Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Different Approach to the Role of Music in the Service...

It seems that in any conversation among Lutherans about the role of music in the Divine Service, there is lip service paid to the famous Luther dictum of music being the servant of the Word but that is often where unanimity ends.  The next step is seeing music as our gift to God, the expression of our praise and thanksgiving in response to what He has done.  In this way, music is a medium not for God's story but for ours -- to tell the Lord what we feel, what we think, and how we have been moved by what He has done.  From that flows another understanding of music as that which sets the mood or tone for the Divine Service.  We pick music (hymns, song, and service music) that express the mood of the service (joyful, somber, encouraging, reflective, etc.) and in this way music is primarily evocative.  And then there is the understanding of music as mood maker where the role of music is to bring together the assembly and bring them to one place.  Music is used to make the mood (often here the songs are both performed and sung repeatedly and the singing goes on continuously over some period of time as opposed to hymns or songs that are sung one at a time and in alternation with other parts of the service.  You might have other roles to add, I am just offering these for now.

It is my experience that you do not have to be into contemporary Christian music to see music and its role(s) in this way.  In fact, I know some organists and choir directors in liturgical churches who routinely speak of the role of music as expression of our feeling, who use music to set the tone for the service, and who plan music to achieve a certain outcome or goal on the part of the hearer and singer.  Though we who believe in the liturgy often accuse those who practice CCM of this, it is more prevalent than we might think.

In contrast to this, when Lutherans speaks of music as being the handmaid or servant of the Word, we are speaking of the role of music in communicating that Word of God.  Music is not merely some sounds around the text but, with the text, is woven in such way that text and tune become one fabric, one message.  The primary purpose of music is to communicate THE message of Jesus Christ.  If you page through Lutheran Service Book or Lutheran Worship or The Lutheran Hymnal, it is easy to see what I mean.  There are hymns there that tell a story over many stanzas, both summarizing and saying in the actual words of Scripture the message of the Gospel (and not only Gospel but also Law).  They are theological as well as doxological -- in fact we might say that in order to be doxological they must be theological, conveying and confessing the truth of God's own self-disclosure and revelation.

It is not that these hymns are devoid of our response to that Word, or empty of the praise and thanksgiving it engenders in us and from us, but that this is always secondary to their role as speakers of the Divine Word.  It is not that there is no difference in mood or tone between a Good Friday hymn or an Easter hymn but that this mood or tone is reflective of what the hymn says and not a value separate from its role as servant of the Word.  It is not that we do not "program" festive hymns for festive occasions but not as a manipulator of the mind and heart of people.  Rather, the choice of hymns or songs flows from the occasion, from the lessons for that occasion, and from the place of this service within the Church Year or the sanctoral calendar.  It is not that these hymns do not utilize repetitive elements (refrains, for example) but that this repetition flows from the form of the text and its message and not as a means to change or shape the mood of the singer or hearer by the use of a specific musical form or set of words.  So, for example, the repeated "Alleluias" of a hymn such as "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing" flow from the message of Ascension and the response of the Church to Jesus' place of glory at the right hand of the Father, a place earned by His suffering and death, which He takes as a reflection of the completion of these mighty acts by which we have been saved.  Different from that are the repeated "Alleluia" of the folk hymn by that name which has no other words than "Alleluia" and where the repetition of that one word becomes the medium, the message and a means of creating a specific mood in the assembly.

Luther's gift and, indeed, the gift of Lutheran hymnody, is its ability to bring together musical form and the message of the Word to faithfully mirror Scripture's own speaking in the voice of an assembly whose many voices are united not only in this speaking or singing but in the Word which they speak and sing.

George Weigel, noted Roman Catholic theological and social commentator, has noticed this as well.  Read what he has written:  I love hymns. I love singing them and I love listening to them. Hearing the robust Cardiff Festival Choir belt out the stirring hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams at what my wife regards as an intolerable volume is, for me, a terrific audio experience. It was only when I got to know certain Lutherans, though, that I began to think about hymns theologically. 

