Hauling In a Ten-Pound Fish on a Five-Pound Line

I am currently working my way through a fascinating book about Reformation-era music called Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, written by Joseph Herl. It is a tightly-packed scholarly tome, but would be a great read for any pastor interested in musical reformation — as every pastor ought to be.

Church music can be divided into two broad categories. The first would be the music of trained musicians and choirs, at which the Lutherans excelled. They produced some of the greatest music that the human race has produced as of this point, and so we have to begin every discussion of this subject with that “where credit is due” acknowledgement.

But the other category is that of bringing congregations along. In this, the music of most churches in the Lutheran areas was atrocious. There were exceptions of grace — like Strassburg under Bucer, borderline not Lutheran, where the singing was good across the board. There were other exceptions in Lutheran areas, but in many places, the congregations sang very little, or anemically, or not at all. One of the reasons the Reformed areas did better in bringing congregations along is that their music was (deliberately) not as complicated.

Just a couple of examples should make the point. Services could be upwards of three hours long, with the middle hour occupied with the sermon. There were times when parishioners would hang around outside the church during the preliminaries, and when the sermon was going to start, somebody would give a signal to go in. And when the choirs were doing their complicated figural singing, sometimes the people would be given devotional material to read, in order to keep their minds on something spiritual. Most of the singing in most of the services was not done by the congregations. It was pretty bad.

Part of the reason it was bad is that some of it was so good. Bringing the people of God along is like hauling a ten-pound fish in on a five-pound line. Whatever you do, don’t yank. Church music ought to be overwhelmingly congregational music, but this means that the musically gifted have to be expected to bear with the weak, and not run on ahead.

It is easy enough to put this down on paper, but it is a hard balance to maintain. It seems that God has fashioned the world of church music in such a way that it seems you are going to be exasperating somebody. Reading this book has made me enormously grateful for what God has given us in our community. We really have it good.

Rap Tide

There has been a goodish bit of Internet response to this short video. A number of men were asked for their take on Reformed hip hop artists, and their response was overwhelmingly negative.

In that negative response, there were some fair points — the cult of perpetual immaturity that cool always tends to foster, the need to make a clean break with the rebellion that birthed the genre, the truth that musical forms matter, and so on. But surrounding the decent takeaway points, there was an overall failure to make appropriate distinctions, with the end result that the body of the criticism falls flat. A better and more thoughtful interaction by Russell Moore can be found here, which you probably ought to read if you want my comments below to make any sense.

What is rap for? What are the rules of the genre, and what is being attempted? I would argue that the natural form of rap is that of prophetic denunciation — the jeremiad. Now, by prophetic I do not mean the Strange Fire stuff, but rather the William Perkins stuff. As prophetic denunciation, the bulk of it should be apologetic and evangelistic, directed outwards, and not standard fare for believers.

Now, having said this, the fact that there are standards for the genre means that people can fail to meet them, and they can fail to meet them in different ways. If rap excels (if it excels) at the prophetic denunciation, this means that you have to deal with the fact of false prophets — those who denounce all the wrong things, however well they do it. Zedekiah, son of Chenaanah, was a false prophet, but he may have done a really fine job with the horns of iron he made. “And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the Lord, With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them” (1 Kings 22:11). Craft competence is not the only issue. I doubt if Micaiah spent any time at all trying to get his pants to droop the way Zedekiah’s did.

Shoot Me Now

One objection to the exhortation to cultivate a “biblical” approach to music is that we don’t have musical notation from biblical times. We have the lyrics of the psalms, but not the music. Here, in brief, are my staccato responses.

First, there is a good argument that we do have an idea of what the music sounded like. There has been a musical decoding of the vowel accent points of the Masoretic text (which, while not from biblical times, is likely to have preserved a biblical tradition), which, coupled with other forms of musical “archeology,” do give us a good idea of what their music was like. Here is a sample of it from Psalm 23.

Second, if we had to abandon And Can It Be in order to go back to singing in just this way, I think I can speak for most of us when I ask somebody to shoot me now. But why are we so quick to rush to a I-could-never-serve-a-God-like-that approach, as though our desires were the be all and end all of every musical choice? I don’t think the Bible requires us to sing this way entirely, but I do think the Bible requires us to have a humble and complete willingness to sing that way cheerfully if it were required.

But last, the foundations do not have to run along the roof line. The mustard plant does not have to look like the seed. The risen loaf doesn’t have to look like the leaven. But the roof line needs the foundation. If we don’t have a straight understanding of the foundation lines, then it shouldn’t be any surprise that our roof line music wobbles the way it does.

So we need to cultivate a gathering stream, postmillennial approach to our music.

