Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Scandal of Evangelical Music

While Evangelicals are marshalling their forces to nuke the filibuster in the Senate in an effort to get conservative judges past the leftward bias of a vociferous minority, there is another filibuster going on in every Evangelical church in the country. It’s loud and pointless. It goes on for hours without arriving at a respectable cadence. It endlessly maintains mediocrity and stifles dissent through abuse of the most potent cultural force known to man.

Evangelical writers now have doctorates in history and philosophy. Distinguished Wheaton professors and street corner evangelists have left John Nelson Darby’s fundamentals for the ethics of Augustine and Aquinas. They control media networks, legal defense coalitions, and a political constituency that is said to have swung the last presidential election. But walk into any church that claims sola scriptura as its creed, and the barrage of sound might knock you down. It will at least make you wonder how you ended up in a Las Vegas nightclub or a rock concert when you thought you were going to church. Gene Edward Veith PhD. turns out one learned discourse after another and even writes creditably about nineteenth century art, but when it comes to music, it’s still the "Honky Tonk Gospel" he’s taking to the bank.

It used to be heard among Evangelicals that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon. Catholic churches have graven images in their sanctuaries and a tainted history of collaboration with pagan Rome. Now the merchants of trade that wail miserably are those heard when anybody questions the millions made selling CCM--that’s Contemporary Christian Music, but it sounds like sex, drugs, and rock and roll sounded when I was young enough to be tempted by the latter trinity, rather than the former.

Because my elders taught me not to follow the crowd, and were not following it themselves, I learned to sing in church. Even out in the boondocks I grew up hearing choirs that would be the envy of any morally ambiguous, but liturgically uncompromised, Protestant church today. The teaching then was good and the congregational singing wasn’t bad. There were still four parts to the hymns and people weren’t partially deaf after ten or fifteen years of it. Even without spiky-haired preachers or 3000 seat auditoriums, the literary eloquence of the Bible was holding its own.

It is important to note that the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays have some common elements. The Judeo-Christian cultural endowment of Western Civilization was something to be discovered—it was unavoidable, if you paid attention in class when I went to college. Then, one could still have a personal Renaissance in a state university. When I heard Handel’s Messiah performed by a choir of graduate students at the University of Oregon, it was an ecstasy both similar to what I had experienced singing in church yet somehow more grounded in history and tradition. It connected my faith in God with what I was studying in my coursework.

Back then, you learned enough about Christianity in college to know that our religion is based on historic events. Handel’s music sounded like it wasn’t invented yesterday, and it sure didn’t sound like what I was hearing at fraternity rush parties. I began singing in a choir myself, but it wasn’t yet clear to me that the Mozart masses I was singing were composed about the time of the American Revolution and as part of the same cultural ethos. Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro" is a critique of the aristocracy of his time. It entertained those with privileged status even while it undermined their power.

At the time George Whitefield was evangelizing the early Americans, Mozart was writing liturgical music in Europe. Had Benjamin Franklin gone to church during one of his sojourns and heard Mozart instead of what he heard of Whitefield back home--whom he noted, even then, could talk until the last penny was surrendered by everybody within earshot--Franklin might have been a Christian as well as humanitarian reformer.

Having an education thirty-five years ago didn’t mean one was thoroughly secularized, but if you found a church where the music was good, and you still believed in the resurrection, you might have to argue with the pastor to defend it. Now one of those churches, where I ended up, still has a fine choir, as well as two gay men co-pastoring and living exemplary lives of gay monogamy. I’ve been confirmed three times trying to find someplace where the music doesn’t drive me up the walls and yet holds to orthodox theology. After about five years in the Catholic Church I encountered a priest with a burden of guilt and angry disdain for musicians, so I thought I’d try to come home to Evangelical Christianity in a conservative Presbyterian Church that had a history of good music. How was I to know that guitars were already in the chapel and that the new pastor was hard-core about bringing them into the 11:00 AM service. The choir was about to be drowned in a baptism of amplified sound.

For questioning the orthodoxy of music composed last week against a tradition of Christian liturgy going back five hundred years, I was literally excommunicated. The way decisions were made in order to mainstream the cultural propaganda of pop music was anything but the democratic polity Presbyterians claim as their own. Anybody who objected was told to get out of the way. For it is written, in the current church-growth literature, that following the trends in music is the way to build the church. On the other hand, if the architects who built the edifice known as First Presbyterian Church knew as little about construction as the "musicians" now composing the music know about music, the place would have collapsed years ago.

This is too long already, and it’s four in the morning, but you guys are keeping me awake nights. When are Evangelicals going be as responsible about music as they now are about most other disciplines? How long will musical ignoramuses continue to drive anybody who is not already tone deaf out of the church? You force me to choose between conservative theology and my intellectual integrity. There are many ways to worship God, but for educated people to repudiate the tradition that gave humanity the freedom and civility we now take for granted is tragic at best or apostasy by another name. Christian civilization came about because the church recognized good things and sustained them. A lot more than musical taste now turns on whether or not the church can continue to sustain truth as molded in culture while Christianity was the dominant cultural force. The American Evangelical church has grown fat and wealthy using market-driven and emotionally manipulative music. What will it be for the foreseeable future, a city on a hill or a ghetto of derivative nonsense?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Church Exults in High Culture

The intelligentsia, with many advocates in universities founded by churches, have declared war on Christianity and Western Civilization. The normative strictures of our culture have become the targets of a purge driven by ideologies that are too familiar to enumerate. Hypocritically claiming that injustices are perpetrated by the very ideals that define justice in Western democracies, academic nihilists pretentiously deprecate the Western literary canon line by line. Music has become the domain of a well-funded coterie of directors who make operas into travesties of the heroic ideals they once celebrated. The visual arts have been in regression to barbarism since Picasso.

In 1952, in an interview published in the periodical "Libro Nero", Picasso conceded:
"In art the mass of people no longer seeks consolation and exaltation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, extravagant, scandalous. I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which pass through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. . . Fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know. I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries."

We’ve gone several stages beyond the modernism of Picasso. Postmodernism debases every aesthetic standard by reference to which Picasso could still lament the decadence of his art. This destruction of norms has resulted in moral anarchy. If it continues, the basis of rational thinking will be undermined until formerly sensible people completely relinquish control of their minds to pretentious ideologies. Oligarchy was, long ago, justified in an imperial church by religious dogma. If Western Civilization can be deconstructed, the intelligentsia will step in to fill the void. They are already justifying their creeds as a means of preserving order in the chaos they helped to create.

In the decadence of historically Christian culture, the church can have an enormous impact by sustaining high culture. Herbert Armstrong brought the Vienna Philharmonic to Ambassador College during the heyday of the Worldwide Church of God. People are still talking about that concert! There were many such things in that church on the fringe. A talkative salesman in Seattle told me he used to go to the concerts. His favorable impression of a dubious church survived all the negative press and the scandals of the Armstrong empire. Now denominations claiming to be orthodox with vastly greater resources squander them on pop culture that only reflects postmodernism as it is being marketed to the masses. If any of the mega-churches within ten miles of my home would spend as much on orchestral music and opera as they do on pop music, they could turn the propaganda of the arts mafia against itself and revive great art to the glory of God.

