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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