Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Sara F. Wells Jones Religious Arts Society

Originally published by The Crossing at PromontoryArtists.Org:

Sara Jones was probably the most religious person I have ever known. Born the daughter of a sharecropper, she attended Boston University in the 1920s, where she argued eschatology with learned men of an era that brooked little dissent from women, much less black women whose speech betrayed the rural South. Sara argued with the determination of a sidewalk evangelist. While serving in the navy she wouldn't hesitate when moral conduct was unacceptable. In Sara's presence, if the booze was flowing too freely and some admiral had his hands on the women, or women had been in sailors’ laps at too many places at the table, an officer's rank was no protection from an assault on his dignity. Sara's moralism was just as merciless when it applied to her own conduct. I didn't know her until her hands were so arthritic she couldn't open a pickle jar, but she felt the affliction was God's retribution on hands that had signed requisitions for bombs during the Korean War. She had three sons, two of them noteworthy, but the third I didn't even know existed until her funeral. Apparently he was illegitimate, and the shame followed her even in old age.

At times it seemed Sara belonged in the asylum to which her husband had once gotten her committed, but she had held many responsible jobs. After her stint in the Navy, for several years she managed a large apartment complex in Chicago. She had government jobs and worked at the IRS. She could tell hair-raising tales of guilt money at the IRS. She said thousands of dollars comes in every year, cash in envelopes without return addresses, that people send under no duress from the agency but to appease their consciences, most of which goes into the briefcases of executives. Sara had also worked in hospitals and was so repelled by doctors and hospitals that she only went involuntarily even when she broke a bone that had to be set. When the fracture had healed, she never did go back to let them remove a steel pin that was supposed to come out. When anybody tried to reason with her, she would tell the story about a conversation she overheard among doctors. "Put the patient in misery," she claimed they said, "And the family will mortgage everything and draw out every dollar to pay for treatment." She also described the way they put one patient in such misery... .

If the story about mercenary doctors didn’t suffice to keep people from taking her to the hospital, Sara would claim to be a Christian Scientist. It wouldn't surprise me if she were that too. She knew prominent ministers and rabbis all over town and had outlived some of the best of them. Besides the church paraphernalia around her apartment, she had Torah tablets on the doorpost. She had been made a member, honorary perhaps, of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, and she never desisted in lambasting a Rabbi there for permitting rock and roll music on the premises during a wedding that she had attended. If Sara had regularly gone to any of the churches on her circuit, it might have softened her prophetic assault on everything dubious or modern. As it was, she had an arcane Biblical mandate to challenge everybody in her path.

I got acquainted with Sara more than twenty years ago through an organization she founded for the promotion and exchange of religious art among churches and synagogues. Early in its existence the organization was funded in part by the Seattle Arts Commission. Sara knew a succession of mayors, one of whom helped her grant application through the process. Sara probably scared the commissioners into support with more of her stories. Now support for a church related organization would be unthinkable. The Religious Arts Society had an annual concert at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral or First Baptist. It was an exercise in incongruity combining selections from Handel's Messiah or the Brahms Requiem juxtaposed with black spirituals, an Irish tenor known for his renditions of The Star Spangled Banner at baseball games singing Malotte's Lord's Prayer, readings from the Bible or dramatic bathrobe enactments of King David's psalms, children pounding on instruments, and here and there a guitar picker or folk singer. The only guitar player and singer ensemble that lasted more than a couple of seasons was a rabbi-and-daughter combo which reprised nearly every year until the girl went to college.

This organization made me aware of the distinction between Black spirituals and Gospel music. Choirs that sing spirituals are dangerously near extinction. To my everlasting joy I was privileged to hear and occasionally sing with a group from an Adventist church that I met through the Religious Arts Society. They were known as Les Chanticleer. Mildred Tuggle, the director, had scrounged the back shelves of music stores all over the country, finding repertoire for her choir without any research grants and getting little recognition for what she was preserving. The group used to tour extensively, singing at NAACP conferences and such things in addition to church meetings. They sang standards of the genre such as Oh Mary Don't You Weep, City Called Heaven, or My Lord Delivered Daniel along with lesser-known works by Bond, Burleigh or Boatner. This choir was the genuine article. The tenors and basses could really sing in counterpoint to rich altos and sopranos. Their songs made the rafters ring. Since then the choir has had trouble getting engagements and keeping people interested, but their credits were so extensive at one time that they got onto the rosters of booking agencies in the Northwest. When The Andy Williams Show was resorting to Christmas specials in places like Seattle's old Paramount Theater, Les Chantecleer were hired as a backup chorus for Andy's holiday nostalgia fest, probably without full appreciation of the racial and musical constituency of the group. But, Mildred had a contract and the funds to supplement her ranks with whomever could be found to quickly learn Winter Wonderland and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I got into the act on a rare snowy evening for Andy's tap dancing and the chorus’s backup of wah wahs. I can testify that the spontaneous singing up in the prep room, by a choir in high gear warming up on standards of their own repertoire, was worth much more than the price of admission downstairs. Some of the choir members were shocked at the band leaders tipsy jesting, and Sara Jones, who of course hadn't missed this occasion, let me hear about it all the way home.

Sara, as one might expect, detested pop music and jazz. Her celebrity son in Hollywood was playing the devil's music as far as she was concerned, a sentiment in which many of us in the Religious Arts Society were inclined to concur. No doubt, it was partly her son's prestige that got people to take Sara seriously when she called them about participating in her events. She always invited him and he would send flowers with a note conveying his regrets. When the master of ceremonies would read the card, Sara's reply would be squinty eyed and feisty from under the brim of her bonnet. "They send flowers to dead people," she would retort, or some such thing. She loved her son and prayed for him. She defended him; Solomon had had more wives. But she wasn't interested in using his success to promote art in a contrary tradition. One summer at St. Mark's Cathedral, television cameras showed up in the parking lot before the annual concert. Sara sent them packing back to their studios in the news-team vans in which they had arrived. Nobody was going to turn these sacred festivities and potluck luncheon into a media circus.

