A Music Minister With Little Cymbals Between His Knees

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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.

I also think we may be talking at cross purposes. I have a very slim grasp of the personalities infesting the top forty these days, and have rejoiced in the recent digital developments that have enabled me to carry around a huge and eclectic music collection in my pocket. I am not by any means defending crapola with a dance beat — but I am defending the existence of great execution within the genre that traditionalists would call popular, and which Spotify can tell me about. Is “Man of Peace” by Dylan (which I am currently listening to) popular music? I have no idea if it was ever on the charts — although Dylan has been, of course.

“I am a bit surprised that Pr. Wilson doesn’t wonder why a long and prosperous Christendom never produced anything like the pop music he mentions.”

To this I would answer, “but it did.” This is exactly what Christendom produced. Alan Jackson put out a gospel album and it appears to me that Wagner didn’t, and Christendom produced both of them. Christendom produces saints, disciples, heretics, and apostates. It also produced the Staples Singers.

But it seems to me that whatever differences Scott and I have about music, we have them outside the sanctuary. I want more musical latitude (apparently) for the various kinds of non-worship occasions we have when people get together — military parades, romantic dinner music, kindergarten birthday parties, stand up mixers, party music for prodigal son returns, recitals, and so on.

I believe I have a great deal of agreement with Scott about music that is appropriate for worship, despite an apparent disagreement. What I meant by “what kind of occasion” a worship service is was very similar to Scott’s question about what sort of affections should be drawn out by the music. He is right that “Prs. Rocker and Reverent” would both agree that a worship service is for worshipping the triune God. But what I meant by the language of occasion assumed the right answer to the question of propriety applied to music. What kind of occasion does the Bible require that the worship of the triune God be? Pastor Rocker wants the worship service to be informal and irreverent, when the Bible requires our worship services to be reverent. “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve [lit., worship] God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). And that would be very hard to accomplish if your music minister was a hurdy-gurdy man with those little cymbals between his knees.

So also two parents might agree that their two kindergarteners are having a birthday party, but if one of them arranges for the whole thing to be accompanied by Sousa marches, they still don’t know what kind of occasion it is — as revealed by their music choices.  

Scott is perfectly right to question whether we should ever question “occasions,” and I am happy to amend my language to all lawful occasions.

“Is Coors as good when you’re having hotdogs as Chimay is when you’re having mussels-in-shell?  I’d say that though there are levels on which Coors is more suited to hotdogs than Chimay is, there are other levels on which Chimay is in fact the better beer, period.”

This is exactly right, sort of. Sort of exactly. Your best clothes, the ones you would wear to a wedding, are your best clothes, and everybody knows what this means. One of the things it means is that they are not your best clothes for changing the oil in your car. In the same way, the best music is the worst music for certain occasions. If I want a bunch of friends to come over to my house and visit with one another boisterously, then Fur Elise is the very worst thing I could put on, and Bonnie Raitt would be much more like it.

“People want titillation, immediacy, sentimentality.  They grow impatient with music that reflects and shapes a healthy affectional life. We don’t want joyfully ordered dancing, we want Dionysian carousing; we don’t want to march, we want to mash; we don’t want music to summon extroverted feelings, we want it to tease introverted feelings. And the more of it we get, the more of it we want: our fathers permitted their guts to be grabbed, now we demand that our guts be grabbed.”

There is much to agree with here. But the central issue has to do with the use that some people put to the music, not necessarily the music itself. (Although I agreed in my first post that some music is itself disturbed and disturbing, usually put out by artists who are trying to be.) I am against carousing — the apostle Paul condemned reveling, the raves of his day (Rom. 13:13). Recently, Nancy were in another city and were taken to a great steak joint, and afterward when we left to get to the car, we went through the large attached bar, with scores of lost souls standing around trying to get the attention of the vixens. I could have sworn it was Virgil up ahead of us, leading us through the 3rd circle, showing us the way to the car. The fact that the whole dimly lit deal was slathered in loud music helps to make Scott’s point. But I can easily imagine objecting to a song blaring in that context, while typing this sentence to the very same song, and doing so with a serene and godly look on my face. That previous sentence, by the way, was written to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. I didn’t have a mirror to check the look on my face, but I bet it was okay.

Calling for the gut to be submitted to reasonable music standards is too close to Plato for my taste. Jesus created both the gut and the chest (and the head), and all are to be submitted to Scripture — not to the abstract faculty of reason.

“Might there be genres which always, by their own confines, require you to take their specimens with more grains of salt than you usually have to take the specimens of some other genres with?”

Well, sure. I am deeply suspicious of Nirvana, Beethoven, Lady Gaga, Wagner, Chopin, Nine Inch Nails, and Tchaikovsky. Keep your wits about you, enjoy the music if and as you can, and think like a loyal Christian about what you are listening to. And redemption is a powerful thing — Johnny Cash recovered Hurt, and Kill the Wabbit redeemed Wagner.

“See, one of my biggest hang-ups is this: I don’t like the Triune God’s variegated world being kicked against by the mind-numbing homogeneity of most pop music, over against the explosion of variety within just, say, ‘Classical’ music, or within just, say, ‘Traditional Irish’ music.”

Well, we are all against mind-numbing homogeneity, right? And that stuff is out there, and it is sometimes inflicted on me. But when I am left to my own devices, as I usually am, I listen to a wide range of stuff — homogeneity is not the word that comes to mind. The song on right now is St. James Infirmary, as rendered by Bobby “Blue” Bland. Hugh Laurie’s version is great also.



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