Is An Evangelical Art Music Possible?

by Matthew Raley The father of Christian contemporary music, Larry Norman, recorded a song decades ago quoting Martin Luther: "Why should the devil have all the good music?" It was push-back against those who said rock and roll was inherently devilish.

Ever since, the quote has been a favorite of youth pastors who like to think that Luther was talking about tavern drinking songs that were turned into hymns. Take the music of the marketplace, they say, and make it preach Jesus.

Sorry. Martin Luther never thought the devil lived in taverns. The man liked his beer. As far as Luther was concerned, the devil lived in Rome. Specifically, the devil had taken over St. Peter's, with its architecture, its sculptures and frescos ... and its choirs.

In fact, Luther's quote was about the most eminent composer of that time, one-time member of the Papal choir, Josquin des Prez. He it was who wrote "all the good music" that the devil had -- art music, developed over the centuries from Gregorian chant. This music was pre-Palestrina, having many independent parts, so florid in their mutual imitations that the text of the mass tended to get lost.

Luther himself was a well-trained singer and a composer. He wrote many of the Lutheran hymns himself. They were not tavern tunes at all.

Larry Norman's little artifact comprehends the scope of my argument over the last few months. Evangelicals have ditched their folk singing tradition (music from life) in favor of pop music (music from the store). In doing so, they leveled the varied and authentic cultures of churches all over the country into the wasteland of Christian radio. Evangelical leaders committed this blunder because of musical illiteracy, and turned their movement into a cultural parasite.

I have argued that the folk singing dynamic can be recovered, and the richness of local church cultures gradually restored.

But there is one last consideration. The art music descended from Josquin and from Luther's heir, Johann Sebastian Bach, ran aground in industrial society. Philosopher Theodor Adorno said that the only thing left for modern music to express is the alienation of the individual.

Contemporary, newly composed art music (mostly from secular academia) has no mission to edify people, that is, to bring them together on the basis of shared things. The mission of new art music seems to be that of presenting very personal pieces that, it is hoped, will be "accessible" to listeners. It has institutional support, for now, but no philosophical basis.

I may be alone among evangelicals in thinking this is an important problem. But here goes: Evangelical composers could produce what academia cannot, a renewed development of art music from living folk traditions. This art can begin by adding emotional range to a worship service to glorify God, replying to folk singing with artistic affirmation. (An example from Bach here.) An evangelical composer can do this by exploring three mandates:

1. Modernist alienation from the listener is evil.

The musician is a servant of God to the community, not a prophet of his or her own selfish passion. God's musician should not affirm sentimental delusions in God's people. He challenges perceptions and assumptions. But he does so within the confession of truths that are prejudicially shared.

New art music, following Adorno, has restricted itself to the tools of deconstruction and shock so long that it now exhibits a pathetic inability to relate. Whatever its brilliance as art -- and the brilliance is often real -- it is frequently not humane. When it does reach out, it offers the tentative comfort of the emotionally distant.

Overthrow the Beethovenian priesthood of the artist. Reconstitute Bach's guild of pious craft.

2. Bypass pop music and mine a living folk tradition in a local church.

Pop music is, in the vast majority of cases, dead commercialism. It sometimes renews itself with an act that comes straight from the street. But the market usually softens the act. Renewal may come with the Beatles, but what gets stuck in your head is the Monkeys. There is not enough raw material in pop music to interact with meaningfully.

Evangelicals have a folk tradition. Once they resuscitate it, they should speak to it. The interaction between art composition and folk singing is so long and fruitful that it needs no more than a few names to fill it in: Bartok, Kodaly, Katchaturian, Copland, Shostakovich, Chopin, Paganini, Haydn, etc., etc., etc.

American evangelical folk hymns are fertile ground. They only require a composer who believes what they say.

3. Employ forms that live in the broader American tradition.

An audience responds to form before it responds to style. Form is prejudicial. A composer who aims at edifying an audience shouldn't waste his time with surface-level stylistic mimicry. Form says "we." The 12-bar blues and the 32-bar song are both suited to unbelievable stylistic flexibility. And, with Americans, they retain the unconscious power of a Sarabande in Bach's day. (Bach took care with his stylistic etiquette, yes. But his dance movements are harmonic and contrapuntal tours de force.)

These three mandates had their equivalents in Luther's day. He understood that the Reformation would never thrive as a cultural parasite on Roman Catholicism. So he worked hard at developing his people's folk singing. And he inaugurated an artistic tradition that produced, in less than two centuries, Bach himself.

A Strategy That Calls People to Sing

by Matthew Raley The reason churches need to recover the folk singing dynamic is that individuals need to be called out of their own heads to participate in the singing of the body of Christ. Believers are too rooted in their own passions to grow in Christ. They need to pull out their headphones and make music with others, as Ephesians 5 describes. I believe that what's at stake in this issue is not their emotional satisfaction in worship, but their spiritual growth.

So here is the strategy we have followed in Orland to recover the folk singing dynamic:

1. We've given up the right to sing the music we each prefer as individuals.

Look, if I never sang another chorus, I'd be happier. Speaking as a music consumer, the entire CCM industry could disappear tomorrow and my quality of life would be undiminished.

But the reality is that very few believers feel in their guts the kind of music that I feel in mine, the kind of music that I respond to most passionately as a listener. So I have to make a decision. Am I going to claim the right to sing in worship the music that I prefer for listening?

No, I don't have that right. Christ is glorified, and I am edified, when I join others and we raise our voices together.

In Orland -- a rural, small Evangelical Free church -- we brought in all sorts of instruments, including the dreaded drums, without a worship war. Believers here saw the need to give up this "right."

2. We've made no effort to produce a certain style.

Six years ago, when our we began to change our worship, we did not pursue a certain demographic, demanding that those not in that demographic get out of the way. We said frankly that we didn't know what the style of the music was going to be. Our style would emerge over time.

3. We have embraced the musicians and singers we have, in all their diversity, and asked them to work together to lead the congregation.

We have the usual instruments, and the usual musical backgrounds: classical, rock, CCM, bluegrass. We asked all the musicians to go back to basic rehearsal and performance skills, like listening to the other players and finding a good blend, establishing rhythmic integrity, and responding to the expressiveness of others. We found that the classically trained musicians picked up improvisation, while the rock players saw better results from lower volume. (More in a moment.)

4. We have adopted a stripped-down singing style.

Vocal leaders understood that their job was not to have a personal worship experience in front of the congregation, as if they could lead "by example." Their job -- their service of worship to God -- was to give leadership that the congregation could follow musically. Singers did not slide up to notes, syncopate for expression, or ornament melodic lines. They sang the notes that they wanted the congregation to sing.

A funny thing happened. The congregation sang.

5. We put strong doctrinal and devotional themes into our singing.

A theme is a developing idea. "Jesus" is not a strong theme. "Jesus is loving" is not a strong theme, either. Both are too general. A strong theme has potential for development: "Jesus' love is sacrificial" is somewhat better.

For several years, we aligned the sermon with the scripture reading, and took a theme for the singing from them. This year, our readings aren't aligned with the sermon, but cover the history of redemption up to the birth of Christ. Next year, the readings will cover biblical doctrine. We sing lyrics, regardless of style, that best develop the themes in the readings.

What's that? You don't have scripture readings in your worship services?! What exactly is the source of your unity, then?