Sara attracted attention even while shunning the media. She wrote letters to governors, senators, and mayors. Every new mayor got a Bible in the mail from her, and she expected him to read it. When a lesbian was elected to the city council, Sara wrote Sam Smith, council member and long-time moderator, recommending that the Bureau of Vital Statistics be closed. That was before lesbians had children. Sara was anti war. Heaven help us had she been an animal rights activist! To my knowledge her only foray into Noah’s territory was a letter she wrote to executives of a food conglomerate objecting to overcrowding chickens and forcing them to lay jumbo eggs! Sara's letters were always immaculately typed and hilarious. Into her ninties a sense of humor never left her. She knew what she was doing and might have observed that Jesus was always able to draw a crowd. He put on some dandy potluck luncheons from a few loaves and fishes, but it probably wasn't the food that kept people interested. May it be suggested that the artistry of his discourses had something to do with it?

The Religious Arts Society exhibited artistry from churches in many traditions. It was nothing short of amazing to me when idioms that seemed exhausted of any innovation that could restore their original power suddenly moved the earth beneath me and communicated a humanity more profound than anything contrived by cinematic effects or that of many classical masterpieces. Some of the dreadful music and artistic traditions of the church have become travesties in which it is nearly impossible to recognize the meaning they must have once been able to convey, but a skillful practitioner can still use them in a metaphor that makes even the most cynical modern secularist let down his guard. Finding instances of such artistry is a haphazard affair. One is often in for something akin to culture shock, but having once survived the period of adjustment, the trip to a church where the tambourines are shaking or, for that matter, to hear the choir at a Presbyterian Church just down the street is often a great deal more than could have been imagined or hoped. It would seem that exchanges of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society could go a great distance toward unity in spirit, if not in polity, among various denominations of the church. The church universal contains a great deal more diversity than most of the organizations making noises about diversity. If this abundance were more visible, it could do Christians a world of good. The process may lead to a winnowing out of some of the charlatans in our midst, which would also be to the good. Finally, the metaphors used to communicate Christian doctrines would have to be improved if they are to get a hearing outside the walls of our meeting places. There might be less preaching exclusively to the choir, if the choir were singing in public more often.

What of the metaphors themselves? Are the cultural artifacts that turn up in churches powerful enough to be mainstreamed or integrated in any way into society? A moment's reflection on this rhetorical question leads to the obvious conclusion that they are already part of our cultural landscape. We need to start thinking more like artists to become aware of them and use them as we have begun to use abstract legal and political discourse and as the church historically has used philosophy. A little more reflection leads to the conclusion that rational people think in images more fluently than they do in abstract deductive arguments. If we want to be able to effectively contest our issues in public, we are going to have to grapple with the monsters already engaged there, many of them brought to life by Christians who have preceded us.
It is probably a good thing that Sara was unwilling to let TV cameras into the cathedral. Before we try to harmonize our voices in a public Fourth-of-July celebration or Christmas Oratorio, the church could use more rehearsals of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society. There is nothing quite like the refreshing new perspective that is obtained by getting what we do every Sunday out of its habitual milieu and before people who may be familiar with the text we sing but perplexed by its musical setting. Refreshing is perhaps a euphemism for having cold water thrown on you. It's the effect one can imagine if instead of religious television enthusiasts a bunch of Episcopalians became the captive audience in a television church, or the obverse situation of an audience that thrives on religious television at St. Marks Cathedral. The result would probably be unpleasant, but on a more manageable scale, if the exercise could be sustained, it might have the beneficial effect of winnowing out, not only the charlatans, but some of the excesses. It is a fact that Episcopalians can enjoy Gospel music without the big-hair accoutrements. Musicians from many black churches appreciate Handel or Brahms. Texans contribute a great deal of money to the New York Metropolitan Opera, though they are only a radio audience for the Met's broadcasts.

Despite the obstacles, the goal would be to someday have that Fourth-of-July celebration in a public park with a multi-denominational choir singing good settings of The Star Spangled Banner and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and once a crowd has gathered, for the people willing to listen, music representing the best of our church traditions. It could be one swell picnic! Much better than little enclaves of oddly ornamented church groups scattered around the park on a summer holiday, better than the ecumenists dialoging in academic settings or plotting a re-imaging of Biblical theology. The best thing about it would be that religious affiliation becomes indistinguishable while people are waiting for the hamburgers to come off the grill, or, among Adventists, waiting for a slice of cherry pie. Lots of onlookers might start to remember when all this was legal and help us send the ACLU packing with the dispatch Sara used on the TV crew.

That under our belt, Christians in many communities might be able to marshal the musical and financial resources to scare the hell out of everybody with a Verdi Requiem. Imagine massed choirs at the city arena on Good Friday. It would have a somewhat different impact on the community than a Billy Graham crusade. The Verdi Requiem was written for the theater, not under the auspices of the church, but it grabbed the churches' most demonstrably effective images to eulogize the passing of Verdi's idol Alessandro Manzoni. I don't think anybody is going to complain if we borrow our material back. Performing it in public is still perfectly legal.

Musical/dramatic metaphors from church traditions may be difficult to bring off in public, but there are many areas that verge on conventional morality that are not incorporated into music done in church services. Love songs clearly have something to do with family values. They are the stock in trade of a recording industry that could be accused of contributing to the delinquency of minors and abetting juvenile behavior among thirty somethings, forty-and-fifty-somethings who should know better, and even senior citizens. Are the religious music moguls turning out anything that can compete with this and start turning back the tide of immorality washing up on our doorsteps? If they would, maybe they could employ their poet bards in process of regeneration someplace more suitable to their craft than in church, and we wouldn't have to listen to oozy love songs to God on Sunday morning.