For classic Lutheran theology, hymns are a theological "source:" not up there with Scripture, of course, but ranking not-so-far below Luther's "Small Catechism." Hymns, in this tradition, are not liturgical filler. Hymns are distinct forms of confessing the Church's faith. Old school Lutherans take their hymns very seriously.

Most Catholics don't. Instead, we settle for hymns musically indistinguishable from "Les Mis" and hymns of saccharine textual sentimentality. Moreover, some hymn texts in today's Catholic "worship resources" are, to put it bluntly, heretical. Yet Catholics once knew how to write great hymns; and there are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from Anglican, Lutheran, and other Christian sources. There being a finite amount of material that can fit into a hymnal, however, the first thing to do is clean the stables of today's hymnals.

Hymns are important. Catholics should start treating them seriously.

He gets what some Lutherans have forgotten or chosen to ignore. What we sing is either what we believe, teach and confess or it is simply what we think or feel.  While there is nothing wrong with feelings and passion in worship, what we sing is not an aesthetic experience, not an artistic experience, not a musical experience, but the place where the Word speaks and music assists the speaking of that Word.  We have all known hymns where the melody and the words become the inseparable and unified medium -- the melody is not simply some interchangeable set of notes but is so reflective of the message it becomes itself part of the message.  Certainly this is the goal of the music of the liturgy, the hymns and songs of the Church, and the anthems and service music of the choir, organist, and other parish musicians.


Anonymous said...

And, isn't the Lutheran theology all about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit coming to us in the service instead of the other way around? The problem with so much of contemporary service music is that it is about how we feel when we worship God. Not that we shouldn't feel good about worshiping God, or thank Him for bringing us together, but to sing songs where we approach God as if we are doing him a favor by taking the time out of our busy day doesn't cut it! God comes to us! We don't go to God during a Lutheran church service! That is what I learned and that is what I believe. When we sing about how happy we are to be there worshipping God, I think we are doing Him a disservice and putting ourselves before Him.

Anonymous said...

Right, anonymus.

I believe Weigle could speak for Baptists as well.

Anonymous said...

Bottom of the ninth. Bases loaded. Peters steps up to the plate. Here comes the pitch. Peters swings, contact is made. Going...going...gone! Its a grand slam!

Steve said...

Nicely put Pastor Peters!

The music, or melody is to set a reflective mood or tone to the scripture based hymns. Imagine singing the words to "O Sacred Head" to "This is the Feast of Victory..." Just doesn't work.

@Anonymous - great insight as well! I made reference in an early post in regaurds to "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Great song, but doesn't say a whole lot. It spends more time on talking about how I/we feel. Very VALID points indeed. But it just doesn't have enough "meat" for Lutheran worship in the Divine Service. In fact, for three verses, they all say the same thing. "I feel down, God is there as always." Great statement. But just a general, nice thought.

I'm an organist at my Church and absolutely LOVE playing! There is nothing more humbling, yet full of joy and awe when you can actually HEAR your congregation sing from their hearts. There's a difference, if you listen! They're not just passing time, until the organ stops playing by mouthing a few words - looking ahead to see how many verses there are. Or how much of their time this is eating up. Of course I can't speak for everyone, or can REALLY know what's in their hearts - but I've got to pretty close. As for the non-singers out even get's them singing. It becomes contagious.

I just happened to be part of that praise as well. I sing from my fingers (and feet). I can't get the message all the way out just by playing the hymn. I just try and guide it in the right direction in the most pleasing way to God. Intersting introductions at times, using registration (sounds) to reflect text, etc. I sometimes drop out completey if it's a well known hymn. I've had more people come to me and say they LOVE IT. I actually swallowed my gum the first time a long standing member said to me "I love when you stop playing." I wish I had a camera, as I know my face dropped. I thought she was saying "you play so's great when you're done and we don't have to hear you anymore!" Seriously! I was almost crushed until quickly (10 seconds) I realized what she was trying to tell me. When a phrase or verse comes up we sing it without insturment. Just voice.

