Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Distinct Musical Forms in Worship

The topic of church music has surfaced frequently in my thoughts and in conversations during the past several weeks. One of the more interesting discussions concerned whether there should be special, distinct forms for liturgical music. The original idea was gleaned from Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006) by Paul S. Jones, director of music for Tenth Presbyterian Church. Several responses suggest themselves to this approach.

First, this idea runs contrary to the spirit and principles of the Reformation. One of the great results of the Reformation was the removal of the barrier between the sacred and profane by seeing all of life as consecrated to God. No longer was a dichotomy between the work of the clergy and laity acceptable. Since the life of the common Christian was seen as significant, the Reformers took great strides to make the service of worship accessible for them by translating the Scriptures and a simplified liturgy into the common tongue and by writing music able to be sung by all in the assembly. The Dutch Reformed theologians, such as Abraham Kuyper, set forth the cultural mandate, that all of life and all of culture falls under the Lordship of Christ. Christian principles were applied with great (even if temporary) profit to education, government and the arts. Applying Kuyper’s famous dictum to musical styles, it can be said that no musical style, classical, rap, grunge, R&B or scremo is free from Christ’s ownership and dominion. Thus, since all musical styles are Christ’s, and can be used for his glory; there is no a priori reason to deny the possibility of any music style being utilized in worship. The limiting factor is not the musical expression, but the nature of corporate worship and the particular circumstances of the congregation. To automatically disallow any musical genre, or to elevate and separate one as being the only proper form by which to approach God in worship reestablishes the dichotomized view of life the Reformation set aside.

Second, even if idea were acceptable, it is impossible to actually realize. It is not feasible, or even possible, to create a musical form totally abstracted from any wider cultural movements to use as the “worship style.” The only form that approximates this is gospel, yet there does not seem to be a movement in conservative Reformed churches to instate gospel as the official liturgical musical style. What really seems to be the motive behind such an attempt is to officially mandate a traditional, high-culture liturgy. Examine the bulletins posted online where Dr. Jones ministers; it is hard to miss the cultural orientation of the service at Tenth. Yet, the church must never canonize a particular style of music, whether it be modern or traditional. It must be open to allow, as has occurred throughout the history of the church, Christians of all ages from all walks of life to express their faith through music- and to allow the appropriate, Biblically-sound and corporately sensitive expressions to become the voice of the community in worship. It is wrong for the modern church to be so enamored with itself to forget the rich history of worship that nourished the church through centuries; but it is equally as wrong for an elite traditionalism to disenfranchise contemporary contributions to church music.

Third, the absurdity of the principle is shown by application to other aspects of the service. Taking just a single example, consider prayer. It is possible to establish certain formal and linguistic peculiarities that are reserved only for prayer. Thus, the use of archaic personal pronouns such as “thee” and “thou;” and other language reminiscent of the King James Version would become mandatory to be used exclusively in prayer. Further, effort could be made to compose a Reformed version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to make the special, distinct forms and language of prayer universal across all Reformed congregations, thus eliminating the undesirable qualities of spontaneity and accommodation to a particular situation. The absurdity of such an idea should be apparent; why is the idea any better when applied to music in worship?

Finally, the principle does not correspond to the manner in which God has chosen to communicate to his people. New Testament Greek is not a special, unique language God created in order to reveal himself, but was the common, vulgar tongue at the time of the New Testament’s composition. Further, Greek was not at the apex of its literary elegance, but was the common, democratic hybrid spread across the Mediterranean world. The literature of the New Testament is not marked, even in this stage of the Greek language, as being particularly distinct or elegant. Rather, the language is similar to other, common writings, and the quality of the New Testament is, for the most part, rather rude and simple. If God was content to accommodate himself to the common language of the general populace, why should the church seek differently in expressing ourselves to God with music?

No comments: