Church Music Through History

26 April 2009

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grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes that preceded them.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grows up, and introduces its music into the worship of the church, bringing fresh vigor and new life to the tired and outdated tunes of Generation A, who have in the meantime become a bunch of obstructionist old geezers.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.

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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.