October 24th, 2006

rose window

Hey-bop-a-ree-bop Hall-el-u-jah

I've noticed a couple of posts on church music (plus several side comments) recently, and that's jogged some thoughts I've been having lately. So lemme lay down a think on ya relative to appropriate church music.

I remember years ago in seminary being floored by pasty-faced evangelical types who would tell me with great solemnity that Southern Gospel Quartet music actually was more spiritual than other forms. Certainly they thought it more spiritual than stuffy old classical hymns and such.

While I cordially dislike Southern Gospel Quartet music -- and can actually play pipe organ -- I still made a crack in my sermon Sunday that if you want to hear a Bach prelude these days, you've almost got to go to church; furthermore, AM Top Forty doesn't play the greatest hits of Dietrich Buxtehude. Not even the oldies station.

And what to say about "Me and Jesus Gospel Slush" (as we used to call it)? Or its younger and hipper nephews & nieces CCM, P&W, and so on? Well, I've thought about it, and here's my two cents' worth.

Charles Williams wrote in "Taliessin in the Rose Garden,"
Flesh knows what spirit knows,
but spirit knows it knows . . .
Fles tells what spirit tells
(but spirit knows it tells) . . .

Following Williams, I consider myself a Romantic theologian. I believe that our experiences of human love are derived from, and either follow truly or falsely, wittingly or unwittingly, our experience of Love Himself, Christ our Lord.

That means, among other things, that I find echoes of high hymnody in secular love songs. "Perhaps Love" and "The Rose" move me deeply -- and I am not alone in this. A love song which is more than emotion, more than affectation, which is true -- will reflect a greater Truth. In short, there are love songs that can be sung to Love Himself in worship, or which can be sung as statements to us by Love Himself.

Now, I would not simply throw these pop songs into the regular round of hymnody. If I were to use them in worship -- certainly if I were to use them as a congregational song -- I would need to surround them with all kinds of liturgical trellis to make sure the vine of music grew straight instead of however it willed. But if I am wary of trotting them out for congregational use, that doesn't mean I am equally wary of endorsing them for personal devotional use. In any case, I mention them here mainly to make a point -- that if you can imagine these pop songs as hymns, then hymns based on pop songs cannot be ruled completely out of court.

Meanwhile, others of my friends are horrified by the thought of any such pop schlock contaminating their liturgies. But all of the forms they consider "holier" than these were adapted from equally popular forms of the past. Their only virtue -- as music -- is that they are no longer popular.

Some who would admit that the pop form might be capable of bearing our prayers and responses liturgically then say, but they have no CONTENT. They're all just Emo -- just, "Jesus is my boyfriend." And there's something to that. But my criticism of "contemporary worship" has less to do with the texts of its songs* (whether CCM or P&W), as with the dullness of their leadership.

"Contemporary worship" seems to me to be performance-oriented, with a passive congregation constantly being urged to "just worship" -- that is, emote in God's general direction. As heavily as music is used in the contemporary worship form, it seems to me to be used, well, un-musically. I don't find anything wrong with the music itself, which is the usual grab-bag of good, bad, and ugly you find in all hymnody. I don't even find anything wrong with the words, which are no lighter in the doctrinal department than many of the still-popular songs from the old revivals (Blood, blood, gallons of blood, wallow in gore, my Savior -- all those ghastly lyrics sung to such jolly tunes).

No, it seems to me that we need to consider music musically and texts textually, and unite them both in liturgies where they can be used to their best effect both affectively and cognitively (for flesh knows what spirit knows, but spirit knows it knows).

So we take a given occasion -- a morning in autumn, say: ordinary time in the Church calendar, but not just any-old-time, but a time that breathes an autumnal air. That means back to school, it means harvest, it means change and bittersweet and life-and-death. But on this occasion, this Sunday, it will mean -- X. And given the matter and mood of X, we stretch upon the liturgical frame all the elements of X that will fit well and appropriately upon that frame. We balance prayers and hymns and Scripture and so on. And we consider the unity of the elements, so as not to produce too jarring a collection, whether musically or mentally. Then we offer that to God and the congregation. And the congregation, with all their moods and talents and whatever the Spirit moves in them on the occasion itself, offer it back to God and he to them, and something wonderful has been done.

Even if it includes a hymn or two that So-and-so doesn't like. That's okay. God is not too proud to pick up the cat-tails and dried husks to make a bouquet.

*Much P&W and CCM attempts to use Biblical language directly, rather than derivative expressions, and this is wholly admirable.
round tuit

Sisyphus: Rock on

I am utterly bogged down by my to-do list. If it's true that God put each of us on earth to accomplish certain things, then I am now so far behind that I am assured of living forever. I need to get -- well, check out my new userpic.