This unapologetic argument for high culture is based on the conviction that many of the finest things in Western Civilization are Judeo-Christian in their inspiration and meaning. Artistic masterpieces reflect a relationship God has sustained with people and civilizations in a tradition that goes back to Abraham. None of the denominations of the church have been faithful to everything God has offered them, but the wealth of virtues He reveals have made it impossible that some semblance of the Kingdom of God not be achieved in the world. Heroic art provides both an understanding of history and visionary hope for the future. May the church, before long, recognize its heritage and exult in it.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics. By Carson Holloway. A Review

Does music have any influence on character development? Rock music culture is corrosive to ideals most people wish to instill in their children, but perhaps the music can be extracted from the sexual evocation and desultory work ethic apparent in most of it. Would the music itself be harmless if the lyrics celebrated responsible love relationships and achievement instead of casual sex and freakish lifestyles? What are we to make of the praise choruses being sung in many denominations of the church? Carson Holloway's book attempts to gain some perspective on present controversies by surveying philosophical thought since Plato dealing with music. One of his most significant conclusions is that both liberals and conservatives in the present dispute have focused on what, for lack of a better term, might be called middle-class morality instead of virtue. Behavior conducive to social tranquility and affluence was not the main issue for ancient philosophers who dealt with music and its influence on character formation. Modern critics argue about pornographic lyrics, but they miss the dimension of music that is inherent in its form. On this view, rock music says the same thing whether the text is about a nightclub encounter, or a trendy rap that would otherwise read like a gospel tract.

If music has some intrinsic connection with the way we think, historic philosophy might be of help to us. The dialogues of Plato delineate a formal order in the universe with which both good music and human nobility harmonize. Understood in this way, virtue is strength of character in accord with transcendent norms. It is true humanity, not accommodation to power or suppression of desire. In Plato's Republic, Socrates argues that disciplined, orderly music can engender in the young a disposition favorable to ideals that are the basis of virtue and true happiness. On the other hand, prolonged exposure to emotionally provocative music during the formative years obliterates the serenity required for rational thought and contemplation of ideals. Reason and self-control are cultivated in an atmosphere of aesthetic elegance. Preoccupation with passion or pathos lead only to emotional excitability. It requires little imagination to see how most currently popular music would fare if evaluated by Plato’s criteria.

Plato’s metaphysics is not entirely adequate to the exposition of Christian theology as was demonstrated by the controversies of the third and fourth centuries. But the idea of an objectively real moral order at the core of existence is found both in Plato and in the Hebrew Bible. Without this moral realism, the passion of Christ as atonement for the sins of the world is incomprehensible. Western civilization has, in the main, acknowledged its debt to Greek metaphysics, Stoic conceptions of natural law, and law as found in the Pentateuch. This is changing in our era with postmodernism ascendant in popular culture and in the academic establishment. For a hundred years or more art has been captive to modernism and now postmodernism. Aesthetic judgments recognize no objective criteria. But, even after generations of students have been indoctrinated in it, atonal music still sounds austere and pointless. Contempt among “serious” musicians for music with any trace of humanity has cleared the way for the sentimentalists and shock troupes who have expropriated popular music. Usually, the decline of the Western musical tradition is attributed to disillusionment among artists after World War I. Holloway's book demonstrates that the philosophical reasons for the detachment of music from meaning and morals go back much further.

As early as the Enlightenment period, philosophers rejected the nurture of virtue for either individual fulfillment or the good of the community. Holloway shows how they followed Machiavelli “insofar as he seeks to guide political action not on the basis of ‘imaginary republics and principles that have never been seen or known to be in fact,’ but rather on the basis of ‘effectual truth’.” In this view, the cultivation of virtue through reason and art is simply unrealistic. In Machiavelli’s analysis, reason has no higher end than to aid in acquisition. Moral and intellectual excellence and questions of whether music can aid character formation give way to a lower assessment of human nature. Desire and passion are real, ideals only imaginary. Hobbes concurs with Machiavelli when he opines, “The thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired.” John Locke, similarly, makes reason the handmaiden of desire. Thus reason is self serving, and nobility of character is not significant in and of itself. In public life, external restraints must be instituted, using self-preservation and peace as inducements to subdue the passions. In this period it was concluded that the aesthetic elegance of music cannot make virtue appealing. Rational self-control and virtue are, Holloway says, “bereft of natural attractiveness.”

The Romantic era was partly a reaction against Machiavellian notions of politics founded on material self-interest. On the question of music's power over the soul Rousseau affirms its importance but departs radically from the ancient Greeks. Holloway says, "His constant focus is on music's ability to excite the passions. The virtuous or public-spirited politics Rousseau admires is based not on the cultivation of rational thinking, which according to Rousseau is actually destructive of healthy politics but instead upon intensity of passion." Rousseau wrote hundreds of articles on music, composed operas, and even devised a system of music notation. Holloway cites many references in which Rousseau describes music as the most primitive, and most powerful, form of communication. Poetry is thought to be a vestige of earlier times. Not only through convention, but through universal appeal, Rousseau argues, music is able to "imitate the tones of language and the twists produced in every idiom by certain psychic acts." His only contemptuous remarks on music are directed at Jean-Phillippe Rameau, a musical theorist and composer of immensely popular operas, who maintained that music's power is based on harmony's grounding in the laws of physics. This kind of consonance between art and normative order in the natural world, which Plato would have noted with interest, was, evidently, objectionable to Rousseau. Holloway concludes: "Plato and Aristotle want to calm the passions with a view to the cultivation of reason, which they believe is conducive to the well-being of both the political community and the individual, insofar as it fosters moral and philosophic virtue. Rousseau agrees that moral virtue is necessary for the well being of society and the individual, but, for Rousseau, this virtue and this happiness are based, not on reason, but on passion."

Holloway's exploration of the well known conflict between Romantics and Classicists proceeds without recourse to theological considerations. This is one of its strengths. His ideas can be used to stimulate public debate without using arguments based on religion. But for Christians, the doctrine of the Incarnation makes it difficult to throw in unequivocally with the Classicists. The Incarnation of God in human flesh was problematic from the earliest encounters of Christians with those educated in Greek philosophy. Also at issue was the bodily resurrection of Jesus. History has shown that extensive congruence of pagan metaphysics with a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world does not resolve everything. Even Plato's dialogues are quite a distance from the abstractions of Neoplatonism or the metaphysics of medieval Scholastics. Essence may indeed precede existence, as the ancients taught, but many Christian heresies have tended to derogate the humanity of Jesus in a misguided effort to escape the tribulations of being human.

In light of the Incarnation, Music, always a bit suspect in church, gains respectability. Sensory stimulation through art is not just a concession to human worldliness if God has come into the world in human flesh. Aristotle's definition of art as a coincidence of the universal and the particular seems useful, but we can't be too quick to dismiss some of Rousseau's claims that virtue can be inspired through communication based on emotional inflection. Toward the end of his book, Holloway says, "The ancients could prescribe a cure for our pathologies of soul: the serious attempt, including the educational use of the right kind of music, to encourage our pursuit of the highest goods attainable by man, reason's enjoyment of moral nobility and theoretical truth." He is surely correct that good music can aid in the development of the mind, but for Christians, the Incarnation entails more than contemplation of theoretical truth.

