First published in Lutheran Forum, Fall 2003
Out of all the questions Gordon A. Beck asks in “Questions About Current Lutheran Music Practices” (Lutheran Forum, Easter/Spring 2003), he’s really asking only one: “What do we desire?” His answer is: “Let’s do that.” For the article is simply an appeal to our personal preferences, to the styles we like, to the culture that surrounds us.
And most of all, to our emotions. What kind of music excites them? And once they’re excited, what do we “do” with them? This fleshly focus distinguishes between musical styles that speak to the emotions and those that do not. But this is a false distinction, for any music that does not involve our emotions is merely inferior music. Good music, whatever its style, speaks to our whole being or it fails as music.
But the author does not even address emotions so much as our expression of them, so turning the focus further from the God who is worshipped to the demeanor of the worshipper: “Those committed to a more spiritually driven worship are looking for more informality, too. They are looking for greater expressions of emotion and perhaps bodily movements, for when this brand of Lutheran worship is at its optimum, some hand clapping and raising of hands will occur.”
Where to begin with such a statement as this? No more concern for spiritual worship anymore—let’s have spiritually driven worship (and with one word we set foot on the slippery slope of judging the heart). No more concern for the communion of saints anymore—let’s peek in and rate them before we join in. No more concern for worship at all—let’s buy a worship brand (what else does one do with a brand, once its optimum is quantified?). No more concern for worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness—we want results. They’d better be measurable results—there shall be the clapping and raising of hands! We will judge and be judged according to the enthusiasm we show.
We have now slid down from the mountain of the Spirit to the valley of spiritual fascism.
Another grave error—equating emotions with “spiritual longings”—is betrayed with the words “upbeat spiritual longings.” What could this remarkable phrase possibly mean (except that it’s what keeps people away from church on Good Friday, with all of its sad, slow music)?
But really, we do know what “upbeat spiritual longings” mean here, and let’s not kid ourselves. It is a longing for music with a beat. Not just a desire for any beat (all music has a beat, after all), but for a strong pulse on two and four, overlaid with syncopation. (Chants and Renaissance- inspired chorales, with their mix of two- and three-beat rhythms, are not syncopated, by the way.) It is no coincidence that this backbeat on two and four is the sine qua non of the popular music industry, which hardened into a common language 50 years ago and reigns supreme in the world today. It is little wonder that some people want to hear it in church, since it is inescapable everywhere else.
There’s nothing wicked about this or any style, but experience teaches that an incessant beat strangles melodic invention (and encourages prosaic texts). Syncopation works fine with pop music and its small band format. It is actually needed because of pop’s thin melodic and harmonic language, as one of the only ways left to coax out musical interest. But the catch is that syncopation undermines corporate singing. The preeminent reason church music is in fairly straight rhythms is so that large groups of people can sing to the Lord together. The reason Scripture is pointed for chanting is so that we can all proclaim God’s Word together. Shoehorning a congregation into pop, however, creates practical problems.
It is impossible for any untrained group to sing syncopated syllables at the same time, so a vague uneasiness and timidity settles over the congregation (of any age, by the way) when pop is introduced without major sonic cushioning. Tentative singing necessitates “leading,” beyond simple accompaniment, by means of visual cues and verbal encouragement. Amplification is highly recommended, preferably supported by monolithic percussion and a heavy bass line, to construct a wall of sound for the singing to recline into. This buttressing produces a coarse and indistinct expression, all because the music is ill suited to its purpose.
The best church music, in contrast, has a translucent integrity of materials that leads worshippers almost by itself.
Whether dancing and clapping Christians in Nigeria (as suggested) or anywhere else might be a model for us misses the point, since we would only be trading one culture for another. We should not look to Nigerian culture, we should not look to German or American culture, we should by no means “embrace” culture (the author’s advice) at all. For “culture” is nothing more than another word for “the world.” If we want to know the source of “sometimes-destructive dichotomies in worship that we have created for ourselves,” as it’s called in the article (“wars and fightings among us,” James 4:1 calls it), we need look no further than our desire—our lust, if you will—to embrace the world and to do what we like.
The discussion of Luther’s use of “secular folk song” is interesting but irrelevant. Let there be no confusion between folk and pop music. Christian popular music is not folk music. Authentic folk music comes from a geographically or ethnically defined group, usually orally transmitted. It exists blithely untouched by economics, and the best of it has a stability, purity, and power that translates beyond its borders.
Pop music’s very life, however, depends on one factor only: its ability to make money. It is the product of an industry no different from the film or fashion industries in its utter reliance on market research and the invention of ever-changing fads. Its substance is style, and the relentless pursuit of new styles defines its very soul. It lives only to divert us, and our money. Fads drive the dollar. Pop is, first, last, and only, what sells.
