Every church has an aesthetic, a conglomeration of impacts on the senses, whether visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, or tactual. To be oblivious to these forces is to be under an anesthetic. Of course, the aesthetic is far from purely sensible; it’s laden with associations and signals which appeal to or repel the mind and heart. When I was on the academic personnel committee at Wheaton back in the 1970s, a member objected to a scholar who was “coming in view of a call.” The problem was that the candidate sported a pocket handkerchief, French cuffs, and cufflinks, indications that he was more a corporate type than a fashionably-rumpled academic—not our kind of guy.
We’re all familiar with our initial reactions to personal appearance—whether “Oh, yeah!” “Okay, whatever,” “Uh, oh,” or “Oh, no!” Duck Dynasty beards, piercings, tattoos, dreadlocks, designer stubble, a pencil mustache, muttonchop sideburns, big hair, white-rimmed glasses, and unibrows strike us differently. Depending on our experiences, these features may suggest that the bearer is a redneck; a fop; a wannabe something; a cool dude; a tasteful, conventional citizen; a menace to society; a rebel with or without a cause; a flirt; or a little lamb that’s lost its way. Of course, aesthetics touches all aspects of church life, from the smell and taste of the complimentary coffee, the feel of the pew cushions, the sound of the offertory, and the look of the typefaces chosen for various print items. And yes, they all signal something—whether it’s an uptown/arabica place or a budget/robusta operation, more at home with the bus station brew than with Starbucks. And wait for reactions if your offering envelopes feature a Gothic font. (“What are you trying to say with this?”)
A Singing Faith
That being said, let’s take a look at music. Back in the 1990s, I was surprised in a Nashville Christian bookstore by the way that CDs had taken over so much floor space. Some of the discs offered traditional hymns, whether sung by choirs or by individuals who might have an Alan Jackson twang or a George Beverly Shea gravitas. There were Negro Spirituals and White Southern Gospel collections; children’s Sunday School tunes; cantatas; and a strong sampling of CCM. In this vein, I’ve come to know and appreciate (and participate in) all sorts of other Christian music through the years, from the work of C.P.E. Bach (Magnificat) to Menotti (Amahl and the Night Visitors) to Handel (Messiah) to Getty/Celtic (“In Christ Alone”) to the Fanny Crosby songbook (“Blessed Assurance”) and to youth-camp songs (“Father Abraham”). (As a trumpet guy, I’ve played Sousa on the football field, Handel alongside a harpsichord, Basie in a stage band, Reveille at Scout camp, and show tunes in concert band, including an All-State band which included a tenor sax player, Bill Clinton. And I loved the diversity.)
Later, as I walked down an international stretch of Devon Avenue on the Evanston/Chicago border, I saw how relatively non-musical the other world’s religions are. The Jewish shop featured some Israeli folk songs, a cantor’s solemn intonations, and a raucous klezmer band. The Hindu shop sold some territorially specific favorites, with devotion to an avatar of Ganesh, Vishnu, or another “god”—and lots of sitar music, a little bit of which goes a long way. And then came the musical wasteland of an Islamic shop, reflective of mosque gatherings which are devoid of hymns, instrumental preludes, and such. The best that store could manage was a Yusuf album (he, the former Cat Stevens) and something from a Malaysian boy band (probably on the run from a fatwa).
The reason for the strong contrast is that we Christians have something to sing about, whether our “victory in Jesus,” the “amazing grace” we enjoy, or the “wondrous cross” we survey with gratitude. As for the others, it’s hard to build much around, “Don’t whack me, god (or karma); I’m doing the best I can.”
Harold Best and Vida Chenoweth
So, what sort of singing might we do properly? Well, certainly, the words must be biblical. No heresy allowed. And they shouldn’t be so anodyne that they make for easy substitutions from the marketplace, as with an employment service—“People need
the Lord (Indeed); people need the Lord (Indeed). At the end of broken dreams, He’s (Our app’s) the open door.”
But what about the musical genre, including instrumentation? Well, I had two colleagues at Wheaton to help me sort this out. Harold Best was dean of the conservatory, and we had many occasions to talk about this. He was of the opinion that you could put the sacred words to jazz as well as folk and classical. (Decades later, I advised on a dissertation juxtaposing Best’s view with that of Scott Aniol, who had a stricter understanding of what was appropriate; he said that using some music for worship was like using a screwdriver to pound a nail.)
