Ain’t it awful?
Ain’t it awful?
For many people caught up in the worship wars, the history of church music is presumed to look like this: Generation A comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes that preceded them. Then Generation B comes to faith, grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes of Generation A, who have in the meantime become a bunch of obstructionist old geezers. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It is assumed that each generation’s music is the popular music of its youth, and it is assumed that this pattern has gone on since living memory, or at least since Pentecost.
Both of these assumptions are wrong.
In truth, the pattern is only about 200 years old. For the preceding 1800 years, the church drew on a rich heritage of singing that was consciously shaped, not by the Top 40, but by the needs and demands of worship, and was made consciously different from the music outside the church.
Now, I’m not saying the early church had the whole thing knocked, and if only we’d forget the last couple of centuries everything would be fine. Maybe our fathers were right, and maybe they were wrong. But it seems telling to me that we’ve so thoroughly managed to forget what they did that we just assume the way it’s happened since the 1970s is the way that it has always been. We’ve forgotten 1800 years of the music that nurtured our fathers, and it seems likely that they knew a few things that might benefit us.
I’d love to go off on this subject at great length. I am preparing to do so. But I am still in the midst of the preparations. In the meantime, I would like to recommend a little audio set you’ve probably never heard of.
Some while ago, Duane Garner did a little four-lecture series titled “Church Music Through History.” The lectures were delivered as part of a ministry training program run by a church down in Louisiana, and but for the miracle of the internet, very few people would ever have heard them. I would certainly never have heard them.
Thank God for Christendom 1.0, which gave us modern science, a ridiculous degree of wealth, and, in its death throes, the internet.
Garner walks through the history of the church’s music from the beginning right on down to today. Of course, four lectures is barely enough to give the big picture — we’re talking about millennia here — but he does a masterful job of synthesizing. These lectures are designed for musical laymen, so don’t worry about getting lost in a tangle of clefs, modes, and dotted sixteenth notes. By the same token, if you want to go further, Garner mentions a number of other resources in the course of his lectures.
Prepare, by the way, to be offended. As Garner turns the spotlight on poor worship music from the last couple of centuries, it’s highly likely that he’ll be criticizing something you like, something you grew up with. (His analysis of “There’s Just Something About That Name” was sobering, but hilarious nonetheless.) Don’t feel bad; he did it to me, too. I was irritated to hear him picking on a song I used to sing when I was a worship team member…for about two seconds. Then I realized that he was rather clearly right. I would have wanted to argue more strenuously, but when the weak stuff was being presented cheek-by-jowl with the strong stuff, the comparison was so revealing that I didn’t have the heart to try.
That’s the value of big-picture historical survey. In C. S. Lewis’ words, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds… by reading old books.”
And listening to old music. As another friend put it to me a few years ago: “Musicians that aren’t conservatory-trained are pretty much trapped in their own century.” We are Christians; the pilgrim citizens of the New Jerusalem. Our culture spans the millennia, and we are a singing priesthood. We, of all people, should not be trapped in our own century, musically or in any other way.
These four lectures are not a conservatory-in-an-ipod. Not close. But they’re a good, good place to start.
So get on over to Auburn Avenue Media Center and buy them. They’re about a third of the way down the page, and at $1.99 a lecture, you’ll get the whole set for less than $8.
Not bad for a ticket out of your own century.
A friend recently indicated to me that he’s interested in formal preparation for ministry. He’s somewhat constrained as to time and prior commitments, so he’ll be taking the long road, not just putting his whole life on hold to go to seminary for a few years.
Increasingly, I think that is a great blessing. Seminary, by its very nature, is optimized for very lopsided growth. It’s helpful in certain circumstances, but it’s not the best choice for ministry preparation.
But what really surprised me was what I told him when he asked me for advice on how to proceed. It didn’t just pop out; he asked the question by email, so I’d had a week or two to consider my answer. But I found the conclusion I came to surprising.
In addition to continuing in faithful ministry in his own church — which he’s already doing — I suggested just two areas in which he should pursue competence. The first was exegesis, and for me, that was a no-brainer. He can’t minister well if he can’t handle the Word well, period. That starts out with basic hermeneutics and Bible study methods, moves into deeper study and heavier-duty tools, and if he cares to pursue it far enough, to Greek and Hebrew. No real surprises there.
What did surprise me was the second area I suggested. In my background, the traditional suggestions would be exegesis and theology. But instead of theology, I suggested church history. In my experience, the focus on exegesis and theology tends to indoctrinate a person into a very specific tradition. In studying the timeless truths of Scripture and theology, he becomes bogged down in his own century, his own culture, his own interests, and consequently in a series of increasingly narrow, ever-more-partisan battles. This is sub-Christian; we are to look not only on our own interests, but also for the interests of others, particularly others in the church.
I was myself rescued from that narrowing tendency — to some extent — by knowledge of church history. As I continue to grow in my understanding of the church, I find myself being rescued more and more. All the theological squabbles come up anyway, just as they would if I focused on theology. But they come up in proper context, as part of the overall story of how my people have grown and developed in their understanding of the Lord and His Word.
We profess to believe in the communion of saints and the value of fellowship. Mentally, though, we often add “as long as you’re under 40 and use an iPhone,” or “as long as you come from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912,”* or whatever arbitrary constraint will protect our comfort. And in fact, this is what the study of theology usually comes down to: study of an arbitrary extract of church history designed for the maximum comfort of some particular group or other. This is the historical version of a man surrounding himself with handpicked yes-men who already agree with him.
