Hymns or Contemporary Music? An Exercise in Missing the Point

23 November 2008

A lot of ink, and no small amount of (metaphorical) blood, has been spilt over whether worshippers today should sing hymns or contemporary music.  I don’t intend to rehash the debate here, because I think it’s a stupid argument.  The people on both sides have so thoroughly overlooked the central questions on worship music that it’s a bit like arguing about whether to allocate federal funds for free condoms in public-school sex education classes.  (Sex education by someone other than parents? Federal funding?  Public schools?)  If you’re already that far gone, fighting about condoms is pretty much beside the point; the whole premise of the debate is deeply wrong several times over.

So it is with worship music.  First of all, the entire debate is largely conducted in terms of musical taste, which is already wrong.  Worship is offered to God; the question is not what makes us feel good, but what He wants to hear.  Blithely offering what we want to give is the mistake Cain made, and we’ll fare no better than he did.  Realizing this leads us to a second temptation.  I think it was Anne Lamott who said that you can be pretty sure you’ve made God in your image when it turns out He hates all the same people you do.  As of people, so of music: if you think God’s tastes entirely match your own, chances are pretty good that you’ve confused God with the person in the mirror.

Second, the question of whether it’s better to sing hymns or praise choruses is pointless, because the first priority is to sing psalms.  Try on these passages for size:

How is it then, brethren?  Whenever, you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.  (1 Corinthians 14:26)

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled by the Holy Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing heartily to the Lord….  (Ephesians 5:18-19)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing to the Lord with grace in your hearts.  (Colossians 3:16)

Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing psalms.  (James 5:13)

Might it be that there could be extrabiblical psalms, songs we write today to sing to the Lord?  Of course.  Paul’s use in his letters of early Christian hymn fragments seems to make this point pretty clearly.  But — as Doug Wilson so pointedly puts it — while the commands may potentially encompass more than the Book of Psalms, they surely do not encompass any less.  Leaving aside the question of what songs we might write, we have 150 that we know we’re supposed to sing.  Most of us could count on one hand the ones we could sing all the way through, and have a finger left to scratch our heads wondering how we ever missed these clear commands in Scripture.  Best we get started; we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Of course, we have the lyrics, but not the music.  We have to supply the music, and this has the potential to renew the debate: contemporary music, or something older? The first answer is “something older.”  Not because it’s better — although it might be — but because we already have it. The sooner we get started, the better, and it turns out we’re not the only ones who have ever thought about this.  There’s a rich Western heritage of music for the Psalms: we have medieval chant, the Scottish Psalter, the Genevan Psalter, the Irish Psalter, and various others.  The music in these psalters is older, and we’re going to have to live with it, at least until we can replace it.  But such is the price of several centuries of disobedience; if you don’t like Renaissance and medieval music, consider it motivation to get cracking.  It makes no sense to tell God “We’ll be happy to obey You in this matter just as soon as we’ve come up with some music that suits our tastes.”  Pfui.  We’ve got music; let’s use it.  Who knows, we might even decide we like it (I have).

Of course, there’s no reason for our composers today to rest on the laurels of the medieval church and the Protestant Reformation.  We should be writing music for the psalms, making our own contributions to the worship of the Lord, and this, again, threatens to renew the debate: contemporary music, or something in an older style?  But to argue the point in terms of temporal categories is, once again, already wrong.

The question should be, what sort of music best fits the psalm we’re working with?  Since God has given us the lyrics, we have to honor them; therefore, the music should augment the lyrics, not blunt them.  Repetitive variations on a theme in the lyrics should lead to repeated variations on a theme in music.  Happy lyrics that call for cymbals and shouts should lead to loud music with cymbals and shouts.  Mournful confession in the psalm should lead to mournful music.  Angry and discordant lyrics should lead to the same sort of music.  And so on.

Once we begin to consider these issues, then the debate over contemporary or traditional music might actually be worth taking up again.  But personally, I suspect that when we begin to consider these issues, most of the present debate will wither away, revealed for the silly distraction it always was.

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The Sociology of Vigorous Music

16 November 2008

The Western church has tried, and failed, to reform its worship before, or at least failed to make the reforms stick.  The reforms lasted long enough to give us some wonderful music, but we are now trying to recover it, because in the intervening centuries, we lost it.  The historical trend is from the rich and complex to the simplistic and predictable, from vigorous, robust singing to plaintive, introspective howling.

Why?

One answer is that we are sinners, and we always resist God.  He requires music to match the songbook He gave us, and we simply don’t deliver.  His songs are profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction and instruction in righteousness, which is to say, they are often comforting, but always uncomfortable.  We prefer to be comfortable, so we don’t sing God’s songs.  Not singing His Word, we are free to write our own, comfortable words, and compose for our comfortable words a lazy musical score that does not challenge us.

That’s one answer, and I think it’s a good one.  I’d like to add to it, though, because I think it’s missed something important.  I do this provisionally, in the spirit of a trial balloon, and if this intrigues or outrages you, I would love to hear from you.

When we backslide, there are always two reasons why: first, because we wanted to go backward, and second, because we didn’t move forward.  The answer above addresses only why we wanted to go backward.  I’d like to address the second reason, and begin to discuss how to move forward.

