Music in worship: You don't want to miss this...
(Tim) I have a close friend who hated what I recently wrote concerning music and Christian worship--and particularly some of the anthems written, but more generally the leadership of our hymn singing, by our Good Shepherd Band. His name is Robert Patterson and there are few men I enjoy pursuing truth with more than Bob. This means we argue. Rarely in person, but often by e-mail and ocassionally, when things need to get really heated, by phone. Sometimes we put aside arguments and switch to name-calling. Bob's appellation of choice for me is something along the lines of "pietistic new-schooler;" other times, it's "pragmatic, tasteless baby-boomer." Happy to reciprocate, depending upon my mood I call Bob an "aesthete" or a "prig." Of course, neither of us has ever doubted the other's respect and love.
With that context, I'm promoting here as a main blog entry several of the comments responding to an argument Bob valiantly started under my recent post, "Preparing for persecution: two concrete steps to take." This particular argument was one of the most helpful I've ever been privileged to see developing on this blog...
If you're able, don't miss each contribution to that discussion. But if you're not, I've cut and pasted some of the best comments made there.
So, with that introduction, here are a few of Bob's salvos, along with a couple excellent responses.
Whatever else you read, don't miss the end of this post where you'll find Josh Congrove's essay. Josh is a doctoral candidate in classics here at Church of the Good Shepherd. Mary Lee and I love him for many reasons, not the least of which is that he used to come over to our house of an evening and play hymns on our piano for Aunt Elaine. During Lord's Day worship Josh has been known to accompany both the amplified band and the unamplified grand piano on flutes and a recorder he made himself out of PVC pipe from Lowes.
The other contributor--new dad Philip Moyer--will be introduced later. First, then, Bob's opening salvo...
The equation of contemporary music--which is designed root and branch for performance rather than congregational singing--with the Reformer's insistence on worship in one's tongue strains all logic. For starters, the mass-mediated camp songs of the boomer generation reflect all the cultural disorder that Church of the Good Shepherd seeks to avoid. Its rejection of the musical heritage of the church, particularly the Protestant hymnody of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, robs believers of a critical resource for living in difficult times.
Insistence on quality music and good hymnody is not elitist any more than insistence on trained ministers who can rightly preach and adjudicate the Word of God. Ironically, the very choice of commercially driven music like CCM has little to do with a Christian understanding of culture or forms, but a utilitarian calculus that evaluates music for pragmatic reasons--because it allegedly draws a crowd, not because it is inherently better. If Church of the Good Shepherd really valued good congregational singing, it would never replace organ and piano with electric guitars and drums. If we take public worship as something that is really important (as we do for weddings, funerals, and Christmas Eve), the latter forms simply do not work. What young bride wants to walk down the aisle to a Top-40 tune?
As Ken Myers has argued cultural forms are not neutral: You change the music, you change the theology. A congregation that has been nurtured on vibrant congregational signing and the Trinity Hymnal would never be satisfied anything less.
Bob got some excellent rejoinders to this initial comment, so he followed up with another:
Almost any selection of the Trinity Hymnal, like "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" to the tune of St. Columba, is far superior to anything penned by the British heart throb, Stuart Townendy. I could go on and on: nothing on the chorus scene compares lyrically to hymns like Our God Our Help in Ages Past, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, Praise My Soul the King of Heaven, I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art, or Thine Be the Glory. I'll even include the more recent hymn by Margaret Clarkson, We Come O Christ to Thee.
Not only is conventional hymnody better when it comes to words, it is better structurally and musically. The structure of hymnody separates the words (the hymn) from the music (hymn tune) in such a way that the music submits to the words. Contemporary music, which our dear friend Paul Lusher considers "feminine" in attributes, has no such flexibility. The music tends to dominate and the words become secondary.
Conventional hymnody, which Paul says is masculine in attributes, is also superior aesthetically. Of course, the PC dogma of multiculturalism cringes at such a thought. But doesn't common sense and what the Westminster divines call "the light of nature" cringe at the idea of adopting the genre of American Idol for the public worship of the Living God? Have we lost our minds?
