Music in worship: You don't want to miss this...

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(Tim) I have a close friend who hated what I recently wrote concerning music and Christian worship--and particularly some of the anthems written, but more generally the leadership of our hymn singing, by our Good Shepherd Band. His name is Robert Patterson and there are few men I enjoy pursuing truth with more than Bob. This means we argue. Rarely in person, but often by e-mail and ocassionally, when things need to get really heated, by phone. Sometimes we put aside arguments and switch to name-calling. Bob's appellation of choice for me is something along the lines of "pietistic new-schooler;" other times, it's "pragmatic, tasteless baby-boomer." Happy to reciprocate, depending upon my mood I call Bob an "aesthete" or a "prig." Of course, neither of us has ever doubted the other's respect and love.

With that context, I'm promoting here as a main blog entry several of the comments responding to an argument Bob valiantly started under my recent post, "Preparing for persecution: two concrete steps to take." This particular argument was one of the most helpful I've ever been privileged to see developing on this blog...

If you're able, don't miss each contribution to that discussion. But if you're not, I've cut and pasted some of the best comments made there.

So, with that introduction, here are a few of Bob's salvos, along with a couple excellent responses.

Whatever else you read, don't miss the end of this post where you'll find Josh Congrove's essay. Josh is a doctoral candidate in classics here at Church of the Good Shepherd. Mary Lee and I love him for many reasons, not the least of which is that he used to come over to our house of an evening and play hymns on our piano for Aunt Elaine. During Lord's Day worship Josh has been known to accompany both the amplified band and the unamplified grand piano on flutes and a recorder he made himself out of PVC pipe from Lowes.

The other contributor--new dad Philip Moyer--will be introduced later. First, then, Bob's opening salvo...

The

equation of contemporary music--which is designed root and branch for

performance rather than congregational singing--with the Reformer's

insistence on worship in one's tongue strains all logic. For starters,

the mass-mediated camp songs of the boomer generation reflect all the

cultural disorder that Church of the Good Shepherd seeks to avoid. Its

rejection of the musical heritage of the church, particularly the

Protestant hymnody of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, robs believers of

a critical resource for living in difficult times.

Insistence on quality music and good hymnody is not elitist any more

than insistence on trained ministers who can rightly preach and

adjudicate the Word of God. Ironically, the very choice of commercially

driven music like CCM has little to do with a Christian understanding

of culture or forms, but a utilitarian calculus that evaluates music

for pragmatic reasons--because it allegedly draws a crowd, not because

it is inherently better. If Church of the Good Shepherd really valued

good congregational singing, it would never replace organ and piano

with electric guitars and drums. If we take public worship as something

that is really important (as we do for weddings, funerals, and

Christmas Eve), the latter forms simply do not work. What young bride

wants to walk down the aisle to a Top-40 tune?

As Ken Myers has argued cultural forms are not neutral: You change

the music, you change the theology. A congregation that has been

nurtured on vibrant congregational signing and the Trinity Hymnal would

never be satisfied anything less.

Bob Patterson

Bob got some excellent rejoinders to this initial comment, so he followed up with another:

Re words:

Almost any selection of the Trinity Hymnal, like "The King of

Love My Shepherd Is" to the tune of St. Columba, is far superior to

anything penned by the British heart throb, Stuart Townendy. I could go

on and on: nothing on the chorus scene compares lyrically to hymns like

Our God Our Help in Ages Past, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,

Praise My Soul the King of Heaven, I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer

Art, or Thine Be the Glory. I'll even include the more recent hymn by

Margaret Clarkson, We Come O Christ to Thee.

Not only is conventional hymnody better when it comes to words, it

is better structurally and musically. The structure of hymnody

separates the words (the hymn) from the music (hymn tune) in such a way

that the music submits to the words. Contemporary music, which our dear

friend Paul Lusher considers "feminine" in attributes, has no such

flexibility. The music tends to dominate and the words become

secondary.

Conventional hymnody, which Paul says is masculine in attributes, is

also superior aesthetically. Of course, the PC dogma of

multiculturalism cringes at such a thought. But doesn't common sense

and what the Westminster divines call "the light of nature" cringe at

the idea of adopting the genre of American Idol for the public worship

of the Living God? Have we lost our minds?