Back at the point on the comtemporary music- Both LCMS and WELS have done a great job in monoriting this for the most part in the hymns in LSB and CW/CWS. Take "The Lamb" for an example. "Worthy is the Lamb who's death makes me his own, He sighs, he dies, he takes my sin, he lives, forgives, my heart with thanks now overflows." That's a contemporary Twila Paris song. But besides just a great melody, has such GREAT text.

So, we can still continue to grow our Lutheran hymn base. We just have remain true to our heritage as Lutherans and not let a snappy, jazzy new tune blind us, or entertain us. We can be entertained to a degree, but still with the focus on God. Lutheran's aren't 'not' fun. Just very protective of their heritage and keeping focus where it should be.

As for those that don't get it, God is challenging us. We need to approach those people in the same compassion our Lord has on us. With the same patience he has. But don't give up and let them go away just becuase we had to say "NO" based our morals and beliefs. That's the problem too often. All those people hear is "NO." And no one is saying anymore. We have failed God then.

One great way to do that, is instead of saying no right off the bat, is suggesting something similar. They won't learn where we are coming from if we don't show them! Then once we've done that, we can now go back and say "let's look at what you suggested." But this time, they are seeing it (hopefully with time) in a different light now. Now they don't feel so put off. They know we've listened, BUT we are also standing strong to keeping our worship focused.

Anonymous said...

Baby test and Mormon test. If you can replace "God/Lord/Jesus" with the word "baby" and the song still works, or a Mormon could sing it without offense -you may have a problem.

Steve said...

@anonymous 9:02PM....

That's a great idea! I actually like the fact that someone was thinking of a new or creative way to worship and honor our Lord.

But, I'm afraid this approach doesn't work for Lutherans. If that works for the Morman's, then great. We don't associate with their practices of worship.

We prefer to create music with God in mind first, and not penciled in as an afterthought. We feel that God shouldn't have to take "Baby's" place in our approach.

So, in short, we really do have a problem as you stated. We have a problem placing God in line second place, behind "Baby." Or a hymn that was written for "Baby" in the first place.

This is similar why we don't use the melody of Ave Maria, much less the entire song in our worship. We don't pray to Mary, or worship her. We acknowledge who she is and her role, but that's about it. So even taking a beautiful melody that was used to glorify Mary and even rewrite ALL the words, doesn't really work. We would still associate it with "Ave Maria" in any form. Perhaps over time if that were to happen, it would eventually fade away, and become common place if it were to be done. But our time and efforts are much better spent finding another avenue or approach.

If this in some way works for you, then I encourage you to keep going for now. We can only grow in our faith through God and hearing His word in lesson and song. We certainly trust that along the way, as you grow stronger in your faith, you might begin to see where we as Lutherans are in our beliefs and faith. We take it much more seriously and approach it with great reverence.

However, my caution and concern is that most songs about "Baby" replaced with "God" are still pretty empty, and lacking value to be in our Lutheran worship. I can't think of many contemporary songs where "Baby" has died for my sins allowing me to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't recall any songs that speak of "Baby" crowned with thorns and now reigns in Heaven.

With all respect to your view, I would encourage you as well to take any hymn found in one of our Lutheran hymnals, and for your own use, go ahead and replace God/Lord/Jesus with "Baby." In doing this, I believe you will see that we (Lutherans) look for stronger statements when it comes to support God or the Triune in our hymns. "Baby" doens't make any sense or work being penciled in to OUR hymns. In the same way God being penciled in to replace "Baby" doesn't really work well either. Or, as I said before - for Luthern worship in the Divine Service.

Antother thought on the contempory music, is I know there are a few Christian contemporary, even heavy metal songs that would have more value in them. Becuase, they were written with God in mind from the start. And sung in a contemporary form. But, most of them, again, generally don't have enough to support what we wish to express in our music and song.

Again, with all respect - can you please mention why you would take the approach you mentioned, the Baby method? Is is just becuase you like the melody or do you have a specific example of how you think this might work? I'm open for something new, as I know many others are as well. But as you can see, we do have a lot of criteria it must meet to be in the Divine Service.

