Sunday, February 19, 2006

An Incarnational Theology of Aesthetics

Racehorses and Rattlesnakes

Any good musical performance can make us listen more intently. When Placido Domingo sings—or Bob Dylan—the mind stops wasting time. We listen. Something about what they do concentrates awareness. This is a difficult state to attain in the multitasking environment in which we daily grind out our lives. Domingo and Dylan are almost always interesting. Domingo’s voice is a racehorse, and Dylan’s is a mule, but both carry us to places we might never visit except on their backs. A racehorse is thrilling on the track; a mule is perhaps the only way if we're descending a trail from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river in the abyss. Both the exhilaration of musical virtuosity and plodding exploration of rattlesnake-infested canyons have their place in art. The world’s body is an instrument of the sublime as well as a treacherous viper. I’ve stolen a metaphor from John Crowe Ransom, who, in his critical masterpiece entitled The World’s Body, explained some of the techniques used in poetry to prod sensory indolence toward spiritual alertness. Ransom, to my recollection, tried to explain how philosophers and literary critics are different from artists, though he understood that some artists are also critics and was himself a poet as well as a teacher. In terms of this metaphor, art is embodiment. It tends to focus the mind on the particular and unique in human experience rather than abstract principles used to control things as in science or business. If there is meaning in a poem, it can never be adequately paraphrased in philosophical terminology.

T. S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest poet and critic of the twentieth century, had a more abstract expression for the imagery of a poem; he described art as an objective correlative, an objective correlative that corresponds to and evokes an emotional state. This is a remarkable expression coming from one of the most intellectual of English poets. If the meaning of a poem cannot be paraphrased, should we expect to find in philosophy, or theology, aesthetic principles that adequately describe what art in its various mediums communicates or some ideal toward which it aspires? Plato and Aristotle had much say about art based on the formal order they understood to be irreducible and more real than the existing world. In their terms, art, in the purest sense, is about beauty or the beautiful soul. For Aristotle, there is a correspondence between the universal and the concrete. If we begin with an examination of works that elicit something that seems describable in no other way than as art, abstract beauty isn’t the primary ingredient in art; too much art is repellent. Genet and others have argued that concentration on the vilest things will lead us to the same place as contemplation of virtue.

In order to get beyond art that I have experienced as only mediocre, it may be interesting to start with art that devours itself. I’ve written enough about my antipathy for rock music that I don’t have to restate reasons for thinking it is dangerous beyond the progressive deafness it inflicts on many of its practitioners and devotees. But, sometimes art can mean precisely the opposite of what its creators intend. The shock troupes of popular culture sometimes make us aware of virtue by its absence. The shock troupes of serious culture effect a similar privation in their exceedingly more pretentious barrage of disjointed painful illusions. Roger Kimball has aptly titled his book on the excrescences of modern and post-modern art, Experiments against Reality. All the sensory and intellectual machinery of this contrived chaos is marshaled against integration in the mind and spirit. Music in this anti-tradition is cacophonous and bizarre, organized arbitrarily on the premise that none of the principles of western standard practice are normative simply because they have been discovered through innumerable stages of development, or that they work. Ugliness, when taken seriously in the manner of this art, devours the nihilism of its nonsensical ideology, because music so repellent exposes a new criterion. At some point it becomes impossible to imagine anything more ludicrous. To parody Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God: art so puerile that nothing more ridiculous can be imagined establishes the existence of a standard of absurdity.

But let us leave serious contemporary art and get back to art with some semblance of meaning, say Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger. At full tilt they at least seem to be having a good time. Judging by the millions of recordings sold, those by Elvis for half a century, a lot of people seem to be having a good time along with them. That’s indisputably not the case with most of the operas written during the later part of the twentieth century. The standard interpretation of the rock phenomenon has itself become part of the cultural landscape. Rock music is, in this reading, throwing off the inhibitions of American Puritanism. It has thus liberated several generations from the Calvinistic self-abnegation of their predecessors. Recalling that Calvin banished all music but plainsong chant from his churches makes it hard to deny that the current theory on the rock music phenomenon explains some dysfunction in the Calvinistic doctrine of human artistry, and even so venerable a theologian as Dietrich Bonheoffer has only disparaging things to say about singers whose voices are audible above the congregation during hymn singing. Calvin may have been in reaction to what he perceived as indulgence in pagan sensuality in renaissance art to a degree that even harmony was a kind of sensualism.

Calvin’s rationalism blows like a desiccating wind through Christendom, but he wasn’t wrong about everything. The balance of powers in American government can be seen as Puritan realism about human depravity. Freedom in the United States is partly a function of institutionalized doctrines that block predictable abuses of power. It’s also debatable whether the productivity of the American economy has been the result of freedom or a work ethic involving self-denial and anxiety about election that creates capital reserves. The generations of relatively free, wealthy Americans who have finally realized Calvin’s ideas are incomplete in certain applications, are about to find out whether freedom or self-restraint count for more in economic terms. In certain applications, say the Salem witch trials, Calvinism may be as irrational as a rock concert, but, by a pendulum theory of art, we can imagine Calvin liberating Geneva from the idolatries of Michelangelo. Thankfully, the Catholic Church hasn’t seen fit to demolish, or otherwise dispose of, the treasures of the Vatican Palace. But, then again, the phrase “treasures of the Vatican Palace” does raise an incongruous clang in a sanctuary dedicated to Jesus as we find him in the Gospels.