God's people deserve something better that what pop culture feeds

them. They need cultural forms that reflect the beauty, form, and order

of God's creation. Aesthetics and doctrine are not as easily separated

as you presume. You sound almost gnostic in suggesting that musical

forms do not really matter. We are embodied creatures. Likewise,

doctrine is embodied in form, structures, and ritual. To deny that some

forms are more suitable than others for public worship seems to me more

an expression of the 1960s counterculture that holds established norms

and formality as autocratic and artificial. Tom Howard is exactly right.

Tim, as much as I appreciate your theological and social

convictions, I fear your music works against everything you are trying

to do.

Bob Patterson

Then, Philip Moyer entered the discussion. Phil formerly served on the music staff of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philly. Now, while pursuing his doctorate in choral conducting, Phil serves as our choir director and the drummer in our Good Shepherd Band. Phil responded to Bob as follows:

Dear Bob Patterson,

I very much appreciate your argument and I agree with many of the

things you are saying. But I believe many of your assumptions about the

music we are doing at CGS are wrong.

There is seldom a song, chorus, or hymn in the CCM evangelical world

that Jody (the music director) or I (choir director and assistant to

Jody) are favorable to. We cringe at the very same things as you are

referring too. But to the statements you made above I have to ask, what

is “quality music and good hymnody”?

Certainly at CGS we INSIST on quality music and good hymnody and it

is not elitist to insist on these things. But it is elitist to think

that “good congregational singing” cannot come of out of worship music

led by “electric guitars and drums.” I suffered from this kind of

pride. I was proud that I went to Tenth Pres. and worked on the music

staff along with my great friend and mentor Paul Jones. And I mocked

anyone’s music that was not traditional. I’m not sure if you have been

to Tenth, but if you have, you know how wonderfully their congregation

sings and how much gusto they have when they sing. The same is true of

our congregation here in Bloomington even with our second service being

a third the size of theirs. And additionally at CGS we are becoming

less and less ashamed of using our bodies in worship through clapping

our hands, raising our arms, and shouting “Amen.”

Three years back when I visited CGS for the first time I witnessed

“contemporary” worship music different than any other I had ever

experienced. And I thought, “It can be done.” It was doctrinally sound

and had lyrical melodies that could be sung even with contemporary

musical idioms. Forms both musical and poetic are not lost in our

worship, but expanded. We don’t only use the strophic form that hymns

almost exclusively use. There is so much more freedom in Christ than

this. We use modern song forms, binary, ternary, da capo, etc. “Vibrant

congregational signing and the Trinity Hymnal” is exactly what we do.

The congregation may not know they are singing the Trinity Hymnal but

they are. It sounds to me judging by the list of hymns you mentioned

above that you are not opposed to the content of the music sung at CGS

but are opposed to our choice of instrumentation.

>Tim, as much as I appreciate your theological and social

convictions, I fear your music works against everything you are trying

to do.

Actually it is quite the opposite.

In Christ,

Philip Moyer

Anything but a shrinking pansy, Bob redoubled his efforts:

I have listened to the CGS band and I am not impressed. Unless I am missing

something, you take lyrics of great hymns and attempt to graft them

onto modern melodies. The two do not fit. It is like mixing oil and

vinegar. Or more aptly, it is like trading our Protestant birthright of

excellent hymn tunes for a mess of pottage of mass-mediated show tunes.

No wonder we are losing people to Roman Catholicism.

My recommendation is that you visit Tenth Presbyterian Church of

Philadelphia on a Sunday morning or evening and you will be blown away

by the congregational singing. Tenth, not music that you find at a

Young Life rally, embodies the Reformed tradition at worship. Tenth has

seen no need to change her worship or music for decades. So I honestly

do not understand why Baby Boomers in many other places think they need

to radically alter the music and ethos of Protestant worship. But of

course, it's all about them. Rather than allowing the church to shape

them, they want to shape the church into their liking.

Does anyone at CGS listen to Ken Myers's Mars Hill Audio Journal? Or

have you read John McWhorter's insightful book, "Doing Our Own Thing:

The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care"?

Both Myers and McWhorter might suggest that when it comes to music, CGS

seems to be no longer functioning as a normative institution--as a

church that sets the standard--but has accommodated itself to the

disorder of our age.