The other professor was Vida Chenoweth, who’d done groundbreaking, ethnomusicological work for Wycliffe in New Guinea. She’d distilled a tribe’s tonal and rhythmic traditions to make way for distinctive “hymnody” to go with the gospel words provided by her colleagues in linguistics—heart melodies and cadences for use with their heart language. Yes, it would be fine to teach the Usarufan tribesmen to sing “Fairest Lord Jesus,” using the original, 19th-century, German hymn tune (from Schlesische Volkslieder) with a 184.108.40.206.5.8 meter. But not necessary.
Larry Norman and Rod Stewart
With this conviction in mind—that it’s the words, not the music—I found myself circa 1980 moderating a Wheaton panel discussion, the administration’s prerequisite for hosting the school’s first Christian rock concert, featuring Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, and the Daniel Amos Band. The aforementioned Harold Best and I shared the stage with Norman, Stonehill, English poet Steve Turner, and Stephen Lawhead of Campus Life magazine. Of course, Martin Luther’s alleged use of drinking song tunes and Norman’s “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” figured prominently in the discussion, and we all pretty much agreed that there was a place for Christian Rock.
Then one student stood up to testify that he didn’t object to our evening’s scheduled fare, but that he wouldn’t be there. “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” were mainstays of his pre-conversion life, and he’d thrown his records into a burn barrel when he got saved. I picked up on his point about toxic associations and played the devil’s (or angel’s) advocate. I ventured a Christian version of Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Instead of “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy . . .”, I sang, “If you love my Savior, and you want to serve Him…” I think Norman wanted to vomit, fall to the floor, and assume the fetal position. You couldn’t hear my version without thinking of Stewart’s nasty hit. And besides, disco itself was counted as low-rent by the elite. Turns out that associations do count.
Go Easy on Snark
My point was not that particular forms of music were utterly unfit to convey biblical messages, but rather that we needed to go easy on rushing into them, all the while being wary of snark toward the reluctants. In the mid-1990s, I took part in a Boston meeting connected to the Cambridge Declaration, which linked Evangelicalism to the Five Solas of the Reformation. I was basically on board, but I thought the declaration was so Reformed that it went a bridge too far in excluding Arminians from the Evangelical camp. And, while I resonated with words of disdain for “7-11” songs, with numbing repetition of phrases like “It’s your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise,” (I’ve likened it to Buddhist singing, as if the more spins of the prayer wheel, the more effectual our devotion.) I found it ironic that we were perfectly at ease with the sevenfold amens in the hymnals James Montgomery Boice brought down to us from Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia. And while I was pleased to meet in Cambridge and with great graphics on the program and stationery, I tired of the constant dismissal of PR. After all, they could have gone with a graffiti-style “Git ‘er done” slogan instead of Post Tenebras Lux; and why not issue the Kokomo Declaration? It would have been cheaper to meet in cornfield Indiana than Harvardish Cambridge. But we wanted to signal we were sophisticated churchmen, not Fundamentalist rubes. That’s PR. So, let’s go easy on the snark when it comes to the body of Christ. Yes, to thoughtful, even bold, criticism, but not so much to taste-based cancellation.
Musical Eating Disorders
A companion to snark in music is the problem of eating disorders—anorexia, bulimia, or binging. And to this I would add unnatural diets, whether Atkins or vegan. As an Atkins veteran, I can testify to the wonderful things you can eat—meat, eggs, cheese, salads, sugar-free drinks—but you’re missing out on a lot of other fine things, from bread to pie to pasta. Similarly, a church can fence off some great dishes and binge on others.
I’ve been a movie fan since my childhood, when I spent hours entranced by the likes of The Ten Commandments, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Brigadoon, The Abominable Snowman, Fantasia, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Ben Hur, Old Yeller, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and some Martin-and-Lewis fare. Great variety there in genre, subject, and technology—musical, animation (including claymation), comedy, war heroics, Bible drama, horror, Americana, b/w, color, and tear-jerker. I relish the range. But, at present, the movies leave me cold for the most part. Of course, I’ve been disgusted with decades at the wickedness of Hollywood in pushing all sorts of leftist, degenerate, and slanderous messages, whether blatantly or subtly, whether slamming good things or normalizing/celebrating bad things. But now there’s something different—the glut of superhero stuff, with the likes of Spiderman, Black Panther, Incredibles, Avengers, Batman, Ironman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, X-Men, Hellboy, Captain America, Aquaman, and the Hulk.