Many of these older, more complex, vigorous tunes are dances.  In fact, this is precisely the reason Queen Elizabeth dismissed the Genevan Psalter as “Genevan jigs.”

So where are the dancers?

If everyone sits in pews, or even stands in place, and sings the original ‘Genevan jigs,’ the incongruence between their music and their actions will get to them sooner or later.  Eventually, they will slow down the music to match what they’re doing with their bodies.  If even a few people are dancing, though, the sight and tempo of the movement will reinforce the vigor of the music.  We’re going to have to recover worship dance along with worship music, if we’re going to succeed in reviving vigorous psalm-singing.   It’s a package deal — the physical movement demands a certain sort of music, and the kind of music many of the Psalms require naturally demands that the body get up and move.   It’s unnatural to sing a jig without somebody dancing a jig.

I don’t know that there’s biblical precedent for making dance a part of the ordinary liturgy, but there is definitely precedent for worship dance on an ad hoc basis — Miriam (Exodus 15) and David (2 Samuel 6) come immediately to mind.  In order for that to be an option, a vigorous tradition of folk dance has to be part of the ongoing culture of the church, otherwise we won’t have the skills when we need them.

Music and dance go together.  There’s one other ingredient, though.  Vigorous dance has a strong, even martial quality to it.   This is no accident: in premodern cultures, there’s no separation between dance and martial preparation.  The martial arts of premodern cultures are all related to the cultures’ dances, and although not all dance is martial preparation in these cultures, martial preparation almost invariably involves dance.

Why?  I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I can speak to at least one of them from my own experience.  Dance is sustainable (physically, but more important, psychologically) in a way that harsh preparation for combat is not.  Dancing with a partner or a group reinforces general athleticism, distancing, timing, coordination, and so on, but it does these things in a relaxed and joyful way.

Contrast the dance to, say, hard sparring.  Sparring — even friendly sparring — takes a certain amount of focused bad intentions, it hurts, and it’s really rough on the body if you’re older than 25 or so.  You can only do so much of it.  Dance doesn’t have those problems, and so one of its functions is to involve the whole community in sustainable martial preparation.

It works the other way too.  As long as there’s no artificial barrier between martial preparation and dance, the culture’s dance tradition never fully loses contact with its martial traditions, and is in no danger of becoming decadent and effete.

So here’s the problem as I see it: cultures the world over demonstrate that a martial backdrop, vigorous dance, and vigorous music all go together.  Lose part of the package, and it seems that you’re in some danger of losing the whole thing.  If we’re going to have vigorous music — and keep it this time, instead of losing it after a century or so — I suspect we’ve got to figure out a way to have the whole package.

All of that said, the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, and the church is unique among the cultures of the world in that regard.  So how does this work itself out for us?


Liturgy, Part 2: Unity and Music

21 September 2008

The second in a series of papers on liturgical matters, Unity and Music: Five Hills to Die On addresses five specific areas of concern as our church tries to find its way, musically speaking. It starts out like this…

One of the worst things about Christians is our tendency to feel that because everything is a matter of principle, everything is equally important. Consequently, we often waste time and resources fighting over trivial things when there are really serious issues in play. Nowhere is this more true than in church music. I have, to my considerable shame, been a combatant in some really stupid arguments over Read the rest of this entry »


Liturgy, Part 1: Against Liturgy-Bashing

24 August 2008

The first of several planned papers on liturgical matters, “Against Liturgy-Bashing” attempts to clear away the nonsense that plagues our thinking in many American churches. To bring it closer to home: our local church is in desperate need of liturgical reform, and we cannot even begin to build a God-honoring liturgy until we have cleared away the underbrush of the pagan ideas that harden our necks and soften our heads. To that end, this paper addresses several common objections to liturgical worship. Two excerpts:

Does the leading of the Spirit require spontaneity rather than planning? Again, we can return to the commands to sing in order to see the fallacy here. Imagine if we all just got together, and on the count of three, all began to sing whatever words happened to pop into our heads, set to Read the rest of this entry »


Cantus Christi: Psalm-Singing for the Masses

27 July 2008

For my birthday, my darling wife bought me three presents: Cantus Christi, the accompanying CD set, and a 4-sermon series titled The Worship of the Saints. I’m going to review the first two here. The sermon series is definitely worth reviewing, but I’m still recovering from my shock. I’ll have to get to it later.

Cantus is a serious effort to recover psalm-singing in the church, as the proportion of the book devoted to the psalms demonstrates (196 out of 440 pages).

The single biggest challenge in psalm-singing is that while God gives us the words, He has not been pleased to preserve the original music. A saint who would sing psalms — as we are all commanded to do (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam.5:13) — must somehow come up with the music by which to sing them. Happily, this does not mean we have to write all the music ourselves.

Over the centuries, many saints have encountered this same challenge, and have written or adapted music for the psalms. Accordingly, Cantus is also a serious attempt to mine the wealth of the Western Church’s musical tradition. The music for the psalms relies heavily on the Genevan Psalter and other early Reformation musical sources, and the hymn tunes go back as far as A.D. 800. Psalm tunes include metrical songs (hymns that ordinary folks can sing without Read the rest of this entry »