Political conventions in American politics have been compared to camp meetings of the revival eras in our history. It is somehow fitting that religious conferences are becoming major events for political organizing. These metaphors are interesting, but the archetypes and the metaphors sometimes fail to communicate, yet people, at least in Western cultures, continue to be indoctrinated and make decisions based on them. Time was when a lot of Americans breathed a sentimental consent hearing: I'm satisfied with just a cottage below/ a little silver and a little gold/ but in that city where the ransomed will shine/ I want a gold one that's silver lined. Now a lot of those folks are putting their money in gold to stave off the ravages of inflation and hide their financial affairs from the government. Apparently the old metaphor isn't working anymore and we're going to have to find more compelling motivation for cheerful persistence in the often-unrewarding responsibilities of everyday life. Is there sufficient spiritual energy to sustain us in the hymn that goes: Living for Jesus a life that is true/ seeking his blessing on all that I do? A prudent and reasonable answer, I think, is it all depends.

Whether the lines of the old songs ring true depends on the depth of character of the singer. When the character of the singer is compromised, somewhat shallow, unschooled in the larger theological framework from which the meager poetry gets its punch, as is most frequently the case, it depends on technique. This is where it gets difficult. A good person, exceptionally persistent in adversity, who has shown strength overcoming hardship, or who is faithful in spite of human failings, can sing the simplest lyric without embarrassing everybody. If they can carry a tune, it just might suffice. People who haven't seen anything admirable in so long they're numb may be convicted and the secrets of their hearts laid bare. In just about every other case I know of, more is going to be necessary than meager art. In the absence of exceptional humanity, we're going to have to rely on technique. Occasionally you find great art in combination with profound humanity and great artistry, and the earth moves. In most cases, in the presence of lesser mortals, that is to say people who have not suffered the kinds of things that require such strength of character, we need better art and artistry.

Who knows what Mozart was really like. Was he Don Giovanni? Given his position of privilege from a youthful precocity it seems more likely that he was the seducer than that he was the feckless, though virtuous, Ottavio. But, his music knows nobility even if he was not himself noble. Maybe he could only imagine things as they should be. The Marriage of Figaro is effective on so many levels that we marvel at its capacity to make us perceive and feel so many important things. Virtuosity without virtue? Possibly. But again, nobility is rare, maybe only an ideal in times like these. We need artists who can show us the ideal, whether or not they can embody it.

Artistry in the church on the threshold of the twenty-first century should be the finest we can muster. Music in church services should be the best music available played or sung by musicians with good technique, because finding musicians who are good enough people to inspire us without technique is an undependable prospect. This doesn't mean we showcase deadbeats. It is simply a matter of auditioning singers and selecting music that has proven its dependability rather than relying on good intentions. Then the larger quest becomes that of finding music that can be depended on to elicit the hidden things. We need to bring the metaphorical monsters out of hiding and slay them. Church may not be the best place to do some of the music that is most able to accomplish this. Then we have to be careful not to defeat our purposes through abstraction. Confinement to the church building and services may unnecessarily eliminate some of the best music. Explaining everything in it can be as deadly to the performing arts as it is to the reading of the Bible. Imagine a performance of The Magic Flute preceded by a long dissertation on music theory.

If we are going to try to do something that doesn't quite belong in church but brings to life subliminal ideas for those schooled in Western culture, probably we won't want to start with something that confuses Christians and completely mystifies secularists. The Wolf-Ferrari oratorio, La Vita Nuova, conflates images of Dante's idealized love for Beatrice with ideals Catholics venerate in the Virgin Mary. This is going to be a risky proposition, not to mention musically difficult, requiring as it does orchestra, exceptional baritone and soprano, and children’s chorus in addition to regular chorus. If these resources were available, it would be safer to do the Brahms Requiem and find something suitable for the children. Opera companies deal with issues of marketability and comprehension for somewhat different reasons. They think they have to produce crankish modern works. Sometimes they give us something good, but even then, Seattle Opera's War and Peace had to wait until people were satisfied that the company could do Rigoletto, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro, etc. If, after a couple of seasons of music that builds confidence among our combined churches' ensemble and trust in the audience, everybody is looking for something adventurous, the Wolf-Ferrari may be just what we need.
Let's look at the problem on a smaller scale. We have a church choir that manages to provide serviceable high church anthems at least a couple of times per month. The choir members are busy, but come to rehearsals fairly regularly. They have sung in school ensembles or played in the band, so enough of them can read music to keep things going. Maybe there are a couple of solo quality voices, or the church budget can manage to pay section leaders and occasionally a few string players. Probably, somebody knows of other choirs in much the same condition at other churches, and somebody probably knows of a community chorus that is also trying to stay afloat in the sea of administrative overhead and costs with which most arts organizations contend. There are really a lot of possibilities here. The community chorus may be delighted to join forces with church groups and have several expansive halls in which to perform. But wait a minute. What about the guitar players in our churches? And all the folks who want to sing folk choruses?

Before we can sing music that works in the community at large even when the singers are not spiritual giants, we have to deal with middle class music. Lots of people prefer callow choruses. We can't just send the guitar players to a church camp someplace where summer never ends. Churches with a sizable constituency of folk singers at odds with traditionalists often fail to resolve the problems this situation raises. Some find themselves dealing with emotions of an intensity the church hasn't seen since the wars of the Reformation era. And this adds to our public credibility problem. In the same way as secularists dismiss Christian theology and its cultural legacy because of the Reformation wars, our neighbors are repelled by the feuding factions of local churches. It used to be said that music is a universal language. In the church it has become an almost universally contested language.