Excessive preoccupation with feeling as became the norm during the Romantic era is timid stuff in comparison to what was to come. In the nineteenth century, the music of Richard Wagner became part of a cultural revolution. The ideology of this revolution was articulated by Wagner’s disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, who explicitly acknowledged Wagner’s influence in radical opposition to the account of music and politics found in Plato and Aristotle. The opposition is stated, in Holloway’s consistently revealing analysis, as follows: “Plato and Aristotle recommend an orderly music that calms the passions and awakens and strengthens reason in the soul. Nietzsche, in contrast, recommends music that inflames the passions, and he seeks to use such music with a view to overwhelming or silencing reason.” To give coherence to human life and its struggles Nietzsche substitutes myth for reason. It is myth, particularly when embodied in Wagnerian music-drama, which Nietzsche says is “to be experienced vividly as a unique example of universality and truth that gaze into the infinite.” In this view “music gives rise to myth through its role in tragedy, which is a hybrid form of art combining a Dionysian element, the music, and an Apollonian element, the drama or story.”

Nietzsche exudes contempt for Platonic philosophy: “Socratism…” he says, “is bent on the destruction of myth.” In contrast, Dionysian art--music--unites us with “primordial being itself,” or “with the inmost ground of the world.” “In its intoxication,” music can mirror desire. It is “an immediate copy of the will itself.” The tragic music of Wagner engenders a “metaphysical comfort,” which Holloway elucidates as “a sense that, in spite of the sorrowful end to which particular beings must come, ‘life is at the bottom of things, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable’. This it does by uniting the listener to ‘primordial being itself,’ the passionate will at the foundation of all things, making him feel its ‘raging desire for existence and joy in existence’.” In the final analysis “for Nietzsche, the cosmos is, in fact, not a cosmos but a chaos. It is not as for Socrates, orderly and intelligible but contradictory and mysterious. Thus Nietzsche claims that the ‘faith’ originated by Socrates, the belief that ‘thought can penetrate the deepest abysses of being,’ is an illusion… . The lyric musician conceives of all nature, and himself in it, as willing, as desiring, as eternal longing.” Life is made worth living only by art that conceals the “will-shattering truth.”

There is much more to this argument in Nietzsche. Holloway’s work is an excellent introduction to elements of it dealing with music. From our perspective a hundred fifty years later, beyond Hitler’s recapitulation of Nietzsche’s superman to themes from Wagner, beyond the shock-troupes of Woodstock, one can only marvel that there was a time in musical history when the chromaticism of the overture to Tristan und Isolda was shocking and erotic. Present-day veterans of the sexual revolution fall asleep by the second act. The music is sensual, but most of us have been inured to its outrages by the artillery rhythms of electrically amplified hard rock. There is little explicit sex in Tristan und Isolda. The lovers die in ecstatic longing. Nonetheless, Wagner’s musical revolution largely succeeded. A music professor, in his later years at the University of Washington, used to say in all his survey classes, “Since the overture to Tristan, every composer has had to contend with Wagner. Every movie score is trying to outWagner Wagner.”

Ideas propounded by Nietzsche and Wagner have become part of popular culture and pursued beyond excess. Nothing is too execrable in art anymore. Doctoral dissertations are written on music that is, in fact, pornography. It's hard to take all this seriously. Fourteen-year-olds know the game is finished. But Holloway manfully dismantles arguments in defense of music gone berserk. In the final analysis, he concludes that liberation in denial of transcendent ideals turns to self-loathing, which is often projected on women. Desire is monstrously transformed into sadism. In another of his quotable phrases Holloway impales the savagery of contemporary rock and rap: “Pop music’s turn to spiritedness as itself a source of satisfaction appears clearly in the fact that its rage is now directed not against those who seek to take sexual pleasure away--they no longer exist--but against the partner who willingly provides it.” Misogyny is among the stranger components of the music now being sold to children. Its perverse partner, implacable self-assertion, takes the defenders of this music into regions beyond the lunatic fringe. Can we demonstrate conclusively that two generations of enculturation in raunchy cacophonous music have marred our souls beyond recognition of the formal order in the universe? Have academic authorities who teach that the ideals found in the Western canon are oppressive made Frank Zappa into a credible source of information?

Plato’s arguments may not be conclusive that music either fosters contemplation of nobility or abets emotional excess, but they do make one stop and consider how our culture no longer equips us to comprehend any transcendent order. It seems to have been a mistake, though, to make emotion the principal foe of truth, especially with regard to music. The music of J. S. Bach is often considered rationalistic, even contrived through devices like retrograde inversion, that is, a melody played backwards and upside down, but the titles of his works suggest intent to embody feeling in music. Bach was no timid soul. The emotions are there, but his skill as a musician and his faith in God deepen and transform anger, sorrow, perplexity, or joy into their artistic equivalent. Like a Platonic dialogue, the counterpoint in Bach’s compositions holds listeners’ interest. And unlike the monody of contemporary praise choruses, counterpoint objectifies a diversity of voices. In churches where pop music supplants Bach, a concomitant uniformity of thinking often prevails. Dialogue and open consideration of ideas can sometimes exist in churches where emotion has supplanted diversity, both within the church, and that created by sustaining tension with contemporary trends. Unfortunately a church that has no substantially articulated points of divergence with its opponents in the surrounding culture will seldom tolerate conflicting points of view among its members. Counterpoint is lost or inaudible but amplification increases.

Appreciation of disciplined, sonorous music does seem to be in decline. Shocking, bizarre musical entertainment is big business. To argue that this has little influence on adolescent character development is absurd. Contemporary rock music is the equivalent of nuclear war against moral and rational thinking. Nietzsche, the fervent enemy of Christian theological premises in Western culture, did not listen to Handel and Mozart to get his juices flowing. His preoccupation with Wagner is an articulate and mature analysis of where certain kinds of art take us. Beethoven and Verdi are emotionally exciting without being nihilistic. Rock music now takes moral anarchy as an undisputed premise. Modern feminists rage against Beethoven, claiming that listening to his music is like being abused by a man. Other critics, like Theodor Adorno, argue that the Western musical tradition perpetuates class oppression. This contempt for good music is being taken seriously it seems. For those of us who have any comprehension of what is at risk, Holloway’s book is an incentive to begin a new theme in counterpoint to the one we’ve been hearing.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Abraham's Legacy

The life changing influence of faith in God has a compounding effect. The longer one lives in God’s presence, the more confidence one has that the moral and spiritual precepts of the Judeo-Christian tradition are true. Sometimes this is evident to other people. Dramatic conversion stories are always interesting. Unfortunately they can only be verified by people who have seen, first hand, a transformation in a family member or friend. What might be the equivalent of the regenerated life that is verifiable by anybody who wants to know what God is doing in the world? God’s continuing activity in history becomes evident, even for non-historians, by a little reflection on the the story of Abraham.

