Monday, December 01, 2008

"Praise and Worship" Music in Church

It is one of the great puzzles to me why people do not find it obvious that drums, electric guitars, and music with pop beats do not belong in Church – certainly not in liturgy but not even in evangelical worship environments. The case for "Contemporary Christian" music in worship so lost on me that I find it difficult to even rationally argue the point – which I freely admit is a failing on my part.

So I was fortunate the other day to have a long discussion with a person who plays both guitar and piano in a church-based praise band, and I asked him a series of pointed questions about why he thinks this style of music is a good thing in worship.

I'll do my best to render his arguments fairly. People these days have discovered something important about community prayer. They have found that being directly involved in producing the music that goes along with community worship is a critical part of what makes them feel part of the praise.

People are not musically capable of singing complicated parts, he argued, particularly not in dead languages, so it is necessary that the music be very simple and repetitive, just a few phrases, he argued. It is all the better if the music uses rhythms and styles that are familiar to them from the radio and from popular culture, because this is the music they know best.

Listening to higher forms of music—organ solos by Bach or choral pieces by Mendelssohn—is a fine activity for many people, he said. But those who want such experiences should go to the symphony hall or to an organ recital. For those directly involved in worship, it is necessary that they actually sing the music that takes place. Only then does it become their personal prayer to God, something that they vocalize on their own. Moreover, since Christianity is a religion for everyone, it makes sense that Christian music should be accessible to everyone in worship, he argued.

My first question was the most obvious one. How is it that Christianity thrived and developed for nearly 2000 years even as these insights were lost on everyone until just a few decades ago? After all, the question of what music is right for worship has been on the minds of Christians since the apostolic age. Why have we only now arrived at these truths?

He said that the question was a good one, and it prompted a philosophical observation on his part. He said that we live in postmodern times when individuality and subjective experience count for more than what some exalted experts tell us is true and right. Hence, worship in postmodern times must become a vehicle for this individual expression. This is what makes this music right for our times but not for any previous period.

Now, this last point is very telling. If postmodernism has a dominant theme, it is the discovery of the absence of absolute truth and universal meaning in language, law, literature, and art. It observes that forms and social structures once considered to be apodictically right are now revealed to be the result of human invention, and their basis is not immutable truth but rather imposed political values that are actually subject to change. If we are to use the words meaning and truth, they should never be capitalized as if they apply to everyone. Individual experience alone is what reveals meaning and truth and these concepts are radically individualized.

It is not necessary to debunk postmodernism as such to observe that its critique doesn't actually touch liturgy as such. The purpose of literature, law, politics, and language are bound up with the management of relations between people. We speak to each other. We write for other people. Politics is the rule of some people over others. Even granting that these modes of expression are not rooted in eternal truth, that they are barren of transcendent and universal meaning, liturgy and worship are something entirely set apart. They are modes of expression in which we are reaching outside of the passage of time and the limits of physical space. We are seeking an encounter with the transcendence in praise and worship in the hope that eternity will speak to us.

So we can see that the postmodern critique of social structures doesn't need to undermine traditional modes of worship. Even if all human relations are artificial, even if every law is deem a positivist invention, even if every work of literature secretly serves some utilitarian or political purpose, even if truth is finally illusive in all human creations, the modes of liturgy and worship are not fundamentally about human relations. They are about relations with God. To apply the postmodern critique to liturgy is to implicitly deny that very purpose of liturgy itself (I should add that this point I owe to Catherine Pickstock in her book 1998 work After Writing).

In any case, I've hit his weakest point first but it is the most fundamental. To even speak of what is or is not appropriate for liturgical environments, we must begin with the observation that liturgy rests on the idea of the sacred – that is, it is something holy and set apart from the mundane, the every day. It seeks to leave time and space and enter into another realm where heaven and earth meet. In this case, we must use forms of expression that overtly and unflinchingly embrace the ideas of university meaning and truth. Once we recognize that, we can see the limits of the remainder of his critique. It is not enough that our music meet human needs and provide a successful means of individual expression.

I continually return to a point made by Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy. From the book of Exodus, in the narrative when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, we learn of an incident in which Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain. Aaron encouraged them to give up their jewelry so that they could make an object of worship out of their own possessions. Aaron melted it down and mode a golden calf. They bowed down and worshipped it. They proclaimed a feast and burned offerings to the calf. Scripture tells us that the people were very happy with this new religion. After their pseudo-liturgy, one in which they had really been worshipping a god made from their own offerings, they sat down to eat and drink. Then they rose to play.

Here is a lesson in the dangers of believing that just because our worship of God is made of our own things, and just because it makes us happy, this is not enough to assure that we are actually doing what is right and embracing truth. What we are doing might not be Christianity at all. It might be a religion of our own invention.

What about the point about the need for people to sing in order to feel engaged? John Paul II issued a pastoral letter in 1998, directed especially toward the United States, in which he said: "active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural."

I can't improve on the points he makes here, but let us also recognize the validity of the need for music that is simple and repetitive. There are the chants of the ordinary that belong to the people, but if we are looking for even simpler music, let us consider the tradition of the sung litany. The people repeat only a few notes with the same words in a long pleading prayer of profound meaning. In the old liturgy, these litanies were used in Holy Hour but they can be used in Mass in the new liturgy, and our schola has used these with great effect. They illustrate how simple and repetitive need not be unprayerful or be based on pop tunes.

Finally, let us address the point that people want music in Church that is of a familiar style drawn from popular culture. Here we must draw the line. The music of liturgy should not remind us of waiting rooms, football games, or shopping malls. It must be sacred music, holy and set apart. It should turn our hearts upwards. It should not be merely accompaniment or mood music. It is ideally integrated into the ritual itself: prayer first and music second as a way of ennobling our prayer.

So we can see that the case of "praise and worship" music is based partly on profound error and partly on a truth that is taken too far at the expense of other truth. The best way to displace it is through education and demonstration, and this requires a greater degree of familiarity with the uniqueness of the liturgical project itself, which is bound up with a belief that ultimate meaning can only be found outside the confines of time and place.

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