Music from the period of Western standard practice with its roots in the classic period is better than the departures represented by Wagner and Schoenberg, and it is better than pop music. I'm not going justify this dogma here, but I'll persist in it with tenacity exceeding that of Sara Jones in her convictions. If the church is going to speak with any moral authority in the world, it is going to have to celebrate its truths with music that is up to the task. God chose to become incarnate in a human being, not a frog or even the most adorable puppy. To sing of the incarnate Word, we should find the highest forms of music available and learn the idioms of this music just as our seminarians need to learn the Hebrew and Greek idioms of the Bible. There are circumstances where the best that can be found is not up to the standard of that available to educated Americans, but that doesn't change the situation in affluent American churches. Having said that, I am willing to concede that we are not going to solve our practical problem on the basis of which music is better or even more suitable for our purposes.

I think the problem is one of alienation, not one of musical form. Lots of guitar players have classical music in their record collections and most choir singers have been to summer camp for singing around the fire to the strumming of guitars. But once somebody has connected with a community of one cultural disposition, it is hard for them to imagine giving it up. In a manner similar to conversion to Christianity in a Muslim society, conversion to classical music alienates people from much of the old culture and more importantly from people who still value the old forms. Still, in absence of coercion, it is often possible to find areas of convergence between cultures. All people are made in the image of God. We might expect large areas that can be shared by Muslims and Christians. In the same way there are probably areas that can be appreciated by both classicists and infidels.

What seems to have happened in the area of church music is that, in the larger culture within which American churches exist, popular music idioms shared by baby boomers and succeeding generations of pagan savages are tending to overwhelm civilization and decency. When church services sound like a pale imitation of incantations at the coliseum, it is not surprising that thirty-somethings don't feel much loyalty to Christian incantations. It's just another ritual and not a very good one at that, because, most places, the show isn't as entertaining as the circuses at the coliseum. An hour listening to National Public Radio's program, The World, is enough to verify that boomer music is invading even the territories of Indonesian cults. You hear throat singers from Borneo backed up by what sounds like Barry Manilow's band.

Maybe in some backhanded way this should give us hope. If Indonesian throat singers prefer tonal scales and harmonic progression once they've heard it, there may be grist for the mill that drives musical standards at conservatories and academic discussions of music in general. We can at least eliminate the nihilism of most twentieth century music. But how are we going to get the guitar pickers to repent?

It seems the only hope is something like Sara's Religious Arts Society. A good jolt of real diversity and the ensuing culture shock could unsettle everybody enough to talk to one another. When we start searching for something we can do together, we might find that music that can be written down in standard notation is necessary. From there it isn't too far to polyphony and more ambitious programming. In the mean time, we can enjoy the differences, because there is some real poetry to be found in our midst. If nothing else we can get acquainted again. The church really does need all of its members. Some of the humblest types find ways to restore the meaning and dignity of old forms. Even some old classicists can be revived.


Jason Silver said...

I must admit I have not read all of this... it's a little too long for me and my relentless schedule.

But it seems like you're asking the right questions now.

I'll always have a problem with the notion that only the pros can worship God, though. I say let the amateurs in, but help them. I see my job as a worship pastor to avail to my teams the opportunity of free music lessons. And since I sing, play piano, guitars, drums, bass, trumpet, flute, among many others, I can really help these musicians take the next step.

Anyway, I think I've bitten off more than I'm willing to gnaw on with this conversation. I have one last response, after which I'm going to hang up the gloves.

Thanks guys, it's been swell.


Anonymous said...

I don't think he understands what we've been talking about. Since when did we say only the pros worship God?

Once again, the Church remains divided over cultural issues.

Michael Dodaro said...

Oh, well, I guess I’m just too long winded. I could accuse him of being rude for walking away while we were talking, but this last story would probably take half an hour for him to try to comprehend.

Michael Dodaro said...

Great things are built on tradition. It's not the only way to create, but it is a proven way. The Renaissance began when artists looked to the past for the greatest works of art that had ever existed and built on the experience of many generations. Humility in the presence of art that transcends time and place does not diminish anyone.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the younger generation simply can't relate at all to tradition. Also, I think most expressions of Protestantism is so wedded to the culture of the moment that it's impossible for many to seriously consider the former traditions.

At least those over at the New Liturgical Movement aren't reluctant to explore tradition. They revel in it, and many of them are young. It's a good sign.

Michael Dodaro said...

Whether we actually need great art in church is debatable, but tradition is a tried and true way for the church to maintain the connection between the church militant and the church triumphant. Another way of putting it is to say tradition is democracy that includes both the living and those passed on to the church triumphant.

Ray said...

zzzzzzzzz..... Sorry Mike I fell asleep half way through. What were you saying?

Protestantism is wedded to the culture of the moment. Interesting thought. Being a Baptist I do not consider myself a Protestant, but we are lumped in with them and culturally we are very much like some Protestant groups. And yes, we have eschewed liturgy and traditionalism. But, in reality we have formed our own traditions. Unfortunately, many Protestant and Baptist churches have been caught up in the culture of the moment. Or more accurately, we have joked that we are just 25 years behind the world evidenced by the fact that much of the contemporary music used in our churches sounds much like pop music from the 70s. Flip between an oldies station and a Christian radio station playing CCM and compare.

Anonymous said...

Quite right.

That's why there are so many icons of the saints in Orthodox churches. This is the "great cloud of witnesses" of the Church of the past. We have them in our sanctuaries to remind us that they are still a part of the Church and of our connection to them.

It seems to me that many Protestant expressions of Christianity revels in its very thinness of tradition. The saints of the past are simply dead people and have no further connection with us or we with them. Instead, the whole atmosphere seems geared to the here and now, to extreme individualist worship modes (further separating one from the rest of the Church past or present).

