Friday, May 20, 2011

Controversial Church Music

Friday after Easter 4
May 20, 2011

The Lord be with you

Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology is a journal I receive that targets basically confessional Lutheran pastors and theologians. Each issue, for the most part, focuses on one specific theme. The issue for Epiphany 2011 (volume XX, Number 1) was dedicated to the theme “Lutheranism in Europe.” In it was an article by Robert Mayes titled: Controversial Church Music—Then and Now.

He begins, “Among American Lutheran, the use of various cultural, contemporary styles of music in congregational worship has been debated for decades. While the terms contemporary, blended, traditional, and liturgical are no longer new to Lutherans, still there is a recognized division that seems more divided as time progresses.”

Mayes goes on to say that this is not the first time Church Music has been the center of controversy. During the period of time between Luther and Bach there was a great deal of controversy over the “new” musical styles and their use in worship. These styles were coming over from popular culture, especially from that hot new cultural entertainment called “Opera.” In church, therefore, you could hear sung the shocking new style in the new musical invention called “cantatas,” and in other ways. Why, in the new style, sometimes the organist simply played the organ and no one sang anything! This controversial music style is called today “Baroque.”

The lines were drawn. Opponents called those who embraced the new style “crypto-Catholics.” On the others side, they called those who rejected the new style “crypto-Calvinist.” Both names were intended to be insulting.

Those opposed to using the new style were basically Pietists. I would define Pietism as piety gone bad. A pious person may decide to pray the Lord’s Prayer every day at 3:00 PM, because that is the hour Jesus died. This is an excellent way to remember our Lord’s sacrifice on our behalf every day. Pietism begins to believe it is a sin if you forget to pray at 3:00, and then begins to think everyone should do the same as the pietist. In other words, a pietist thinks you sin if your piety is different from theirs.

Pietism is actually a perennial problem and by no means has died out today. I happen to think that there is a “little pietist” in all of us. It is the result of our fallen human nature. In the Fall our entire human nature was corrupted. This includes our God-given desire to live a pious life. That corruption is called Pietism. However, the form Pietism takes from era to era changes. In fact it also changes from group to group and even person to person.

During the time covered in Mayes’ article, the Pietists were strongly anti-Roman Catholic. This was expressed by rejecting all things they felt were even remotely associated with the Roman Church. This included the Baroque music form, which began in Italy. They also rejected the historic structure of Christian worship, because it was used in Roman Catholic Churches.

No doubt in part because it came from Roman Catholic countries, the new style of music was adapted to historic worship practices. Because Lutherans have always used this same tradition, the new style of music found a home in Lutheran churches. This is not to say the new form was instantly embraced. There was over a century of controversy, but in the end, it was adopted.

Complaints against the new style called it hard on the ears, nothing but noise, aimed purely at emotions, infecting the church with pop-culture, and so on. Advocates noted it value for evangelism. One proponent noted that people may come to worship for the music, and be reached by the sermon.

I loved Mayes’ reference to Scheibel who showed how texts from then-current operas could be slightly modified to be used in the church. It reminded me of the practice in the late 60’s and early 70’s where pop-songs were modified to serve Christ. This practice even made it to the movies in the 1992 film “Sister Act.”

In the end, it was the orthodox that embraced the “new style” of music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today it is quite different. Those commonly viewed as representing the “orthodox” camp reject the “new style” of music. Oddly, to me, Mayes’ seeks to justify this in his conclusion. I almost wondered if he had read his own words.

He says some of the current “new style” might survive if it, in the future, is divorced from its current cultural associations. However the “new style” was, according to Mayes, being used in church, in worship, at the same time it was in vogue in opera and other purely secular settings. Those who defended the “new style” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, accented the words. So do those who defend the “new style” today. As Randy Stonehill said back in the early 70’s, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”

One point Mayes makes in his conclusion that I think is dead on, is that the “new style” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries embraced, and was embraced by, the historic worship practices of the Church. The contemporary “new style” of music tends to reject historic worship practices. Therefore you have Bach’s Mass in C (which is a standard worship service with Communion). There is little in the Contemporary Christian Music scene I know of that can be used in a worship service except as a song sung. That is to say, you are hard pressed to find a CCM liturgy. Personally, I think it could be done, and even done well. Our new hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, has such elements in it like "This is the Feast" and the refrain used in the “Magnificat” in Evening Prayer. It is because of the words, and not the actual tunes themselves, that few think of these as examples of Contemporary Christian Music.

If supporters of CCM hope to persuade more of their “orthodox” brothers to their side of the issue, they will need to include words with their music that are more sacramental, incarnational, and useable in the worship service in more ways than singing a hymn/song.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Rickert

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