6. We encourage a variety of musicians to do solos, including young people.

There is a place for solos -- that is, for individual testimony in music to the greatness of God. Just as we combined a variety of musicians in the leadership team, so we encourage a wide range of styles in soloists. We have bluegrass, Gaither, CCM, classical. We've even had fifes. It was thrilling.

7. We minimize electronic amplification as best we can.

Most contemporary worship services are stupidly loud. You wouldn't hear the congregation even if they were singing.

A worship service is not a rock concert. So we took out many of the monitors (small speakers that help the musicians hear), lowered the overall volume, emphasized the vocals, and brought up the weaker instruments (e.g. acoustic guitars). These decisions had a lot to do with the "live," hard-surfaced room in which we sing.

This approach gives enough amplification so that the congregation can follow, but not so much that they're drowned out.

Over the last six years, this strategy has produced a service that is different. It's unique to us. People who come with strong stylistic preferences don't like it. But people who come to participate in a community find that there is a healthy one to join.

People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

by Matthew Raley In recovering the folk singing dynamic, you can have all three of the fundamentals we've discussed so far without the people actually singing. A congregation can meet in a resonant space that permits them to create sounds together. The people can share a memory of songs from the past, and they can gain new songs that retain the stripped-down style of folk melodies.

But without the fourth fundamental, they won't sing.

Maybe I should describe what I think singing is. The murmuring of today's congregations does not qualify as singing -- the shifty-eyed, slouching, hands-in-pockets, worthless droning that advertises in the flashing neon of body language a desire to be elsewhere.

Singing is done standing straight, with the chest up, the throat relaxed, and the lungs filled not from the top but from the bottom. Singing is loud -- less in the sense that someone turned a knob clockwise, than that someone next to you spoke with sudden intensity. Singing is loud emotionality.

So, I repeat, believers can have every fundamental of the folk singing dynamic and still not sing. They have to want to sing. You can't cajole them into singing, manipulate them, or in any way circumvent their lack of desire to sing. If they don't want to, they won't.

The fourth fundamental is the thing that supplies motivation for singing -- a prejudicial belief system. People sing what is beyond question. You sing what you know.

Prejudice now refers almost exclusively to irrational hostility, especially racial bias, and has become popularly synonymous with a quite different word, bigotry. Where bigotry has always referred to hatred or intolerance, prejudice can be used in a more neutral way.

Prejudice is literally pre-judgment, a decision made prior to reason, debate, or fact-gathering. There are morally important human resources in this word. To take just one example, my father drove into me a prejudice against lying. I don't question whether lying might be an effective tool, or might be justified in a certain instance. My pre-judged position, my reflex, is, "Never lie."

The Enlightenment taught us that prejudice of any kind is wrong, and must be debunked as so much superstition. Human beings have the power to transcend their experiences, to know truth with metaphysical certainty, and to unshackle their minds from old notions and subjective perceptions. Through questioning every certitude, human beings can gain control over their environment.

The Enlightenment was full of crap.

The educational project of rationalism has not ended prejudice at all. It has merely created people who are prejudiced and pretentious, prejudiced and cynical, prejudiced and credulous, prejudiced and deluded. The atomic bomb comes to mind.

No amount of reasoning eradicates prejudice, though it may put different prejudices in circulation.

Here's the point: people don't sing from purely rational motivations. They don't sing what they debate or question. They don't sing to prove a point. There are no songs about the impact of the federal fiscal stimulus on consumer demand, the effectiveness of flu vaccines, or the potential of the new season of House. People sing their certainties, and their certainties are largely unconscious. To be sure, they sing about their emotional struggles, but they do so because they know what they feel.

When you get right down to it, evangelicals don't sing because they don't know much. Their faith is painfully conscious. Their prejudices have been leveled -- and by their own teachers. They have been taught that the solutions to their relational problems are therapeutic, not supernatural. The Bible is no longer an authority in churches, merely a source of quotations. And, most devastatingly of all, God himself is called high but held low.

Evangelical music has degenerated into "At Last, I Know My Issues!" because evangelicals are now a deeply self-conscious people. And this has to be laid at the door of preachers. "Five Steps to a Better Marriage" is not a theme that will ever burst into song. But as a theme, it will appeal to that rational, calculating demon who constantly asks, "How can I get what I want?" Evangelicals now refuse to know anything about God until they're sure that their selves will remain intact.

With such a troubled belief system, why would evangelicals truly sing?

C. S. Lewis didn't like what he called "the lusty roar of the congregation." I'd love to have it back. The return of the primitive, unselfconscious certitude of singing would demonstrate that people once again knew God, that their questions had been driven from them by direct experience of his grace, and that they had yielded control to his sovereign power.

They would sing again about the true faith: the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and pending return, his abolition of wars, lies, betrayals, and loss, the delivery of justice for his martyrs, and the reunion we will have with him. Believers would sing with longing that Jesus Christ be their vision, that they reach that beautiful shore, gathered at the river that flows by the throne of God.

But as they've stopped, we listen for the rocks.

Get Bob the Trucker To Sing

by Matthew Raley Reset the scenario of the folk singing dynamic: A diverse congregation gathers in a space that is resonant, so that they create a corporate sound. They have a shared memory of songs, a bank of tunes and lyrics that they draw upon together.

What you have so far is an intensively local group of worshipers, who have a strong sense of community and identity. That's an edifying combination, but there is a problem.

What's going to prevent the congregation from stagnating in the familiar? People need fresh musical expressions for their faith. Churches need to participate in the high interactivity of our culture, just as 1st century churches participated in their culture's interactions. This is less a need to retain "the young people," and more a need to nurture those who are older, keep their strength from becoming rigid.

The ability to interact with other cultures from a strong identity is a sign of health.

So, how does a congregation stay open to a current of new music? Christian pop is the default source for new songs. Is it the right source? If so, how can it be used without destroying the folk singing dynamic?

I think a Christian pop song can refresh a church if it passes my "Bob the Trucker" test.

Bob the Trucker is not musical. Ask him to sing a solo and he laughs at you -- and it's not a merry guffaw, more like a threatening rumble. Bob enjoys listening to country (I'm not equating "not musical" with "country," I'm just saying ...), but at church, the singing time for Bob is entirely dispensable. He not only doesn't expect the church to sing what he likes, he doesn't see why the church needs to sing at all.

Bob the Trucker -- here's the crucial point -- sees most church music as fluff. And -- also a crucial point -- he's right. If you want him to sing, you have to give him songs that are solid. He needs the third fundamental of the folk singing dynamic: a stripped-down melodic style.

Think about the style of much Christian pop in relation to Bob.

Bob cannot sing songs that make him sound like a girl. The breathy, whiny tone of much Christian pop music is something he will never identify with. This means that the selection of Christian pop songs that we can use to unite Bob with a congregation just shrank.

The style I'm thinking of is elaborately ornamented (think Whitney Houston's "Always Love Yooo-eeeooooooo-ahhhhh," taking a tune that is utterly devoid of interest and adding the sonic equivalent of whipped cream from a spray can). Lyrically, the style is heavy on the first-person singular. It has to be: the drive to communicate comes from how passionately I feel.

Strip out the breathy production values and the fancy solo ornaments of much Christian pop, and see what's left. Is there a melody underneath it all that stands on its own? Not usually. Unless there's a compelling, solid tune, I can't think of any reason to ask Bob the Trucker to join it.