Frank Schaeffer said, "protestants don't have saints; they have celebrities", a statement which well describes what passes too often for who now populates the Church militant, the lionizing of faddish, largely secularized cultural icons rather than the icons of Christian civilization. Unfortunately, this approach seems to be setting the tone for Christianity in general and weakening it greatly.

Because of that, I find it increasingly difficult to have a conversation with a Christian where we are talking the same language. The tradition that had formed Christian theology, art, music, philosophical thought, and manners is almost immediately rejected and the dialogue is then unnaturally forced into a discussion about personal preferences regarding "spiritualities" that may or may not have some Christian flavor to it.

Sometimes I have found I can get a better discussion with Hindus than with many Christians.

Anonymous said...

So the question becomes: What can be done to help others see that Christianity is not a culture of the moment?

will anyone listen to us?

Ray said...

"It seems to me that many Protestant expressions of Christianity revels in its very thinness of tradition."

A simple explanation for that is the perception that those steeped in tradition put their faith more in tradition than in God, their salvation was based on tradition not on faith. It is a works based religion.

As I interact with more people such as yourselves, I find that less and less true.

Anonymous said...

The trappings of tradition are not regarded as being equal with faith, although there are those (the spiritually lazy) who would substitute the trappings for faith, just as there are those would think being traditionless puts them more in tune with movings of the Spirit (e.g. the Pentecostals).

The trappings form part of the language we use when we worship. That's all it really is. With the language, the worshipper are one the same page together during the service, forming one voice in prayer. The liturgy is the dialogue we use. In it we use the prayers that are found in the Psalms as well as prayers that were written by the saints of old.

In this dialogue, though, the worshipper must pay strict attention (a hard thing to do especially as we come to church still caught up in our highly distracted life-styles). Just to stand there and let the liturgy happen around you as if you're not there is as good as being physically absent. But it's a temptation to overcome, just like you have to pay attention to the preacher and resist the temptation to fall asleep during his sermon.

Anonymous said...

Whenever a mostly anti-Christian culture is allowed to drive the congregations and/or the clergy away from the scriptures and the liturgical traditions that are built around the scriptures and history of the Church, then the liturgy truly becomes an empty ritual (at least to the minds of those who have been overwhelmed by the prevailing culture).

Soon the tradition and the liturgies will disappear for lack of interest or understanding. What then will take the place of them? What then becomes of Christian culture?

Ray said...

"...liturgy truly becomes an empty ritual" That is the concern. Understand, the sum of my liturgical experience amounts to attending a few Roman Catholic weddings, so I can speak with any amount of authority.

But, at the same time us Baptists can fall into the same pit. My church is known for being quite conservative in many ways including music. We have not fallen in with the CCM crowd as many of our sister churches close by have. But, we do have some members, particularly from the younger generation, that believe we are too conservative.... dead, lifeless. I spoke with one of our women recently who had been a long time member of my choir who feels the congregational singing is just as I said, dead, lifeless. In her opinion people are going through the motions of singing, there is no joy or emotion displayed even when singing a joyful hymn. I'm not so sure I agree with that assessment. But, if we were to introduce more lively music with a praise band this woman would be pleased but I know we'd drive others away. We have actually attracted new members because of our conservative approach to worship. One might even say that since we are not willing to break loose and introduce contemporary worship practices that we are stuck in tradition.

We are a society that demands to be entertained. The entertainment industry goes through cycles, one season sitcoms might be all the rage, next dramas, in the recent past reality shows. But, the public eventually tires and demands something fresh. Since we "require" a high amount of entertainment, the cyclical effect of TV has invaded our churches. I read recently of churches that had gone contemporary have begun to return to a more conservative style because the contempory services were becoming too commonplace and stale and the congregation wanted a change.

Michael Dodaro said...

In the Episcopal Church where I have spent the last several years as a musician, things are in disarray because two and a half of the three pillars of Anglican orthodoxy--scripture, tradition, and reason--are opposed to the direction the majority of the North American bishops want to go. Contemporary culture is driving the church, and tradition is only observed in liturgical formality. Of course this is the situation as observed if one assumes the bishops are really in control. There is a vital group of Christians in the Episcopal Church that just roll their eyes at the latest scandals among the bishops. In the West we have a bishop who has provided material suitable for the supermarket tabloids, as if he is trying to outdo the New Hampshire-ite making all the headlines. It remains to be seen if the Anglican Church of the southern hemisphere, now a majority of Anglicans, will prevail against the Americans and Canadians, but the church goes on in spite of the uproar. A doctrine invented to deal with the corruptions of the Reformation era is the de facto standard among the people. The doctrine is known as "ex opera operato," which translates roughly, "out of the working of the work." It means the sacraments are valid even when consecrated by a dubious priest. There are those troublesome passages in the gospels that Baptists used to quote, "Call no man your father on earth, for you are all brothers. For in the world those with authority lord it over others. It will not be so among you, for whoever would be great among you will be your servant, etc." The church seems to function pretty well in spite of its leadership

Ray said...

Mike, I think a significant difference between the association my church fellowships with and some of the mainline denominations is how they handle church discipline. First, I said we fellowship with the association, we are not part of any kind of Baptist hierachy with rules and regulations that govern the local church. We pride ourselves on being independent when it comes to rule. If a pastor of one of our sister churches became involved in some of the shenanigans found happening in the ECUSA right now, they would be "fired" - and it does happen to good Baptist too occasionally. There is no national body of leaders that would dictate to us that we must keep a recalcitrant pastor. Not that we can't be political, but I think what is happening with the ECUSA is highly political and in the long run detrimental to those the church serves. I find it hard to accept God will bless the actions of a church leader who is operating in a manner diametrically opposed to Biblical teaching. Maybe that is why churches have fewer and fewer members and end up going down a modernistic path. But, that leads to another point. We have digressed a bit, but the original discussion was centered on contemporary worship practices specifically related to music. many churches through their leadership have become more modernistic in their philosophy and theology. The fundamentals of the faith are no longer accepted and taught. So, as they become more modern theologically discarding former doctrines it follows that they will become modern with worship practices discarding the traditional music heritage.

