wondering about The Messiah ignores the socio-historical reality that people younger than we are distrustful of large institutions and organizations; I would extend that to attempts at large-scale musical compositions as well. The Messiah was written in a time and place when the all-encompassing, totalizing reality of Christianity offered a wholeness that has been questionable for over a century. This is not due to any fault within Christianity itself. Rather, the events of the 20th century, particularly for youth and young people in the United States for the past two generations have all but eliminated any faith in completion, finality, and wholeness. The Messiah could not be written, and if it were would not be received well, because it offers what too many no longer accept – a narrative that encompasses all of reality, purporting to explain what is actually a series of open questions to be pursued by communities of faith in their own way.
When Rev. Thomas brings up the issues facing The United Methodist Church, while noting the absence of younger people in far too many of our congregations, she may not be aware that we have yet to understand how our churches turn away youth and young people by our demands, our answers, and our refusal to listen to a vernacular with which we are uncomfortable. It isn’t just our recent focus on sexuality; it is a whole system of youth and young adult ministry that seeks to provide answers without waiting for the questions. Far too many of our churches are uncomfortable with baggy pants, tattoos, and most especially white congregations are afraid of young people like rapper DMX, even as he insists we should be afraid, but not of who he is. We are at a point in our history, yet again, where the young African-American male is yet again the front-page threat to our lives and our social stability. Our churches could provide safe places for young African-Americans to come and be heard, to be listened to on their own terms without judgment or precondition, yet even our historically black congregations seem unwilling to open our doors that far, despite our marketing motto.
The Messiah may well be out there. Just not in one piece. It might be in a small club holding a freestyle poetry night. It might be in a concert venue, filled with youth, black and white, listening to the questions, given against a background that makes those questions not so much aesthetic and theological as existential and of deadly importance. When we wonder where our youth and young people are, it might be a good idea to listen to them, their fears, their rage, their distrust of institutions, and how we contribute to our own demise through our refusal, as an organization, to open ourselves to the world as it really is, preferring to perform The Messiah at Christmas instead of selections from Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, and Ice Cube.
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.
I think I’m polite as possible in raking Adorno over the coals for writing about popular music when it’s clear through his writing he has no idea what he’s talking about.