God's people deserve something better that what pop culture feeds them. They need cultural forms that reflect the beauty, form, and order of God's creation. Aesthetics and doctrine are not as easily separated as you presume. You sound almost gnostic in suggesting that musical forms do not really matter. We are embodied creatures. Likewise, doctrine is embodied in form, structures, and ritual. To deny that some forms are more suitable than others for public worship seems to me more an expression of the 1960s counterculture that holds established norms and formality as autocratic and artificial. Tom Howard is exactly right.
Tim, as much as I appreciate your theological and social convictions, I fear your music works against everything you are trying to do.
Then, Philip Moyer entered the discussion. Phil formerly served on the music staff of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philly. Now, while pursuing his doctorate in choral conducting, Phil serves as our choir director and the drummer in our Good Shepherd Band. Phil responded to Bob as follows:
Dear Bob Patterson,
I very much appreciate your argument and I agree with many of the things you are saying. But I believe many of your assumptions about the music we are doing at CGS are wrong.
There is seldom a song, chorus, or hymn in the CCM evangelical world that Jody (the music director) or I (choir director and assistant to Jody) are favorable to. We cringe at the very same things as you are referring too. But to the statements you made above I have to ask, what is “quality music and good hymnody”?
Certainly at CGS we INSIST on quality music and good hymnody and it is not elitist to insist on these things. But it is elitist to think that “good congregational singing” cannot come of out of worship music led by “electric guitars and drums.” I suffered from this kind of pride. I was proud that I went to Tenth Pres. and worked on the music staff along with my great friend and mentor Paul Jones. And I mocked anyone’s music that was not traditional. I’m not sure if you have been to Tenth, but if you have, you know how wonderfully their congregation sings and how much gusto they have when they sing. The same is true of our congregation here in Bloomington even with our second service being a third the size of theirs. And additionally at CGS we are becoming less and less ashamed of using our bodies in worship through clapping our hands, raising our arms, and shouting “Amen.”
Three years back when I visited CGS for the first time I witnessed “contemporary” worship music different than any other I had ever experienced. And I thought, “It can be done.” It was doctrinally sound and had lyrical melodies that could be sung even with contemporary musical idioms. Forms both musical and poetic are not lost in our worship, but expanded. We don’t only use the strophic form that hymns almost exclusively use. There is so much more freedom in Christ than this. We use modern song forms, binary, ternary, da capo, etc. “Vibrant congregational signing and the Trinity Hymnal” is exactly what we do. The congregation may not know they are singing the Trinity Hymnal but they are. It sounds to me judging by the list of hymns you mentioned above that you are not opposed to the content of the music sung at CGS but are opposed to our choice of instrumentation.
>Tim, as much as I appreciate your theological and social convictions, I fear your music works against everything you are trying to do.
Actually it is quite the opposite.
Anything but a shrinking pansy, Bob redoubled his efforts:
I have listened to the CGS band and I am not impressed. Unless I am missing something, you take lyrics of great hymns and attempt to graft them onto modern melodies. The two do not fit. It is like mixing oil and vinegar. Or more aptly, it is like trading our Protestant birthright of excellent hymn tunes for a mess of pottage of mass-mediated show tunes. No wonder we are losing people to Roman Catholicism.
My recommendation is that you visit Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia on a Sunday morning or evening and you will be blown away by the congregational singing. Tenth, not music that you find at a Young Life rally, embodies the Reformed tradition at worship. Tenth has seen no need to change her worship or music for decades. So I honestly do not understand why Baby Boomers in many other places think they need to radically alter the music and ethos of Protestant worship. But of course, it's all about them. Rather than allowing the church to shape them, they want to shape the church into their liking.
Does anyone at CGS listen to Ken Myers's Mars Hill Audio Journal? Or have you read John McWhorter's insightful book, "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care"? Both Myers and McWhorter might suggest that when it comes to music, CGS seems to be no longer functioning as a normative institution--as a church that sets the standard--but has accommodated itself to the disorder of our age.
