CULTURALLY RELEVANT: CHURCH MUSIC
by Bob Wheeler
Dennis Bliss, in his recently published book Culturally Relevant, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of “Culturally Relevant Music,” and he tells us right at the outset that “without a doubt, this could be the most controversial, hotly debated, and least received chapter of this book, because it is already such a hot topic in the church today” (p. 119). And so, with that warning in mind, I will cover my head, duck down low, and attempt to respond to his arguments.
Denny’s analysis in many ways reflects the dismay that many in an older generation have felt toward the changes that have taken place in the worship styles of many churches today. Gone are the hymn books and the piano; they have been replaced by the “praise and worship team” with their loud guitars and drums. At the end of the chapter Denny tells us, “all I can say is that I dearly long to stand with a hymn book in my hands, have all the words and music at my instant disposal, listen to the piano play a short, soft intro, and add my harmony to dear brothers and sisters in singing one of the great old hymns of the faith as it was written” (p. 135)..
As Denny tells it, the problem with Contemporary Christian Music is the beat. The beat, he says, “competes with the melody and distracts from the words of the song. It gets the body moving first, not the emotions, certainly not the spirit, but the body – the flesh. And if it moves the flesh are we not going to want more and more of it? Harder, faster, ever increasing in intensity!” (p. 132). He supports this assertion with an appeal to the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who associated rhythm with the physical body, melody with man’s psychic being, and harmony with his spiritual existence. Christians, Denny argues, should avoid what appeals to the flesh, and therefore music with strong beat has no place in the church.
Denny is certainly right in much of his analysis of Contemporary Christian Music. The beat certainly is part of the problem. But is a strong rhythm necessarily anti-Christian? And what about the melody and harmony? Are they intrinsically good, or at least neutral?
It has to be noted at the outset that the traditional worship was not without its problems either. In at least some denominational traditions there was an excessive formality with the choir marching in at the beginning of the service, written prayers, and responsive scripture readings. Many of the hymns of the Victorian era were marked by flowery poetry and little doctrinal content (“I came to the garden alone, / While the dew is still on the roses; / And the voice I hear, falling on my ear . . .”). And then, as an unfortunate side effect of D.L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns, gospel songs, as opposed to hymns in the strict sense of the word, made their way into hymnals and worship services (“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, / Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave . . .”). There was “special music.” And in it all the element of true worship was lost. Congregations forgot what it means consciously to enter into the presence of God and offer up to Him a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. “Worship” became entertainment, and people would sit passively in the pews and wait for someone to make them feel good.
And so it must be said that Contemporary Christian Music has some positive things to offer. The songs tend to be filled with praise directed toward God, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.
But, as Denny would be quick to point out, there are serious problems with the style of music. It must be pointed out that the music, by itself, expresses something. It can convey a wide range of feeling and emotion. What makes a composer truly great is his ability to weave together melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo and dynamics into a tapestry of thoughts, feelings and emotions.
A classic example is George Frederick Handel’s famous oratorio “Messiah.” The libretto is largely taken from Scripture (as Denny will be quick to point out, mostly from the King James Version, which does in fact lend itself very well for this type of artistic endeavor). In each case Handel would take the text, usually consisting of a verse or two, and ask himself how he would express in music the thought of the passage. The result is an amazing variety of musical expression, from the depths of sorrow (“He was despised, despised and rejected, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”), to the heights of exquisite joy (“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”). Now that is music!
Contemporary Christian Music, on the other hand, has the same problem that practically every form of popular music has – it is so heavily stylized that it has a limited range of artistic expression. It is hard to make an electric guitar weep with sorrow the way a violin, let’s say, can. And even some younger critics complain that CCM songs nearly all sound alike – there is little variation in tempo, dynamics or rhythm, with the result that the subject matter of the songs is usually limited as well – mainly God gaining the victory over something.
This, then, raises the question, what should Christian music express? What should it sound like? It has to be that down through the history of the Christian church a wide variety of musical styles has been employed – everything from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance motets to early American shaped note hymns (my personal favorite!) to Black Gospel (And black musicians are especially skilled at using different rhythms to convey different feelings. They would also point out to us that there is a difference between Gospel Music and Rhythm and Blues). And there have been more than one “worship wars” in the past. In the 18th Century the battle was between “singing by rote” and “singing by note.” But no matter what the style, the question must always come back to what exactly is being conveyed by the music. On this point Denny is frankly right: it is nearly impossible to baptize rock music and make it holy.
I can remember some time ago hearing a very good sermon preached in Denny’s church on the text of Col. 3:12-17. I was a part of a house church group at the time and spoke on the same text a couple of weeks later. The text tells us to teach and admonish one another “in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (v. 16; ESV). The parallel passage in Ephesians says “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:19). True worship should come from the heart. But what should be in our hearts, that we will then express in music? The text in Colossians tells us: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. . .” (Col. 3:12-15). The question then, is, does our music truly express these qualities? Does it reflect the fruit of the Spirit? Will it be head-banging, in-your-face rock music?
Each Christian, of course, will have to answer that question himself. But for me the great tragedy of the modern Praise and Worship movement is that it has consigned a vast treasury of historic Christian hymnody, spanning over centuries, to the rubbish heap. A magnificent cultural heritage has been lost. And, in a sense, this reflects what has happened to Western Civilization as a whole. I honestly cannot understand why some churches today are so allergic to traditional hymns. And why are we so afraid (and, it must be said, this is even true of churches with traditional worship) of tunes in minor keys? Our worship should focus on Christ and the suffering He endured on the cross. What better way to commemorate this than with a hymn like “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” or “Throned Upon the Awful Tree”? And why are we not singing more of the psalms? They are, after all, God’s inspired word, and as such have a power to comfort, edify and encourage that no human composition has.
We all need to pause, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves the basic question, what does God want? What will genuinely glorify Him and reflect the values that we profess to hold dear?