To those with some education in the arts, it seems evident that Calvin and the iconoclasts went overboard while they were trying to stabilize the boat. The promoters staging multimedia productions in church would no doubt concur. That he may have missed the boat entirely, long before it ever got into dangerous water, does not change the fact that there is some dangerous art out there. Drugs and even rape are more common at and around rock concerts than is generally acknowledged. The facts tend to be submerged in the oceans of money flowing through city arenas where these circuses are mounted. Still, dangerous and intolerable may not always be the same thing when it comes to artistic freedom. Artistic freedom, of course, is not the question when government funding at art galleries sustains “works of art” like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. But we’re trying to work with the idea that scandalous art is not inadmissible in a discussion of theology of aesthetics.

God created a world with hazardous places and creatures. We’ve already compared Bob Dylan’s singing to an excursion through the Grand Canyon on a mule. Only a hundred years ago the Hopi Indians in that locale were increasing the numinous excitement of their festivals by dancing with rattlesnakes in their mouths. Precisely where along the spine of a rattlesnake does one bite, without being bitten, in order to constrain a rattlesnake so that one can dance without having the excitement dampened suddenly by the impact of a head and fangs that will induce a sudden swelling about the neck? This question, though certainly germane, is apparently not the first question that anthropologists try to answer. The Hopi make beautiful pottery. The Audubon Society has noted that some factions ritualistically kill eagles. Now, under instruction in the current church-growth literature, mission engagement with the Hopi puts evangelists in something of a predicament. Will inscription of the four spiritual laws on pottery urns be sufficient acculturation in order to communicate in the cultural idioms of the Hopi? Or are we going to have to import snake handlers from Tennessee?

The disputed passage from the Gospel of Mark aside, Hopi dancers and Christian snake-handlers seem to hold, excuse the expression, similar, if elusive, versions of Durkheim's idea of numinous art. Britny Spears is known to have exploited this notion, having once danced naked, or nearly so, on national television while fondling a large, presumably non-venomous, snake. God created great whales, walruses, and small, but poisonous, rattlesnakes. He must think they are marvelous, for their own sake, or is it that the human race deserves to have them crawling around in the garden during dry years in sagebrush country? It is perhaps insensitive to propose that he created them in retribution for the art, which he knew through his divine foreknowledge, those created in his image would invent during the twentieth century.

There is yet quite a lot to be said about racehorses, but we can carefully lay aside the rattlesnakes, only noting that they are too beautiful, in a formal sense, to be the work of a blind watchmaker. God must be the artist who creates them, if only to prove the threatening hiss and buzz of his music is more exhilarating than the operas of Phillip Glass. A rattlesnake, even unperturbed on a rock, is more artful than the work called Satyagraha, a travesty by Glass on Gandhi. The only interesting parts of this music are stolen from an organ concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. The irony of Satyagraha is that the title translates as an insistence on truth that arms the votary with matchless power. God armed the rattlesnake with more truth and power than any number of contemporary composers.

If poetry is, as Ransom teaches, the world’s body, what are we to call art that embodies nobility, love, and treachery, in drama using the language of the greatest literary works in the Western canon set to music by composers skilled in a tradition that is the culmination of a thousand years of liturgical and theatrical practice and performed by singers whose voices have the stamina to soar for hours over a large orchestra? Throw in the occasional ballet, and you have the beginning of a description of opera. Olympic athletes train for, maybe, ten or fifteen years to reach the peak of their careers. Opera singers commonly sing for thirty or forty years, continually refining their technique in an art that is in many ways as strenuous as sport. Opera engages the senses and the spirit on so many dimensions that even those schooled in its conventions cannot simultaneously absorb all the impacts.

Enjoying opera takes preparation for most people. The language is exalted and often foreign in the locale of the performance. The metaphysical presuppositions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are uncongenial for audiences who don’t understand them and a constant challenge to the dispositions of the directors now staging historic operas who do understand and often try to undermine them. Yet beyond the pendulum theory of art, where the errors of metaphysics and ontology in the reasoning of earlier thinkers are corrected by new art, the standard repertoire of operatic masterpieces maintains an organic repository of magnificence. A positive theology of aesthetics can be delineated by following any of the contrapuntal voices in the operatic tradition.

Maybe we now agree that exhilaration and exploration are both part of the artistic experience. Like simpler art forms, opera illuminates being in vivid definition. Often enough, all the climbers in this expedition are able to ascend into the atmosphere of the sublime. The highest peaks then cut a jagged horizon out of the sky. Dealing with something that can be compared to a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas, or launching the space shuttle, reduces the imagery of the racehorse to mere exercise. The equivalent of both the climbing expedition and engineering science, the physical skill and technical mastery, are necessary to stage an opera. Composers, conductors, singers, orchestra players, designers, directors, and spear carriers all must do their work within a living organic tradition, or fight against it.

Experiential appreciation of being is inescapable in opera. Love it or hate it, when the fat lady sings, you feel it. Sometimes the masterpiece being sung is beautiful beyond description in any another way, and the sublime emerges. This is artistry on the highest plain. In other terminology, the resonances in the human spirit along so many dimensions can be called revelation, or an incarnation, or the word made flesh. This description, of course, grievously offends the sensibilities of post-modern literary theorists. Fortunately for them, many attempts are made to fabricate art on this level. When art is contrived to create the illusion of truth, there is harmony along some dimensions of our humanity and in some of the fibers in the fabric of the medium. If art of this kind convinces some people, for a while, that it is a metaphor of reality, or is at least persuasive, but it eventually does not ring true, the work that at first seemed a genuine work of art is revealed to be the contemptible artifice we call propaganda, or in its milder forms, mere rhetoric.