Then, this masterstroke from Josh Congrove. I do hope readers have persevered thus far. If so, don't peter out now. This stuff is gold.
Dear Mr. Patterson,
The following lengthy comment I prepared before your last comment, but I only now had a connection to submit it, so excuse any misapprehensions. Thank you for your intelligent, straightforward, and respectful exchange with us. I do look forward to meeting you in person and discussing further sometime.
Dear Mr. Patterson,
I don't believe we've ever met, so please forgive me in advance if I make presumptions about you by these comments. I, too, appreciate much of your argument and your concern and commitment to God-honoring church music. Yet, as others have pointed out here, you have made a number of presumptions in your argument that are ill-founded, both about the music employed at CGS (Church of the Good Shepherd), and about the constituent elements of church music in general.
As a preliminary, it will be helpful for you to know that I am far from serving as a "yes-man" for the band here at CGS. My background contains little sympathy for CCM music, and even far, far less for rock music, which my family regarded as more or less inherently immoral, rebellious, and God-dishonoring. And in fact, in our postmodern, distinction-hating world, I do not despise, and indeed still have a measure of respect for this position, though I no longer accept it in its entirety (but that's another discussion). I have little love for electric guitar, and great dislike for distorted electric guitar, which I find obnoxious and caustic. I know by heart the four-part harmonizations to hundreds of hymns, and I like little better than a 4-part hymn-sing accompanied with piano, organ, or a capella. I dearly love each of the members of our band here, but I will just as readily offer (hopefully constructive) criticism as I will commendation of a particular musical arrangement that I find objectionable.
I say all these things not to boast, but to show that I have no natural reason to defend contemporary music in any context here. And yet, having said all that, I do accept and defend the philosophy that guides the music here at Church of the Good Shepherd. I understand and agree with the musical principles that undergird our worship, even if occasionally I disagree with the implementation of those principles. In an area such as music that so wonderfully bridges our hearts, spirits, and minds, but whose affective power we struggle to trace or explain, it is inevitable that we will disagree on musical decisions. Yet it is the principles that govern worship that we most want to get right, and we leave it to Christian charity to cover the disagreements that come with their implementation. And so with this backdrop I must say that charity demands that you argue with the principles that actually guide worship music at CGS. Parts of your argument here reflect neither the actual nature of the music employed here at CGS, nor the Scriptural principles that inform it.
First, it is likely that very few of those who attend CGS would have much sympathy with the majority of the CCM scene, and also likely that fewer still would find the music played in our worship services to bear much resemblance to that of the CCM scene. Indeed, were you to attend a worship service here, it would be a fairly rare occurrence for you to find a popular CCM song used in our congregational singing, and far more likely that you would find a hymn of Watts and Wesley sung (rarely) to a new tune, (often) to a new arrangement, or (occasionally) to even a traditional arrangement. Seriously, to identify the music at CGS with that of CCM because (for example) both incorporate guitars is something akin to conflating an anthem by Henry Purcell with one by the Gaither vocal band because both are in English and rely heavily on tenors.
Second, you assume that the musical approach taken here at CGS comes out of a desire on our part to "draw a crowd" by appealing to the commercially-driven tastes of those we wish to attract. I assure you, this is far from the truth. Musical decisions, and particularly as they relate to lyrical integrity, are not made from a "utilitarian calculus that evaluates music for pragmatic reasons," but rather from a desire to glorify God by leading His people pastorally into worship that honors the true God, not the false one that much of CCM has imagined. Honestly, if our goal is to draw the biggest crowds, we have failed utterly, for often the music sung here drives more people away than it draws. There is little that is commercially utilitarian about it.
Third, while I agree with you about the need for doctrine to be expressed in "form, structures, and ritual," your arguments imply that communicating doctrine in a contemporary style inherently demolishes form and structure. On the contrary, consider the elements of both form and structure that remain in our contemporary music: melody, often contained in a standard 8-bar pattern; harmonies, generally triadic and simple in nature, and a homophonic structure that incorporates simple chord progressions with a long pedigree in Western music. Indeed, though it's true one can make the argument that contemporary music is at times slavish in conforming to regular patterns, it's difficult to claim that it represents a hatred of form and structure.
