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?


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the answer is "b,"
a ghetto of derivative nonsense.

Jason Silver said...

Thanks for a very interesting blog! I'm quite enjoying the reading, but I've GOT to get to bed.

So my question is this, "What about we musicians who God has blessed with gifts of writing music and passions to do so as well?" What about scripture drawing us to sing a NEW song unto our Lord? Of course we should embrace tradition and include some part of it in our worship services. But should we not also allow those who are gifted and excited to participate in worship, and in creating new traditions, to do so?

If not, then perhaps there is no place for me in the church and I need to go back to the bars?

But that won't satisfy the longings of my soul to worship our creator in the enthusiasm and freshness that is my language of choice.