God’s promise is that through Abraham all nations of the earth will be blessed. Whether this promise has been fulfilled is open to verification by anyone. The Mosaic Law has been at the core of Western Civilization for centuries. The creation epic of Genesis and stories of the patriarchs are pervasive in art and literature, as are the Gospel narratives. Human rights as we know them were established in culture thousands of years ago by the Hebrew prophets. On both sides of the currently raging culture war, numerous advocates recognize that the battle is about Biblical cosmology and the moral core of Western culture.

Courses in the history of Western Civilization used to begin with the Bible because the dominant civilizations of human history are culturally descended from Abraham. Other ideas found their way to European civilization, but everything was evaluated under the auspices of the Christian Church in its several permutations. The early American settlers were religious pilgrims who believed in Covenant Theology. They strove to create a society that would be a city on a hill, and they succeeded beyond their most extravagant imaginings. Everything that remains of their enterprise is what postmodern critics are trying to deconstruct.

Clearly God is interested in human history on a larger scale than personal morality and religious experience. Jesus preached to the powerless and infirm, but his Kingdom sayings, especially the parable of the mustard seed, could not have been more prescient as to how the Kingdom would develop. We’ve only seen the beginning.

The current epic in Christian Civilization involves a crisis of faith in everything noble and beautiful in our heritage. Churches of every denomination are in uproar about the formal order God has revealed. The more radical departures from traditional norms stretch credulity by the ideas being propounded. Old line Protestants adopt the values of the intelligentsia and Evangelicals pander to every permutation of popular culture, while the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church astonishes the world with faith that assists the demolition of Communism.

In the current upheaval, the church only needs to continue to speak the truth in love, upholding the culture of life against moral anarchy. Many compromises have been made, many of them destructive, but none are irrevocable or unredeemable. God’s ancient promises have been fulfilled despite atrocities against the church and even those perpetrated by the church. Christian theology will survive. It survived Egyptian Gnosticism, Greek Platonism, and persecution by the Roman Empire. The nihilism of the current academic mafia will not prevail against a church that continues sifting and salvaging the virtues and artifacts of its long militancy in the world. The Kingdom comes.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Reformation Sunday

In the year 1517 Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther’s complaints, and the disputes that came about because of them, led to revolt in a church that had been governed by clergymen whose authority and privileges made it impossible for them to hear criticism or voluntarily implement reforms. On Reformation Sunday we commemorate beginning of the Reformation, but we should also lament the resulting division of the church into warring denominations and sects. When the rulers of the church closed their minds to criticism, as raised by Luther and others, the result was warfare in the name of Christ. A succession of leaders maintained that they were God’s duly appointed overseers of the church, and that if there were to be any changes, only they should implement them. Their intransigence could not suppress the fury building in Germany. It spread throughout the Christian world with such violence that religious wars have since become the primary evidence unbelievers cite in refutation of the truth claims of the church.

Today the fighting among various factions of the church is less bloody than in past centuries, but few would argue that denominationalism or the frequent squabbles among sects and within individual churches is not a disgrace to the Lord who prayed that we might be one. Jesus could have had no illusions about the propensity of religious people to argue their own perspectives into schism. After long disputation with the religious authorities of his own day, he was crucified in a plot instigated by them. The church, itself, was born of a schism within Judaism. What could Jesus have meant when he prayed that we might be one? Is it even conceivable after so many centuries of violation of the Lord’s will that we might be united in spirit, even when we are certainly not united in polity or interpretation of the scriptures? Reformed theology, in principle, honors both the scriptures and tradition as authoritative on matters of faith and practice, yet we disagree on so many points of interpretation of the scriptures, and over whether tradition shall have any importance among us, that it seems impossible that we will ever be united.

The wars of the Reformation era demonstrated conclusively that unity cannot be achieved through suppression of dissent. Maintaining an agenda that marginalizes people whose understanding of the church is at variance with the leadership has been shown to be the way to division and strife. The judgments of a few, or even of the majority, cannot unequivocally ascertain God’s will, and some disagreement is inevitable. When one group imposes its will on another, the manner in which decisions are made becomes as important as the actual results of these decisions. We hear a great deal about tolerance and diversity these days. In church this has been used to justify the abandonment of traditional forms and music. Tradition, still enthroned among Catholic and Orthodox believers and in historic Protestant confessions, was once a cohesive element in church polity. Now even this has been become the ground of many disputes.

Our issues may be trivial compared to the sale of indulgences or salvation by grace as opposed to works, but they divide us just as bitterly. In absence of community, we are left in a situation like that becoming apparent in the larger society where political maneuvering and power determine which kinds diversity will be tolerated. Worship can be organized many ways, but, in the midst of disagreements, it seems impossible to maintain that all of us can be led into worship by planning that goes on in private. When decisions are made in conferences that are out of reach of interested parties, a lot of people are going to end up feeling that worship is more a performance than an inclusive, community experience. Worship needs to affirm people in the offerings they bring before God, not expect them to be auditors who sit while others put on a show. If nobody speaks except by invitation, there is little hope that unity can be achieved that is anything more than suppression of diversity.

In our authoritative scriptures we find the example of the Corinthian church where Paul the Apostle sent corrective instruction that could be quite helpful in the pervasive problem of unity amid diversity. Despite serious problems at Corinth, Paul recommended that a collaborative, participatory order of worship be maintained. Ordinary Christians were encouraged to initiate things. 1st Corinthians 14:26 says: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. But, let all things be done for edification and in order." The people in Corinth were encouraged to bring their contributions before the assembled church despite many excesses that had elicited Paul's corrective letters. Things had gotten completely out of hand in Corinth. People were all talking at once, engaging in a kind of devotional anarchy, and even getting drunk. But Paul did not suggest the overseers take charge in an authoritarian manner. The collaborative methodology was to be continued, but under a more orderly format. If those instructed personally by Jesus did not impose their will on the community, but sanctioned collaborative worship, we should concur.

Again in 1st Corinthians we find the analogy of the body as a pattern for the church. We all know 1st Corinthians 12:14: “The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Etc. This discourse on body ministry is followed by the beloved 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians extolling love as a more excellent way to unity than knowledge or even prophesy. If it is possible for unity in spirit to be achieved through collaboration rather than authoritarian governance, this, in itself, is worthy of our endorsement, but it is only part of the reason for maintaining open communication and collaborative processes. An even better rationale for open discussion and lay participation is that the work of seeking and saving the lost, to which our Lord commands us, must be done in a way consistent with the goals the Lord sets for us. If there is one message the church should leave with people week by week, it is that they are of ultimate concern to God. When people cannot make their voices heard in worship and in open discussion of issues, and when they cannot contribute to worship from their own understanding of the faith, the message they will receive in unmistakable terms is that they are not important enough to be taken seriously. Regardless of good intentions, this will be the net result of our efforts, if we try to impose order on people. The goal of worship is to bring people into the presence of God with the understanding that their prayers, their praise, and their petitions are important and that God will hear them from heaven. How will this objective be served if even the church will not hear them?