More broadly, Bob cannot sing songs that are written for soloists. Have you ever heard a congregation trying to sing "Voice of Truth" by Casting Crowns? The chorus goes fine, but the verses are written for a soloist to sing/talk through, semi-improvised. When a church tries to sing it, they sound like a bunch of soloists auditioning for American Idol all at the same time. A song written as a vehicle for a pop soloist will not work for a congregation, because as a practical matter, a group cannot sing it together.

This is not just true of pop songs. Churches sometimes try to sing the famous setting of the Lord's Prayer by Albert Hay Malotte. But the melody requires substantial breath control. It also has triplets that are meant to be interpreted freely, and are difficult to feel as a congregation. It's a solo.

Bob the Trucker can and will join songs that are lyrically and melodically solid, not interpretively soft. He will sing a tune that uses formal repetition, not improvisation. In other words, he will sing songs that are meant to be sung by untrained groups. And there are new songs by Christian pop artists that meet these criteria.

The reason a song like the Gettys' "In Christ Alone" has become popular in churches is that the tune is solid and the lyrics are declarative. It is constructed so that a group can sing it. The tune has phrases that are motivically linked and repetitive for easy learning. The syncopation in the melody is natural to the rhythm of the words. The lyrics narrate the gospel story, giving the congregation truths that earn an emotional response, rather than merely telling the congregation what to feel.

The song is not great for listening, nor is it a favorite of mine. For it to work as a solo, the singer would have to vary the repetitions and make them do something compelling. Harmonically, the song is dull. But the emotional power of folk singing is in the participation of the group, not the music itself. "In Christ Alone" has the stripped-down style that meets the need.

So here's the unpopular reality of the folk singing dynamic, the quality that has driven it from favor in churches. Folk singing expresses and welcomes the emotional lives of men.

The Shared Memory of Songs

by Matthew Raley Let’s assume a congregation today gathers to sing in a space that will enliven their sound. They won’t be singing into a dead zone, but creating a corporate resonance. They will feel from the first notes that they are not in the iPod worship mode, but that they are being called out of their own heads to participate.

So far, so good. A fundamental element in the dynamic of folk singing is present: participation is physically possible. But there’s the question of what to sing.

Folk singing is an expression of shared memory. People sing together because they remember the same songs. They’ve acquired those songs because they've lived together for a long time, sharing the same way of life in the same region, city, or neighborhood.

Local memory is powerful.

The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was notorious as a folk song collector. One of the tunes he investigated was "Dives and Lazarus," a ballad based on a parable of Jesus. He found five different versions of the tune in different regions of Britain, with various titles, and using each version he composed a string orchestra piece called, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.

What happened with this tune is pretty common. It traveled from one region to the next, but within the long life of each place it was remembered differently. The same phenomenon played havoc with colonial American worship, in which the hymnals often contained words without music. Congregations were known to sing variants of the same tune all at once, to general annoyance.

If you want to recover the next fundamental of the folk singing dynamic, you have to sing what can be shared. You have to build up local memory.

And in order to do that, you have to think of your church not as an outlet for Christian pop culture, but as a local community with a life of its own. The unique character of place, time, heritage, work, and cultural mix needs to drive the way a congregation sings, not the most popular Jesus-as-boyfriend ballads on the radio.

Worship leaders need to ask, "Who are we as believers in this place?"

In this connection, there are two cultural reasons why folk singing has been replaced by iPod worship.

In the first place, people move around more today than ever before in history. The suburban population is especially transient, so that the natural process of building a shared memory doesn't have much time to work. This movement isn't inherently bad. The book of Acts narrates the movement of believers from place to place, and I would argue that the mingling of the cultures from different city states strengthened all the churches.

But our moving around does elevate one thing that is shared from sea to shining sea, namely Christian radio. From FM stations, it's easy to find songs that people recognize and use the hits in worship. (More about the problems with this practice next week.)

Secondly, people have little sense of history. This is catastrophic for worship.

The fact that hymnals are arranged according to doctrinal content is an outworking of history, and it is full of significance. Certain songs came from Reformation Germany (frequently composed by Martin Luther himself), or from immigrant groups ("How Great Thou Art"), or from specific theological movements (hymns by the Wesley brothers).

American evangelicalism did not sprout in the suburbs, and we're blind when we act as though it did. The past can reprioritize the present, set our troubles in context, and give us a much-needed sense of proportion. The consequences of ignoring the past are pride and folly.

Christian radio, like all mass media, is an endless Now, and that is the mind of illiteracy.

The recovery of this part of the folk singing dynamic depends on a simple but radical shift in leadership. People can learn tunes. Shared memory can be built up, and relatively quickly. But only if pastors stop using music as a way to attract the people they want, and start thinking of it as an expression of a local church's unique identity in Christ.

The Folk Singing Dynamic

by Matthew Raley "Seated Old Man Facing Right, Singing and Holding Music," by Anton Crussens, mid-17th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The public worship described in Ephesians 5.18-21 is not pop music -- music designed first and foremost to sell. The writing of Ephesians predates mass popular culture by almost two millennia. Furthermore, the letter does not describe what I call "art music" -- an admittedly trouble-filled term that I use for music written in and for the development of the Western tradition. Music in this tradition starts roughly with Léonin and Pérotin in the high middle ages, more than a thousand years after Paul.

(Complications regarding the interactions between pop and art music I defer, but do not deny.)

What Ephesians describes is folk singing: a group of people making a corporate sound that develops from who they are and how they live. In suburban, white America -- as opposed to ethnic enclaves -- folk singing is all but dead. We're way too cool.

I am sensitive to a danger in this line of thought about worship. Practices from the past won't restore authenticity to a church just because they are old. A church is not a museum. Public worship needs to be alive -- that is, needs to express what Christianity is now. I am not warming up to argue that we should recover the past, as if it were possible.

But I am saying that we should know what the past was, and know that it is not interchangeable with today's default musical practices. In human history, the practice of buying music instead of making it is such a recent development that it might as well have happened yesterday. People who have no sense of the past -- I'll put this very diplomatically -- have been setting evangelical standards for public worship, and as a result they tend to assume that Martin Luther thought the same way about music that they do.

He didn't.

So, what precisely do we need to recover from Ephesians 5? Do we need sheet music for the psalm chants used by 1st century Jews? (It doesn't exist. And if it did, we wouldn't be able to read it.) Do we need to ditch diatonic harmony and teach congregations to sing in the quarter-tones ancient cultures used then and still use today? (Americans-by-birth don't even hear quarter-tones. My violin professor went on a tour of the middle east in 1990. Trying to play quarter-tones with an Arab violinist, he asked whether he was playing in tune. The Arab pulled a face and said, "Close." Which is to say, no.)

I think what we need to recover is the dynamic of people making music together. Stated differently, we need to rebuild the fundamentals of singing in groups, not as performance, nor as entertainment, but as participation in a way of life. I believe those fundamentals are: a resonant physical space, a shared memory of songs, a stripped-down melodic style, and a belief system that is prejudicial.

So, pretty much all of this will be controversial.

Consider the impact of physical space on singing.

The vast majority of churches built today are designed for visual appeal and technological flexibility. They are designed for sound only as an after-thought -- and a quite expensive one. Not far from here is a church my family has long referred to as the golden golf ball. It looks like it fell from a stratospheric height and created an immense divot.

