The second point from Bill Blankschaen’s post is one that requires careful thinking to untangle. I would say that for the most part, he is accurately and astutely criticizing some of the trendy nature of the music that happens in some churches. This point put me in mind of Chesterton who somewhere says that traditionalists are the people who are the true believers in democracy because they are willing to give their ancestors a vote. Indeed, it is hard for me to grasp how churches are trying to communicate something timeless by constantly using something that is shallow and fleeting.
The real problem with this point is that he has stumbled into a complicated area of musical aesthetics without realizing it, and he winds up on the same side as the people he is criticizing. One of the central issues in musical aesthetics – one can argue this from Pythagoras forward, but it’s especially true since the 19th century – is whether or not music is supposed to do something. If it is, what is it supposed to do? At least since the time of St. Augustine’s famous passage in the Confessions about his experience of Ambrosian hymns, there has been a line of thought in the church that said, “Music is supposed to convey text and not distract from it.” So, if that is your philosophical bias, you evaluate music on it’s ability to do something else. I like to call this the “coffee cup theory”. Music is good or bad depending on its functionality.
This is where Blankschaen gets into problems. So, Mr. Blanknschaen suggests that, “One distinguishing mark of the worship music of centuries past is that it generally focused more on content than today’s simplisitc style. Songs like “Arise, My Soul, Arise”; “Immortal, Invisible”; “Rejoice, the Lord is King”; or even the simple “I Sing the Almighty Power of God” typified a depth of doctrine that taught us as it revealed the glory of our Lord.”
Of course, he is not really saying what he means here. He doesn’t mean that the “music of centuries past is…focused more on content.” A phrygian half cadence and the tripled root resolution of a complete dominant seventh chord do not have more “content” than an acoustic guitar. He means that the lyrics have a deeper commitment to craft, a surer connection to the theological tradition, and have a greater breadth and depth than the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ character of many of the modern songs.
I’ve made this point before, but it is significant. Only those theological traditions that have some strain of incarnational mysticism produce music that has great content. If we look at the composers of significance in the Western tradition, they are Jewish, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican. Calvinism – the ironic mother of many evangelicals – has never produced a composer of significance. There is no room for music to exist in its own right. It is not a joyful value of the creation. It exists to deliver text. So, I find that Blanknshaen is mostly correct. The worship lyrics of the past are better. Which past? Well, he seems to like fairly recent hymns, and I like hymns from 1000 years ago, and some people like modern worship songs. The bigger question to answer is, what the music is supposed to be doing, and how do we want the church to interact with it?
I don’t have all the answers to that question, but I do notice this. Aside from cultural influence and power and all the ugly stuff, the church made an intentional commitment to cultivate great art for most of its existence. It purposeful pursued and helped to train the greatest musicians that the West has produced. Evangelicals have largely chosen to abandon that value. I fear that the consequence may be a very poor musical heritage to pass on to their children.