Genuine art is so illuminating, or arresting, or exultant, or graceful, or lovely, or compelling, or inspiring, and its nobility resonates simultaneously along so many dimensions, that it makes us fully alive to our own existence. Sometimes just being is enough, but in full awareness of our own existence, we can sometimes utter the two words anathema to existentialists. God exists. Art in this sense is Incarnational. A deeper appreciation of being alive, whether through artistic or natural beauty, makes us more aware that it is a miracle that we are here. The miracle asks for an explanation, and the explanation that comes to mind for many people, indoctrinated or not, is God. When the revelation provided by the Incarnation of Christ and the testimony of the church and scriptures are accessible, God consciousness is distinct and rationally articulate.


Ray said...

"God created great whales, walruses, and small, but poisonous, rattlesnakes."

I think part of this discussion should include the question, is God the author of sin? God created man sinless and we assumed our sinful nature through The Fall in the Garden of Eden. Did God create poisonous snakes or did the snake become poisonous (evil) after The Fall? God is the author of all Creation, but since art is in the hands of fallen man, not all art is necessarily of God. Not all art is necessarily of benefit. Not all art is necessarily acceptable.

Michael Dodaro said...

On target, Ray. Does art have any persuasive power when it is contrary to natural law? Are we influenced or damaged by the propaganda for postmodernism in art galleries and now even in commercials on television?

Dave said...

Secondary question: if outright dualism (as convenient as it appears to those of us who want to affirm transcendant standards of beauty) is off-limits to the Christian, how do we assert the existence of good vs. bad art? I'm thinking that Augustine's anti-manichean polemic might be useful here, as it usually is in combatting dualism.

What about this: Bad art isn't bad because it has absolute power to corrupt the soul into some absolute evil. At worst, I think bad art has the power to amplify the the illusion of non-being that sin nature wants to live in. But sin nature is characterized by desire that has no real object -- Kierkegaard's sickness unto death, despair. But for the Christian attuned to truth, to the extent that their desires are oriented towards God in affection for the truly beautiful, bad art has no potency. It looks merely trivial.

The question remains, though, what is the character of bad art? I have another thought here that Aristotle's Poetics might help us out, but I have to go home and eat and be with my family. Maybe Mike or Charles or Ray can pick up the other end of that -- starting with A's idea of truth in art as the possible as opposed to actual truth, the incompleteness of truth in art as a kind of Augustinian privation??

Dave said...

By the way, Mike, I negelected to say what a great essay that is. Dare I say Barzun-esque? I need to read it a couple more times. But you have a wonderful, ranging intellect. Great stuff, brilliant imagery.

Michael Dodaro said...

Dave, I'm speechless. I said I was going to shut up for a while after trying to put down some of my thoughts on theology and aesthetics. After a compliment like that, I think I should cash in my chips and get out of the game before I lose my shirt or all of my credibility. There are still things that I can’t quite get on the page despite my extravagant metaphors, but the company has found something urgent that they think I can help fix. I’ll be working, but online most of the time, and at least, less verbose than usual. Maybe not less verbose enough that Ray will lose his bet.
For all our talk about theology, we seem to be a bunch of gamblers.

Ray said...

Dave, don't feed the trolls.... oh wait, Mike owns this blog, he can't be a troll.

Dave's question concerning the character of bad art is key. Recently, we've seen paintings sold for big dollars that were made by young children or even monkeys. (Where did I go wrong?)

Is CCM bad art, or just appropriate for worship? Can art be good but not appropriate for the church? And if not appropriate for the church will it become someday when it loses the stigma of association, as in waltz music? Or someday, CCM may be considered mainstream gospel music and used by conservative churches with more liberal churches using something that goes far beyond CCM.

Ray said...

Correction: In my first sentence above, I meant to ask if CCM is bad art or just inappropriate for worship.

Dave said...

I wonder if we commit a latent dualism by trying to give "bad" art any particular character at all? Should we only speak of privations of art, a lack of goodness, truth, or beauty?

Dave said...

Ray asked: "Correction: In my first sentence above, I meant to ask if CCM is bad art or just inappropriate for worship."


CCM is bad first of all because it despises its own history. Listen to it sometime. What kind of music is it? No kind. It just is. It references nothing but itself. It began with borrowed sounds from popular music and the basic template of a rock combo, and completely abstracted these elements from any connection to any tradition, folk, gospel, rock or otherwise. Occaisional attempts at recovering these roots -- Russ Taff's outstanding albums The Way Home and Under Their Influence being the most prominent (only?) examples -- are met with a collective yawn and promptly shuffled off to the bargain bin.

Music ministers hired by churches to produce "Praise and Worship" music are generally hacks trained mostly in the art of over-arrangement and thunderously overplayed, two-handed keyboard accompaniment. They spend their time writing charts in Finale, and hope like hell they can find enough accomplished instrumentalists to cover their mediocrity. The instrumentalists -- the only real talent on the stage -- dutifully play the dreck they're given, collect their checks and go home. The congregation responds with appropriate apathy, having long ago given up trying to reconcile the utter disjunction between the supposed Object of worship and the sheer banality of the sounds and lyrics they're hearing.

