Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A good read. . . the why of Lutheran church music. . .

When I grew up (1950s and 1960s), few Lutherans actually thought about what worship was or is.  We were fairly united in very slightly different forms of the Common Service and the synodical affiliation of a Lutheran parish was hardly evident from the words of the liturgy on Sunday morning.  A foray into the hymnody might give a clearer hint to the ethnic origins of a particular congregation and help answer the question of which Synod but even then it was less about text than music.  Music was the distinguishing feature and that difference lie in the great divide between Scandinavian and German Lutherans -- not musical preference.  It was an era of remarkable liturgical uniformity among the various stripes of Lutherans in America.

A hint of the future that was to come was given when the Service Book and Hymnal was published in 1958.  Rubrical options about the use of a Eucharistic prayer as an alternative to the Lutheran practice of the naked Verba ushered in the idea of variation upon the Lutheran liturgical landscape as well as hymns.  A half dozen years later and there was a movement to bring the hymn section of the worship book into more uniformity by providing one hymnal for all Lutherans.  The invitation to develop a common hymnal issued from the unlike source of the Missouri Synod -- not so much the rank and file in the pews who were content with their "new hymnal" only a generation old but from leaders who had a larger vision of unity.

I wonder if those Lutherans missed the forest for the trees!  They failed to see the future and missed the remarkable liturgical convergence already existing as well as a future which would be determined more by the ability of the local parish to produce its own materials than by any common book.  This preparation of a new, common hymnal occurred while the photocopier was being developed.  Who could have foreseen the ability to produce locally both inexpensive and relatively high quality worship materials?  This would have more to do with advent of Lutheran liturgical and musical diversity than anything else.

The dawn of the boomer generation brought an interest in church music which was at once both personal and contemporary.  It would not take long before these folks would raise their voices in favor of church music that sounded like the music they listened to on the radio -- a sound far different than any hymnal had offered the church before.  So worship wars began with the idea of choice, fed and nourished by an emerging technology, and shaped by a standard of personal preference.

Thus a new theology of worship was born in which an appeal to culture came both from those who wanted to hear in church what they listened to on the radio and from those who began to wonder if the church music inherited from the past was an impediment to reaching out to the stranger on the street corner.  Now some forty years later, Lutherans no longer look or act or sing alike on Sunday morning and the diversity is growing, now declining.  In fact, some have said that there is no uniformly recognizable Lutheran identity to what happens on Sunday morning -- at least not any more.

Now Lutherans in the 1950s may not have been able to define Lutheran worship, but they new it when they saw it.  Now we are no closer to defining worship and less sure what it looks like or sounds like.  As a Pastor in a congregation where the full liturgical is celebrated with ceremonial consistent with the full liturgical and and musical heritage of Lutheranism, I often hear the complaint from others that this worship is too "catholic" and the complaint from members who move that the Lutheran churches they visit "don't know how to worship like Lutherans."

It is no wonder then that The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music would be a fruitful and relevant topic for discussion.  Daniel Zager has done us a great service in providing a great resource in the latest volume to appear from The Good Shepherd Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  (I might add that if you are unaware of the wonderful volumes that preceded this one, you need to get on line and order this one and the others from the Seminary Bookstore there!)

Zager's premise is that the definition of worship has too often overlooked the subject of music.  Lost in a sea of misinformation, pious myth, and disregard, the music of worship is unfairly labeled a matter mere "style" and its substance undervalued by both sides in the worship wars.  Quoting Scripture and Luther and the Lutheran fathers, Zager insists that it is not and never has been which music people like, which music works, or which music appeals, but which music faithfully speaks God's Word and serves the purpose of the Gospel.


The criteria for choosing the music of the Divine Service must be the same as that used for the liturgy itself -- not what is possible but what is best -- what stands with the text and proclaims God's Word faithfully (and connects to the lectionary).  Daniel Zager in The Gospel Preached Through Music: The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music, reminds us that the music of the liturgy and the hymns count not because we like them but because they proclaim the Gospel to us.

The new song of the Psalms does mean new in time or new in the sense of the moment but new in the sense of what God has done in Christ -- the new work long promised and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Zager shows us how this specifically relates to the penchant for that which is new over that which has stood the test of time.  He speaks of the careful practice of Lutheran history, contrasting that which is an often careless practice of modern day Pastors and parish musicians in choosing the music for the Divine Service, with the careful practice of our Lutheran fathers.

The purpose of Lutheran Church music is neither to reflect the preferences of the people in the pews nor to attract those outside the Church.  Theirs is a higher purpose and a higher calling.  The purpose of Lutheran Church music is to proclaim the Word of God and this is what priases God most faithfully.  The conservative character of Lutheran historical practice is chronicled through Zager's small but profound gook.  He effectively shows the understanding and value assigned to church music in our Lutheran past.  Perhaps most telling is the quote from a mature Martin Luther (1539) "It would be good to keep the whole liturgy with its music [as it was received from the Church before the Reformation] omitting only the canon."

Zager also explodes the oft told myth of Luther's borrowing from the pop music of his day -- something invoked by those who would borrow from pop culture today and use Luther to justify it.  He also challenges the now sacred notion that the use of popular music in worship aids the proclamation of the Gospel.  Instead, Zager argues convincingly that it does just the opposite -- it detracts from the proclamation of the Gospel and clouds the understanding of the Gospel among those unchurched.

The tight connection between theology and music so clearly enunciated in Luther is passionately underscored with documentation on how Lutherans hove chosen, understood, and written music for the Church.

In his conclusion, Zager asks "what music shall we sing and play in Lutheran worship?"  At best we must do more than simply shrug our shoulders and refer the question of which music to "adiaphora" (which has come to mean more unimportant rather than things about which Scripture has not spoken definitively) or to simply leave it up to personal choice (with the accompanying question of WHOSE personal choice should determine what music is used).  What Zager reminds us is that the choice of music is a theological choice and decision.  The choices we make must respect the central purpose of Lutheran Church music:  God has preached the Gospel through music too!

I heartily recommend this volume which was issued under label of the Good Shepherd Institute of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, and is available through the Seminary Bookstore. 

2 comments:

Pr. Schroeder said...

The other direction of the Service Book and Hymnal (SBH) in the Introduction to the hymn section that "good hymns", "...should be devotional rather than didactic or homiletical" (page 286,left column, continuing paragraph). So in SBH and then in the Lutheran Book of Worship, Luther's catechetical hymns were not included. In SBH, there is a hymn section, "The Inner Life". I think this opened the door toward "devotional", i.e. emotions, feelings, as we/I "devote", quite pietistically, as opposed to being taught in a hymn the Word of God.

Connie Seddon said...

The book is also available through CPH. Well worth the price.