So Scribe, the direction of Christian culture is dependent on the theological and doctrinal direction of its leaders - the culture will follow that direction.

Michael Dodaro said...

The trouble is, the ECUSA has good liturgical music. The hymnal contains excellent settings of music that has lasted hundreds of years, and we sing the parts. Our choir is not ready for Westminster Abbey, but we sing good music as well as we can. I am inspired just chanting the psalm on many Sunday mornings. Now I am also a cantor at a Catholic Church nearer home, but the hymns are mostly 1960s derivative pseudo-folk. The byline in the header of this blog is not just to attract attention. Mainline churches preserve the historic musical tradition but they tend to believe truth is relative; conservatives sing pop music that drives me up a wall. I am alienated in church.

Ray said...

And if truth is relative, then any language is acceptable because it can mean anything you want it to mean. What may be obscene for you may not be for me. So, Christian rap laced with 4 letter words is perfectly acceptable because that is part of my culture. Bach, Mozart, et al are part of your culture; they speak the same musical language as you do. Hey, loud keyboards, guitars, drums, saxophones and brass are part of my musical language. I'm OK, you're OK. Your truth is not necessarily my truth. Peace, Man.

One word, Postmodernism. The only problem is that what I just wrote above is not what the Bible teaches. Truth is not relative, it is absolute.

Jason Silver said...

Hey guys,

Anonymous said...
I don't think he understands what we've been talking about. Since when did we say only the pros worship God?

I guess I misunderstood the comment that Mike made:

Artistry in the church on the threshold of the twenty-first century should be the finest we can muster. Music in church services should be the best music available played or sung by musicians with good technique, because finding musicians who are good enough people to inspire us without technique is an undependable prospect. This doesn't mean we showcase deadbeats. It is simply a matter of auditioning singers and selecting music that has proven its dependability rather than relying on good intentions.

I'm all for quality music... otherwise it becomes the focus in its destractive badness. :) Somehow good musicians disappear in their performance, and God comes through and blesses us in sweet tones.

Mike Dodaro said...
Oh, well, I guess I’m just too long winded.

Nah, I'm just attention deficit... and crazy busy.

I could accuse him of being rude for walking away while we were talking, but this last story would probably take half an hour for him to try to comprehend.

Ouch. That stung.

Sorry-- I didn't mean to be offensive. I can see how I communicated that. I'm very sorry.

In my own defense, this communication is kind of slanted unfairly at 3 against 1. :-)

Our philosophies of ministry and evangelism are so diametrically opposed so that we have very little common ground. But let's seek to discover that common ground and in so doing encourage unity! :)

I don't even know you guys, but I suspect that if we were sitting around a table in the same room, we might find friendship. The nature of this type of communication is such that we end up posing in an agressive stance, defending our ideals. Someone's bound to get a black eye.

I have written a lengthy comment but I can't decide whether to post it or not, because I don't want to squelch the spirit of Christ. I'll keep reading it over for a few days and when I've sufficiently rounded off the proverbial corners, maybe I'll paste it in a comment box.

God bless you guys!

Ray said...

Actually Jason, I think we have found some common ground in this discussion. You said in an earlier post, "God does not care about window dressing, he cares about our hearts, and he wants us to go beyond simple words and thoughts in worship. We worship in spirit and in truth when we reach out to 'the least of these.'"

Speaking strictly for myself, that is just one of several statements you have made that I can agree with. It has been kind of fun beating up on you, but I have found it a good discussion. And even though I don't agree with your assessment of contemporary music, I appreciate the way you have presented your position. You obviously have thought it out and are not acting just on emotion, your commitment to your music is deeper than just because you like it.

Also, don't assume the three of us all share the same musical tastes or that our worship and evangelistic philosophies are the same. I believe Scribe has said she is Orthodox, Mike is .... well, eclectic, and I am strictly a Baptist. But, we do share some common philosophical ideas when it comes to what is appropriate music for worship.

I do appreciate the time you've taken to discuss your thoughts and what motivates you musically.

Jason Silver said...

Thanks Ray,

I think so too. Actually, believe it or not, there are some elements of this conversation which have been very encouraging to me!

Maybe my background has had some influence on my perspective. I've been so sensitive to the varying positions we see from one branch of protestantism to another. I've blogged about it recently, in fact. Thou Doest Protest Too Much.

The unity and one-mind we see among the Catholics is so appealing to me. In fact, Jesus said we'd be known for our love for each other-- our unity. I know there are some dissenting Catholics, but we don't see the same splintering and dividing so common among evangelicals.

Anyway, I've subscribed to this blog, and will continue to read and stay in touch a bit... but I read dozens of blogs, so I might not have the time to engage as much as I'd like.

Again, sorry for offending you, Mike. That certainly wasn't my intent.

God bless!

Michael Dodaro said...

When I said it might take you a while to comprehend my story of the Sara Jones Religious Arts Society I didn't mean to impune your intelligence, and you have not offended me. Quite the contrary, you have read and got us all talking again. I'd like to hear more of your music.
I embedded a sound file in this page under the post titled: The Last Trumpet. If none of you are hearing it, turn on your audio.
Jason, this could be a lively encounter if you put some sound in here. I can't seem to get the tag into this comment to demonstrate how, but you probably know about embedded sound, and it works on my end in the Last Trump post. I can give you posting rights if necessary.