Treacle, Dreck, and Schlock

As the fellow said, one of things we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. And this was true on its own terms, back in the day when when history stayed more or less the same. How much more is it the case when we have seen a transformation of history in terms of sheer scale — and speed?

What I mean by “transformation” is this. George Washington got around pretty much the same way that Julius Caesar did, and at approximately the same speeds. Since the Industrial Revolution, along with its cascading consequences, we have seen radical changes in how things look and sound. We have frequently made the mistake of thinking that this has altered the foundational principles, which it has not, but it has altered the appearance of everything drastically enough that we need to pay much closer attention in order to learn from history, and we had a hard enough time doing that back when everything stayed pretty much the same. The constants are still constant, for that is what they do. The variables have gone on a bender.

Take the question of music, for example. I think it would be difficult to deny that our generation is producing massive amounts of treacle, dreck, and schlock. And I do not deny it. Indeed, I have made this very point multiple times myself. At the same time, we are living in a time of golden opportunities when it comes to music. Things have never been better. Do I contradict myself? No, but you may think that if you like.

When the Church Organ Speaks in Tongues

I have often quoted Chesterton when he said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. There are some exceptions to this and church organ music is one of them. Done well, organ music is glorious. Done poorly (and there are many avenues for that) it is an affront to both God and man.

In this discussion, one of the things that Reformed types have to answer for is the stance taken by their theological ancestors. Does openness to organ music (even if done right) leave us open to the charge that we are sidling away from our staunch Reformed commitments? The answer to that question is “possibly, depending,” and “not necessarily.”

However there is a good reason for the question, but like so many other issues coming out of the Reformation, there is a lot of contextual information missing.

First, when we talk about organs and the Reformation, we have to realize that in the medieval period, most churches did not have organs at all. And those which did have them did not have the vast array of pipes that we think about when someone says “church organ.” The organs were small instruments. When Zwingli had the organ taken out of the church and put in his house, he was not doing something outlandish.

Prior to the Reformation, the congregation’s role was overwhelmingly that of spectator. All the action was down front, done by the trained professionals. The mass was said there, the singing was done there, and the organ (if there was one) was to accompany the trained choir. The congregation just watched. The logic of the Reformation was to bring the laity into the worship of God. They were brought into the government of the church (ruling elders), they were brought to Table much more frequently, and they were brought into the music of the church. The first congregational singing happened spontaneously on Christmas day in the church at Basel, much to everyone’s surprise.

Incidentally, but not to get sidetracked, it is worth noting that much of modern evangelicalism is drifting back to this spectator/trained professional divide in its public worship. The congregation sits in seats, and those who rehearsed the program perform it for them.

Our modern conception of church organ was a Reformation development, largely among the Lutherans and some of the Reformed in the Netherlands. There was general Reformed opposition to this musical development among the Lutherans, about which more in a minute. But the debate, to the extent that it existed, was how best to involve the congregation musically — it was not over whether to involve the congregation musically.

In 1586, Theodore Beza met in a colloquium with a Lutheran named Jacob Andreae in which they debated and discussed these things — and there was a great deal of agreement in principle. Beza maintained that the use of an organ was adiaphora (and Andreae agreed), meaning that if it were done in a particular way, it could be fine. His central practical objection was that when the music gets too complicated, too overwhelming, and too intense, the text is subordinated and “the common people do not understand.” They can be blown over, but they are not edified. When the music is too glorious and overwhelming, and the text is in untranslated Latin, the mind cannot say amen. And when the mind cannot say amen, the apostle Paul forbids it, whatever it is, and however beautiful it is. In short, the problem comes when the organ is speaking in tongues.

In short, in reading up on this, I found that my Reformed ancestors had exactly the same concerns that I have had about church organs for years. What you want is something that enhances congregational singing and understanding. Everything musical in worship should build toward a thundering congregational amen.

So back to our views of church organs. When you talk to Christians who have had bad experiences with church organs (which you can identify by them going white in the face and by how their left eye starts to twitch) it will generally divide into one of two problems — that of inadequate expertise and that of inordinate expertise.

In the first category, you are dealing with dear Mrs. Schwartz, widow of the founding pastor of the church, and volunteer extraordaire, the sweetest lady ever, and one whom everybody in the church would rather die than offend, but who butchers the music like Tammerlane on a rampage. The second category is that of an organist with three PhDs, in organs, music history, and choral directing respectively, and who cannot be bothered with the plebes in the pews, those who have ears of musical appreciation that have not been washed behind. He is the guy who, after the fourth verse is completed, and before the fifth verse begins, goes off on a tear that makes the Fourth of July display in Washington, D.C. look like a toddler’s safety sparkler. In both cases, the people are not carried in their singing, but rather buried. In one case they are buried by incompetence, and in the other by competence, but in both cases they would have been better off had they not come.

