This piece was published five years ago on a forum sanctioned by Mars Hill Church, a postmod group of Christians in Seattle.
There are still occasional flare-ups in the acrimonious debate in church over music and worship styles. Mostly the factions have agreed to disagree and settled into their trenches. In a few places blended services try to sustain the clashing juxtaposition of amplified guitars and rock singers in competition with choirs singing music from the seventeenth century. Maybe it can be made palatable, but when either style runs for more than a few minutes in these services, those of another persuasion tend toward apathy or indignation. In respectable company, market dynamics have stifled debate. Ministers and church Elders have to pay the bills. If pop music is the price to be paid for the participation of generations born since the building campaigns of the fifties, so be it. Musicians with college jobs can have their fling using captive choirs that rehearse often enough to do ambitious works. When college conductors go on the speaking circuit, they know they have to make conciliatory noises respecting the “Trinity” of microphones, drum sets, and guitars. If they don’t, they will not continue to get speaking engagements.
The lamentable irony of this situation is that those of us who can remember an era when choirs in North Dakota were singing Handel and Mozart now have trouble finding a church choir in Seattle or San Francisco that can do as well. Friction has led to compromise, compromise to attrition. Those who think there is more involved in the music debate than the logic of cultural relativism have lost many battles. We’re finding it difficult even to get a hearing for our convictions. A whiskey baritone or breathy blonde crooning into a microphone before the congregation used to raise eyebrows. Now it’s an Elder who wants to hear J. S. Bach who troubles Israel. Elitism, it’s called.
I’ve argued often enough that pop music sends messages incompatible with Christian ideals. It’s evident that most of this is not taken very seriously in the American church. If present trends continue, the musical masterpieces composed under the auspices of the historical church will soon be relegated to the museum. The sentimental comfort of folk rock will replace transcendence and classical form. People who understand why it matters are getting too old and worn out to resist.
I’m not willing to learn to play the guitar, so what am I going to do? Try to be the last man standing when the barbarians completely overrun the territory? Will my cynicism trump an assault of banality and derivative pop? While the horde is stoking the fire, perhaps I’ll sing a Twelfth Century hymn. My last gasp in the flames will be to yell something incoherent about forty-year-old youth directors and how they ought to grow up. But when most of the horde is well over forty and still singing music suitable for Bible camp, my complaint is not going to be heard above the guitar amplifiers. Might as well shut up and burn. The groans of the martyrs will continue to be ignored while the church sings music that would embarrass Tiny Tim!
So why should anybody care if Mozart is banished from the sanctuary? Isn’t the gospel able to survive even the humiliation of tasteless pop art? Don’t we have to contextualize Christianity to communicate with savages? Can’t we dispense with tradition that doesn’t sell? Well, probably three out of four of these questions can be answered with a qualified yes. Yes the church will endure; it survived the Dark Ages and American Revivalism. We have to communicate, and if our traditions are retrograde, they should be jettisoned. It doesn’t follow that classical art can go. First of all, it just isn’t true that classical music doesn’t communicate cross culturally. In fact it communicates to a much wider spectrum of cultures than pop music. Pop music is by its nature trendy and contemporary (literally, of the temporary). Even in America, white middle class youth cultures and the old boomer culture are getting to be sects in the midst of waves of immigrants, urban ethnic groups, and affluent yuppies whose tastes change faster than the church can follow. Classical music is not an elitist style or genre. It is music that still works after hundreds of years. It is cross-cultural. This is the meaning of the word classical.
Why it matters if the church loses Mozart’s masses is similar to the loss the church incurs by losing its connection to history. The American religious landscape is littered with denominations of the church that once tried to start fresh by getting out of stale traditions only to end up odd subcultures of their own led by a collection of quirky preachers or an elite cadre in the college subsidized by their denomination. Generally, the transformation from fresh upstart to oddball sect takes less than a generation. Ministers who got saved worshipping with Jesus people in a park or under a freeway bridge someplace are now old and gray, but many of them are still trying to recapture the moment for people who have grandchildren and now quite different problems than they had in 1971. Folk singing accompanied by acoustic guitars may still be their stock in trade, but that doesn’t mean this music will communicate to Hispanic or Asian immigrants better than Handel or Mozart. A local fringe newspaper, The Stranger, recently featured a hilarious review of Creation 99, a Christian rock festival at the Columbia Gorge. Any illusions that the promoters had about their music’s ability to communicate with hip young moderns should be dispelled by the scorn the author heaped on it. He admitted his mind was made up even before attending this pop Christianity shop-a-thon, but his take on it is worth quoting: “Jesus rock makes about as much sense as shouting Sex-Pistols lyrics during the singing of a church hymn.”
Christian pop is really for people who grew up in the church feeling deprived of the fun everybody else seemed to be having. There is the illusion that because Jesus kept company with outcasts and sinners he wouldn’t have much taste for the refinements of high church culture. Rick Levin, the author of the scandalous article in The Stranger, evidences this prejudice. He prefers to think Jesus would spend his time among young Grunge Rockers in preference to the company of the relatively moderate attendees at the Creation 99 festival. It might be worth considering the possibility that Jesus kept the company he kept out of sympathy for the outcast’s alienation from their peers, not their radical chic. On that view it’s easier to surmise that Jesus would be more sympathetic with the folks who sing Mozart in community choirs than he would with the masses of like-minded enthusiasts at any number of pop churches. As T. S. Eliot apparently quipped: "When the world has gone mad, it’s the fellow bucking the trends who seems so."
For now I’d be satisfied if I thought many people understood that the church should not be a trend follower. Quite the contrary, the church has been a cultural force that has molded culture over many centuries in ways that have raised the status of women, made justice for the poor a social obligation, and institutionalized principles that were the currency of the Reformation such as Presbyterian governance and authority in a document rather than in men. There is even a good case that can be made that the philosophy of science could not have developed in absence of a worldview based on law as found in the Bible from the first chapter of Genesis. Now clearly the church and the rest of human culture stands to lose big if these things are undermined by culture that doesn’t recognize their importance or preserve the foundation for them. Does anybody really believe that American pop culture can sustain these things? Can you argue in good conscience that because Jesus befriended outsiders, he meant to perpetuate the values of those on the fringes of society? To institutionalize callow sentimentality in place of the noblest artistic masterpieces of Western Civilization?
The way the church has transformed Western Civilization has been through the transformation of culture. Thirty years of affluence have sent the musical culture of the church of the ages to the fringes of society. This is a disgrace to the triumphant company of saints and martyrs.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!