No Less Than Glory - An Essay on Music in the Church
It has finally come upon me—the day in which I actually start using my blog as a blog, and not just as an update feed! It's been a good few years since I sat down and peeled back the wallpaper of my mind to reveal the crazy hues on the wall beneath. However, my good friend Glenn Packiam wrote a thoroughly engaging and challenging blog post about common misgivings regarding worship music in the church, and after jumping into the conversation myself, Glenn graciously suggested that I use my comment there as a spring board for a blog post. I have done so, with an edited and expanded version of that comment. My hope is that you find the following cohesive enough to enter into the conversation and give me your own two cents in the comments. See you on the other side! ----------------------
"Yeah yeah yeah!"
The lead singer dances with the microphone as he belts out the enthusiastic words with gusto. The crowd, pulsating and bustling with energy, responds by singing the same words back to the stage.
The antiphonal lyrics continue on, ebbing and flowing in rhythm between the band and the crowd of fixated participants, all on their feet.
The driving guitar and throbbing drums give form to the kinetic energy dancing in the room, hands raised, as a small microcosm of audience members begin to jump up and down with the beat.
I would certainly not blame you for thinking I was relating a story about an awesome rock band giving a performance of a lifetime, when in fact I was instead describing a church music team performing a worship song in any of thousands of modern Christian congregations on a given Sunday. Christians have always co-opted secular constructs and repurposed them for sacred use, since the very beginning of the church. However, the boundary between modern rock music and the liturgical music of much of the modern church is so seamless that the two often appear to become all but functionally interchangeable. What are the consequences of this reclamation of rock music for use as music in the church? Is style a neutral party to this scene or does it have more significant repercussions? More specifically, what, if anything, is the peril in using popular music devices like monosyllabic chant—"oohs" and "yeahs"—as a regular aspect of worship music?
I wonder if the issue should be less focused on the “what” of such practices in modern worship music. Non-verbal chant has been part and parcel of sacred and non-sacred music in many cultures throughout human history. Much of eastern sacred music in various religious traditions is actually built on monosyllabic, monotone chant. The problem that keeps bugging me is more with the “why” and the “how”. The “why” of using elements like “yeah yeahs” and “ohs” seems to be related to worship leaders taking their cues from arena rock bands, relying on popular music as a bellwether rather than as a circumstantial factor; the “why” seems to be because people like Bono or Chris Martin do call-and-response, first singing out a non-word and then holding the mic out to the audience to repeat it back to them; I can’t get away from the idea that the “why” is because it’s entertaining. Instead of allowing popular music to become subservient to our liturgy, we have reimagined our liturgy in the image of popular music.
Consequently, as regards the “how”, it would follow that such a device would be meant to be entertaining in the same way that Mumford and Sons or Arcade Fire is exciting. The “how” invokes popular music in such a way that, when we sing the aforementioned chant in church, it subconsciously recalls in our minds the way in which we enjoy said popular music. It teaches us as congregants that worship music is meant to do the same thing that popular music does: Make us feel good, and get us pumped up.
This is of course not to say that there is no value in getting excited during worship; there can be a lot of meaning in achieving real and abiding joy in the context of liturgical music. However, the more I dwell on this topic, the more I come to the position that the experiential aspect of liturgical music isn’t its primary purpose. For millennia, liturgical music was meant to invoke holiness, to inspire awe, to remove people from the ordinary and draw them into the extraordinary. Every aspect of the church was meant to reflect that sensibility. Cathedrals and chapels were built with breathtaking complexity and beauty, so that whether a king or peasant walked in, neither could help but have their breath taken away by the sacredness of it.
Traditional liturgy is also radically countercultural; instead of encouraging a focus on one’s own experience, it draws people toward the cross, and laying down their lives; stepping out of their individual experience and into the whirlwind of Christ. It even more radically manifests that idea by asking people to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, thereby in some spiritual (or, depending on your tradition, real) sense fusing our very physical actions with the person of Jesus, losing ourselves, and gaining a new life in him.
Can a person who is deeply immersed in the way of the cross find joy when they are fully given over to it? Absolutely! But true, abiding joy requires more than participation; it requires abandonment. My concern is that the kind of music we are talking about here isn’t inherently bad; it’s simply not imaginative or radical enough to catalyze that kind of inner change. It reminds me of the quote from C.S. Lewis’s magnificent sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
I think this applies just as readily to liturgy and music in church. God is ready to lead our church communities into spiritual heights, but I think to journey into that world, we’ve got to forgo that which is common and comfortable, and instead embrace that which is challenging; that which draws our gaze away from ourselves and toward the person of Jesus. That’s not easy; it won’t necessarily be palatable to a lot of people in this modern church of ours. But taking up one’s cross and dying daily has never been very palatable either. It seems that the stakes are simply too high to settle for anything less than glory itself, and I can’t get away from the nagging fear that we have indeed become too easily satisfied.