CCM participates in an aesthetic that is the perfect opposite of T.S. Eliot's. Where Eliot demanded of art that it master its own history, converse with and renew that history by becoming so steeped in its forms that poesis becomes nearly intuitive (which is exactly what The Band does with American music), CCM abdicates any sense of history at all. Instrumentalists reference nothing but the chord in front of them, perhaps sometimes aping a sound from the radio, but never with any real creativity. Music ministers arrange purely for efficiency, every musical device is obvious and hackneyed (hey! let's raise the key a whole step on the last chorus!).

The reasons for this are legion, but one of the main ones is that CCM has never reconciled itself to its connections to Rock music. It has a guilty conscience, and tries to supress those feelings by pretending its history doesn't exist, or by giving some half-hearted rationale that "God can use Rock to reach youth," or "Why should the devil have all the good music?" and then promptly forgetting where that "good music" came from, betraying the fact that they never believed their own rationale to begin with.

Ray said...

To my ear, much of CCM sounds like 60s style protest music - Peter, Paul and Mary. Innocuous, but with a message. Or, like 70s bubblegum pop - 1910 Fruitgum Company. Saccharin sweet.

After your characterization, I'm glad I'm not a music minister, but years ago that was a goal. And I use Cakewalk, not Finale. Overall, I like your assessment. I have heard it said for years that the church is just 25 years behind the rest of the world. I think music is an example of that. Does that mean in 25 years rap/hip hop will be the norm in Evangelical churches? Scary thought.

Michael Dodaro said...

Very good point, Dave. "Where the 'good music' came from" is, for all practical purposes, a tradition. In pop music the tradition may be short, but it is there, and building on the acquired knowledge of several generations, the current crop of artists learn from their predecessors. Art advances in ways that no single generation of artists can accomplish. Creating ex-nihilo is for God. Others use the forms and techniques that they inherit from the tradition. A long tradition may get too rigid, so innovators bend the rules, or start new trends, but usually without completely abandoning the old forms.

The question for musicians who want to bring pop idioms into church is whether the musical techniques and forms of pop can be used with liturgical texts without bringing along other elements of the culture in which the musical idioms were created. It seems to me that a Jesus rock festival is incongruous, at best.
But, even an old classical traditionalist, like me, may not want to call the rock tradition itself evil, even if some of it crosses the line. There may be music in the rock tradition that makes people feel more alive, and where their God-given nature responds, nobody can tell them it is all wrong. Lots of punks are nicer people, and possibly more inclined to human kindness than, say, certain Enron executives. But, in church, punks are going to have to learn a lot of things that go against their inclinations, as are hardened businessmen.

Learning to appreciate music out of a longer tradition than any popular idioms is good training for learning from the traditions of the church and scriptures. Education and spiritual formation have always been part of the deal in the church, and, for that matter, in other institutions that have been influenced by Christian ideals. We're finding out, for example, that it is not so easy to plant democratic institutions in a country like Iraq where the cultural framework, in which democracy thrives, doesn't exist.

Dave said...

Sorry for the near-ad hominem, Ray. I've been a semi-music minister myself. And my invective was directed only at a certain type of music minister that I've run into over the years...nice guys though they are, they don't really like music very much, or at least they don't believe in the music they're making, other than as a prop for the sermon of the week. Some genuinely believe there is something positive happening in the jangly worship ditties they're playing, that there might possibly be something of the numinous in what they're playing, but only because the standards have been driven so low. Most of the ones I've run into are either bored by music, or have taken a purely utilitarian approach: music serves the pastor's message of the week. This banality brings the contrarian out in me, and since I no longer have any connections to that world I feel a little less inhibited. Honestly, I think somebody ought to say it. A lot of people are thinking it.

Ray said...

Dave, I am just beginning to fight the battle in my church. I am a choir director in a church that has prided itself in its conservatism. Plus, I am a brass musician and have participated in worship through various ensembles and solo work. I was informed last night that we need to use faster music to maintain the interest of some of the younger people (younger as defined as 40s and under). Our pastor has held strong convinctions and has studied music himself, but seems to be giving in to a vocal minority. I see this as part of the utilitarian approach, using your term. Utilitarian in that it is meant to ensure people don't leave to search for a church that caters to their musical tastes. There are plenty available that do. It is a means to an end. It is a compromise. We will continue to use the old hymns of the faith interspersed with contemporary songs of dubious quality but innocuous theology that will not offend. (I think I'm almost starting to sound like you guys).

BTW, I now keep my trusty Webster's New World Dictionary handy by the computer. Had to look up numinous.

scribe said...

Ray said: "I was informed last night that we need to use faster music to maintain the interest of some of the younger people (younger as defined as 40s and under)."

Resist! Resist! Otherwise before long you'll be doing doo-wop or rap music in the worship.

If the younger generation wants "faster" (fast as in loose living)kind of music, they can listen to their CDs.

Ray said...

Don't worry Scribe, I'm resisting. Ah, I think by faster they meant tempo. But, hey I like doo wop, maybe I'll suggest we do some of that. And I'm getting visions of some of our members doing rap..... that could be painful.

Michael Dodaro said...

I don't know any other way than to keep doing the standard repertoire. If there are people who want to do CCM, and who are able to do it, you might encourage them to sing the choruses in a youth or contemporary service, without changing what you do. Maybe enough people will see the reason you hold out. But, if experience elsewhere is any indication, you either end up with two churches meeting at different times in the same building, or a situation where the divergent factions grit their teeth through the parts of the service they don't like.