The latter was Beza’s concern, and it should remain ours. And it is only safe to think about a church organ if we maximize Beza’s concern. There are good reasons for it.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Rock n’ Roll

I had an interesting exchange with Rick Warren the other day — but only made possible by some sort of flux in the space/time twitterverse.

Rick started it by tweeting this: “There’s no such thing as “Christian music” -only Christian lyrics. The words,not the tune or music style make a song sacred.”

This is a very common sentiment in the Christian world, and so I replied, “But does this mean the world is only Christian if we happen to be talking?”

Much to my surprise, Rick responded. “Ha! Good comeback Doug! The style of music we choose says more about our personality& background than theology.”

Pressing my luck, I responded yet again. “Morning, Rick! But if the heavens declare God’s glory, how could Bach’s Bradenburg, or the solo in Freebird, not do so?”

Thereafter, the exchange languished, mostly because we ran out of beer.

But it got me thinking — and remember what Wodehouse said about some minds being like the soup in a bad restaurant, better left unstirred — but I got to thinking, and wanted to make a few comments about the nexus between music/words/culture.

Let me start with my base line principle. The world (and all it contains) is Christian because Jesus is the Lord of it. If something is expressly prohibited by Him, then that rebellion will be punished because He is Lord. If He did not prohibit it, then hearts full of gratitude may do as they please with it, and His lordship is extended over the enterprise for blessing.

That said, there are two basic ways that music can accompany lyrics. I leave out of the discussion those instances where the music and the lyrics collide — as when people try to sing the words of Amazing Grace to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island.

Church Music and the Other Kind

I take it as a given that God can be worshiped and genuinely glorified, in a Lord’s Day service, with different styles of music, and with different kinds of instrumentation. I do not say any style of music, but I do say different styles of music. Some music is of course excluded because it is lawless, and other kinds of music should be excluded because it is an appropriate kind of music for a different sort of occasion entirely. The music is fine, but not now, not here. I have argued elsewhere for what we are seeking to do musically at Christ Church on that basis.

But there is an additional consideration as well, what I call the “riptide” issue. I do not mean to limit the possible discussion to the two forms of music I will discuss, but am just using them for purposes of illustration.

These are the two kinds of music we can use in our thought experiment — traditional and ecclesiastical on the one hand, and contemporary on the other. I have seen and heard God genuinely glorified with both kinds of music, but (having been around) I have also seen both kinds gone bad. And therein lies the riptide problem.

A Music Minister With Little Cymbals Between His Knees

My post on Mozart and Vince Gill got a friendly rejoinder from Scott Cline, and that rejoinder can be found here.

I have a few things to say in response, but not a ton, because I think in some places we are arguing the same (basic) point with different vocabulary. But we shall see.

Scott is right to place me in his category #2. I believe that it is fair to say that I think “there is intrinsic, universal meaning in music, and that most popular music is unfitting for worship, but fitting for many other occasions.” This is fair enough, but the phrase “most popular music” does need some definition before I sign on completely. One of my categories for evaluating poor music in my original post was music that failed to meet the standards of its own genre. So what is popular music? And, given the definition, what is lousy popular music? Unfortunately, in my view, the best example of lousy popular music is found in the most popular forms of it.

I object to defining a genre by democratic means. Jazz will mean something two hundred years from now, and so will blues. But popular? It is like the word modern, as used by cutting edge thinkers in 1850. That said, I think Scott’s point could still be made if I modified that category to say that “most good popular [need new word here] music is unfitting for worship, but is fitting for many other occasions.” Schlock is never fitting for any occasion.

But in order to talk about pop music, we have to talk about “mass-produced” music. We can see the need for this in Scott’s definition of popular music:

“By ‘popular music,’ I mean those genres which were developed and popularized via mass media throughout the 20th century and following, as distinct from the folk music which was popular in a more rooted and unifying.”

What he means by “mass produced” music is this:

“Music that is produced by just anybody, that instantly makes it to millions of listeners—not because healthy communities thought it worth passing on and not because healthy generations thought it worth passing on but just because the artist and his agent can generate a great deal of revenue from the unhealthy masses via mass media—is ‘mass produced music.'”

The problem here is that I don’t think this is the way it works. Of course, there have been more than a few no-talent wonders who have been launched into the stratosphere of “future reality tv star” by this means, but as a general rule, it is not “just anybody” who can do it, making it to the public’s attention is rarely “instant,” and the communities who made Elvis big were a great deal healthier than the communities that launched Chopin and Liszt. In other words, these things are complicated.