Given the goal of affirming people in what they offer to God, worship services cannot be choreographed by planners of any persuasion. It cannot be ordered by theme to the exclusion of what some people would bring if they were encouraged. Worship, when it is born of the inspiration of the people, can be diverse, yet one in spirit. Traditional liturgical forms have come to us from the long history of the church, and we dispense with them at our peril, but it must be conceded, we also miss the mark if we obstruct the development of new worship idioms when they come from contemporary Christians. Whether people work from tradition or from invention, the liturgy that evolves through their efforts will be alive and free. Imposed order, whether that of traditionalists or of trend-followers, will be stifling and lead to discord. Our job as facilitators of worship—not planners—is to empower and encourage the congregation to participate in worship, not try to do it for them. We can't.

When we have created services in which people are not coming merely as auditors but participating in ways that only they can imagine and create, we might have something that resembles the model Paul envisioned for the church at Corinth. It will also be a diverse and vital fellowship in which nobody will have to complain that tradition or trends are driving out worship as they understand it. The laity-generated form of worship taught by the Apostle is clear. Worship comes about through the inspiration and contributions of the people. Their impulses need to be encouraged, their ideas put into practice without much hesitation or critique. When evaluation is needed, or problems arise, things should be discussed in an open, collaborative setting. Forms imposed through command-control management practices are likely to be counterproductive. In spite of disagreement, the church should in all its methodology, as well as in its proclamations, bring people into the presence of a God who draws them into worship because He has been looking for just what they have to offer.

Speculate, Collaborate, Learn

Principles from the Software Industry applied to the Development of Worship Services
"Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds."-------- Alexander Graham Bell

The recommendations, speculate, collaborate, learn, come from an article on software development, by Jim Highsmith, in Software Testing and Quality magazine. The article is subtitled, Software Development to Meet the Challenges of a High-Speed, High-Change Environment. My boss recommended this magazine to me in the interest of both of us keeping our jobs. The article establishes some useful principles that I think are relevant to the task we face in making the church a transforming force in the modern urban environment.
E-Commerce, the field in which I work, is volatile. Start-Ups come and go with the frequency of the hype regarding new technologies and speculative investments in the Internet. It's nice to be in a fast moving field where a lot of money is being invested. There are, on the downside, certain challenges. Those referenced in Highsmith's article involve time constraints, incredibly diverse and rapidly changing technology, and quality control. Investments in quality control are mandated by the large number of worker hours currently being lost while people grind their teeth because the software on their computer screens is malfunctioning. When my wife has spent three hours trying to fix a document because her word processor has done something wrong that is impossible to reformat, I hear about it when I get home, even if I don't work for the company that made the software.
A hord of tenuous software companies are selling stuff that doesn't work as advertised partly because competition in the marketplace mandates feverish development cycles. The constraints are often such that companies will go out of business if they try to design and build perfect software. Therein lies a dilemma: If the software doesn't work, customers are unsatisfied and likely to dump the product, but if too much time and money are invested trying to get it right, the product may not get to market in time at a competitive price. Those of us who go to church find a strangely similar assignment trying to create worship services and ministries that are high in spiritual content without losing people constantly distracted by other pursuits. The river of worship needs to be deep and calming. On the other hand, if it is not fast enough to be engaging to contemporary people, we will not attract enough of them to keep the doors open. To continuously re-evangelize our cities, the church needs to quickly adapt while still maintaining quality.
Highsmith's recommendations for the management of software-development enterprises are interesting because they comprise a methodology for dealing with conflicting requirements and time urgency. Worship services must deal with the same kinds of conflicting interests and urgency in our era of church-growth seminars and abandonment of liturgical forms. Changing old models of engineering and business management have demonstrated commendable results in the software industry. How can we learn from this?
The first of Highsmith's recommendations is to stop trying to anticipate every outcome of our efforts. In a more stable environment, it might be feasible to predict all the features a product must have in order to be viable. But this is not a stable environment. Technology is changing too fast. Engineers and architects used to think Louis Sullivan had it right in his much-quoted dictum: "form follows function." Stuart Brand now says this "misled a century of architects into believing they could really anticipate function." Planning is always going to be important, but rapid change calls for an adaptive product life cycles. If we get something up and running fairly quickly, it can be refined through cycles of testing and customer feedback. Trying to anticipate everything leads to the paralysis of analysis.
Products used to be rigorously designed; now they evolve. It's better to begin with something imperfect than plan interminably, afraid to fail. Another engineer, Henry Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Things, argues that, in fact, "form follows failure." It is his contention that "The only way to determine how a product should evolve is to use it." If he is right, failure is the impetus to the evolution of good products. In church, if our objective is to find ways to bring more people into worship services that create an aroma of the Bread of Life, we may have to begin with half baked ideas and deal with our flops when, not if, they come. To really know how something will work, or even know what we might want to do, we have to start someplace and take problems in stride.
Next on the list of recommendations for success in a pressured, uncertain environment is collaboration. People who follow Jesus shouldn't find this surprising. The church was born in an uncertain environment. Pressure? "The blood of the martyrs," Tertullian said, "is the seed of the church." In the face of uncertainty and stress, Jesus told his followers to love one another. The church exists to nurture and cultivate the hopes and aspirations of those who come for respite from a world where they are thoughtlessly used and dominated by whomever has power, at work, at school, in the marketplace, or even in their families and personal interactions. Success in business now requires the collaboration of many people both inside and outside the companies trying to produce useful products. The first lesson for those working in high technology is that many people with specialized skills have to cooperate to get anything done. Managers rely on the expertise of the people they supervise because they simply cannot be informed in all the areas necessary for the completion of their projects. Communication also has to be efficient and thorough as products are tested and problems arise. When the inevitable failures come, fixing blame is irrelevant. The important thing is not who is responsible for an idea that didn't work, but who has an idea that will work for the foreseeable future. As managers are advised to release products for refinement against the flaws soon to be discovered, it is imperative to move ahead through discussion without recrimination. Problems are to be expected.
The body analogy from St. Paul's epistle teaches cohesive action and cherishing all the church's members because all are needed for its proper functioning. In the modern business environment or in church it is going to take the cooperation of many people to accomplish anything. Decision-making has to be collaborative to be any good. This precludes a command-control style of leadership. Chains of command may have worked in the past. Now they will stifle the most innovative and productive efforts of people working together on a lot of problems simultaneously. The objective is to learn and thereby improve, not to control. When you need fifteen specialists in areas only they understand, who knows enough to be in control? A good manager in the present business environment would concur with Jesus when he said, "Among the Gentiles, those with authority lord it over them, but it should not be so among you. Rather, whoever would be great must be a servant, and whoever would be greatest must be servant of all."
This is consistent with the best practices of the early church. When the apostles were overseeing worship, a collaborative order was maintained. People from the rank and file could initiate things. 1st Corinthians 14: 26 says: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. But, let all things be done for edification and in order." Church members were encouraged to bring their contributions before the assembly despite excesses in the Corinthian Church that had elicited Paul's corrective letters. Things had gotten completely out of hand in Corinth. People were engaging in a kind of devotional anarchy and even getting drunk. But Paul didn't suggest the overseers take charge in an authoritarian manner. The collaborative methodology was to be continued, but under a more orderly format. If those instructed personally by Jesus did not govern in an authoritative manner but sanctioned collaborative worship, we should concur. It is fascinating to see this style proving to be the most effective in the software industry where managers are simply interested in getting products to market efficiently and staying in business.
Again, the objective is to learn in order to better serve the objectives, whether in the software industry or in church. In church we don't have to sell our worship services. Market-driven worship will often offend church members whose experience is worth more than the research done by various methods. The gospel doesn't have to be sold; it's free in many different senses of the word. But worship services in a large downtown church are of little benefit if attendance dwindles toward the vanishing point. Everything we do needs to be worked out in a collaborative setting. We should be forthright about criticism without letting it become rancorous, and even more important, without letting failures stop the implementation of new ideas and improvements on the ones that have led to problems. The evaluative process should inform the next stage of development, not lead to a stage where the deliberations go into private negotiations beyond the control of interested parties.
In addition to the rationale that worship planning should be open and collaborative because it is the most productive way to get things done, there is an even better reason. The work of seeking and saving the lost to which Jesus commands his followers must be done in a way consistent with these goals. Hundreds or even thousands of people have been involved in the ministries of most churches since their founding. If there is one message the church should leave with those who have come and those who continue to gather, it is that they are of ultimate concern to God. When church members and those who simply come cannot make their voices heard in worship and in the planning sessions that go into it, and when they cannot contribute to it from their own understanding, the message in unmistakable terms that they will take away is that they are not important enough to the leadership of the church to be taken seriously. This will be the net result of our efforts if we try to impose our ideas on people, regardless of our good intentions. The goal of worship is to bring people into the presence of God with an understanding that their prayers, their praise, and their thanksgiving are important to God and that he will hear them in heaven. How will this objective be served if our committees won't hear them?
Given these goals, worship services cannot be choreographed by planners of any persuasion. They must develop through the inspiration and participation of the laity. Traditional liturgical forms have come to us from the long history of the church. We dispense with them at our peril, but just as certainly, we miss the mark if we obstruct the development of new ideas when they come from sincere contemporary Christians. Worship born of the inspiration of the people who worship is heading in the right direction. People work with what they have, whether from tradition or invention, and the liturgy that evolves can be improved. Imposed order, whether that of traditional forms or that imposed by a trend-following clergy, will usually obstruct true worship. Our job as facilitators of worship--not planners--is to empower and encourage the congregation to participate in worship, not do it for them. We can't.
When we have created services in which there are nearly as many people reading, singing, ushering, teaching, decorating, preaching, and serving in all the other capacities that go into worship as there are those who come only as auditors, we might have something that resembles the model Paul envisioned for the church at Corinth. It will also be a diverse and vital fellowship in which nobody will have to complain that tradition or trends are driving out worship as they know it. This is easier in principle than in practice, but the laity-generated form of worship taught by the Apostle is clear. Worship comes about through the inspiration of the people. Their impulses need to be encouraged, their ideas put into practice without hesitation or much critique. When evaluation is needed, things should be discussed in a collaborative setting. Forms imposed through command-control management practices are likely to be counterproductive. In spite of growing pains, the church should in all its methodology as well as in its declarations bring people into the presence of a God who draws them into worship because He has been looking for just what they have to offer.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Form and Meaning in Liturgical Art

