Worship wars: musicians, pulpiteers, and aesthetics...
Much of the current battle over worship, particularly the music we use, is more deeply a battle over whether high aesthetics are always and only good, or whether they also pose a threat. Like Frankenstein, can high aesthetics turn on us and cease to be a servant, instead becoming a master of God's people at worship? Can they even become an idol, displacing God Himself?
In the corner for their posing a threat is this excerpt from the latest "Notes and Comments" at the front of the December 2006 New Criterion. Introducing a piece by Michael J. Lewis on the art historian, T. J. Clark, the editors quote Lewis:
The tendency of Clark's career has been to dislodge the aesthetic object from its pedestal to set it back into the social, cultural, and political currents that brought it forth. Such an approach, wielded judiciously, can immeasurably enrich the understanding of an object. ...(A) mediocre work of art always speaks far more eloquently about the society that made it than a great one.
The editors then comment:
For a political interpretation of art, greatness is a distraction at best, at worst it is a rival for the reader's or viewer's attention.
At least since the 1970s, efforts to dethrone the aesthetic and short-circuit or marginalize greatness have triumphed in the academy and many other institutions charged with the preservation and transmission of our artistic patrimony.
So now, two questions...
First, if it's fair to say that the meter, melody, harmony, and instrumentation of a hymn is more the aesthetic object itself, and the verse more the vehicle carrying the "cultural" or Scriptural current, have we ever considered the possibility that the aesthetic objects in our worship may sit on such a high pedestal that they overwhelm Biblical truth? That their "greatness" has become "a distraction" or a "rival (for the choir's or congregation's) attention?"
Second, speaking only to those from an upper middle class reformed tradition, if you answered a resounding "No!" to this first question, it's my guess that, whether consciously or subconsciously, you have brought into the tabernacle goals which are antithetical to true worship--namely the "preservation and transmission of our artistic patrimony."
And while my own aesthetic preferences, musically, as well as my love for tradition and history lead me to great sympathy with you on this, we must exercise great discipline here.
The best and most beautiful things always pose the greatest threat of idolatry.
Move over into preaching and we remember that many Puritans were opposed to the reading of sermons. Just as musical aesthetics can overwhelm verse and the Scriptural truths that verse bears, so rhetoric can overwhelm the sermonic prose and the Scriptural truths that prose bears. This is the reason I'm opposed to pulpiteers and their affectations of sophistication and erudition.
When a man steps into the pulpit and adopts a different tone of voice, vocabulary, and syntax than he uses with his flock and family the rest of the week, he's either a pompous ass all the time, or he has displaced God's glory with his own, and his flock will leave the sanctuary hungry still.
(B)ut God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).