The builders assumed that the sound inside the dome would be wonderful, but for various technical reasons the sound was appalling. In order to control wave-reflection, the interior had to be piled and sprayed with every imaginable kind of sound-absorbing material. The result? You can fill the golden golf ball with thousands of people, and they can all belt out songs at the top of their voices, but the only person you'll actually hear singing is . . . you.

Farmers built barns that were more suitable for singing than most contemporary churches. Partly, the suitability was a matter of materials. Our forefathers built with wood. The churches they raised were finished inside with plaster. When the people started to sing, you felt it.

(One evening I asked Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, why orchestra members loved  playing in old vaudeville halls, whether the beautifully renovated Cascade Theater in Redding, or the less well-appointed halls in Oroville and Red Bluff. He felt sure it was the plaster.)

Now, the old spaces are too hardened for much electronic amplification, and the pre-microphone past is not one we want to recover. Even so, churches don't have to keep building dead sound spaces. They could design their worship settings to enliven the singing of the people.

More on the fundamentals of the folk dynamic next week.

Three Conclusions on Public Worship

by Matthew Raley If I start with Ephesians 4-5 as the authoritative prescription for life in Christ’s churches, and for the musical worship churches offer to God (previous posts here and here), then I am driven to three conclusions.

1. Nurturing and expressing body unity is the top priority of worship in music.

When a congregation gathers to sing, the assumption must be that the people are all different, that they bring to the worship radical diversity of knowledge base, experience, ethnic inheritance, and cultural ways of thinking. This variety, even in a group of fifty people, is immeasurable.

Musical worship, therefore, must tap this intense energy and focus it on the work of praising Jesus Christ. The music must enable diverse individuals to sing as one voice about the same reality. For this to happen, the music must express the truth of the gospel and the impact of that truth on daily life.

I believe the inescapable reality is that musical style cannot unify believers. The effort to unite people through style has driven out diversity and created uniformity, the false fellowship of demographic sameness. What believers need in worship are perspectives that they have not considered before, and that give fresh insight into the truth of Christ.

2. Recovering true worship in music requires an emotional shift.

Most evangelicals now expect music to stimulate their individual passion for God. They want to receive musical expressions that they can join. But when a congregation is singing in the dynamic Paul shows in Ephesians 4-5, believers feel a different passion. Their emotional desires and expectations shift. Instead of waiting to receive expressions they can join, believers give expressions that others can join.

This is a shift from passive, entertainment-oriented expectations to active, body-oriented expectations. Passion in worship comes from giving edification.

3. Recovering true worship in music requires a cultural shift.

Pop music is the vocabulary of a passive audience. The music is sold not to be made, but consumed. I don't see any way to escape the consumer mindset of contemporary worship by continuing to sing radio hits.

Technically, pop music is designed to be so stylistically strong that it attracts the consumer’s notice and then closes the sale. The style is visually expressed: the hair and make-up, the photography, the graphic design of posters and packaging. The style is also expressed in the production values of the recordings. Ultimately, the music and lyrics are saturated with a certain style.

The cultural shift we need is to recover the practices of folk music.

Folk music is as old as humanity. It is the music of participation, not performance. It grows out of a way of life. It is for people who make music throughout their daily routines, not for people who consume music. It is only in modern times that anyone considered writing this music down, much less recording it. Folk music is not designed to sell or to please, but to express. Indeed, it is difficult to speak of folk music being designed at all. It grows out of life.

The reason the hymns of the church are important now is that they are for the most part folk tunes. That is, the people just knew them, and knew them from infancy. They are an inheritance, not an artifice.

It is this kind of society that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.18-20. A Jewish child knew psalm chants before he knew words, just as a Greek child knew pagan hymns before he knew words. There was no marketplace for music as a consumable item.

What we have been developing in Orland for the last several years are ways to make these three principles a reality. We have found ways that our congregation can nurture and express musical unity. We have seen the beginnings of a shift in emotional expectations for worship. And we have made progress toward rebuilding the ways of folk singing.

More next week.

Individuality in Community, Continued

by Matthew Raley Evangelical teaching about being “filled with the Spirit” has tended to be individualistic. You have your own personal faith in Jesus Christ, and God responds by giving your own personal immersion in the Spirit.

I don’t deny this teaching. It became an evangelical emphasis because of cultural inertia in churches, in which individuals coasted toward heaven on the strength of group membership. The individual new birth, and the resulting personal transformation, is an antidote to self-righteousness.

But the Bible’s teaching about the Spirit goes into more detail about how personal transformation works. Each of us is transformed by interacting with a Spirit-bonded community.

In Ephesians 4.1-6, Paul teaches that there is “one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” For Paul, all these things are the substance of “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Individuals in a church have each had a bonding experience. They have come to see their own sins (unique to them, not shared), have heard the gospel of Christ (teaching held in common with others), and have each gained new life directly from the “one God and Father of all” (an experience that mixes the common and the unique).

That is to say, an individual is bonded with Christ and with other believers at the same time. The depth of the individual’s baptism in the Spirit also deepens the individual’s human relationships.

In this context, the personal transformation begun by the new birth accelerates as an individual participates in the body of Christ “in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” That worthy manner requires “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Individuals who are jarringly different become more like Christ as they suffer through their disagreements with grace.

(Yes, I have expounded these verses “backwards,” starting with the reasons in vv 4-6 that motivate the commands in vv 1-3.)

As I said in the previous post, this teaching gives life and health to individuality. There is no implication that individuals conform to each other, ceasing to be unique. On the contrary, Paul teaches their continued diversity explicitly (Ephesians 4.11-16).

But in that diversity there is not independence or autonomy, as if the parts of the body function separately. The individuals interact, being transformed by the process of giving and receiving. And their interactions are governed by the one thing we postmodern iPod worshipers instinctively reject: a bond, a tie to others that cannot be cut or ignored. In Christ, the Jew is bound with the Greek, regardless of whether either would choose to be.

Paul applies this theology directly to worship in music (Ephesians 5.18-21). Singing together is one of the interactions that are governed by the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace, and as such is one of the tools Christ uses to express his own self in us. This is Paul's conception of being "filled with the Spirit."

Therefore, corporate singing is not about my passions at all, but Christ's. Music is a way of submitting my passions to His.

Contrast that application with most worship in music today.

1. What holds musical worship together in most churches is sameness of style.

The style of a church’s music is carefully crafted to target a specific demographic. The invitation most churches extend is, “Join us because we are exactly like you!” The other (unspoken) part of this invitation is, “If you aren’t like us, you won’t really fit here.”

This conformity kills the interaction individuals need with believers who are different from them. It replaces a genuine filling of the Spirit with mere human affinity.

2. The demographic bond is cheap.

People in the same demographic share the same media reference points, many of the same likes and dislikes, the same stage of life, the same job. They relate to each other, as T. S. Eliot put it, only with the most conscious part of themselves.

The “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is a bond at once deeply personal and deeply relational. It supernaturally overcomes ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divisions, and blows away superficial, market-based identities. It makes individuals larger and larger.

The ugly truth is that many churches are actively manufacturing small, superficial people whose ability to interact is retarded.

3. The demographic bond is false.

Many people now link their personal identities to their choices as consumers. The cars, clothes, music, food, and attitude with which they upholster their lives all make up their identities. Thus, people labor to join certain demographics, and flaunt their status once their satisfy their ambition.