Discussions of art in the ministries of the church tend to draw a line between artistry and abstract theological content that supposedly transcends form and is the meaning communicated by music, liturgy, or the visual arts. If pop music is used in worship, it is claimed that it is the message that is important, not musical style. Simplistic praise choruses may be artistically bland and the texts of little theological substance, but, it is claimed there is conviction, faith, and true worship in the hearts of worshipers so engaged. It seems common sense to err in favor of earnest spirituality rather than reverence for art. Elegance in liturgy is getting to be a rarity, and it is considered stifling in many places. It also seems pointless, on the face of it, to argue about whether we will have guitar strumming or choral music by Palestrina. Occasionally, we consider whether art may have meaning in and of itself and how this meaning might aid worship or detract from it. Most people have some sense of the power of art to elevate the mood or arouse the passions. Plato thought that art that evokes passion was unsuitable in a rationally ordered republic. What might be latent in states of mind induced by the sensory stimulation of the arts?

Stimulation of the senses does seem a strange method, if communication of abstract meaning is the objective in liturgical art. Liturgy means literally “work of the people.” Why not let readings from the scriptures or the homily explicate the substance of our faith in plain language? If we want to be perfectly clear, why do we sing our texts and adorn our sanctuaries with symbols? Christians have created art from earliest times, even while enduring persecution. Paul and Silas sang hymns in jail. Believers hiding underground from the Roman authorities painted on the walls of the catacombs. We know they encouraged one another in plain language as well, because some of their writings are now canonical. But the Bible is not in the form of a theological discourse. The artistry of scripture conveys mysteries more profound than an abstract presentation of ideas or a paraphrase. Meaning in art cannot be a paraphrase. There may be no text. J. S. Bach dedicated his works to God’s glory, but how could one paraphrase one of his organ preludes?

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. We might add that an artistically rendered work of art communicates more than a thousand diagrams of the sort found in gospel tracts. The liturgical forms of the medieval church are in fact sacred music dramas. Opera began as a teaching ministry of the church. The defense of male clergy in liturgical churches is based on a reasoned anthropology in which the priest in the mass acts in the role of Jesus at the consecration of the Eucharist. This is drama of the most serious kind. The early history of musical drama in the church is summarized well by an excerpt from a 1993 book by Carl Gerbrandt. (Gerbrandt, Carl; Sacred Music Drama: A Producer's Guide; Prestige Publications, 1993)

The historical evolution of the church’s liturgy and development of the Mass is in itself an example of ceremonial music drama. The Mass contains nearly all the ingredients of a music drama with members of the clergy serving as the solo performers and the congregation becoming the responsorial chorus. The varying rituals, the choreographed physical movement, the chanting, and the text are all in place to create a drama.

From about the tenth to the late thirteenth century, a form of liturgical music drama occupied an important place in the church’s worship activities. Various personages, at first only members of the clergy, were selected to portray the characters represented in the scripture reading of the service. Thus, a very simple scene was visually dramatized in the midst of the liturgy. The most commonly enacted scenes were taken from the Gospels and centered on seasonal events such as the Marys’ visiting the tomb of Christ and the activities and characters surrounding the birth of Jesus.

By the fourteenth century, cycles of such scenes known as mystery plays were being performed which covered the entire range of Biblical history from the creation to the last judgment. With few exceptions, these plays grew into something of an elaborate entertainment with lavish scenery, costumes and large casts.

With liturgical drama so entwined with the development of Western music, it is hard not find theological meaning in music, even in grand opera. A great deal of what we think of as the Western canon in literature has been explored in musical settings. When literary works are sung, another dimension is added to their meaning, whether the drama is enacted or simply becomes the text of an oratorio or choral setting. The controversy surrounding the influence of various kinds of music has a long history. Many theorists have argued that music has an effect on character formation. For a history of this discussion from Plato to Nietzsche, refer to Carson Holloway’s book entitled All Shook Up; Music, Passion, and Politics; Spence Publishing.