I remember when we were living in Indianapolis years ago. collinsmom was trying to work full-time, siege was in St. Richard's Day School downtown, and stryck was in half-day kindergarten down the street. I was so busy picking kids up, dropping them off, waiting for ða wif to get home, or going to scheduled meetings at the church that I couldn't get anything done. As soon as I got started on something, I had to drop it and go run after the next thing.

Well, these days, I feel kinda sorta obligated to show up most mornings at the church, since we officially keep office hours from 9-12, and I don't want my secretary to think I'm a bum. I usually come in halfway through the morning, since I don't get going early unless I have an appointment -- which is related to how late I stay up at night. But I have evening meetings most nights, which means I'm either unwinding afterwards or staying up, stealing personal time till at least midnight.

Then, there's all the little scheduled thingies this church has going. There are two great Bible studies (Hallelujah!), but one is on Tuesday evening and one on Wednesday afternoon, and I'm expected to be at both. Then, most Sundays have evening stuff on them, plus other program and administrative events. The result is, I'm constantly gearing up or gearing down from one thing or another, and I can't seem to get a run at anything that really matters. If I didn't have such a huge backlog of "Greatest Hits" in the sermon department, I'd be living on four hours sleep a night trying to keep up. (My sermon barrel overfloweth, Praise Be.)

Then, there's pet care. I love 'em, but they're so needy these days. Sassy has been extra frisky in the autumnal air, and extra needy because of me and collinsmom coming and going. And, there's housework. [Insert obscenities.]

I did finally get to call on the old lady in the nursing home I've tried to catch three times before. Now, I've only got one shut-in left to find and I'll have had a tete-a-tete with every one of them. And I mashed a mess of persimmons, producing two cups of pulp, so there's a persimmon pudding in my future (aaaah). But no sooner does something get done, than two more things get put on the ol' to-do list. It's a Lernean Hydra.


Making noise, joyful or otherwise

Psalm 134

Psalm 134

Music © 1986, 2002 Arthur W. Collins

It was either C.S. Lewis (speaking of new poetic meters) or J.R.R. Tolkien (speaking of inventing new languages) who said that sooner or later the one who delineates the criteria for such a thing must risk offering an example for criticism.

I recently posted something on modern church music. Several others have, too. But I think in order to carry on my end of this conversation, I need to come clean. I've written a fair bit of hymnody and what-not over the years. Some of it has seen publication. No doubt most of it is not very good. But it is part of all that I offer on this subject.

So, I found some of my music files published in My Lord Knows the Way Through the Wilderness, a worshipbook I wrote a few years ago for Scouts and others conducting worship in the outdoors. With my godlike authorial hand, I chose to include several pieces of my own composition (words or music). Which means, I have those in TIF format, and could convert them to a format LJ could pick up.

So here's a piece I wrote many years ago -- one of my first efforts, as a matter of fact. It's one of the shortest Psalms in the Bible, so it doesn't make much of a congregational song; but it makes a great benediction response for vespers. I have a piano score somewhere, but it doesn't exist in a form I can upload, so melody + guitar chords is all I can do here.

New tunes for old

And Can It Be?

And Can It Be?

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Words: Charles Wesley, 1739
Music: "The Times They Are A-Changing," Bob Dylan

"And Can It Be?" is one of the great hymns of the Wesleyan revival. When I went to Asbury Theological Seminary in 1975, it was THE song in chapel. It was confusing, however, for they didn't sing it to the tune in The Methodist Hymnal. That tune, Fillmore, is a fairly bloodless thing, drained of passion.

At Asbury, we sang it to the tune Sagina, a powerful, rousing example of what one church musician of my experience called "Methodist thump." This tune is what is in the current United Methodist Hymnal. On the other hand, if you don't sing it with souls afire -- particularly if the accompanist doesn't really put the old heavenly march step into it, it can become what one teenager described to me as "the longest hymn I have ever sung."

My desire to find a way to sing this hymn in campfire settings led me to adapt "The Times They Are A-Changing" for it. It is a gentle, easy melody, but nevertheless laden with tension. It makes a good support for Charles Wesley's words of wonder and victory.

I find that singing an old song to a new tune can really help make the text come alive again. Of course, you can sing "Amazing Grace" to any number of gawdawful tunes -- including the theme song from Gilligan's Island -- and you can also sing "Blessed Assurance" to the tune of "Beautiful Dreamer" (a slightly better fit); the fitness of some tunes for use in church (because of previous associations, not the music itself) may render some options out of court from the beginning.

On the other hand, singing "Lead on, O King eternal" to Rienzi's Song rather than the terrible Lancashire is a plus. And the lugubrious "My Jesus, I love thee" becomes positively fresh and moving when sung to the old Irish air MacFarlane's Lament (see below).

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