What churches create in their pursuit of demographic affinity is a lie. People seem to be bound together. But they are only attached by their choices, which they are free to reverse at any time.

The stark reality is that style-driven worship music resists the Spirit's work of bonding, his work of love.

Individuality in Community

by Matthew Raley In modern philosophy (as I sketched here), the dignity and freedom of the individual have been troubled. Here is how Reinhold Niebuhr summarized one aspect of the problem in The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949, p 21):

Modern man ... cannot determine whether he shall understand himself primarily from the standpoint of the uniqueness of his reason or from the standpoint of his affinity with nature; and if the latter whether it is the harmless order and peace of nature or her vitality which is the real clue to his essence.

In postmodern culture, exhausted with these questions, the individual has become an autonomous consumer of mass culture: self-invented, alienated, rootless, and unaccountable to permanent relationships. She mines her passions in search of vitality, a search for which boundaries, reasoning, and even relationships are impediments.

The postmodern individual understands herself from the standpoint of natural vitality, but in her the outward-reaching wonder of modern romanticism is dead, replaced by an inward-reaching nihilism.

The iPod worshiper I described last week is little different. He or she comes to public worship wanting the freedom to sing alone to God with others who are also singing alone to God. The iPod worshiper knows no other mode for passionate freedom but the personal, subjective, solo mode. Christ and his community are understood from the standpoint of self, which is antithetical to Paul's description of body life in Ephesians 4-5.

(I think the younger you are, the more likely you are to identify with iPod worship. The older you are, the less you identify with it, because to some degree you have experienced a culture held in common.)

To revive evangelical worship, most believers jump to the issue of music style. "Naturally, the style I like is what will revive worship." But I will address music style last in this series, because style needs to serve many, many other considerations. The reason we now have churches full of iPod worshipers is that all other considerations of worship were made to serve style.

What we need to work on exegetically is this problem of individuality-in-community. What is individuality, and what is it for? What is personal freedom, and what is it for? What is the nature of the bond between individual Christians, and what is that bond for? What do individual Christians owe in light of their bond with each other?

If we have some answers to these questions, the matter of what and how to sing may become clearer.

Let's take some direction about individuality from Ephesians.

1. In Ephesians, we understand ourselves not from the standpoint of our past, present, or preferences, nor from our rationality, nor from our natural drives. In fact, we don't view ourselves from the standpoint of self at all, but from that of Christ.

Paul describes a variety of individuals at work in the community of believers, each part "working properly" in the body -- that is, contributing a unique strengths and actions to shared life. But the individual parts all "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ." (4.15-16)

So the Jewish Christian descended from Levites has a unique role in the Ephesian church. He contributes a practical knowledge of how Israel worshiped, an instinctive appreciation of sacrifice for sin, and also an instinctive knowledge of the deceitful power of self-righteousness. The Greek Christian, a former worshiper of Diana, let's say, contributes very different strengths to the other Christians in Ephesus: he knows the deceit of sexual immorality as a prop for idolatry, as well as the power of Christ to save a man from it.

Niebuhr said, "The Christian faith in God's self-disclosure, culminating in the revelation of Christ, is thus the basis of the Christian concept of personality and individuality." (p 15) The Jewish man and the Greek man have no need to compromise their uniqueness in the community of believers. They are each connected directly to their Savior, Jesus Christ. Niebuhr added, "To understand himself truly means to begin with a faith that he is understood from beyond himself, that he is known and loved of God and must find himself in terms of obedience to the divine will." (p 15)

These two individuals are outward-reaching in their self-understanding. They are understood. Therefore they will come to understand themselves. The inward-reaching iPod believer needs to take out his earphones and leave the tiny world in which he thrives.

2. In Ephesians, we do not efface what we are, or where we came from, but we submit to Christ as he redeems what we are.

The Jewish man and the Greek man remain Jewish and Greek. The Jewish man's emotional life still revolves around the Psalms, while the Greek man's emotional life remains tied to the sound and form of hymns. Nothing will change that. One man is not required to conform to the other. Rather, Christ takes what each man is and Christ expresses his own self in each man.

And public worship reflects their individuality (5.19). Each individual contributes his or her unique strength in Christ to the love of the community, and he also receives strength in Christ from the community. The Greek man rejoices in the Jewish man's testimony, and vice-versa.

In these two points, I find freedom without autonomy. As followers of Christ, the Jewish and Greek men are not self-invented, alienated, and rootless. They are defined in relationship. In that relationship with Christ, they are unique and they are also accountable.

In particular, as I'll sketch next week, they are accountable for how they relate to each other.

Bach's Cantata, BWV 56

by Matthew Raley A cantata like this one, given complete in the two videos below, was at the center of every Lutheran worship service in Johann Sebastian Bach's day (1685-1750). It would have been newly composed for that particular Sunday, and part of a year-long cycle of cantatas. Notice several features:

1. The wide range of emotions: sorrow, confidence, pleasure, joy, fear. There is an arc that takes the worshiper from grief to delight. The composition is designed to minister to our conflicted spirits.

2. The depth of the lyrics. The words are few and frequently repeated, direct and unsentimental. They are also filled with emotionally-charged imagery, applied theological truth, and biblical allusions. You are not told what to feel, but are shown ideas and reasons to change what you feel. (The lyrics are translated on-screen from German to English. Where three is no translation, the lyrics are being repeated.)

3. The sound world that is created to accentuate the truths being sung. There are changes of harmony and instrumentation, there is rhythmic complexity, and there is virtuosity that captures our attention and holds it.

4. The length of time devoted to ministering so attentively to the emotions. The emotional arc is slow. You can't minister to people without spending time. There is no such thing as an edification gimmick.

This performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and bass Klaus Mertens is led by Ton Koopman.



The Apostle Paul, the iPod, and Evangelical Music

by Matthew Raley Recall the distinction between encouragement and edification.

To encourage is to hearten or animate—to give an emotional uplift when someone is down. Edification, like encouragement, has an emotional impact, but is not primarily focused on a person’s subjective world.

To edify is to build people morally and spiritually. This usually means that the work of edification goes beyond individual instruction to address the relationship of that individual to the community. We ask questions like, “Is this person alone? How can she be better connected?”

The edified person is a connected person, which is how Paul uses the Greek term in Ephesians 4.11-16.

Believers in many roles work together “for building up the body of Christ.” The “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” is the state into which “we all” must grow. That unity prevents our being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” The phenomenon of people growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” is explicitly relational. Christ, "from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working together properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Giving encouragement to individuals is good work, but it is not the same as what Paul describes. Edification summons an energy that comes directly from Jesus Christ, and that reaches into the community of believers to create loving vitality. Edification in Christ connects people.

The dominant ethos of worship today, even in theologically conservative churches, is closer to that of the iPod than the want freedom to express their own passion for God. They want to be in a place where everyone else is doing the same thing. If they don't feel that freedom, then their worship is inhibited by the people around them. Authentic iPod worship is dancing Godward like no one's looking.

To be sure, people want a sense of togetherness in this expression of individual passion. But the togetherness only comes when everyone is into the tunes. If even 10% of the people are standing still, the energy is gone. And that means, in order to preserve the energy, only the people who like what you like can worship with you.

I cannot say this in strong enough words: the iPod mode for worship is not the Bible's mode.