Though the theological rigor of creeds and confessions is never entirely adequate to delineate the topography of faith, it is still true that theologians, not artists, govern churches. Those inclined to formal statements of doctrine are apparently more decisive in action than common folk who gaze on parables in stained glass or the artists who create them. Effective preachers do recognize the power of anecdotes and stories, especially when they are vividly represented in sensory images. The theoretical writings of Jonathan Edwards argue that preaching must stimulate the senses.

Communication through the senses--the stock in trade of art--is not just a concession to human limitations. It is recognition of the physical nature of being human. We are created by God from the dust yet beloved in our earthly humanity to such a degree that God, at a critical stage in history, took on human flesh to fully participate in our world. Considered in light of the Incarnation, the sensory and physical aspects of art gain immeasurably in importance. It begins to seem as if it may be missing the point entirely to say that only the content of our worship matters, regardless of form. An analogy can be drawn between the historical error known as Docetism and the now popular misconception that form is unimportant if what we sing, or the meaning we intend by our art, is sincere. Docetism is a heresy that maintains the Incarnation of God in human flesh was an illusion or a temporary phase. A parallel fallacy is the claim that sincere worship can take any form. It verges on something outrageous. Imagine, for the sake of comparison, claiming that God could have communicated the forgiveness of sins just as well through announcements of amnesty in the news media as through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. These days it is claimed in all seriousness that the church is the same “in content” regardless of whether it observes traditions forged in the furnace of history or “contextualizes” the gospel in rock and roll idioms.

If we learn anything from advertising, we should know that how something is presented determines its impact, and, it must be acknowledged, a share of the meaning of what is communicated. Unfortunately, the wrong lessons are being taken from commercial art, and we end up marketing the gospel. The result is often just what the connotations of the word marketing imply—selling church at a price the traffic will bear and to the largest buying constituency. Sure, we can use methods from advertising and advanced technology. We can try to imagine Jesus as a radio talk-show host if we wish. But we should be cognizant of the messages that lay between the lines of our verbal communication and, most certainly, those that are latent in the images of our art. When there are resonances with pernicious cultural influences in our music, we are communicating something alien to the faith delivered to the apostles. The interesting thing about Martin Luther’s alleged superimposition of Ein Feste Burg on a tavern song is not that he contextualized Reformation theology for Heidelberg pop culture, but that classically trained composers soon harmonized this contraband melody in settings fit for church. Now we take perfectly serviceable Christian hymns and transliterate them into the vernacular of the tavern. The pastor of nearby church likes to kid me about such things. “That’s a nice tune,” he’ll say about some hymn standard, “Now can’t we tattoo it!”

How long, oh Lord! These reflections are being written during a day of seemingly endless waiting as I serve a term on jury duty. Civic responsibility and compulsion have prevailed over practicality this week. No telling at this point whether the lost time will have been a minor inconvenience or something that will set me back weeks or even months and take a toll from my family commitments and finances. A few observations are in order. First, though I didn’t want to do this, I should do it, nonetheless. Jury trials and jury duty are necessary in a just social order to apply the law with human comprehension of the subtleties and contradictions inherent in all legal codes. That is to say, we apply the law in a manner that might be compared to the nuances of art in worship as opposed to didactic and often tedious preaching conventions. Jesus, of course, had quite a lot to say about religious dogmatism and the privilege that attends those who are in positions to practice it. That many religious authorities are now the ones urging us in a direction that indiscriminately increases the numbers of trend followers in the church should not come as a shock. Preaching has come to be synonymous with simplistic reductionism and lack of subtlety or nuance. But, my second observation on jury duty is that in court there is a rigorous attempt to hear all sides of a given case before making judgment. This argument is an attempt to gain a hearing for a perspective on art that has been notably lacking both in advocates of pop music in church and church leaders who will hear the merits of persisting against the trends in favor of historic art and culture.

We began with what seemed to be a common sense opinion that art is not so important if sincere worship is our goal. Maybe it begins to intrude that “sincere” worship that ignores or is simply ignorant of the greatest expressions of Christian culture and liturgical forms that have endured for millennia is perhaps not really very sincere given the education and levels of affluence in American churches. Is it worthy of the God who reveals Himself in history for college-educated Christians to worship in ways that are so little informed by the traditions through which the faith has endured and been handed down to them? If it is ignorance that is at the root of this casual disregard of tradition, then the church has an obligation to teach. Where are the scholars who can explicate liturgical forms and give their students the understanding to embody theology in worship that sounds like the church of the ages instead of a lounge show or hootenanny? Most of the talk about new wine and old wineskins is misguided, as if the metaphor had always been applied to contextualization and not a distinction between law and gospel. If not ignorance of excellence in art, but willful abnegation from the magisterial succession that brings the church militant into the company of the church triumphant, then adopting contemporary anti-culture in church is probably something resembling the arrogance of youth. A callow self-assurance does seem to permeate the mood and music in our sanctuaries lately.

How many centuries did it take for the chanting heard in synagogues, monasteries, and even now in Eastern Orthodox Churches, to be molded by practitioners of the musical craft into the masterpieces of Victoria, Josquin, and Tallis, the baroque masterpieces of Bach and Handel, or the joyful vigor of Mozart, until even an agnostic like Brahms ordered his deepest sentiments in the musical idioms of Christians who preceded him? Blood was spilled in recurring iconoclastic controversies. Do we have to relearn the lesson that what we take from “pagan” culture must be things of beauty that are consistent with the transcendent ideals God has implanted in creation, not sensuality or worse, idolatry? The answer to these rhetorical questions is, of course, that it took as many centuries for the church to develop the forms of worship that molded the standards of Western art as it did for Christian theology to permeate Western culture. The noblest art does not come out of the minds of people working with the skills they have acquired in a few years of study, especially when their efforts have been mainly in an entertainment milieu. Great art is the result of centuries of development that builds on what has been learned through many cycles of study and innovation. In brief it comes out of a tradition like that of music in Western standard practice. If pagan Rome was not built in a day, how can we abide the folly that tries to justify pop art in a church that has outlasted Rome by a thousand years? If we made the same argument for contextualization of doctrine as we do for dressing up theology like a drag queen in contemporary art, we would have to throw out the Bible, the creeds, and the confessions. We would demolish thousands of magnificent buildings. Protestations that the “content” of our worship is unchanged hardly conceal the alien motive to fill our churches without really being the church.

