The problem with people talking too much about church music

Many of my FB friends are reposting a link on the “worship wars” in the modern church.  You can read it here.  The main points are some fairly common complaints.  The songs in many evangelical churches are 1. too simplistic 2. trendy and unconnected to the tradition 3. too repetitious.  All are valid points I suppose.  The author, Bill Blankenschaen, then offers some reasonable solutions to the problem. If you scroll through some of the commentary, you will see all the strengths and weaknesses of the internet.  Many people are commenting. None of the commentors show any signs of formal education in music, aesthetics, or theology.  Then again, that’s the internet.  Informed opinion is considered equal to uninformed opinion. 

So, we get someone offering a few thoughtful opinions, and a bunch of people saying, “I like my music like this too,” or,  “I don’t like my music like this,” or,  “You should do your music like this.”  All of it is rather symptomatic of the modern worship wars, and it will never end until we start talking about some of the underlying concepts.   I won’t try to tackle the all the problems with Mr. Blankenschaen’s approach in one blog post, so let’s start with his first issue.

There is certainly a problem if something is “simplistic” as opposed to simple.  The problem is that when we call something “simplistic”, most of the time we just mean, “something I don’t like.”   I have often heared formally educated musicians disparaging the “simplistic” nature of popular music.  If I ask them about something like Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Heidenröslein or Mozart’s Giovani liete (when the peasants come in singing in Figaro), well that’s different.  Why?  Because the music is supposed to be simple.  It would be inappropriate to have complicated music.  Goethe’s poem becomes profound by it’s subtle simplicity.  Mozart - always the master psychologist – gives simple characters simple melodies and complex characters complex melodies.  What we are dealing with here is the concept that the Yale philosopher Wolterstorff likes to call “fittingness”.  That is, there is an aesthetically appropriate way to express certain things.  Some things need simplicity.  Some things need complexity. If we accept that idea, we immediately get into theological problems.

Suppose you were like my friend Ben who grew up in the jungle in Uganda.  His idea of what is “fitting” turns out to be very different than my own.  As an academic/church musician, I often found that a piece of music which I considered “simplistic” was of great value to him.  In fact, sometimes my choices could easily become a “white man’s burden”.  Too often, he was more open to my music than I was to his.

There is also a great danger for those of us that have lots of formal education in music and aesthetics to get snooty.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is plenty of music that I don’t like.  I can even tell you why I don’t like it in great technical detail.  However, I never want to loose sight of the simple joy that uneducated musicians have when they are making music.  Most people that complain about a certain style of music being “simplistic” can’t tell you a single musical reason why that makes it bad.  It’s not that it can’t be done.  I’ve heard it plenty of times in the halls at work.  I’ve even heard two friends arguing over whether or not Jobim’s move from the root position Neopolitan directly to the tonic was more innovative than the opening applied chord sequence in “Yesterday” by Lennon/McCartny.  I almost never hear this kind of talk when people are complaining about a contemporary style being to “simplistic”.  Most of the time, they actually aren’t talking about the music at all.  They are talking about the text.

The theology in many of the “contemporary” songs is extremely poor.  It’s normally non-Trinitarian and filled to the brim with all sorts of Gnostic ideas and every manner of nonsense.  However, I could probably say that about any individual Psalm that I lifted out of the Bible.  So, it’s not so much an issue of whether the theology of one song is deficient and simplistic.  The Psalms are that way too.  The big issue is if you are only being fed a diet of deficient and simplistic theology.  That is a problem.  It’s not that you can’t eat candy bars.  You just can’t survive on them without getting really out of shape.  It’s one of the reasons I became Anglican. 

I was working in a congregation that sang contemporary songs and the “old” hymns – by which of course they meant the new hymns.  They sang “In the garden” and “The old rugged cross” and all the other revival hymns that have the same problematic theology as the contemporary songs.  That was all they would sing.  Eventually, I realized that I was contributing to the spiritual deformation of people.  I headed quickly back to my Episcopal parish where I didn’t have to worry about those problems.  The thing is, the Episcopal Church has just as many problems.  We can be overly complicated at the expense of comprehension.  We can put our artistry above sincerity.  I’m just not sure if I find anything of real spiritual value in saying, “I can play a Bach fugue and you can only play 3 chords on a guitar.  This means I’m more important and not simplistic and therefore more spiritual.”  If we head down that path, we can easily forget that our Lord was not ashamed to allow himself to be clothed in simple garments.

So, the first issue is not about simplicity or complexity.  The first issue is about aesthetic “fittingness”.  Simplicity and complexity are never valuable in themselves in an art work.  The problems happen when you attempt to express something of enormous emotional and intellectual complexity without the supporting framework.  This results in pedantry and Philistinism.  The same thing can happen if you attempt to express the simple with an overly complex apparatus.  The focus will quickly shift from the idea to the mechanism.