Friday, February 24, 2012

Mouse Dirt in the Pepper...

While reading through volume 53 of Luther's Works, I came across this typical and earthy saying:  In a word, there must be mouse dirt with the pepper.  What was true in Luther's day is just as true today.  The more valuable the commodity, the greater the temptation to dilute the precious with the common.  Growing up on the Nebraska prairie it was well known that real dirt, with mouse and rat dirt, was always included with the precious grain harvested from the field and stored in bins.  So it is no shock then that there is an abundance of unworthy liturgy and song in Lutheran congregations on Sunday morning.  With the precious, you will find the common.  But how shall we handle this?

When impurities threatened the value of the grain for export, the government applied limits to the extraneous material that was allowed with the precious grain in an attempt to regulate the quality of the commodity.  I do not mean to upset your stomach but the same legalities allow a certain level of impurity in just about every food commodity and manufactured food products (example hot dogs).  So do we stop eating everything in order to avoid eating "dirt?"  Or do we send out legions of inspectors to make sure the laws are followed and the product is pure?  Or do we inform the consumer so that the consumer may exercise informed judgment in the marketplace?

When it comes to the liturgy and church music, it is very tempting to use the law to prevent unworthy liturgy and song on Sunday morning.  Such seems at odds, however, with our Lutheran predisposition toward grace.  We cannot avoid or ignore the issue anymore than we can stop eating food because some of it may not be "pure."  We certainly have neither the funds nor the tolerance for inspectors to evaluate Sunday morning's offering of liturgy and song and report the most egregious examples of "mouse dirt" found there.  So, it seems we are left with the only real option of catechesis.  We need to teach our people what to look for and why.

What we do not Sunday morning is not something indifferent but gravely important both to our identity as Lutheran Christians and to the witness of our confession before the world.  Yet even among liturgical types, the people tend to frame much of the discussion in the rather trivial terms of personal taste or culture (high or low).  Increasingly we are adding another criteria to the discussion -- success.  Does it work to pack the pews?  In other words, if it works, can it be all that bad?

The big three reformers certainly saw this issue differently.  Calvin and Zwingli were suspicious of the hymnic form in worship and rejected its use largely because of the emotional character of the music.  It is often shocking to their theological heirs today who use music precisely for its emotional impact!  Their opposition did not last, however, and soon their services were filled with the sound of psalm singing.  Apparently if what you sang was word for word from Scripture, the music was okay.  That did not count for the Mass -- even though the ordinary was and is nearly all directly from Scripture.

Not so for Luther.  He had no suspicion of music and the Lutheran Reformation was as much sung as it was preached and taught.  In his view, music went hand in hand with his high view of the Word of God and his conservative style embraced all but the most objectionable parts of the familiar Mass.  For Luther, musics gift and the liturgy's content existed both for the sake of the Word and Sacraments -- the means of grace.  God speaks and we listen.  By the Spirit's grace, we sing and speak back to Him what He has said to us.  So the content of worship is framed and the witness of the Church is shaped toward music and liturgy that is the hand maiden of the Word of God.

Liturgy and music are shaped not by a strictly aesthetic criteria but by their faithfulness to that Divine and living Word and the Sacraments as Christ instituted them.  In this way, Lutherans preserved the connection between worship and doctrine.  The best doxology is good theology and good theology is sung!

Music is not neutral nor are the liturgical forms and ceremonial content of the service without value and meaning.  Contrary to the anecdotal evidence, Luther did NOT borrow the music of the brau haus for his hymns.  He is also falsely credited with the oft repeated lament Why should the devil have all the good music? (An expression formed by William Booth of Salvation Army fame.)  While Luther had the highest esteem for music, performance was was secondary to participation.  The music of the service, like the liturgy itself, was participatory in nature and the highest forms of music were, for Luther, hymn, song, and chant.

Why do our people not know or understand the high value placed upon both content of the church's music and the unity of the text and melody?  Why is it that liturgy is not understood first and foremost to be an expression of faith or confession?  Is it because they are unable to fathom this or because we have failed to teach them well?  Clearly, they need to be able to distinguish mouse dirt from pepper.  They must know the difference between hymns the speak the Gospel and liturgy that marks us as members of the church catholic and confessions of what we believe, confess and teach.  If we are not of a mind to impose order on the liturgical and musical chaos of Lutheran worship today, then the least we can do is teach the folks in the pew to discern the consequences of the choices before them and give them the tools to demand the good and solid food of faithful liturgy and song on Sunday morning.

I am not of the opinion that our people want watered down liturgy and shallow, trite songs on Sunday morning.  I believe that they instinctively know that something is wrong even if they are drawn by personal taste to that which is not pure and faithful.  But we have taught them that these things are indifferent things, that what matters is what people like, and not to worry about them.  It is our failure and not theirs that they presume only the content of the sermon counts or that all things are equal -- from the "majestic praise" offered at 7 am to the "blended beauty" of 9 am to the "cutting edge" of 11 am.

The farmer knows that if the grain is of lesser quality, it will bring a lesser price.  He learns quickly that a purer product can weigh less and be more valuable.  What we have to teach our people is to seek what is good and pure because this is the Word that accomplishes our Lord's purpose and delivers on His promise.  Anything less may feel good, sound good, and appeal to us but it cannot bestow upon us what we need most of all.


Janis Williams said...

A few thoughts:

1. Have we bantered this football about so much that people have become indifferent? Where are all the anonymi? I would have expected this post to draw, well, hornets to honey...

2. Catechesis is not 'art appreciation.' How do we connect the appreciation of Truth with our music in catechesis?

3. I wonder. Ancient Israel certainly had the problem of merchants mixing mouse dirt with their grain. Did they have the same attitude toward Temple Worship, which was very musical? We read of shepherds who do not feed, and beat the sheep. We read of congregants who wish for the Sabbath to be over in order to resume trade.

Did they have the same jaded attitude toward Church music that so many have today?

No answers, just questions....

Marcus said...

Tonsing and I could not agree more:

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