Not that creators of Christian pop, or of any popular music for that matter, only want to make money—far be it. If we said that, we would be judging their hearts by outward appearance, the same mistake made by those who point to, say, a lack of hand-raising or tears as a sign of not being “in touch with our feelings,” or worse, not “in the Spirit.” No. What we must say, though, is that any music modeled after pop music has thrown its lot in with a culture of selling, of entertainment, of desire.
Pop music is necessarily ephemeral, and any pop song is doomed to irrelevance once the prevailing winds change course. And they always change course, their worldly associations becoming albatrosses that cannot be shaken loose. As much as we like the oldies, how destructive of worship is it always to be reminded of Neil Diamond or Gordon Lightfoot when a certain “praise” song comes up?
What lives by the fad shall die by the fad.
Some will say, “Yes, but pop music brings people into church. Isn’t that the whole point?” In fact, it’s not the whole point, but anyway let’s look at the premise. It’s not clear that pop music does bring people into church. It’s very clear that churches experiencing growth are by and large those that, first, make an effort to reach out, and second, strongly preach the Gospel. Some of these churches use pop music, true, but some only to a small extent, and some not at all. Some using pop music also have a volatile church population turnover. And churches that have toyed with pop music but have also watered down the Gospel have declining memberships, that trend going back to the 1960s. Sometimes even the Gospel does not draw people in; should missionaries laboring in the field change the Gospel when their numbers aren’t up? The “whole point” is, we should preach the Gospel in season and out of season, and it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to the name of the Most High.
How? The best questions will always concern the purpose of worship, not the surface accidents of a culturally prescribed relevance. A group of people who were once entrusted with a major renewal of worship music had this to say:
“…liturgical music must possess those characteristics which make it preeminently sacred and adapted to the good of souls. It must surely emphasize above all else the dignity of divine worship, and at the same time be able to express pleasantly and truly the sentiments of the christian soul. It must also be catholic, answering to the needs of every people, country and age, and combine simplicity with artistic perfection.”
We would be hard pressed to define the goal of music in church any better than this. With these words of exactly 100 years ago, the writers of the Preface to the monumental Liber usualis, the great book of chants for the church year, set forth the goals to which all of us should aspire. Church music will be sacred, yes, set apart from the world so that it can feed the whole Christian soul and not just tickle its ears. Its dignity will match the profound import of its divine calling, but it will be pleasing and speak to the mind and heart. Since its aim will be the unity of all Christians throughout space and time, it will avoid hackneyed trends, always seeking out those elements that have stood time’s test, and recreate what is current into something new and holy. It will perform these tasks with elegance and good taste. This calling will bring to bear every technical skill and spiritual resource God has provided to those who are its creators and transmitters.
Whether the music we use is chant or not, this should be our aim. There can never be an excuse to bring before God less than the best that we are able to bring: “our selves, our time, and our possessions.” What we offer are “signs” of his “gracious love,” not pale copies of what the world sells to us. Let us sing a new song!
Finally, one statement in the article betrays such a stereotype among American Lutherans that I must make a personal observation. It is inconsistent of those who, on the one hand, praise diversity in all its forms and yet, on the other, always like to take a whack at the Germans. No one who has stood with a congregation of 60- to 95-year-old Germans singing “Sonne der Gerechtigkeit” (“At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing,” LBW #210)—no one who has heard the energy, fervor, and yes, volume that would shame a congregation one-third the age and three times the size—no one who has heard “O Lamm Gottes” patiently sung all three times through over slow, pulsing half-notes, with all the rich reediness that intense yet quavery voices can muster—no one who has felt the goose-bumps that refuse to leave for five minutes after the last chord dies away—no one, I say, experiencing that transport would ever lightly toss around the phrase “Teutonic spiritual stupor” in describing the Gottesdienst.
May we never question the emotional commitment of any brother or sister in Christ based on what kind of music they sing or what forms of worship they use. May we never judge church music by what the world dispenses through the radio. Supposed Lutheran stoicism makes an easy foil against which to compare putatively more lively and emotional expressions. But to fall into that trap is sadly to miss the world of deep and abiding feeling, as well as the hair-raising electricity, that Lutheran music has to offer.
It is not about our desires. I have personal preferences as much as anyone. I blushingly confess to a soft spot for Victorian saccharine, Viennese schmaltz, and The Four Tops. There are parts of the LBW settings that I adore and parts that I could do without. But when I go to church, I dismiss all my preferences and desires. I kneel, sit, and stand with my brothers and sisters, I sing loud everything that’s put in front of me, and I keep my opinions to myself. And don’t you know, I get emotional, sometimes very, with music I love and with music I don’t. The Spirit is funny like that. Above all I try to give to the Lord what he deserves, and really the only thing he desires: my worship.