The iPod mode is just you. It does not match Paul's description of Christ's body in Ephesians 4. It cannot. Because it's just you. Even if your passion involves speaking directly to Jesus, it's still just you. You and your passion are not enough to reach the edification that Paul describes because you are just you. Even if other people like you express their individual passions in the same room with you, you and the other versions of you have merely attained corporate selfishness.

Maybe you think I'm applying Paul's words about the life of the body inappropriately. After all, you say, Paul wasn't talking about music in Ephesians.


Paul applies his principles of edification in the rest of the letter.

After covering a host of sins that destroy edifying love, he commands the Ephesians to make “the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The will of the Lord is not drunkenness, the debauched pursuit of individual pleasure and fake fellowship through boozing, but the filling of the Spirit. The first of many subordinate clauses that specify how the body becomes Spirit-filled says, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart . . . .”

A preeminent way in which the body of Christ is edified is in singing, both to one another and with one corporate voice.

In the larger context of Ephesians, this direction is specific. Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (2:14-15). Therefore, two formerly alienated cultures must now sing together. The newly reconciled body must sing "psalms" from the Old Testament, the ancient chants of Israel. The body must also sing "hymns," Greek forms of idolatrous praise that are now turned to praise the living God.

Further, the body must sing music that originated with neither Jews nor Greeks. The phrase spiritual songs is, of course, much debated. But at the very least, it indicates that the new culture of Christ's body in Ephesus must produce new music that is formed in "the unity of the Spirit" (Ephesians 4.3, a use that sets the context for all subsequent references in this letter to things that are "spiritual").

Paul was talking about music. And we will unpack the musical implications of what he taught in the coming weeks.

For now it's enough to repeat that we live in a time of consumeristic selfishness, a narcissism that divides young from old, individual from community, race from race, and rich from poor. Evangelical worship music has not challenged this narcissism at any level.

I fear the evangelical culture of encouragement is a mask for self-adoration.

So, Evangelical Music Is Stuck

by Matthew Raley In working on the problem of how evangelical music can unify people in corporate expressions of God's glory, I have covered a lot of material (first, second, third, forth, and fifth posts). Today, I'll summarize my argument and frame the questions I will address in the coming weeks.

I believe that the problem of unity in worship must be addressed. When churches fail to bring people together in an emotional appreciation of God's character, then an essential spiritual reality is inactive. The unity of the body of Christ, locally expressed, is the engine of growth in Christ's image (as Ephesians 4 says, a teaching I'll examine in future posts). The fact that many churches not only fail to bond people together in the Lord Jesus, but even are the cause of people's depression and alienation, is a shame on our life and culture.

There are two reasons evangelical music fails to nurture this bond today. First, the evangelical reliance on pop music is divisive. Second, evangelicals' lack of engagement with Western art music leaves them blind to basic problems of community and artistic expression, problems that composers have been wrestling with for more than a century.

Pop music, as currently consumed by churches, has demonstrably failed to unify believers. It has produced segmented churches along demographic lines, and the pursuit of this segmentation is a pastoral surrender to people's selfishness. This means that churches reinforce the consumerism of believers in every single worship service, when churches should be calling believers out from the consumer's life -- calling them not just with preaching, but with artistry.

Further, while pop music has demonstrated effectiveness in speaking to people where they are, it has not shown an ability to take people somewhere else. The music industry is predicated on sales, which can only be reliably produced when the music has been engineered to flatter or shock the buyer. The Christian music industry, in particular, must engineer its music this way. It does not have something that will become increasingly important to this discussion later on: it does not draw from vibrant local music scenes.

The reliance on pop music leaves most churches either with a narrow style of expression, or with vanilla sound. The music can unite the worshipers with a narrow style if the worshipers are all from the same demographic. If not, then the style becomes whatever is not objectionable.

In their fixation with pop music, evangelicals miss the way these same problems are playing out in the rest of Western culture.

Art music that continues in the tradition developing from Gregorian chant through J. S. Bach to modern expressionism has lost its intellectual reason for being. The philosophical strains that nurtured musical development up through the first half of the twentieth century are now in various stages of decay.

As I sketched from Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Mann, and Theodor Adorno, the specific problem that sickened bourgeois industrial society was how the individual relates to the community. The less freedom the individual felt in the modern period, the more the composer became the priest of alienation, the keeper of individual expression the only ways it could be maintained in an industrial world, through primitivism and insanity.

While the contemporary world of composition has by and large rejected Adorno's exacting dialectic, it has no worldview with which to replace it. Composers today either serve a commercial audience or strain to balance their individual expressiveness with the need to be "accessible" to others. Many succeed in finding this balance, as I believe a composer like Philippe Hersant does in his Héliades (2006), without resolving problems of community.

So, evangelical music is stuck. It is fully invested in pop music styles that do not unify believers, while being ignorant of how the problem of community has plagued composers throughout Western culture in the last century-and-a-half.

How can we get this music moving? Here are three directions I will explore in the coming weeks.

1. Reassert a rationale for individuality-in-community. The worldview of the body of Christ can serve once again as the intellectual basis for a unifying art, a function it did in fact serve in the New Testament church.

2. Sketch the basic materials for a new art music. What current artifacts might prove useful if they were abstracted using some of the tools of Western art music, like counterpoint?

3. Sketch some of the materials and tools I plan to use in creating some new music for corporate worship.

I believe musicians need to resume a role God has assigned them in His Church: the nurturers of unity. I believe that we musicians need to reengage with our craft so as to escape the formulas of style. And I believe that God will bless this labor if we adopt the posture of musicians used to have, that of servants.

In this way, evangelical music can be unstuck.

Hegel, Adorno, and the Modern Composer

by Matthew Raley Can evangelicals be united by a common music today? Can sacred music edify, or must we wander in a consumeristic wasteland of narcissism? These are the questions I am considering here, here, and here.

One of the reasons corporate worship has decayed is that Western culture, as I sketched last week, has a troubled view of individuality and community. Modernism abstracted community into a collective consciousness -- to some thinkers a mystical, universal mind, to others the industrialized economy, to others a fascist state -- into which individuals were absorbed.

Individuals, in reaction, sought to recover freedom, rebelling against collective demands. Arguably, today's postmodern self-adoration is one result.

Let's go a step further into these themes. I believe there is a clear reason why Western culture has degenerated into alienation. The wrong god has been reigning, to the destruction of those who serve that god.

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), many argue, set the idol on its pedestal -- if unintentionally. Hegel developed a view of history that influenced thinkers as divergent as Fichte and Marx.

History is sovereign over human events, working to realize its will through a dialectical process of synthesizing contradictions. What history does cannot be undone, ignored, or defied. History must be served.

In particular, history must be served by the artist, of whom Hegel required (in his Philosophy of Fine Art) “a liberal education . . . in which every kind of superstition and belief which remains restricted to certain forms of observation and presentation should receive their proper subordination as merely aspects or phasal moments of a larger process; aspects which the free human spirit has already mastered when it once and for all sees that they can furnish it with no conditions of exposition and creative effort which are, independently for their own sake, sacrosanct.”

Unpack that rationalist sentence.

The artist uses reason to master his culture. He stands back from cultural forms, seeing them merely as history's tools, not as truths in their own right. Thus the artist is culturally free. But he must use his freedom to express history's truth, subordinating forms to their role as "moments of a larger process."