Michael Dodaro said...

To see how to embed sound, look at the source for the blog main page and search for Judgement Day. Under it there is an embed tag.

Ray said...

Jason, in response to your thoughts on unity, that has been a topic heavy on my mind recently. I grew in a Regular Baptist church, attended a Regular Baptist College and have served in a Regular Baptist church for many years now. We are separatists. We do not join in ecumenically with other non-Baptist churches because of theological differences. We have been taught that that is biblical.

The internet is wonderful. I found friends, such as Mike, that are from other denominations that share much of the same core beliefs that I do and I have come to know that the world is larger and richer than I realized. I have expanded my reading to include writers from many different branches of Christendom and have been pleasantly surprised to find my pastor reads some of the same material and highly recommends it. I was almost shocked when he told me he was familiar with a certain female Lutheran minister/theologian and thought she was an excellent writer and recommended her works. Normally in Baptist circles she would have two marks against her, she's Lutheran and she's a female minister.

There is hope. And discussions such as this can go a long way toward unity.

Anonymous said...

Being a part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, I'm part of the most conservative and un-ecumenical Christian body that there is. But I do enjoy talking to other Christians, although sometimes the east-west dialogue can be difficult, as the customs and outlooks are very different. Dawson's book "The Making of Europe" does a good job in explaining what are the differences in thinking are between east and west. Hence, there is a reason why you will NEVER find rock music in a traditionalist Orthodox church, where liturgy and setting dictates what music must be used.

Nor is Orthodox music ever composed for the concert hall, as was Handel's Messiah. In the Orthodox mindset, everything must be composed in the context of the Church and its liturgies, never outside of it. A conservative Presbyterian recently told me that his church choir visited Russia this year and sang Handel's Messiah for them, and they did this really to evangelize the Russians. He said that afterwards the Russians came up to told him that "it was the most beautiful thing they had ever heard" and he thought this confirmed that he had succeeded in showing them what Christian music is all about. But they were only being polite because Russian liturgical music is far more beautiful, triumphant and soaringly ethereal than Handel's concert music. Russian choirs are famous for their vocal orchestras, butI didn't bother to explain this to him, because he seemed satisfied that his choir bested anything the Russians could ever do. It was an example of the ignorance of the east that we sometimes get.

However, as Ray said, the Internet is making it possible for us all to talk together and to hash out the common problems we have with this culture. It seems to me that many of these problems that are coming at us from the secular culture is larger than many of our differences. But our differences are important and need to be discussed too, for instance, why there is the difference in music styles, what these mean, etc.

Jason, you may feel outnumbered 3 to 1 here by the musically conservative here, but don't feel that we are really ganging up on you. We all seem to have more in common than not. Also, feel free to invite some of your musically like-minded friends here to give us a run for our money.


Ray said...

"Nor is Orthodox music ever composed for the concert hall, as was Handel's Messiah."

That is the heart of my argument, both on this blog and others where I've posted. I enjoy folk music, particularly Celtic, and even American folk. True folk, not necessarily Arlo Guthrie - I even acquired a strummed dulcimer a few years ago but can't really get the hang of playing a stringed instrument. I used to love the group Chicago primarily for the use of brass. But, that is not the type of music I want for worship. They are for entertainment. Worship is not entertainment. It should transcend the mere entertainment. It should be on a higher plane.

Folk, Rock, Country, Jazz, etc is fast food. I want steak when I go to church.

Jason Silver said...

Thanks everyone, that's encouraging.

You really are from diverse backgrounds! That's amazing!

I feel like I haven't been able to communicate the essence of my theological perspective very well-- the one thing that drives my acceptance of most any musical style. My long (waiting) post is in the wings and may do a little better, but it's on the laptop upstairs and I'm too lazy to go get it. :)

Let me preface by saying my perspective might be wrong! I find my mind changing frequently with regards to what I believe. For instance, where I used to shudder at the thought of any sort of Mary reverence, I find myself now wondering why protestants have gone so far the other way.

What if God is sitting up in heaven, and looking down at our magnificent choirs? And what if that sacrificial and expensive music just makes him shake his head sadly? What if he says, "Your beautiful songs, your intense and complex harmonies, this is all like filthy rags to me! True worship, the kind of worship that I want, is for you to visit prisoners, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give justice and mercy to the poor and the poor in spirit!"

If that's true worship, then what we're doing might not be true worship. That makes this dialogue moot, and means we need to reconsider why we sing in church at all! Are we worshipping God with all our musical bravado so that we feel good? Is God classical? Is he jazz? Is he rock and roll? Is he a monk that he prefers chanting?

Music is a powerful medium, and I think it's main purpose in our services is to draw our attention to God. If that is so, then it really matters that we use the music that will best reach the culture who we identify as our mission group. Who out there is asleep while God is working? How do we wake them up?

I'm sure this is anti-sacred, and I don't want to offend. But what if we're missing the point, arguing for our own styles of "worship," when it's not worship at all?

Interesting, eh?


Jason Silver said...

Oh, and my music: I can't imbed in a comment, but you can hear my songs by going here:

They are not all Christian songs. There are some love songs in there too.


Michael Dodaro said...

Jason, I'll give you posting rights, and you can post an essay for us to read up front instead of buried in the comments. I realize that I'll have to take my embedded music out of the main page if you want to add music, so let me know if you want to go that route.

It seems, more and more, that a lot of fights about music and other church issues are really about power. Clergy tend to have numerous factions in their churches vying for control. There are the musicians, the intellectuals, the business people, even the social services advocates, all after resources to to their work. The clergy have their careers to advance and want to stay in control. Music becomes a flash point partly because of the conflict that already exists.

Anonymous said...

