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?