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 … [Read more...]

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, … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

Worship Music Rip Tides

I have often told people that they need to evaluate their lives by the video, and not by the snapshot. That is, they should not just look at one moment in time, but rather consider trajectories, tendencies, and narrative arc as well. I would like to suggest that we need to do the same thing when it comes to issues like worship music. I take it for granted, measuring by the snapshot, that it is possible for a congregation to worship God in spirit and in truth with a drum kit and electric bass up front. I also take it for granted that the same thing can happen when the music selections are decidedly not contemporary. Upon receiving this information, our inclination is to brush our hands together, say "Well, then," and to proceed to sing whatever the heck we want. But there is more to the story, and that is the fact that it is a story. … [Read more...]

Mozart and Vince Gill

Let me begin this post with a list of the last twelve songs I listened to (at the time of writing), somewhat randomly, and working backward: (Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay by Sara BareillesBuild a Levee by Natalie Merchant29 Ways by Marc CohnLake Charles by Lucinda WilliamsSlow Dancing in a Burning Room by John MayerSlow Turning by John HiattCajun Moon by J.J. CaleMoment of Forgiveness by Indigo GirlsWalkin' Daddy by Greg BrownSundown by Gordon LightfootGive Me One Reason by Eric Clapton and Tracy ChapmanBoulder to Birmingham by Emmylou Harris Having made that point, if there was one, last night Nancy and I went to hear the NSA choir perform Mozart's Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, which was of course glorious. It is kind of hard to fathom how all of that came out of one guy's head. I mention this evening before and morning after musical contrast in order to make the point that it is not really a contrast. There is no tension between these different sorts of music for different … [Read more...]

Learning to Sing Sea Water

One of the things we should notice in Scripture is the close association of the music of the people of God and the nations of men. There is a regular appeal, throughout Scripture, asking the nations to hear us when we sing. The music of the saints, rightly done, is universal and evangelistic. The music of the saints, wrongly done, becomes “church music,” set off in a ghetto of its own—perhaps to be respected and perhaps despised, but always isolated. Many a country singer claims to have roots in “gospel,” over there, but There are musical similarities, to be sure, but we are careful to maintain genre walls. … [Read more...]

Remembering the Sniff

I am fond of saying that God is perfect, but not a perfectionist. Related to this, with imitation of God in mind, is my conviction that the Church today needs a lot more puritans, and a lot fewer purists. And, if that were not difficult enough, we have to do it while consistently raising our standards. Americans are incorrigible in their conviction that if one's good, two's better. Is it still broken? Give it another whack. Don't force it. Get a bigger hammer. The temptation is to point to verses that commend wholeheartedness -- love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all the rest. Our zeal is to be unflagging, right? Right, but this does not mean that zeal has to be a narrow gauge train, going one direction only, and the tracks real close together. Loving God with all your mind should allow your mind to go in more directions than north by northwest only, all other directions being sin. Love God with all your mind, in every direction. Purists kill the thing … [Read more...]

More Like a Presbyterian in the Shower

The message this morning will begin the next decade of psalms—in the weeks to come we will be working through Psalm 51 through 60. As we do this, the choir will be teaching us to chant them, which we will begin doing as a congregation when this series of messages from the psalms is completed. Because this is a little different, a word of explanation and exhortation is in order. This morning, instead of me reading the sermon text before the message, the choir will be singing it in a chant. Now the point of learning to chant is not so that we can all start sounding spooky and ethereal, like monks in the cloister. The point is more straightforward than that. The apostle Paul tells us that we are to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. We want to internalize as much of the Word of God as we can, and chant is a wonderful (and relatively simple) way to do this. … [Read more...]

7 Principles on Boys and Music

I have been asked by a correspondent, a teacher, how he might best study "how to motivate young men of middle and high school age to enjoy singing well to the glory of God." Not knowing of any resources that are aimed directly at that topic specifically, I thought to jot down a few thoughts here. 1. It is more important that your boys grow up masculine than that they grow up musical. You don't necessarily have to choose, but if you have to choose, you should know which way to go, and should go that way without hesitation. It is important that your son know that you are of one mind on that point. Start by prioritizing the whole question rightly. 2. We learn by imitation, and imitation involves persons and personal characteristics. If the music master is not the kind of man that the boys would like to be when they are grown, then they are generally going to avoid the musical pursuits that this man is offering to train them in. If the boys ahead of them in whatever discipline it is … [Read more...]