"Your beautiful songs, your intense and complex harmonies, this is all like filthy rags to me! True worship, the kind of worship that I want, is for you to visit prisoners, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give justice and mercy to the poor and the poor in spirit!"

Well, let's not confuse worship with service. Both are necessary, but each in its time. When Jesus spoke that passage about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner etc, he was criticizing the people who made a big show in the temple, yet failed to take the temple's mercy-seat to the people in their lives. But never did he suggest that worshippers were to do away with the temple by substituting service.

Worship is the cause of Christian good works, whereas service is the effect. Both go together, but worship precedes the other. Otherwise service that's done outside the background of worship makes Christian ministery no different in kind from a state-run beauracratic social welfare which makes a pretense of caring.

Then,too, when you are in Church in a worship service, you are not simultaneously in a skid-row mission serving dinners or picking up drunks off the cold streets or in a courtroom defending a criminal, or visiting a prisoner in jail.

Worship is the congregation of God coming together to dialogue together with Him. Music forms the major part of this dialogue, and something that had figured largely in the original temple culture as well as centuries of Christian worship. It's purpose in part is as you said - "to draw our attention to God."

To present beautiful music in Church is to remind the worshipper that God is beauty and we are to worship Him in beauty. To offer God our best is our duty. Cheap, tawdry, Orc-like music belongs in spiritual Mordors.

What is "expensive" music? In my church, we have no instruments - only the human voice is allowed to sing God's praises and none of our music has copyrights.

Michael Dodaro said...

It seems to me that the idea of vocal music only in church has merit. The church was built mainly through outreach in synagogues in the ancient world where there was no instrumental music. The Temple in Jerusalem had the instruments and, significantly, the money changers as well. The synagogue was primariliy a teaching forum, not high church worship. This sounds unfair since I'm a singer and Jason plays keyboards, guitars, and drums, and Ray plays trombone, but there are lots of other events the church can sanction that would benefit from instrumental music. Jason says he writes love songs. God knows, we could use some love songs that don't follow the Hollywood/Nashville prototype. My wife and I have staged opera events after church, including lectures on Western Civ as it is recapitulated in music. A good party is something every church can use once in a while. I think that's a better place for pop music than in worship. The mood of pop music is just more conducive to letting the good times roll than it is to worship. The performance of Mozart and Handel has become more a staple of community chiors than churches.

Ray said...

My typical annual budget for purchasing choir music is $300. And we are all volunteers. Not much expense there. Of course we would never be accused of showing up the Mormon Tabernacle Choir either.

Jason, again we agree on a very important point, the music should draw our attention to God. I think one element missing in our discussion is venue. Are we talking about a formal worship service or maybe a concert or maybe a Friday night in a coffee house (One of our local churches operates one as an alternative to the bar scene for young adults). Maybe a youth gathering.

Again, the 4 of us come from divergent backgrounds with Mike and Scribe probably more used to a formal, liturgical setting. I'm probably somewhere in between them and Jason.

Ray said...

Picking up on the unaccompanied music theme, I have found my choir has sounded the most beautiful when singing unaccompanied and they do it well. Without a piano as a crutch they must listen carefully for intonation, blend, etc. I believe they actually are thinking deeper when singing unaccompanied and it comes through in their presentation.

Michael Dodaro said...

Now I have to own up, Ray. You knew I was eclectic, but did I ever tell you I learned to sing in a non-instrumental Church of Christ? The best spiritual instruction I have ever had was under a volunteer minister who worked at a hardware store to support himself and his family.

Ray said...

Mike, please don't tell me in the 80s you sang backup for some headbanger group, had long hair, wore dirty torn jeans, and gold necklaces.

Michael Dodaro said...

Haven't found much interest in rock music since high school when my judgement was impared by raging hormones. Here's an interesting effort in Washington state to diminish the impact of gangster rap on kids:

Michael Dodaro said...

Here is the same link only live:
No Rap

Anonymous said...

1969-1972 were the best years for rock (I will give rock that much.) After that, the Deluge.

Here's a good essay on hip-hop music by conservative black essayist James McWhorter. McWhorter is a linguist and writes often about rap music, hip-hop culture etc.


Michael Dodaro said...

Interesting that none of this violence is evident in Jason's music. Have you listened? Whatever you're doing, Jason, it is ok with me. But, I can't figure out who the guy is with the hair in his face on your web page. Is that you, or is it the golfer on another of your pages? And all the photos on flickr of you and your family don't seem like any of the pop-music culture that goes with the image of the guy with the hair in his face. Not too long ago I was a guest on a local Christian talk radio station in a debate with a twenty-something guy over some of the issues we've been discussing here. I went to my opponent's web site to find out what he was up to. He is an executive in company with a record lable that is doing pretty well. The sullen rhetoric on the web site made me expect a defiant punk, but when I met the guy, he was polite and likeable. Strange though, that he was selling rock music that implied malevolent derangement as Christian rock.

Jason Silver said...

They're all me; the golfer, the hair in the eyes, I just shaved off a huge grey Matthew-the-disciple-style-beard too. I change my looks a lot. I guess it's fun.

Anyway, I used to think the same thing about worship: that it was our quiet reflection that made worship worshipful, or our exuberant celebration that was the essence of worship. But I decided to read the Bible through this year, (almost done!) and have found something quite different.

Yes, David spoke about worshipping God with instruments and voices, and cymbols, and trumpets, and dancing... but most (maybe all) of the passages where God is speaking through a prophet about 'true worship' or what is pleasing to him, he says what I said up above. I'm not confusing service and worship. Service IS worship.

God wants to see worship that has feet. He could care less about sacrifices... he wants our hearts. Our changed hearts which put action to our beliefs.

It's a new paradigm, but if God says it, well... you get the idea. :)