Monday, December 05, 2005

The Year 2K War of Attrition in Church Music

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!


Ray said...

Just a quick comment picking up on your comment that the music culture of the church has been sent to the fringes. In the past, when state churches were powerful in Europe the church established the culture. Whether Bach wrote for the church or for the king's court, his style was essentially the same.

Today, the church emulates popular culture in order to ostensibly appeal to the masses.

Jason Silver said...

Hey Mike,

I would argue that the church is, in fact, setting culture not following it.

Arguably, the most popular bands of late on top 40 radio have been Christian, with subtle but unmistakable Christian lyrics.

U2, Creed, Switchfoot, MercyMe, Lifehouse, Stacie Orrico, Kayne West, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Pillar, Relient K, Natalie Grant, Randy Travis, George Jones and Billy Ray Cyrus... name a few off the top of my head. There are many more.

These people are out there, infecting culture with the message of Christ.

It seems to me that you are picking a favourite musical style from one era in history, and saying it is the best. If we really want to identify Christian music, wouldn't it need to be the music Christ himself listened to?

The music of Mozart is from one of the most opulent, self-indulgent times in history. Why would we want to hold this up as the standard in the church?

I just don't follow the logic.


Michael Dodaro said...

Jason, you may not be as old as the rest of us, but when we were in college Marshall McCluhan was the rage. He wrote about 35 books, all hammering the same idea, “The medium is the message”. When the church adopts popular idioms of expression, many things come along with the form of expression. When you try to put the church of the ages into the music of the current trends you get a trendy rendition of the church. It just doesn’t sound like the movement of God’s Spirit through the ages. I think we’re all missing what Scribe has been saying about the church of the ages. In fact, the music of the Orthodox Church is the music that Jesus sung. This tradition goes back the music of the synagogues of the ancient near east.

Jason Silver said...

OK, you may be right about the medium/message thing. But that doesn't legitimize classical music anymore than any other style, does it?

Michael Dodaro said...

Probably, you are correct. Classical music is not, by virtue of its excellence and enduring worth, the music that should be used in worship. I'm going to concede this one. Music in worship is something that should transcend its makers. If we really want to be a family of Christians who love one another, we're all going to have to give ground.

Anonymous said...

Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. Learn the old chants and the problem will be solved.

Keep the Christian rock Top 40 on the Top 40, but I seriously doubt it's presence there is changing the youth culture. In the last 40 years the youth culture has only gotten worse, more mired. To me, it seems to send a contradictory message -words going one way while the music goes another.

There was one rather remarkable Christian rock/ballad song that came out a few years ago. I don't know who the singer is --his first name was James. He drowned while drunk in a boating accident. Shortly before he died, he wrote a very interesting piece for guitar and solo voice that I think was entitled "Alleluia". It featured beautifully bell-like guitar accompaniment, and the singing was haunting. The many Alleluias in it actually formed an ironic counterpoint to the despairing words. After listening to the song several times, I could not find any faith expressed in this song, only hopelessness. The Alleluias seemed only to be a weeping, nothing more.


Michael Dodaro said...

Now, we're getting someplace alright--to the place where I'm in the position of pop culture enthusiast trying to defend Bach and Mozart as compared to Orthodox chant. I have to learn all new--old--musical forms and stand up for church besides! Jason, where are you when I need you?

Jason Silver said...

I think that all of this only underscores what I've been saying all along.

Music is ammoral, not immoral. We cannot say with any sort of authority that sounds in themselves are evil or good. The words and intent behind them-- now THAT is a different story.

Jesus said rocks and trees would cry out in worship if we did not. So what would THAT sound like?

Unique and unusual combinations of sounds like one would find in a forest... birds chirping, waves crashing, brooks laughing, leaves clapping. It's a whole different kind of music, and the closest I've come to hearing God's orchestra.

It makes Bach sound like an amateur.


Michael Dodaro said...

Except for the culture that Bach inhabits. It's a culture permeated by Christian virtues and containing a metaphysics that is a combination of Greek classicism and Hebrew theology. It is the historic synthesis of Platonic Form and Law as found in the Book of Genesis. Not exactly a walk in the park!
Somehow we have to preserve and develop Christian culture that both preserves historic advances and helps people enjoy unmediated communion with God.