If it is not pragmatism that impels us in the direction of swine the demons sent stampeding over a cliff, what is it? A senior statesman where I go to church reminds me that the big-band music of his youth was never imported wholesale into church. One of the demons of our own time is cultural relativism. It has so penetrated our thinking that inner-city ministries earnestly teach children African drumming without ever asking if the children under their tutelage can read or do basic arithmetic, these being skills valued by a dominant culture of dead white European males. Diversity is like a mantra chanted in every sector of public life. In church the response comes back, “Contextualization.” If it is conceded by our leadership that we should have good music, in the next instant the objection is raised, “But what is good music?” It's sophistry like that of the Pharisee who asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” Try to answer and contemporizers will dispute that there are even premises upon which the question might be decided. In antiphonal fashion we hear, “Diversity, Contextualization, Diversity, Contextualization.” Then amplified guitars drown everything in an undistinguished droning and somebody with a microphone who can’t sing wails amen.

No doubt the church will sound different in Los Angeles than in Boston or Butte, Montana. The high liturgy of Boston may not be feasible in Butte on a regular basis. But don’t bet on it. In Montana in the nineteen fifties in a town of eleven thousand people where I grew up, there were half a dozen churches with better choirs than most large urban churches can muster today. Many people can remember when quality mattered more than excitement. It isn’t for lack of the way that we don’t accomplish now what was done out in the boondocks years ago. It’s lack of the will. Easier just to let a juvenile mentality take over. The loudest music wins. To hell with the old people.

In the Christian tradition, the question of what is good music has largely been settled. Contextualization, if there is anything in it at all, should not be about debasing all points of reference, but translating, as in mission work, Christian truths into images that mean the same thing as the original gospel narratives. How do you communicate a theology of redemption from sin through the passion of Christ in easy listening harmonies? Maybe in evangelism raucous noise like a hell from which we wish to be delivered can describe the crucifixion, but to worship in the vernacular of a rock concert is like a dog returning to its own vomit. The church has only been in Borneo for a hundred years. Maybe it has been in parts of India since the twelfth century. But it has been the dominant cultural force in the West for nearly two millennia. The Biblical culture has been extant since Abraham left Ur. When Jesus said a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough, he could not have used a more apt metaphor for the pervasive influence the Biblical world-view would have on culture. What we now refer to as a culture war is in reality a revolt against normative formal order in the infrastructure of Western Civilization, an order that is Judeo-Christian to the core. Contributions of Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Africans, and a few others in art, in science, and in governance, have been evaluated and interpreted under the auspices of the church in light of Judeo-Christian moral premises. It should not surprise anybody, when revolutionaries are denouncing the ethics and epistemology in our “canonical” texts, that cultural accommodation in church leads to scorn for “robed choirs” who can still sing our best music.

Art is not in essence self-expression. Art is an embodiment of culture that teaches on a very profound level as it inspires, or ravishes, the whole person. When schmoozey praise choruses, and now even hard rock, drive historic music from the sanctuary, it surely says something about the substitution of subjective values for the rootedness of faith in history and in fact. These cautions are often diverted by the argument that disputes about musical style are trivial. Usually this is a shameless ploy to keep decision-making about the arts in private conferences. Your questions are old stuff, now just let us decide. In court, at least, the defense has an opportunity to cross-examine. But those inclined to sell the birthright for a mess of pottage know their ideas won’t stand up to open investigation of the issues.

Yes, art in worship must be accessible. Yes, classical musicians are often snobs. But it is important to remember that “classical” is by definition that which has been proven accessible and viable in diverse cultural contexts over countless generations. Palestrina and Mozart are much more universally accessible than any of the derivative pop being touted as the way to reach our generation for Christ. American Revival era music was roughly the equivalent of the sentimental fluff we’re hearing today, but fortunately, immigrant churches kept European traditions alive, and many converts of the revivalists, or their children, found their way into tradition-honoring churches. The Catholic Church has had digressions of its own to contend with, but some semblance of traditional liturgy has prevailed. Even down in the Bible-Belt, the musical culture was not bad until the boomers took over. Out in places like Oklahoma and Texas they used to listen to Texaco-sponsored broadcasts from the New York Metropolitan Opera. The lion’s share of contributions came from radio land. I don’t know if this is still true. Texaco has abandoned the project, perhaps to have its name associated instead with music coming out of Nashville. The church should have more commitment to its heritage.

To the hundreds of ethnic groups now living in American cities, the suburban values imbedded in the Gospel According to Jive are not more accessible than Gregorian Chant. A Korean church, not more that ten minutes from two local megachurches, does Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, etc. on a regular basis. The tenor soloist there was involved in an operatic production under the direction of Gian Carlo Menotti at the Olympic games in Seoul. Missions managed by church-growth specialists in the two-thirds world are running into an instructive backlash. At a conference in 1999 sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship based in Singapore, church leaders and missiologists from fifty-three countries gathered in Brazil. As Christianity Today editor David Neff reported, “Attention came to focus on American paternalism in the form of pragmatic marketing paradigms.” Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar criticized an “anti-theological” statistical approach that “has no resources to cope with suffering and persecution”. Joseph D’Souza, chair of All-India Christian Council indicted missiological trends that “have tended to turn communication into a technique where we market a product called salvation.” The large numbers of people from the two-thirds world living in American cities make this criticism applicable here. The best American church music came out of suffering, not pop culture. Black gospel and spirituals are still viable forms, though spirituals are being supplanted by “gospel” music not much better than that in the mainstream. And even in black spirituals, the influence of European Classicists is evident. Dvořak’s New World Symphony was written after a sojourn here. His copyist and protégé was none other than Harry Burleigh, one of the big three composers of spirituals. Dvořak taught him how to transform the folk music of slaves into something that conveyed their suffering and their faith to people all over the world. Marian Anderson was an early ambassador for civil rights. And don’t even begin to suggest that black Christians don’t appreciate Handel and Mozart.

A lot of nonsense in the dispute over worship styles can be boiled down to enthusiasm opposed to tradition. Edmund Burke’s prototypical essays are still among the best statements of the case for cultural stability maintained by tradition. His argument was intended to avert in England a debacle like the French Revolution. The state, he maintained, is like an organism, and any living thing grows in such a way that its health and vitality is not likely to be improved by revolutionary innovation. Trying to reinvent the church to evangelize every generation or subculture may add numbers to the rolls of the church in some places, but a church in revolt against itself is not the church. Burke also wrote that, in the final analysis, “Manners are more important than laws”, because manners precede and inculcate morals. The religious right is as unsophisticated in its understanding of the “two kingdoms” theory of Augustine as church-goers are becoming in their understanding of music. Using political power is not, in the long run, as effective as molding culture. If we can't maintain the cultural ethos inside our buildings, why do we argue in public that our Judeo-Christian heritage needs to be preserved? Western Civilization is, in addition to regenerated lives, the best evidence we have that the gospel preached by the apostles was not mythology born of cognitive dissonance after Jesus’s crucifixion. A tree is known by its fruit. Let us not consign the high art that goes with the moral advances of the West to the dustbin of history in the name of cultural neutrality. Neutrality is impossible when we're talking about basic ideals by which the church either thrives or languishes. Rooms full of enthusiasts who have no grasp of the historical revelation in which salvation is embodied do not by virtue of their numbers constitute an argument for dismissal of the best of Western art. There probably is, as we are being told, a place for pop art in some of the ministries of the church, but not when it drives out sublime art that has been created through the patronage of the church and Christian people through so many centuries.