Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Too much focus on the vehicle?

One of the perennial arguments of any current discussion of worship is that music is essentially neutral and that it is the text that matters -- the music being little more than the vehicle to deliver the text to us.  The earliest forms of Protestantism were not so sure about this.  One of the first things to go among them was chant and, though they were cautiously in favor of congregational song, it was only within strict parameters that hymnody began as we know it.  Some restricted the text to paraphrases or the literal wording of the Psalms (safe because God inspired them) but to these texts they had a smaller number of melodies which were associated almost exclusively with Psalm singing.

Lutherans bucked the trend and both preserved chanting and provided an atmosphere in which congregational song and liturgical music flourished.  Even then it was not without some complaint.  Bach was too busy on the keyboards for many and some thought that hymnody worked best when accompaniment was simple, plain, and drew little attention to itself.  We have all suffered through the mythology of Luther quotes (why must the devil get all the good music) or the equally false idea that he borrowed liberally from pub songs and secular melody (and countenanced it) to obtain suitable tunes to go with early Lutheran hymn texts.  Thankfully these have been pretty much exposed as falsehoods and inventions by scholars.

Now, nearly 500 years after Luther, we find ourselves in the midst of music battles within the worship wars.  The same old tired ideas of the past have been brought forward again and pressed upon us.  Music is neutral.  It does not matter what tunes we sing  but merely the text within that musical form.  So Christian rap and the great Lutheran chorales differ more on the scale of culture (high or low) than value or worth.  What foolishness we tell ourselves!

The early Christian hermits were suspicious of music.  They knew the power of music to drive, if not overwhelm, the text itself.  Chant was kept but polyphony, instrumental music, and congregational song were viewed by these desert fathers as influential as the very words of the music.  So Orthodoxy remains sung but absent instrumental accompaniment (especially in contrast to the use of the pipe organ in the West).

Music is more than merely a vehicle for the text.  It is itself a medium that communicates values, ideas, and identity.  Some would have us believe that music is to the text merely a vehicle to get the words into the minds and out the lips of the people and that it does not matter if that vehicle is a classy and elegant automobile or a lean and maneuverable scooter or motorcycle or a sturdy truck.  It matters not if it is a Mercedes or Mazda, Harley or Hummer, luxury sedan or junker.  The text is all that is important.  If this were the case, we might have less to argue about except culture.  But it is not.  Music matters and not simply as a delivery vehicle for the text.  It imposes ideas, can conflict with the text, has the power to overwhelm the words, and even detract from the content.

For this reason, music must not only deliver the text but serve it -- serve it as its hand maiden (as Luther put it) so that the aims of the text become the aims of the tune as well and what ends up is a comprehensive whole of text and tune working together for the same purpose, to deliver the same message, and to honor the same God.  The sad truth is that we choose songs we like not only for what the words say but simply for how it all sounds to us.  In fact, sometimes we never know or realize what the words actually say while remaining in love with the sound of the music.  Such is incompatible with Christian music, especially hymnody.  What distinguishes Christian music is that text and tune become a seamless whole in saying the same thing to heart and head -- at the same time.  When and where that happens, music is blessed and made as noble as any servant can be in serving a higher good.  When and where that does not happen, it is unworthy of worship, unworthy of our attention, and unworthy of the God whom it seeks to honor.

The danger in the Church today is as much from vehicles headed in a different direction from the Word of the Lord it claims to sing as it is from Christians who refuse to acknowledge the often obvious contradictions between preference and truth.  Christian music is NOT primarily about what we like but about what is faithful in words and in music.  We have, sadly, become accustomed to presuming that what we like is good enough for God.  What we forget is that it is nneither good enough for God NOR for us. 


Jason Kiefer said...

I have two words: mood music. It is obvious the the melody, tune, tempo, etc have a life of their own. Looking at some of our hymns, by listening to the key they are in can indicate what liturgical season you are in. Especially when you transition from Lent, to Holy week into Easter. Very noticeable.

And how many times have any of us heard complaints that the hymns were played like dirges. (I have a lot) That indicate an organist that doesn't understand music in its fullest sense. So yes, I appreciate them about as much as I appreciate many of the praise bands I've experienced. (I don't)

'Music is neutral' is like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Unknown said...

"Music is more than merely a vehicle for the text. It is itself a medium that communicates values, ideas, and identity.
... It imposes ideas, can conflict with the text, has the power to overwhelm the words, and even detract from the content.

Do you have some research references to back up these statements?

"What distinguishes Christian music is that text and tune become a seamless whole in saying the same thing to heart and head -- at the same time."
I assume your definition of Christian music is limited to LSB. Do you have some research references to back up this concept?

Janis Williams said...

Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. That being said, it has been my experience (having been in multiple church bodies on the way to the Lutheran Church) that very little text gets carried by modern praise songs. I am not saying there are NO good praise songs, or that there aren't songwriters, hymnwriters, etc. out there doing a good job. Too many praise songs, however, carry the singer/hearer somewhere, and there is very little that has to do with The Text.

The same problem that affects good music affects architecture, art, literature. I am not wishing for a past Culture in the Church; I am longing for a future in the Church of these things. Until the Church supports those in the arts, we won't likely hear or see great art. Instead of an Industrial Complex (Evangelical or otherwise) based on the dollar and tied too closely to the world, we need not only a new Reformation, but a new Renaissance.

I know that sounds trite, but it is also true.

Kirk Skeptic said...

Janis, I'm so glad the the church doesn't support artists. ISTM theological ciphers who can play an instrument or sing gets to rule the roost, imposing their tastes/prefences upon the rest of us irrespective of the season, text, or established preferences of the congregation.

As a body we lack what Pastor P described in his spot-on post; ie a true theology of music. Until we return to having one, I pray to be spared the "artistry" of the Marty Haugens, Andre Crouches, and other public nuisances whose dolorous offerings intrude upon my desire to worship as a Lutheran, and those instrumentalists who act like we're there to function as their background.

Anonymous said...

I think in this "Music wars", there is fundamentalist swing to the old way among some, and others who totally want to abandon existing traditional songs. If music is a "vehicle" there needs to be an improvement in most Lutheran congregation’s music and singing of old hymns, as far too many Lutheran services/congregations sound like a funeral dirge, and that vehicle is certainly driving in the wrong direction.

What we need in the "Music Wars" is saner heads, not the fundamentalist vs. the progressive, but something that is Christ pleasing, and not the wishes of man.


Kirk Skeptic said...

Anonymous, could you be more specific; ie what would such worhsip look and sound like, and why doesn't our historic liturgy make the grade?

Anonymous said...

The problem with many churches with "historic liturgy" is the total lack of musicians. The organists play way too slow because simply stated, they are NOT GOOD! Until people want to start spending money on competent musicians in LCMS churches you are going to have historic liturgy sounding like a slow dirge and it stinks.-Peter Sovitzky

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