Or you might have a battle royal! It happened in my parents' Lutheran Church. The synod finally had to dismiss both the traditional pastor and the young associate with his guitar. It took several years before things settled down. The guitar-playing pastor started another church with the most determined of the CCM people, but it folded after a year or two. My folk's church, under new leadership, is now doing fine again. They have an organist and full-time choir director. The choir does music that is SATB. The pastor has been there about 15 years. He plays the guitar occasionally, but the choruses have not displaced the liturgy, creed, and confession. The previous CCM group didn't even want to keep these historic remnants of Lutheranism.

The same kind of split happened in my wife's parents' Methodist church. A new minister thought he could encourage younger people to come by using CCM. Even this pastor's daughter admitted he had split his former church along these lines, just as he soon did the new church. There must be millions of people just as weary of this as we are. If we can make any headway on the problem, we'll be the saints, or martyrs, people read about a couple of hundred years from now.

scribe said...

Because of all this splitting the church over CCM (and its anti-historical Christian culture)--I have come to the conclusion that CCM must be from the devil.

Ray said...

Well, historically the church has said rock music is of the Devil.

Michael Dodaro said...

The devil is the author of discord. And it is common knowledge that when he fell from heaven, he landed in the choir loft. However, in this country there are millions of people who love, and live, CCM. I debated this question on a radio program some months ago and a caller insisted it is not bad because he has seen many young people come into the church through CCM and remain faithful Christians after many years. We’re a long way from the question of aesthetics; it seems that many people are fine with derivative pop music when they become Christians. It’s clearly better than their not being Christians.

Ray said...

On the way home from Lowe's where I bought some more shelving to display my increasing collection of diecast 1950s automobiles, I was listening to Paul Heil's "Gospel Greats" radio program. If you've never heard the program, it is all about Southern Gospel, both traditional and contemporary. I was interested to hear one of the Southern Gospel artists complaining about the deterioration of parts singing in churches. He attributed it to the dumbing down (he actually used that phrase) of our song services because of the misperception that people can't read music therefore churches are using the powerpoint displays on the screens showing the words only. As a result, those who are able to read music no longer have the music available so singing tends to be mostly in unison. Something has been lost, he said. Considering the roots of Southern Gospel and that contemporary Southern Gospel has followed the path of other contemporary music, I thought his comments very interesting.

Michael Dodaro said...

Like a Platonic dialogue, the counterpoint in Bach’s compositions holds listeners’ interest. And unlike the monody of contemporary praise choruses, counterpoint objectifies a diversity of voices. In churches where pop music supplants Bach, a concomitant uniformity of thinking often prevails. Dialogue and open consideration of ideas can sometimes exist in churches where emotion has supplanted diversity, both within the church, and that created by sustaining tension with contemporary trends. Unfortunately a church that has no substantially articulated points of divergence with its opponents in the surrounding culture will seldom tolerate conflicting points of view among its members. Counterpoint is lost or inaudible but amplification increases.

Ray said...

And bringing the discussion back to aesthetics (I don't know why you hijacked this thread, Mike), this Southern Gospel artist lamented the loss of beauty and musical interest with the advent of powerpoint and unison singing.

I would argue we don't need Bach to illustrate we have lost something. Even a well written hymn sung in four part harmony can be a picture of this diversity you speak of Mike, a diversity that when properly blended creates a beautiful whole.

Maybe since MS PowerPoint has become the center of attention, we should blame Bill Gates.

Ray said...

BTW Mike, nice picture of what I assume is the Grand Canyon.

Michael Dodaro said...

Yeah, same point, Ray. Hymns or the B minor mass, counterpoint is counterpoint. Where there isn't any in the music, there isn't likely to be any in the prevailing ideas.
Yes, that's the grand canyon and me on living on the edge.

scribe said...

Unison singing isn't all bad, although I can see the problem with Powerpoint sing-a-longs.

Gregorian and Byzantine chant is unison singing. Polyphonal singing is a Western style. The Greek Church regards polyphonal singing as being incorrect for the church as it symbolizes disunity. As one Greek told me "The Church is One. So our singing should be one."

Ray said...

Scribe, unison chant music is often written to provide enough musical interst that is doesn't need harmony. And in my mind's ear, I hear chant music performed in a huge cathedral with outstanding acoustics including enough reverb that the single melodic line can almost sound harmonic. It is written with that in mind. Our evangelical type hymnody and especially the more modern stuff falls very flat without some kind of accompaniment, either instrumental or vocal harmonization.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I just got back from a lay ministry retreat where one of our topics was the purpose and structure of Lutheran worship (which is representative of the broad catholic tradition of Christianity). Our facilitator -- a pastor from our area who is himself a gifted musician, and whose church uses a wide variety of music in its worship -- pointed out to us how foolish it is to base how we do worship on how it might appeal to new people. He compared it to baseball. "Baseball is hard. It has a lot of complicated rules. Baseball commissioners don't sit around and say, 'Oh, our sport is soooo complicated that it might frighten any poor new people who might come to the game -- so let's change the rules so it'll be easier for the new people.'" No one thinks like this, it seems, except churches -- people who are supposed to be trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit!

This same pastor pointed out that studies of churches that are growing show no real correlation between growth and the degree of contemporary worship/music. In churches with the most growth, people who are attracted to those churches report that authenticity of belief is what draws and keeps people in those faith communities; in other words, to use 12 Step lingo, churches that visibly, palpably walk their talk. Some of the fastest growing churches are Eastern Orthodox churches...not exactly on the cutting edge of "contemporary" liturgics or music.

