|Would you pair this with Cherry Coke?|
“Beautiful music,” said Luther, “is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” Polarized as we are in the church over what music qualifies as beautiful, I do wonder what Luther would have to say after he had a good listen to some of our sung worship today.
In the last fifty years church music has undergone a radical metamorphosis. While most Christians applaud these unprecedented changes, I sometimes feel like many efforts to blend the timeless truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ with pop music modeled after the entertainment industry work about as well as pairing Cherry Coke with filet mignon.
Not surprisingly, in response to the tendency of worship leaders to prefer music composed in the last fifty years, there are those who want to recover the beauty of what is often termed classical music. I have the highest regard for composers of great music like Bach and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mahler (and Luther); my music collection is full, among other things, with their music. I would love to see another generation of God’s people develop a renewed appreciation of the splendor and beauty of music that strikes the chord of eternity in worship (regardless of genre). But I wonder if our zeal to bring this about at times consumes our wisdom.
GAZING ON THE MUSIC
In my travels, I have found myself jolted out of meditation on Christ in worship by a liturgy feature that worries me. While I attempt to take the words of the silent prayer to heart—“Turn my heart to you, O Lord.”—I am deftly steered clear of that by a prominent text identifying the music being played, “Prelude in B-flat major, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847).” To be blunt, it strikes me as intrusively academic and, dare I say it, elitist, to be confronted with this information so prominently. While attempting to quiet my heart before the Lord in preparation for worship, I am diverted by details straight from the syllabus of a music appreciation course.
Furthermore, I wonder how it strikes an unbelieving visitor. There’s already plenty of high register elements surrounding an unbeliever in Christian worship, and then we club him with this wholly unnecessary one. Whereas the music itself might have helped lift him above the ordinary and commonplace, the labeling in the bulletin creates a Berlin Wall, one that in all likelihood will appear to be a snub. “We are a sophisticated church of elite music snobs,” the labeling appears to be saying. “You’re welcome here if you become one too.”
For believer or unbeliever, the placarding of the music and composer has shifted us from high thoughts of God to high-brow thoughts of Western art music. The prominent music labeling in the bulletin reminds me of the derailing distraction that happens in a liturgy where worshipers are pointed to a sculpture or painting of Jesus instead of to JESUS himself. So in this case, art enshrined on a pedestal inadvertently trumps the true Object of worship.
The prominence of the music and the composer is made still more preeminent by what is sometimes left out. Oddly, in some bulletins we do not identify the author of the poetry in the hymns—Newton or Cowper, Watts or Wesley—yet we contort ourselves placarding the music and composer. Oddly, as I prepare to sing, “Take my life and let it be / Consecrated Lord to thee,” I am confronted with the important fact that Franz Liszt who was born in 1811 and who died in 1886 wrote the music Consolation being now played by the musician (while poet Francis Havergal’s name is never mentioned).
WORDS COME FIRST
But what’s so wrong with drawing attention to the music and the composer? After all, in the opening pages of Genesis (4:21) it says that “Jubal was the father of all who play the lyre and pipe.” And we learn about the Sons of Korah and their important role as musicians and composers of music for worship. And don’t some Psalms lead off telling us the actual name of the tune, for example, “Doe of the Dawn” (22)? What’s the problem? It’s all right there in the Bible?
The problem is precisely because it isn’t all right there in the Bible, not in the way it is in some of our printed worship guides. In the Bible the music is only very rarely identified in the inspired liturgy of the Psalms. While the vast majority of the Psalms identify the poet who, under Divine Inspiration, wrote the poetry of the Psalm, very few of the 150 Psalms identify the name of the tune, and fewer still identify the musical composer. What's more, the smartest OT scholar on the planet does not have a clue what "Doe of the Dawn" sounded like; as much as me may wish they had, not a riff from an original Psalm tune has survived--but ever jot and tittle of the words of 150 Psalms has.
Why are the Psalms so frequently attributed to the poets but so seldom to the musicians? Likely it is because Christianity is all about the Word of God, revealed to us in a book filled with words, including the most glorious poetry ever penned. While “…music is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us,” and ought to have a central place in Christian worship, the Bible and Christian worship is first and last all about the words.
The way some of our worship guides identify music and text, however, one would think it were the reverse. Music comes first, the words come after. I don’t believe this is our priority in worship, but simply looking at the order of service in some bulletins on a Sunday morning and it feels like this: “Turn my heart to the Sonata quasi una Fantasia Op 27. No. 2, O Lord, and turn me to Ludwig van Beethoven, and to his birth year in 1770 and to the year of his death in 1827, O Lord.” When we do this, our zeal to recover classical music has become the Cherry Coke of the metaphor.
In the interest of doing everything we do in word and deed as we sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:16-17), a Christ-centered liturgy would do well to include neither the composer’s name nor the poet’s name in the progression through the printed guide to worship.
Let’s stop thinking of our printed liturgy as a polemic on our theology of worship in which we showcase our sophisticated classical music taste. If we do choose to identify artists, we would do well to be Psalm-like in our priority, never subordinating poetry and poet to musical composition and composer. The simplest solution? Identify hymn writers and composers in footnotes at the end of the bulletin—back page, small print, after the announcements and notifications. Soli Deo gloria!