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.