Having said all that...I think there is room for music of a variety of styles, from a variety of places, in worship. At my church, on any given Sunday, we may sing an old Reformation-era chestnut that cradle Lutherans have heard at their mother's breast; a newer hymn from the developing world; a 19th century "come to Jesus" hymn; a contemporary hymn. The style or the origin isn't the issue. The issues to me: Do the hymns and other worship music selected actually serve to worship God (instead of, say, the singer's preoccupation with his or her own feelings in those "My boyfriend Jesus" praise songs)? Do the hymns and other music selected fit the liturgical season -- in other words, if it's Lent, why are we singing up-tempo happy-clappy songs, and if it's a festival day, why are we singing, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" And -- and this is admittedly somewhat subjective, but I think there's a way to do it -- is the music any good? I mean, country music is not a genre that I know about or care for very much at all, but even I can perceive a qualitative difference between, say, a Patsy Cline or Johnny Cash classic and some of the crappy, gimmicky, overproduced one-hit-wonders on my local country music station. Just because a hymn is new, or just because a hymn is old, or just because a hymn is familiar, doesn't mean that it's any good, lyrically or musically.

So, Mike, I guess that's a very long-winded way of saying that it's not the style but the quality and intent of the music selected for worship that matters. I think the absolute worst thing a worship committee can do is just throw together disjointed music just because these people like this hymn and those people like that hymn, etc. The worship service, IMHO, should be mindfully crafted, and hymn/music selection is an important part of that; the lessons, sermon and music should all support one another and be consistent with that week in the Church year. (Since this is the Traditional forum, I'm assuming we're both working from the assumption that we're following the Church year.)

Dr. Marva Dawn is a theologian who's written some really good stuff on this subject. I'd recommend her book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, which tackles "the worship wars," and A Royal Waste of Time, which is about the theology of worship in general.

Anonymous said...

Until very recently, Christian worship services have been intended for Christian believers -- not as evangelism tools for visitors. That's not what Christian worship is for. Churches that operate from the standpoint of "selling" Christianity at their worship services by gimmicky pop-culture means are not only spiritually starving their current members but patronizing and letting down visitors, who are in church in the first place because they're looking for something deeper and more profound than what they're finding in the secular world.

Does that mean that visitors are unwelcome at worship services? Of course not. Does it mean that we ignore visitors? Of course not. But instead of tinkering with the service in ways that aesthetically impoverish a congregation (i.e., by ditching any music or liturgy more than 10 years old or from another culture than our own) or that compromise the traditional, historic structure of Christian worship -- the gathering; the Word; the response to the Word; the Meal; the sending -- we look for good entry points in the service to welcome visitors. There are ways to physically welcome visitors as they enter the sanctuary in ways that say, "We're glad you're here. Thank you for helping us be the Church today." There are ways to narrate the liturgy -- to be mindful of persons unfamiliar with the way your church does things, and explain what's going on as it's going on, and why. There are ways of welcoming people into the Eucharistic feast, even if your church practices closed Communion or even if visitors don't feel comfortable partaking. This is where you reach out to the new people...not by coming up with some superficial, jury-rigged, "new and improved" worship service that ain't.

Ray said...

Anonymous, excellent thoughts. Those two books by Marva Dawn are well written and among the best I have found addressing worship and how music fits into the picture. She is an excellent writer - and understand I'm a non-liturgical separatist Baptist.

Another good book is, "Music, Through the Eyes of Faith", by Harold Best, professor and dean emeritus from Wheaton College.

Michael Dodaro said...

This is a pretty good essay. It discusses issues that several of us have raised previously. Is Art Necessary ?

Ray said...

From the article: "In an area where the church believes itself to be more holy by ignoring music, film, poetry, literature, and the plastic arts, it actually looks more modernist than it does Christian."

I come from a religious background that eschews fine art in the church building. We recently built a nice addition; nice in that it was done tastefully, but not artistically. Plain wood doors and ranch style moldings like you would see in a 1950s tract home. It has the minimalist contemporary look to it. In fact, the entire church building is the same. Nothing that makes you go "Ah.....". No wow factor. Nothing artistic, just pure utilitarian. Bach and Mozart almost seem out of place. So even musically, it is easy in that type of environ to gravitate to a minimalist contemporary style of music.

Michael Dodaro said...

I gather that there are both Calvinistic Baptists and Free Will Baptists, but it seems your variety follows Calvin in the interpretation of the arts, keeping it simple in order to emphasize the doctrines on the assumption that art is, at best, beside the point and, at worst, indulgence in the flesh.

Michael Dodaro said...

Here's another good essay from the Leadership U web site: Discerning and Defining the Essentials of Postmodernism
It is debatable whether aesthetic principles as evident in musical traditions can be thought of as metaphysical. Most people now are saying music is just vibration in the air. Michael Linton and Harold Best are in this camp. Ray, you have given good examples of how somebody like John Cage is a propagandist for nihilism. If music is a language, we have to believe that the elements of music can be used meaningfully. But the essay at the link discusses the realism/nominalism debate intelligently. It may be helpful.

Ray said...

Another reason for the lack of art, especially architecturally, is the cost. We Baptists believe in proper stewardship of God's money and not spending it on frivolousness. And art can be perceived as frivolousness. Mere decoration. Something totally unnecessary. But, I think part of it is a rebellion against Catholicism with their ornate buildings and statues or the Orthodox icons (my apologies Scribe, I'm merely reporting).