Fourth—and this is the nub of the matter—though you seem to hold that contemporary music militates against established norms, I believe your larger point actually grants implicitly that contemporary music conforms to standards—but to standards that you consider artistically inferior to those of traditional forms. Indeed, much of your argument here turns on the notion that church music should incorporate structural elements that are better than what the pop culture offers. Thus your contention that we may be "trading our Protestant birthright of excellent hymn tunes for a mess of pottage of mass-mediated show tunes." I point out, in passing, that your opposition of excellence and show tunes is hardly self-evident. Are there no excellent show-tunes? Some of the composers of our "excellent hymn tunes" were hardly opposed to writing the equivalent of "show tunes" in their time (Handel, Mozart, and Haydn come to mind...).
Having said this, I have no quibble with making and applying value judgments to art in general, or music in particular. I do believe that certain music is "better" (however we wish to define this) than other music. Yet even if we grant your contention that the musical forms in which hymns are traditionally sung are better than those of contemporary music, it is one thing to admit this, and quite another to declare that church music should only incorporate those elements that are artistically superior. Such a contention owes more to Western cultural aesthetics than it does to Scripture. The Bible says little about the need for music to be artistically superior, and says much about the need for God's people to worship from hearts that are humble and joyful. God has been pleased through the centuries to inspire art that ranks high on the aesthetic scale (St. Matthew's Passion) as well as creations that never touch the sublime, never boggle our minds, and yet express their devotion to God in humble, heartfelt ways ("What Wondrous Love is This," "Were You There," etc.).
From a linguistic angle, had God been most concerned about artistic value, Classical Greek, with its wondrous flexibility and elegant structures, would have seemed the superior tool to use in communicating Holy Scripture; instead, however, we find the NT written in Koine Greek, a language of inferior aspirations and impoverished forms. But is it not God's practice to show His incomparable excellence by using lowly earthly vessels? Has He not chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise? I am not denying a place for high or superior art, whether in music or in literature, and indeed the NT does contain passages that at times reach for sublimity. But to insist that church music only be of the highest aesthetic caliber is to force a straitjacket on worship that is foreign to the NT. God has created elegant roses, to be sure, but He's also created common thistles, and our gardens need room for both. Can we work in a pop genre without buying into, as you say, the notions it embodies? Perfectly, no, since living in the City of Man means all our work will be tainted with sin. And yet this work, as difficult and peril-ridden as it is, is necessary, so pray for us in this endeavor.
So, am I now a devoteé of contemporary rock music? By no means. Will there be a rockin' recessional someday in my wedding? Categorically, absolutely not—unless you think the Mendelssohn march rocks (as I really do)! Will I ever enjoy singing hymns to drums and electric guitars the way I used to love singing to a piano or organ? No, as I've come to see, with a little sorrow. Am I saddened that four-part hymn singing as we once knew it will soon become a thing of the past? Yes, very much. But do I accept that traditional hymnody can be played with guitars and retain its integrity, its power, and its conviction, all the while doing so in a contemporary vulgar tongue? Yes, I do, and I count it a joy to be able to follow (and work with, when I can) godly, humble men who are so concerned for the purity of worship music, as Jody, Phil, and the other men leading worship here are. But I echo the thoughts of many others here: don't simply take my word for it; come and see. Good things can come out of Nazareth!
And so our goal for the music here is to prepare men to live humbly and rightly with their God in the face of persecution, and to do the will of God in a world that is quickly passing away. It was nearly 300 years ago that Watts penned that immortal line that I'm sure you love as I do, and that sums up so many of my thoughts on this passing world: "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all his sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the op'ning day." We at CGS strive to proclaim the glory of the God who is both our Help in Ages Past and our Hope for Years to Come, and to communicate the riches of His glory in a tongue that is accurate, humble, and concerned more with communicating His Gospel than with achieving artistic excellence.