Straightforward study of church history, though, forces us to reckon with a bunch of people who don’t think like us. People we don’t approve of. People we would never choose and might very well want to disown. And yet by God’s providence, there they are, and they have many, many lessons to teach.
The sectarian tendency wants to say, “But look at all these things where they got it wrong!” Sure. But a great portion of the learning will be in exploring the tension between church history and exegesis. Why did these people come to that conclusion about this passage? What were they thinking? What did they miss? …or did I miss something? Both?
We may find that they got it wrong less than we thought. We will surely find great stores of practical, pastoral wisdom along the way. And as the proverbs say, he who walks with the wise will be wise, and in a multitude of counselors is safety.
*A reference to a truly stellar, and badly under-attributed, joke by Emo Phillips.
As I’ve come to grips with the narrative character of the Scriptures, I’ve become increasingly interested in seeing that reflected in statements of faith — the one I write for myself personally, and others that I’m involved in framing.
I spoke to a number of friends about the possibility of doing this, and they fell into one of two groups: those who thought it an admirable idea, but weren’t sure how one would go about it, and those who thought it was flatly impossible, or at least so difficult as to be impractical.
Thus encouraged, I began to look around for help. Having been trained since I was very, very small that people get into great trouble in the ministry because they don’t study church history, I turned to church history to see what help I might be able to glean from God’s people of past ages. As I studied I began to realize something that ought to have occurred to me immediately: it’s already been done. More than once.
So for your edification and reading pleasure, I present the following historical statement of faith, composed in narrative form:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hades.
On the third day He rose again from [among] the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
Whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church
The communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Sound familiar? (If it doesn’t — alack and fie for shame on your teachers — google ‘apostles creed’ and see what comes up.)
Does this mean I’ve stopped working on a narrative statement of faith? Not hardly. Versions of the creed above were floating around as early as the second century, and it was modified countless times. The most prominent example of this would be the Nicene Creed — the version of the Apostles’ Creed that was ratified by a genuinely ecumenical council.
The trend continues today, as it should. God’s people are writers of creeds and confessions aplenty. We never speak God’s Word in a vacuum, but only at a particular time, in a particular place, to particular people. While the Word never changes, the times, places and people change constantly, and therefore constant recasting and reformulation is required if we would speak to the people before us, rather than to their ancestors.
So I’m still working on it. But now, with some guidance from my fathers.
I know nothing about Dr. Steven W. Waterhouse, except that he’s written Outside the Heavenly City: Abortion in Rome and the Early Church’s Response. But I’d really like to meet him.
It’s a fascinating little booklet.
In certain quarters of the church today, abortion has actually become controversial. Far more often than not, this is simply because the church’s guttering lamp has been overwhelmed by the surrounding culture’s s love of autonomy and irresponsibility, and its consequent hatred for children. Creeping liberalism and syncretism, in other words; the salt losing its savor and the lamp hiding out under a basket with all the cool kids. Of course, this is not always the case: there are rock-ribbed conservatives who believe that abortion is permissible, and their reasoning tends to be more conscientous and less…heedless…than the liberal variety. I acknowledge the distinction, although I’m not all that impressed with the difference between them. Call me crazy, but my sympathies are with the kid, who winds up just as dead no matter how solid mommy’s conservative credentials might be.
But I’m addressing the liberals today. One of the common excuses bandied about by the liberal variety of waffler is “Hey, these are difficult, complicated choices, and although I may be personally opposed to abortion, who am I to say that it’s not the right choice for someone else in their unique circumstances?” In other words, these matters are hopelessly muddy, and it’s not possible to take a clear stance on the issue.
The early church, as Waterhouse demonstrates, didn’t agree. Of course this doesn’t mean they were right — “The early church believed it” isn’t some sort of magic solvent that dissolves every objection — but it is a point of interest in the continuing discussion. At the very least, the early church’s clear pro-child, anti-infanticide stance demonstrates that murk and confusion is not inevitable. These days, that’s important in itself.
Westcliff Press , which publishes the book, looks to be a small operation (can handle credit cards, cannot do so online), so ordering will have to be done the old-fashioned way — by phone or mail. However, at $2 each ($1 if you buy 3 or more), it’s not as though cost is a hardship. Buy one for yourself and a few to pass around. You won’t regret it.
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.
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?
If you had to be stuck on a desert island for [life, ten years, or some other long period of time], what books would you want with you?”
It’s a common thought experiment, and usually the occasion of much consideration and discussion. If you hang out with the more passionate readers, as I often do, it will also be the occasion of heated debate. Yesterday, I happened upon an interesting twist on it, and I’d like to share it.
So get out your pen and paper, and here we go.
No, seriously, get out a pen and paper. (Or open a Word document, or whatever). You’ll thank me later.
The challenge is to answer the standard question, as stated above, but with two additional conditions. First, all your physical needs are taken care of, so assume you have no pragmatic need for medical texts, homesteading reference books, etc. This is strictly life-of-the-mind stuff. (Of course, if you enjoy reading medical texts, that’s another thing…) Second, you have only two minutes to answer, starting right now.
Go. Tick tock.
Done? Good. I’d love to hear your list. This was mine: Read the rest of this entry »