There are Baptists all over the spectrum.

Michael Dodaro said...

I think this is really the crux of the whole problem. Art is perceived as merely decoration on the doctrines of the church, but the Bible is anything but a theological dissertation. Everything important is in the drama and the Incarnation. Reading the Bible is more like going to church in a Catholic or Orthodox church than reading a treatise by Calvin or Bonheoffer.

Michael Dodaro said...

Here's an interesting thought: John Milton was a Puritan who distrusted ritual and the traditions of the church. In church he was more like a Baptist than a Catholic or Orthodox, yet if you read his poetry, it is full-bodied and rich in metaphor and myth, even Greek myth.

Michael Dodaro said...

Paradise Lost is theological; it's stated purpose is to justify the ways of God to man. Yet Milton contradicts his Puritanism in his poetry.

Ray said...

I see it as a problem of education. A little story, I taught music in a Christian Day School in the mid 70s, right out of college. One class I taught was a NYS required general music class for 6th and 7th graders. One of my biggest problems was parents. Johnny would take home his report card and proudly display a B in Music, but try to hide the F's in Math and English. Mom and Dad said they didn't care if he flunked Music just get those Math and English grades up. He came to class next semester and didn't do a thing, because Mom and Dad said it was OK. True story.

There was no value placed on the arts because that was not going to help junior operate his own farm, or work on the production line at IBM or maybe even get into college to enable him to rise above the level of Mom and Dad. Math and English, that was his ticket. Real subjects. Subjects that would translate to a bigger paycheck.

Ask the average person who their favorite artist is... Thomas Kincade. They would have no appreciation for the masters because they have no understanding. Same with music. Same with literature.

How can one appreciate finer things if they have no clue what they are?

Michael Dodaro said...

And now Johnny, that is, grown up John, can't understand why anybody would quibble about the kind of music used in church. The important subjects are the science and math, which are understood to be the teaching and the attendance, or maybe the attendance and the financial statements.

scribe said...

How can there not be art in Church--art is in all religions. To take it out is to make religion a pure head trip. Religion has to touch your eyes, ears, nose, taste--all 5 of our senses. Otherwise, it would seem that God only wants to save our head.

Ray said...

No argument with what you say, Scribe. It's just that often in more conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches, art is minimized. It is there, but not a focal point. There are old Baptist churches built by people who theologically are the same as Baptists today, but they have beautiful ornate stained glass windows and carved hardwood trim and pews and pulpit furniture that are in themselves works of art. But, those examples of church art have become prohibitively expensive today, thus the minimalist approach.

But, consider this too, many organizations place limits on church appropriate art. Assuming contempory music is an artform, there are churches that prohibit it. My church does not use icons. Your Orthodox church eliminates the artform of instrumental music. It comes down to what we value as part of our worship and what we believe is appropriate.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Speaking as a musician and composer I have heard a lot of bad CCM but for me the Gospel trumps all other variables and my experience, so far, is that a good understanding of the Gospel will bring about the subsdiary understanding that The church I'm part of now started off with music that I, to be frank, just didn't like. But the preaching covered the core truths of the faith in a way I had not heard in a long time and, at least in my part of the world, such churches can feel rare.

I also determined, at a sort of subconscious level, that if God gave me an opportunity to make music I DID like at the church that I'd take it. After a few years, as the church began to grow, I dscovered enough singers interestedin choral works to propose starting an official curch choir and with the go-ahead of the music pastor a choir was formed. Last year we had the pleasure of singing part of Mozart's Requiem and a Johnny Cash song during a service.

The church I'm at is mostly Reformed but the pastors have said a few times, to my relief, that the Reformers dropped the ball on art, and were just plain anti-art. I'm not at my most salient tonight because I haven't eaten in a few hours. But I agree with Dave about CCM. My favorite exposition on CCM has to be Eric Cartman's brutal and short statement in the South Park episode "Christian Rock Hard"

Writing a Christian rock song is easy, guys,
you just take some has-been Motown song and anywhere it says "ooh baby" you just write "Jesus".

I could expand on this a bit with personal experience a bit later but I'm in need of some food.

Ray said...

OK Hatchet, you must have eaten by now. How about expanding on your last comments?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Yeah, I've eaten but I just got home and for the last few days I've had neither phone nor internet access thanks to a screw-up on the part of an unnamed service provider. :)

I once helped a woman work on a musical-dramatic work that imagined Jesus spending three days in Hell preaching the good news to people, you know, the spirits in prison passage. Notwithstanding that Jesus came across as a bit wimpy in His victory over the forces of darkness, there was a song in the production in which Jesus sings to the people He has died for. The refrain was basically "You're worth it" and broadly touches upon the things suffered for the sake of that person.

Well, come to find out during production that the song was originally written for the woman's boyfriend, ex-boyfriend it turned out. She wrote the song for the guy and then he dumped her. So she adapted the material to be sung by Jesus in the musical.

Now for me this brought to mind a passage in Malachi wherein God says he's not happy with a sacrifice that has a lame leg or was stolen from someone else. God asks rhetorically, "Do you expect me to be happy with this?" Well, speaking out of personal conscious I thought this song was basically a left-over ascribed to Jesus for the sake of musical drama and that the theology expressed by the song in its own setting and in the dramatic context made Jesus seem really wimpy even by the wimpy standards of American late 20th century Arminian theology. It sure didn't seem like a rousing example of christus victor, that's for sure.