Bob Patterson

Then, this masterstroke from Josh Congrove. I do hope readers have persevered thus far. If so, don't peter out now. This stuff is gold.

Dear Mr. Patterson,

The following lengthy comment I prepared before your last comment,

but I only now had a connection to submit it, so excuse any

misapprehensions. Thank you for your intelligent, straightforward, and

respectful exchange with us. I do look forward to meeting you in person

and discussing further sometime.

Warmly,

Josh

********

Dear Mr. Patterson,

I don't believe we've ever met, so please forgive me in advance if I

make presumptions about you by these comments. I, too, appreciate much

of your argument and your concern and commitment to God-honoring church

music. Yet, as others have pointed out here, you have made a number of

presumptions in your argument that are ill-founded, both about the

music employed at CGS (Church of the Good Shepherd), and about the

constituent elements of church music in general.

As a preliminary, it will be helpful for you to know that I am far

from serving as a "yes-man" for the band here at CGS. My background

contains little sympathy for CCM music, and even far, far less for rock

music, which my family regarded as more or less inherently immoral,

rebellious, and God-dishonoring. And in fact, in our postmodern,

distinction-hating world, I do not despise, and indeed still have a

measure of respect for this position, though I no longer accept it in

its entirety (but that's another discussion). I have little love for

electric guitar, and great dislike for distorted electric guitar, which

I find obnoxious and caustic. I know by heart the four-part

harmonizations to hundreds of hymns, and I like little better than a

4-part hymn-sing accompanied with piano, organ, or a capella. I dearly

love each of the members of our band here, but I will just as readily

offer (hopefully constructive) criticism as I will commendation of a

particular musical arrangement that I find objectionable.

I say all these things not to boast, but to show that I have no

natural reason to defend contemporary music in any context here. And

yet, having said all that, I do accept and defend the philosophy that

guides the music here at Church of the Good Shepherd. I understand and

agree with the musical principles that undergird our worship, even if

occasionally I disagree with the implementation of those principles. In

an area such as music that so wonderfully bridges our hearts, spirits,

and minds, but whose affective power we struggle to trace or explain,

it is inevitable that we will disagree on musical decisions. Yet it is

the principles that govern worship that we most want to get right, and

we leave it to Christian charity to cover the disagreements that come

with their implementation. And so with this backdrop I must say that

charity demands that you argue with the principles that actually guide

worship music at CGS. Parts of your argument here reflect neither the

actual nature of the music employed here at CGS, nor the Scriptural

principles that inform it.

First, it is likely that very few of those who attend CGS would have

much sympathy with the majority of the CCM scene, and also likely that

fewer still would find the music played in our worship services to bear

much resemblance to that of the CCM scene. Indeed, were you to attend a

worship service here, it would be a fairly rare occurrence for you to

find a popular CCM song used in our congregational singing, and far

more likely that you would find a hymn of Watts and Wesley sung

(rarely) to a new tune, (often) to a new arrangement, or (occasionally)

to even a traditional arrangement. Seriously, to identify the music at

CGS with that of CCM because (for example) both incorporate guitars is

something akin to conflating an anthem by Henry Purcell with one by the

Gaither vocal band because both are in English and rely heavily on

tenors.

Second, you assume that the musical approach taken here at CGS comes

out of a desire on our part to "draw a crowd" by appealing to the

commercially-driven tastes of those we wish to attract. I assure you,

this is far from the truth. Musical decisions, and particularly as they

relate to lyrical integrity, are not made from a "utilitarian calculus

that evaluates music for pragmatic reasons," but rather from a desire

to glorify God by leading His people pastorally into worship that

honors the true God, not the false one that much of CCM has imagined.

Honestly, if our goal is to draw the biggest crowds, we have failed

utterly, for often the music sung here drives more people away than it

draws. There is little that is commercially utilitarian about it.

Third, while I agree with you about the need for doctrine to be

expressed in "form, structures, and ritual," your arguments imply that

communicating doctrine in a contemporary style inherently demolishes

form and structure. On the contrary, consider the elements of both form

and structure that remain in our contemporary music: melody, often

contained in a standard 8-bar pattern; harmonies, generally triadic and

simple in nature, and a homophonic structure that incorporates simple

chord progressions with a long pedigree in Western music. Indeed,

though it's true one can make the argument that contemporary music is

at times slavish in conforming to regular patterns, it's difficult to

claim that it represents a hatred of form and structure.