I’ve thought of this recently in connection with the waves of CCM music visited upon us as we sit in darkness watching dramatic, “Technicolor” productions with “Skywalker Sound”—or as close as you can get to it, given limited budgets. I think of an Oliver Twistian congregant bringing his bowl to the CCM-bound music administrator, saying “Please Sir, might we have some Charles Wesley (“And, Can it Be?”), Martin Luther (“A Mighty Fortress”), E. M. Bartlett (“Victory in Jesus”), Cleavant Derricks (“Just a Little Talk With Jesus”), and up-tempo songs like Robin Marks’s “Days of Elijah”?
And while we’re at it, could we have fewer stylizing embellishments? Some of it’s okay, but don’t you wish analogously that more sporting events would start with the plain old “Star Spangled Banner” without the jazz and blues tweaks?
However, lest the Psalter/Olney/Watts/Puritan/NineteenCentury-only (or mainly) devotees exult in my CCM putdown, let me suggest it wouldn’t hurt them to imbibe a bit of Hillsong now and then. Along with Isaac Watts, how about an occasional Matt Redmond (“Blessed Be Your Name”; “10,000 Reasons”) or a slave-sourced “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” or Randy Stonehill’s Caribbean-flavored “Shut De Do.” And yes, “Love Lifted Me,” which a snarky musician I knew called “roller-rink music.” And I’ll never forget the huff of an organist I inherited in my first church after seminary. When I asked that we sing “I’ll Fly Away” after a sermon on heaven, he wrote to say he was disgusted that we’d sunk to the Stamps-Baxter level, abandoning our exalted tradition, one that used to attract folks from the region to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He tried to get me fired, but we lowlifes prevailed, and he left us for the Episcopalians.
By the way, what’s with the darkened auditorium with the congregation compelled to stand meekly in front of spotlighted, amped-up musicians? It reminds me of the night I attended the Four Tops/Frankie Valli show in Las Vegas. A far cry from the full-throated singing by church attendees all around me, the phenomenon I’d grown up with. And, mirabile dictu, we could walk and chew gum, i.e., both sit and worship whole-heartedly through song at the same time; and with the lights on; and with the ability to hear each other.
H. L. Mencken, the snarky “Sage of Baltimore,” wrote that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Alas, many “worship leaders” (as if we’re not worshipping God even as we listen to his Word proclaimed by the pastor) have taken a cue from Mencken and squelched the proletarian interests of many faithful. Who knows what ungodly havoc might ensue if we satisfied their hunger for such “raucous” fare as “When We All Get to Heaven” and “Send the Light?” Yes, there are boomers who grew up on such retro deliverances, even as they clutched their KJVs, but do we have to pander to them? On the other hand, if we have a congregation of “yutes,” we need to keep the adolescent rabble from sliding into the fever swamp anything Elevation Worship introduces. We know better what they need, and we’re going to make sure they get it good and hard.
Spoiled in Evanston
In the early 2000s, I led a church plant in Evanston, just off the Northwestern University campus. Our music leader was an artist who owned a gallery in Chicago’s River North, and our church was full of remarkable musicians, including a singer from the Chicago Lyric Opera; a college music prof in her graduate studies; a double-bass player in the Chicago Civic Orchestral; a piano major from Moody Bible Institute; a future percussionist for the Army Band (which plays at the White House); a scholar who went on to a Cambridge University’s graduate program, wherein he studied the musical acoustics of St. Mark’s in Venice; and the leader of a group with gigs in Chicago clubs, The Blind Anabaptist Blues Band.
Over the eleven years I pastored, we sang and heard southern gospel, bluegrass, traditional hymnody, minor-key Jewish folk, up-tempo and down-tempo spiritual, and CCM. Instrumentation included the piano, violin, mandolin, guitar, flute, djembe, canjo (a Folgers can with a neck and frets attached), trap set, electronic keyboard, washboard, trumpet, saxophone, dobro, and banjo.
When my SBTS students would ask me how we framed our music, I’d assure them we insisted on orthodoxy and aimed for quality, but I’d add, “It depends on who shows up” in the kaleidoscope of town and gown congregants. It was “body life” music, drawing on the complementary gifts and talents of those in the fellowship and concerned that we give all in the body a chance to join full-voiced in the singing as their beloved genres came around. And I think Jesus was smiling.