Hegel himself did not intend history to become the god that, for instance, dialectical materialism made of it. But a god it became.

The Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) applied Hegel's view of the arts to music. Adorno opened his Philosophy of Modern Music (Trans. by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster [New York: Continuum, 2003], p 3) with a quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art: “For in human Art we are not merely dealing with playthings, however pleasant or useful they may be, but . . . with a revelation of truth.”

Adorno also quoted the Hegel passage cited above (p 13), and responded to it. History, he argued, had swept away the freedom Hegel envisioned, moving through the force of collectivism (p 17). “At the present level of development the artist is incomparably much less free than Hegel could ever have believed at the beginning of the liberal era.”

Adorno saw the old world of art forms held in common by all as bankrupt. The domineering force of commercialism was suffocating individual expression, relying on old artistic forms and techniques (dance, tonality, polyphony) to lull the masses with empty certitudes. For music to say something historically true, it had to undermine the familiar with maximum individual expression.

Individual compositions, he said, became laws unto themselves, self-contained and self-defined structures that made no attempt to connect with an audience, instead ignoring the audience and rejecting its claims. Adorno analyzed the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Adorno's own teacher Alban Berg, showing how the atonal twelve-tone system of composition served history and rose to the level of truth by enabling a composition to obey its own laws. An example (Schoenberg's Suite for Piano, Op. 25):


But, Adorno said, this maximized individuality still didn't give the artist freedom (pp 17-18):

[T]he artist has become the mere executor of his own intentions, which appear before him as strangers – inexorable demands of the compositions upon which he is working. That type of freedom which Hegel ascribes to the composer . . . is, as always, necessarily related to the traditionally pre-established, within which framework there are manifold possibilities. On the other hand, what is simply of itself and for itself cannot be other than it is and excludes the conciliatory acts by which Hegel promised himself the salvation of instrumental music. The elimination of everything traditionally pre-established – the corresponding reduction of music to the absolute monad – causes it to ossify and affects its innermost content.

So Adorno further shows that, in twelve-tone music, the only option for the composer to express himself is to rebel against the internal laws of his compositions -- in other words, to go insane. As an example of this rebellion, he cites the heroine of Schoenberg's Erwartung, who finds her lover murdered (p 42): "Musical language is polarized according to its extremes: towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks."

Can music console? Adorno said no. There is no true consolation for modern individuals, only the expression of fragmentation and anxiety. Can music edify? Again, no. Adorno argued that music must not connect people. There is no we anymore.

The agony of this story is that Adorno's reasoning follows relentlessly from Hegel's premise. If history is sovereign, then individuals will serve it, artists included. The cultural bankruptcy Adorno saw was real, and the empty boasts of modernism have spawned the various strains of postmodernism.

For evangelicals to worship together in any other mode than demographic conformity, we will have to rebuild a concept of how individuals live in community.

As I'll sketch next week, that involves dethroning history and bowing to the God who is truly sovereign.

The Magic Mountain and the Flatlands

by Matthew Raley The question I'm wrestling with these days is what to do about evangelical music. I have been arguing (here and here) that sacred music should edify people by bringing them together before God, but that evangelical music mostly doesn't try. Instead, it merely pleases groups as segments of the consuming masses.

I divert today into what may seem an irrelevant story, but I plead your patience.

I think too much attention has been paid to recent demographic changes in America and their impact on evangelicalism. For these changes to have any context, we have to examine developments farther back in Western culture. Today, I'll sketch some problems in modernism concerning human individuality, problems that shifted the foundations of art music generally, and specifically undermined sacred music’s mission to edify, as I'll sketch next week.

Consider Thomas Mann’s character Hans Castorp, protagonist of The Magic Mountain.

Hans is from a bourgeois family in Hamburg. In the decade before World War I, he is about to take up his business career as a shipbuilder. On the cusp of this flatland life of science and profit, he journeys to Davos, high in the Swiss Alps, to visit his cousin being treated for a lung infection in a sanatorium. Hans stays there seven years, during which he has a spiritual and philosophical journey.

What does this fictional bourgeois individual feel about his place in the world?

Reinhold Niebuhr, in his Gifford Lectures (The Nature and Destiny of Man, New York: Charles Scribner's Books, 1941), might have answered that Hans was enduring his own gradual destruction.

Many modernists saw the defining human ability as reason. Niebuhr called these the idealists, tracing their philosophical roots back to the classical anthropologies of Plato and Aristotle, among others. The individual human mind, through the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, could express its greatness by mastering nature.

Hans comes from this rationalist, dominating culture: the shipbuilder from the flatlands.

But other modernists reacted against this view, as well as against its social consequences. They saw relatedness to nature as the defining human characteristic, a view which Niebuhr called romanticist. The romanticists saw primitive social forms and physical drives as more authentic than the machine-like operations of reason. For the individual to express himself, he needed to reach back to this natural vitality.

Which is why Hans stays on the mountain seven years. There, he is interacting with himself, with the mythic power of the altitude, the snow, the erotic, the night sky. The flatlands were not enough.

Niebuhr said (p 21),

The conflict between rationalists and romanticists has become one of the most fateful issues of our day, with every possible religious and political implication. Modern man, in short, cannot determine whether he shall understand himself primarily from the standpoint of the uniqueness of his reason or from the standpoint of his affinity with nature; and if the latter whether it is the harmless order and peace of nature or her vitality which is the real clue to his essence.

Hans is adrift in this confusion, listening to the perpetual debates of the other residents of Davos, who are a kind of microcosm of European social history and ideologies.

Niebuhr analyzed that history. The bourgeoisie rebelled against the feudal order during the Renaissance, and created the modern world through its relentless application of reason and science. “This bourgeois individual felt himself the master of his own destiny and was impatient with both the religious and the political solidarities which characterized both classical and medieval life.” (p 22)

Hans the shipbuilder ought to be on top of the world.

But by using his reason this way, said Niebuhr, the bourgeois individual destroyed his freedom. Niebuhr asserted that “he lost this individuality immediately after establishing it by his destruction of the medieval solidarities. He found himself the artificer of a technical civilization which creates more enslaving mechanical interdependencies and collectivities than anything known in the agrarian world.” (p 22)

By the 19th century, the bourgeois individual was longing to regain his freedom, and he tried through romanticism (pp 81-92). But early romanticism (e.g. Rousseau) dissolved him into a universal consciousness, and romantic nationalism (e.g. Schleiermacher) swept him into a racial collective consciousness, while romantic nihilism (e.g. Nietzsche) unbound him from every restraint and empowered him with cruelty to express his own will.

It is these debates that Hans spends his time listening to, and the reader waits in vain for some resolution that will transform the shipbuilder into a man of vitality.

Hans finally leaves the mountain and is swept into World War I. The reader’s last look at him is not as an individual, but as a soldier in a mass of others on a flatland industrialized battlefield.

In modern times, Niebuhr said, the idea of individuality is “a tragically abortive concept,” destroyed by both of the modern movements that tried to guard it, idealism and romanticism. We are still living with the impact of this failure, only further down the slope of degradation. The American consumer lacks any rationale for living as an individual in community. He wants to be himself. But his sense of community is so dessicated that he ends up looking and sounding like everyone else.

What this death of individuality did to music is the next part of the story.