Anonymous said...


I think the other "anonymous" was saying if you take the word God/Jesus/Lord out of a contemporary Christian song now being used in a worship service and replace it with the word "baby," then you have a problem because the word God is insignificant in the song and means the same as a secular song with the word "baby" in it. I think he or she is saying the song lacks the meaning it should have if you can do that and that means you have a problem because you CAN do that so easily!!

Steve said...

@ Anonymous 6:24

Thank you. :0)

Perhaps I read that in the wrong way it was really intended. I agree with your statement. In fact, I was saying the same as well. I like your terms "lacks the meaning it should have." I just took a much longer way of saying that.

When I fist read that, I must admit I read it a couple of times. You must have picked up on the fact I was stuck/confused, yet....curious and open.

I understood the phrase "you must have a problem" by interpreting that as "I/We" (Lutheran Church)have a problem in NOT ACCEPTING that as a pratical approach for creating music for the Divine Service.

My apologies most definately if I did misunderstand. We all were saying the same thing.

Still curious about the "Baby" method I did a little Google-ing. The only references I could find to it were a South Park and Simpson's episode. The Simpson's eposide is quoted here:

Homer (hearing Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life"): I bet the guy she was singing that about was real happy.
Marge: Well, actually, she was singing about God.
Homer: Oh, well, He's always happy. No, wait, He's always mad...

I'm laughing at the reaction of Homer here. We all know his character is quite the confused soul to say the least. Perhaps I took the Homer approach myself. It sure leaves you confused though. But - it IS indeed a GREAT example of what anonymous 9:02 is saying in reference to secular songs trying to convey messages or statments on God!

Thank you for "Lighting up My Life - or at least shedding more on the baby method subject!"

.....I was blind, but now I see....

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

^ There's another priceless episode of the Simpsons in which Bart becomes an usher at the Springfield Presby-Lutheran church. He substitutes Iron Butterfly's "In a gadda da vida" as one of the sunday service's hymns. Of course he changes the words and title to "In the garden of Eden baby." As the congregation begins to sing, the minister grumbles "this sounds suspicously like rock, and or roll." After a fifteen minute organ solo the gray haired organist in support hose collapses.

The priceless moment is when Homer turns to Marge and says, "hey Marge, remember when we used to make out to this hymn?"

Leave it to the court jester to find the essential truth of the matter. So often that's what CCM sounds like, music that has some other sentimental attachment for us, with a pseudo Christian message. To be sure, many of us have hymns that are our sentimental favorites, because we remember them from our youth or when they were sung at our weddings, etc. But CCM often plays on the sentiment first, and so the sentimentality becomes the message and the "God-talk" sanctifies the self indulgence. So its no longer 'all about me,' its 'all about me-in God's name.'

I'll never forget the example Rev. Henry Gierke gave one week in choir practice, he opined at how much "Shine Jesus shine," sounded like Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline."

A previous post spoke of replacing 'baby' with references to God. That is similar to an approach I learned years ago when A Purpose Driven Life was sweeping the land. Take all the Bible proof texts and God talk out of it and see what you have left.

Steve said...

@Pastor Bergstrazer,

I've seen that episode as well. Being an organist, I found that quite amuzing! I think it's best if we just stick to "The Tree of Life." All though....In the Garden of Eden, Simpson style is quite entertaining!

I'm sure it's safe to assume you don't use Rev. Lovejoy's approach to the Bible either. I recall Ned Flanders asking him once what his favorite Bible verse was. Lovejoy's resonse was "...Ooooh, it's ALL good, Ned...It's all good!"

Another true statment, but lacking indeed! Kind of like some of the contemporary Chrsitian songs. "It's all good" seems to be a common thread in many of them.

Now, excuse me while I go on with my day laughing at Marge's comment to Homer on the make-out hymn. That was priceless!

On a side note - it's certainly sheds yet another light on introducing secular/comtemporary music into the church.....I'll let us all ponder this one on our own. :0)