Anonymous said...


You said: "Music is ammoral, not immoral. We cannot say with any sort of authority that sounds in themselves are evil or good. The words and intent behind them-- now THAT is a different story."

The music is part of the intent of the composer, along with the words. The music is not amoral (meaning without any moral) - it carries the words and augments or intensifies the message.

The sounds of creation praise God with whatever voice it has, which can be limited to either a twirp or roar or croak. But the sounds humans make has a huge and very nuanced variety and forms the harmony and melodies of our very language. Accordingly, we can convey many things with our sounds which carry our intentions. In human hands and throats music can never be amoral because humankind is not an amoral being. We call someone or some utterance amoral if it goes completely contrary to the moral universe that humans must operate in. Amorality is a perversion of our nature. It signals deadness of spirit.

It would be better if you choose another term to describe music.

Anonymous said...

Creation not only cries out in worship, but it also groans. So can any sound made by a living being (sentient or not) be amoral?

Romans 8:20-22
20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope

21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Ray said...

OK, let's clear up one thing here. Jason, the elements of music are amoral. As you yourself inferred above, the words and the intent assign morality. Nothing moral or immoral about a middle C or a C major chord or a C minor chord... augmented, diminished, minor second, suspension - resolution, and so on and so on. Even getting into tempi - the predominant tempo of Rock is 120MM. That doesn't make any song performed at 120MM immoral or moral. Whole notes are not more moral than half notes or hemidemisemi quavers for that matter. Syncopation has no morality.

Those are just a few of the many elements that comprise music. It is part of the language of music. Language is used to convey thoughts, ideas... it communicates a message. What is that message a song writer or composer is trying to convey? How he arranges the musical elements will determine what he is trying to accomplish. What is the message he is sending? What is the message the listener is receiving? A composer will select certain music idioms or invent new idioms (John Cage) to musically describe his thoughts - to convey his message.

Take a Grace Slick tune, one that the text spoke of drugs and alcohol, particularly in a positive light (sorry, I wasn't into that scene and don't know any of her tunes, but I know of her). Now put "Christian" words to that tune. Does that somehow sanctify the tune? What message will the typical Boomer receive?

Ray said...

Ah... playing my bass trombone can be such an inspiration, from soft, mellow, dulcet tones, to loud raucous almost obscene noise. Love those pedal tones, great for clearing out the cobwebs. You haven't lived until you've heard a big fat pedal F played FFF. It can loosen your fillings.

Where was I? Oh, yeah.... take John Cage. He wrote a piece entitled 4' 33". The performer takes the stage, sits at the grand piano picking up a stop watch which he clicks on then closes the lid to the keyboard. He sits there for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, clicks off the stop watch, opens the keyboard cover then stands up and triumphantly stands and takes a bow. He never played a note. The audience applauds wildly. Loud huzzahs. What's the point? John Cage did not believe in absolutes. Life, in his opinion, is random. Nature is all there is. The music of 4' 33" is the extraneous noise from the audience, coughing, shifting in their seats, squeaks, groans, sighs, maybe a car horn honking as it passes the building. These are all random noises and Cage used them to make a statement. A philosophical statement. None of those noises can be assigned morality. But, Cage is using them to give a moral message.

As I said above, syncopation is neither moral nor immoral. But, if a song writer uses rhythmic elements to whip people into a state of uninhibited frenzy, the musical message takes on a sense of morality.

Just wait until I practice my tuba in a little while, that can really give me strange ideas.

Michael Dodaro said...

Ray, you made my day!

Ray said...

After playing through some mellow hymn tunes I've arranged as unaccompanied trombone solos, my mind has kind of mellowed out.

One thing, Jason, I'm not trying to say your music is evil or immoral. I have listened to a few of the pieces on your website and I have to admit as I'm driving in the car, there are times I will turn on the local Christian radio station and if the music playing is "mild", like yours is, I will listen to it. It's just not the style I would use in a worship service.