Music That Edifies, and Music That Doesn't

by Matthew Raley The word edify seems to be out of favor. It has the feel of an antique, and the stigma of obscure religiosity. When reaching for an equivalent, evangelicals often use encourage, and the substitution tells a story.

The words are similar.

To encourage is to hearten or animate -- to give an emotional uplift when someone is down. Though one can encourage a group, we usually think of encouraging an individual, someone who needs a pat on the back.

Edification, like encouragement, has an emotional impact but is more specific about the purpose. To edify is to build, as both the Latin and Greek roots attest. Edification speaks of joining, cementing, adding, raising. It refers particularly to moral and spiritual improvement.

This is how Paul uses the Greek term (1 Corinthians 8.1): “Knowledge inflates, but love builds.”

Throughout the history of Western culture, sacred music has embraced the mission to edify. Congregations expected their music to cement them together in the praise of God, not just with people of one class but all classes, not just people of one generation but many generations. In the experience of being built together with other Christians, they expected to be improved. Music in worship was viewed as a corporate matter, as participation in a common sound.

This mission of connecting generations and classes was artistic. To achieve its goals, sacred music had tools to draw people in, like using familiar tunes from hymns and folk songs. It had other tools to propel people out of the familiar, not merely repeating tunes week after week, but resetting and combining them so that the folk elements acquired symbolic meanings. Until the late 1700s this music was not sold or performed outside the context of worship, and so had no commercial value.

It was crafted to evoke the spiritual zone where Christ’s people of all times and nations live.

Johann Sebastian Bach had a theology for this art -- a view of how God uses music. He believed that the glory of God came upon his people whenever the congregation made music, a belief he based on the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 5.11-14. But for this art, Bach also had a cosmology -- a view of how music operates in the physical universe. He believed that the planets and stars made literal music that human beings could join with their own sounds, all to God's praise.

Bach’s music expresses this worldview. In the motet Jesu, Meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy), for instance, he takes a hymn that was familiar to his people, intersperses its stanzas with quotes from Romans 8, a familiar passage, and then propels the worshipers into God’s cosmos.

Notice that at the beginning the hymn is sung in ordinary chorale style (familiar), but that the second stanza (movement 3, 3:55) is more complex. The hymn tune is set in even more complex ways toward the middle of the motet. Notice also that the words from Romans 8.1 are set with five intricate, mutually-imitating lines. This counterpoint evokes the universe's singing, the "music of the spheres." (English translation below.)


Jesus, my joy, pasture of my heart, Jesus, my adornment ah how long, how long is my heart filled with anxiety and longing for you! Lamb of God, my bridegroom, apart from you on the earth there is nothing dearer to me.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who wander not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8, V. 1)

Beneath your protection I am free from the attacks of all my enemies. Let Satan track me down, let my enemy be exasperated -- Jesus stands by me. Even if there is thunder and lightning, even if sin and hell spread terror Jesus will protect me .

This music doesn't leave a worshiper in a familiar world. It connects worshipers to each other, to past generations of Christians, to the apostle Paul, to the physical universe (as they believed), and to God. It uses the familiar as a doorway into God's larger world. It edifies. The music is powerful enough to connect with people today.

It is hardly news that contemporary evangelical music does not have a mission to edify. Evangelicals use commercialized pop modes almost exclusively, and the mission of this music is merely to encourage individuals.

Pop music certainly succeeds in its mission. But it has little communal value, since pop audiences have become narrower and narrower, representing the divisions of demographics rather than the unity of Christ’s Church throughout time and space. Some churches do well by singing a broad selection of pop styles, and there are possibilities for unity by using pop tools.

But there are two things evangelicals need to face about music. First, music has been given a spiritual mission by God, a mission that requires it do go further than encouragement. Second, the category of "what I like" will never edify. Giving people only what is familiar will make them smaller.

Sacred music needs to embrace its mission of love.

Jesus As Boyfriend

by Matthew Raley I'm going to say some things about evangelical worship music that cannot be said without seeming unkind.

I have no desire to be unkind -- and that's a change for me. When I was in high school and college, I got angry at church services frequently, both because of their musical quality and content. But most of that reaction was selfishness and pride, wanting everything to match my tastes. In the last fifteen years, I have become open to many styles of worship.

Still, not in anger but sorrow, I think evangelical music has failed. It has not united believers in local churches in common declarations of God's glory, and the reasons for this failure have to do with truths about music that evangelicals have chosen to ignore.

Music is communal.

The act of making music is for bonding with others, not merely for pleasing oneself. A musician wants his expressions to be joined by those around him -- joined through listening, certainly, but also through singing and moving. From the earliest times and in all cultures, music is for connecting.

Specifically, music is where a community's rituals and moral vision fuse.

A ritual is a community's repeated act that has acquired implicit meanings. Weddings and funerals are only the most obvious rituals. Sports, shopping, official decisions, and of course worship all have rituals as well. More often than not, music has a defining role.

A moral vision, the way I'm using the phrase, is a community's view of what makes a good life. Music is one way communities express this vision. There's a reason why spirituals sung by slaves are different from raps, a reason that goes beyond technology and even history. Among other things, the two musical genres express divergent moral visions of suffering.

So, with a bit a music, you encounter one culture's view of good in life. And you react to it, positively or negatively. If you were to hear "The Sidewalks of New York" in its original 1890's style, you would instantly react to the rituals and vision of good that it embodies.

Pop music is now too commercialized to unite diverse people.

This is just a fact of business: the target audience rules. Pop music is designed right down to the production values for that audience, to please that audience, especially by affirming its rituals and moral vision. Pop is designed to sell, not unite.

Those who market music are particularly concerned to avoid a negative reaction from the target audience. Radio people will tell you surprising things about where the dividing lines fall. For instance, people who love opera are not automatically the same as those who love "classical."

Evangelicals have embraced pop music as a marketing vehicle for their message without stopping to ask what happens when people are connected not by participation but by consumption, or what happens when churches target certain people -- that is, when they divide groups.

(By the way, consumers all around the world are rebelling against the music industry, because they are onto the calculation involved in the music itself. They are demanding authenticity, and they have the means to get it.)

Warning: this is the unkind part.

I think evangelical worship music most often mimics a girl's vision of the good life, as packaged by pop music.

The calculation for megachurches has been like this: if pop music is the Way, the Truth, and the Growth, then the musical stream in which the church swims has to be non-threatening to most people. Anything from edgier pop music, or worse, old music, will send people running away with their hands over their ears.

That's the reason for the Jesus As Boyfriend song. It's non-threatening.

The typical contemporary worship tune is straight out of boyfriend ballads. It just is. And it has to be sung like a boyfriend ballad in order to be remotely convincing -- with a certain breathy desperation.

The lyrics are also boyfriend ballad stuff. I need you. You are all I need. I'm desperate for you. Enough said.

The performers -- and I'm pushing the edge of the unkindness envelope, and I'm sorry about it, I truly am -- either act like girls seeking boyfriends, or like the boyfriends being sought, which is to say, cute.

(No offense to girls. Nothing wrong with girls. Nothing wrong with girls seeking boyfriends. Not trying to hurt girls' feelings ...)

The reason why worship music has failed to unite believers in a declaration of God's glory is that, for the most part, it does not bother to try. It does not even attempt to cross generational or demographic lines. It either helps a church target a certain narrow group, or it helps a church be unobjectionable.

There. I said it. And I'm not done.