Fourth—and this is the nub of the matter—though you seem to hold

that contemporary music militates against established norms, I believe

your larger point actually grants implicitly that contemporary music

conforms to standards—but to standards that you consider artistically

inferior to those of traditional forms. Indeed, much of your argument

here turns on the notion that church music should incorporate

structural elements that are better than what the pop culture offers.

Thus your contention that we may be "trading our Protestant birthright

of excellent hymn tunes for a mess of pottage of mass-mediated show

tunes." I point out, in passing, that your opposition of excellence and

show tunes is hardly self-evident. Are there no excellent show-tunes?

Some of the composers of our "excellent hymn tunes" were hardly opposed

to writing the equivalent of "show tunes" in their time (Handel,

Mozart, and Haydn come to mind...).

Having said this, I have no quibble with making and applying value

judgments to art in general, or music in particular. I do believe that

certain music is "better" (however we wish to define this) than other

music. Yet even if we grant your contention that the musical forms in

which hymns are traditionally sung are better than those of

contemporary music, it is one thing to admit this, and quite another to

declare that church music should only incorporate those elements that

are artistically superior. Such a contention owes more to Western

cultural aesthetics than it does to Scripture. The Bible says little

about the need for music to be artistically superior, and says much

about the need for God's people to worship from hearts that are humble

and joyful. God has been pleased through the centuries to inspire art

that ranks high on the aesthetic scale (St. Matthew's Passion) as well

as creations that never touch the sublime, never boggle our minds, and

yet express their devotion to God in humble, heartfelt ways ("What

Wondrous Love is This," "Were You There," etc.).

From a linguistic angle, had God been most concerned about artistic

value, Classical Greek, with its wondrous flexibility and elegant

structures, would have seemed the superior tool to use in communicating

Holy Scripture; instead, however, we find the NT written in Koine

Greek, a language of inferior aspirations and impoverished forms. But

is it not God's practice to show His incomparable excellence by using

lowly earthly vessels? Has He not chosen the foolish things of this

world to confound the wise? I am not denying a place for high or

superior art, whether in music or in literature, and indeed the NT does

contain passages that at times reach for sublimity. But to insist that

church music only be of the highest aesthetic caliber is to force a

straitjacket on worship that is foreign to the NT. God has created

elegant roses, to be sure, but He's also created common thistles, and

our gardens need room for both. Can we work in a pop genre without

buying into, as you say, the notions it embodies? Perfectly, no, since

living in the City of Man means all our work will be tainted with sin.

And yet this work, as difficult and peril-ridden as it is, is

necessary, so pray for us in this endeavor.

So, am I now a devoteé of contemporary rock music? By no means. Will

there be a rockin' recessional someday in my wedding? Categorically,

absolutely not—unless you think the Mendelssohn march rocks (as I

really do)! Will I ever enjoy singing hymns to drums and electric

guitars the way I used to love singing to a piano or organ? No, as I've

come to see, with a little sorrow. Am I saddened that four-part hymn

singing as we once knew it will soon become a thing of the past? Yes,

very much. But do I accept that traditional hymnody can be played with

guitars and retain its integrity, its power, and its conviction, all

the while doing so in a contemporary vulgar tongue? Yes, I do, and I

count it a joy to be able to follow (and work with, when I can) godly,

humble men who are so concerned for the purity of worship music, as

Jody, Phil, and the other men leading worship here are. But I echo the

thoughts of many others here: don't simply take my word for it; come

and see. Good things can come out of Nazareth!

And so our goal for the music here is to prepare men to live humbly

and rightly with their God in the face of persecution, and to do the

will of God in a world that is quickly passing away. It was nearly 300

years ago that Watts penned that immortal line that I'm sure you love

as I do, and that sums up so many of my thoughts on this passing world:

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all his sons away; they fly,

forgotten, as a dream dies at the op'ning day." We at CGS strive to

proclaim the glory of the God who is both our Help in Ages Past and our

Hope for Years to Come, and to communicate the riches of His glory in a

tongue that is accurate, humble, and concerned more with communicating

His Gospel than with achieving artistic excellence.

Very sincerely,

Josh Congrove

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