A young friend forwarded me this article, entitled Secularity and the Problem of Church Music, soliciting my opinion. As we've discussed our ideas, I decided to share some of my thoughts with you. From my original missive:
First, the title made me think that the author was going to equivocate secularity and vernacularism; in the title, it sounds like secularism is a problem (which of course it is). But then he proceeded to talk about how we need to include vernacular attributes into traditional worship (e.g. Bach & Wachet Auf). So as a writer, I found that confusing.
To his overall point about how other periods throughout Christian history have managed to combine both "vernacular" and "authoritative" music in worship, I agree with his description. But I completely disagree with his false dichotomy that vernacular and authoritative are opposites. I do know what he's trying to say, and we definitely perceive them as such. This is in large part due to the particularity and contingency of Postmodern philosophy. Music and art always reflect the times, and our times are characterized by personal truth and fluid reality. Someone in the church told me at the end of a service, when I concluded with a Hillsong song that kind of ended by drifting off (as opposed to a "ta-da" or final-feeling ending) that he hates it when music doesn't resolve. A lack of resolution in music is completely consistent with the current cultural concept that there is no one, firm, reality or truth. So in that regard, our particular vernacular in the 2020s is indeed at odds with music and art that represent a time when the cultural norm was that there is one firm reality and truth.
One caveat: it is fully legitimate to have different interpretations of aesthetic qualities. Current compositions that meander and create an atmosphere, rather than trying to "make a statement" certainly developed out of our current culture. However, meandering, atmospheric, experiential music need not be at odds with the Christian faith. We are indeed on a journey, and see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). A steady diet of music that represents the human experience, in my opinion, becomes too self-focused and less God-focused. However, it is a legitimate part of our faith. Many other world religions eschew the personal and the experiential in an attempt to divorce from reality; but Christ invites us, in our particular bodies and lives, into His family. Emphasis in worship is a balance.
Even if people don't realize it, they respond to these aesthetic qualities, which is what leads to such heated debates about music style.
Basically, it seems that the author is just advocating for infusion of the new with the old. Nice, creative idea.
But the overall idea of having variety, the old and the new, is a position in which I stand firmly with him. There are two theological reasons for this. First, the Church is one body that shares communion with all the saints (1 Cor. 12). To share facets of worship with the entire Holy Church throughout time is a powerful and beautiful thing. The pathology of the Spirit is the same for all believers, regardless of any socio-temporal considerations. So I advocate remembering that unity by keeping quality music and practices from other times and places. Second, our Christian and one true God is not (though most of academia would disagree with me) a social construct made by white people in the recent past. God is not a style. He doesn't reflect us, we reflect Him. To say it's only relevant (for example) to sing songs that are current, right this minute, limits God to only making sense or being relevant right this minute. And then His nature seems to change when our culture changes. Nope, nope, nope. I'm all for using the best of what we know, new styles, new technology (that's what Bach's organ was after all) or culturally relevant and accessible styles. I do think that in addition to making a lot of work and heartache for the Body, it just doesn't fit the faith to force the one-size-fits-all, regardless of the chosen style.
I will say that we all have our own upbringings and backgrounds that inform what is comfortable and familiar to us. That alone can be extremely heartening and strengthening. I think there is nothing wrong whatsoever with people gravitating toward a style of worship that makes sense to them, and having a pretty steady diet of that, assuming it is grounded in the faith. What I do not agree with is that different expressions of the one true faith are somehow an ethical imperative. Sure, we musician snobs will critique hokey or poorly done performances all day long, but that is a result of training and personality. I might have difficulty identifying with a backwoods church, but this does not mean their faith is less than mine; certainly not their eternal worth. I do of course believe that we bring the firstfruits, our best offerings. I always remember being surprised as a child, learning that God was so displeased with Cain's offering. I thought, goodness, that's what he had! But the glib, lukewarm second-tier offering is actually a sin. So it's a high calling for the heart and how we steward our gifts.
Back to this blog post: when you feel emotional about your taste in church music, I pray that you will remember these two factors: what you like matters, because it's reflective of who you are, and God loves you--you in particular. He knew you before you were born, and knows the number of hairs on your head. He made you the way you are, and wants you to thrive. At the same time, remember that He is much, much bigger than you. He laid the foundations of the earth and sustains it for all time, and for all people. Praise God that we can rest securely in the arms of the One who is the static Way, the Truth, and the Life, yesterday, today, and forever.