Bach would recontextualize and recycle music in all sorts of ways so I'm not suggesting a person can't recycle a piece of music. But recycling music from a non-liturgical context to a liturgical context shouldn't happen with NO WORK AT ALL.

Thus, the allusion to Eric Cartman's slam on Christian rock from the show South Park.

I was planning on delving into the curious tendency of some fo the most avant garde composers in the Western traditions to come from Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds but that will have to wait for another time. To speak briefly on this point, though, I find it interesting that for Messiaen the implications of the "catholic" in Chrsitian belief really obtained a global sense of scope. John Tavener doesn't like that trait about Messiaen because OM would appropriate Indian musical ideas for a Christian theological point but I submit, with a heavy dose of disdain for Tavener's music AND theology, that Messiaen was approaching the issue with an actually Christian mindset.

scribe said...

wenatchee said: "Now for me this brought to mind a passage in Malachi wherein God says he's not happy with a sacrifice that has a lame leg or was stolen from someone else. God asks rhetorically, "Do you expect me to be happy with this?" Well, speaking out of personal conscious I thought this song was basically a left-over ascribed to Jesus for the sake of musical drama and that the theology expressed by the song in its own setting and in the dramatic context made Jesus seem really wimpy even by the wimpy standards of American late 20th century Arminian theology. It sure didn't seem like a rousing example of christus victor, that's for sure."

I agree--there shouldn't be the recycling of the broken and the lame into Christian music and worship. I see some artists trying to do this in the visual arts and then make all kinds of philosophical excuses for it, such as "God redeems the flesh as well as the spirit." Yes He does, but He never allowed the ancient Jews to bring their rubbish to him as offerings.

Taverner is a very strange kind of Orthodox--he's much more liberal Anglican than Orthodox--really quite heretical in his views. I'm not sure what Orthodox jurisdiction he belongs to, if he belongs anywhere. I cannot imagine a traditional Orthodox church putting up with his ecumenism.

I've seen a lot of Catholics swerve into avant garde kind of art. They are often reacting against the overstrictness of pre-Vatican II life or trying to find what post-Vatican II culture should be. They end up going their individual direction, which tends to be anti-Catholic.

For the Orthodox, it is more complicated--Orthodox culture in the old countries have been in decline for centuries due to Islamic incursions or communism. There is also a tension between incursions of Western thought against the Eastern that Orthodox artists must deal with. Cypriot author Nikos Kanzanzakis is a case in point--he was originally Orthodox and later became Communist and later became quasi-Buddhist, etc. Some of the Balkan authors wrestle with a lot of confusion that has come as a result of Orthodox cultural decline. In this cultural vacuum, they have become mainly Eastern-born Westerners who have a hard time attaching themselves to their Eastern church, which is very opposed to Westernized ideas.

In Russia, there were a number of late 19th-early 20th century Russians that were avant garde like Stravinsky, the ballet master Diaglilev, etc. In the upper classes, there were a lot of artists who were in love with all things Western and so broke with the Church in order to be Western in their art and life.

Ray said...

Hatchet, I too like your reference from Malachi about pure sacrifices. I have been saying for a long time that our music offered to God in worship ought to transcend the mere commonplace and you have voiced biblical support for that idea.

Scribe, I think the excuses in the music world for using recycled pop music is rooted more in the practical rahter than the philosophical. Popular music, as indicated by its name, is widely accepted by a large number of people. Since the focus of so many churches is on increasing membership, it only makes sense for those churches to use music that will be widely accepted, or popular. Pop music sells. Isn't that why you hear it used ubiquitiously on television? It sells there, and it sells in the church.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Western interest in non-Western art is not a new fad, that's true. I think there's a difference between a guy like Tavener and a guy like Messiaen. I can't vouch that Messiaen or Penderecki are great Catholics but Penderecki particularly has made statements that he believes the muysical language to depict the suffering of Christ isn't appropriate for affirming the Christian faith as found in the Credo. This is why his Passion and Credo are REALLY different (that and about four decades' worth of space between the two). It seems telling of the problems at the "low" end of the liturgical spectrum that one of the big names in the avant garde end of Western music says some stuff isn't right for a particular theological purpose and writes music that actually reflects that belief.

To be sure, Penderecki's music has mellowed out a lot in the last thirty years. For people who adore Elliot Carter, perhaps, Penderecki has betrayed the cause, but the composer seems to feel differently.

If we want to look at Christian musicians on the "pop" end of things we can look at fairly obvious examples like Mahalia Jac kson or even Johnny Cash. What they did was create music they knew was part ofa larger historical tradition. I think that's a big reason why it works and holds up as well as it does.

jeannine said...

Interesting discussion, Michael - thanks to Glenn for pointing me to your blog.
The discussion of "bad art" is always an interesting one. Is it a measure of taste, of cultural constructs, is there an objective "good" and "bad" in art? Sloppy, ugly, yes - but bad?
My favorite art is that which reflects back the world we live in with a different illumination - I tend to like the dark books of the Bible, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah (well, he isn't all dark) - best, and I'd say it's probably the same with the kinds of visual, musical, and literary arts I like as well. I just don't trust something that's all sweetness and light. I really like the writing of Margaret Atwood - tart and bitter and truthful in a kind of scary way, but the art - well, when she builds a narrative, she's really constructing a cathedral.
Anyway, glad to stop by and add my 2 cents to such an interesting discussion.
Take care!