Monday, May 2, 2016

Trail markers

Yesterday I climbed Mt. Baldy with my friend Daniel. Starting at Ice House Canyon, the "3 T's Trail" crosses Telegraph, Thunder, and Timber peaks on its way to Mt Baldy's summit.

As we began our descent from the summit, we cut back to the "Baldy Bowl" trail. During the descent, we became so engrossed in a discussion on worship styles in the SDA church that we missed a turn in the trail and found ourselves descending a steep canyon with a stream running through it. As the slope of the canyon increased, we worked our way through a series of cataracts on hands and feet.

The fire-road was in sight when we came to a final drop of about 40 feet. With no safe descent in view, we cut up the side of the canyon to the east, crossed a scree slope, and found a trace-trail which took us to a parallel wash that we were able to safely descend to the fire road.

It was a discussion on worship style that (indirectly) led to our rewarding but precipitous descent off of the marked trail. While the metaphor cannot and should not be comprehensively applied, I do believe that worship styles in the church are indicative of our theological trajectory.

I invite you to consider that there has been a major shift in the past 10 years from hymn-singing to what has been imprecisely characterized as "praise music." In company with the musical shift, praise in worship is often characterized by performances that draw attention to the song leader(s) by use of lighting, big screens, and volume.

If you haven't noticed already, our experience of music in the church is highly relative to what you have your radio pre-set to. Most conversations on music in the church begin and end with this recognition. Instead of miring ourselves in this quagmire, I'd invite you to consider the most frequently cited reason for making the musical transition:

"The youth aren't interested in hymns any more. Look at what is on their iTunes playlist; we can't expect them to have a real experience of praise with such anachronistic music."

I'm reminded of the remarkable packaging transition in Silk Soymilk when the company changed hands in its early days. The first cartons were uniquely information-rich with facts about history and health. After the company changed hands, some executive group likely made an evidence-based decision on the basis of a supply-demand curve that predicted better sales if the packaging could be "main-streamed" so that consumers would recognize it as a viable alternative to their milk beverage of choice. Nowadays, the packaging has relatively little information on it - a few sentences about heart health and calcium make up the whole of it.

If the "worship style" shift was purely a matter of re-packaging the truth -- a practice known in missiology as "intentional contextualization" --I would still be uneasy. The troubling aspect of this justification is the implicit judgment that popular demand should inform our worship style. Should we really be treating communal worship like Silk Soymilk? Should "praise" in worship become a packaging for the truth that is dictated by the mores of the majority? The great absurdity of this approach is that while telling of His greatness, it excludes God from the center of worship.

A fascinating postlude to the Silk Soymilk story is that the changes made to the packaging led to changes in the product itself. Over the years I have enjoyed Silk Soymilk on my cereal, I have noted the sugar content has steadily increased. Having been titillated by the sugar on your average dry cereal, your taste-buds will be unimpressed by a low-sugar milk. The logic for adaptation of the product exactly mirrors the logic for adapting the package.

Take the time to compare the message of the familiar old hymn "Amazing Grace,"  and the song "This Is Amazing Grace" (voted the #1 most popular praise song on the website PraiseCharts)

I have no criticism for what the song "This is Amazing Grace" does say - as far as I can see, it is a biblical message. And please, forgive me if it seems like I am picking on a song that has been a blessing to you! What does concern me is the content it leaves out. Consider Verse 4 of Newton's version:

"Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."

Here Newton unwraps the concept that "Grace" in addition to its substitutionary power, has redemptive and transformational power. This particular distinction represents a theological watershed of enormous importance.  Like Silk Soymilk, the product has changed with the packaging.

I hope and believe that our generation will see Jesus return. I pray that we might take time to consider  whether this issue represents a waypoint -- a trail-marker -- in our personal or collective experience.


Kelsey said...

Ah, I see that you will be leading the re-ignition of said blog community :-)

However, perhaps classical music and hymns is not a just definition of sacred music. I find that there is plenty of classical music that leaves me anxious and depressed with theoretical bases that do not reflect the truth. Case in point: the Rite of Spring, which caused riots at its first performance.

In my area, there's a lot of adherence to the classical only mentality, so perhaps I'm writing from an extreme. Classical music can be perfectionistic and intimidating and I've been to many conservative church worship services that leave me feeling intimidated and perfectionistic. It's also possible to be performance related while still keeping the "truth" and correct beat, etc. Nor would I define things like "As the Deer" to be inappropriate for church, though it is not strictly a hymn. I really appreciate your church's music style down there, which actually includes a lot of modern hymns as well but is simple, inclusive, welcoming and has a family feel.

Music is more than just notes on a page, words in a song, or the passion of the singer/player: It can be easy to define the truth, and easy to define spirit, but in combination it often seems undefinable.

Perhaps, as liberalism formed as a reaction formation to legalism, music has reflected the same thing and neither party is completely correct.

Jonas said...

Thank you Kelsey for your thoughtful comment.

Your point on classical music is very true. Its performance may draw attention towards the performer as well as any other genre of music. It would be much more fair of me to level a bi-partisan critique against any musical genre that tends to draw our minds away from God's centrality in worship.

To that degree, I did not intend the post to be a defense of classical music and hymnody per se, but rather the observation of a general movement in worship style (music being only one element thereof) that I believe has parallel theological ramifications.

I also agree that music is complex -- it is certainly more than notes, words, or performance. Our individual response to it is correspondingly complex, and this reality has so stymied many honest discussions I've had with friends.

Instead of attempting to tackle the question of music on its own merits, I think it is worth taking a look at why we may choose to overturn one musical tradition for another. To my mind, the reasons for changes evolving over the past 20 years are suspect as described in the blog. Furthermore, a comparative study of the lyrics between the broad classes of modern praise music and hymns suggests the possibility that changes in the "packaging" have been linked to changes in the "product" (to stick with the Soymilk analogy). As you said, music defies easy definition - so I don't pretend to have established causation, I'm just suggesting a parallel which I find sobering.

I acknowledge a tendency in my own life to respond to a perceived extreme with the opposite extreme. However, I think an honest discussion about the purpose of worship and a re-examination of our communicated theology as evinced by sets of emphases in lyrics would allow us to get a compass bearing on what's right for our church body at this time. Hopefully, that would allow us to move the discussion beyond the liberal vs conservative dialectic towards God's ideal for his church.

Kelsey said...

I really appreciate your honesty. Music is something I've been thinking a lot about lately. The Bible simply says "songs and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts." Which is an excellent summary. EGW also has some really interesting things to say about the subject, when the "popular" music of the day was mostly classical.

Packaging does not always accurately reflect the interior and there's a lot of false advertising. And sometimes our worry about sugar content does more detriment to our health than the sugar itself, though yes, sugar is addicting.

The problem with the truth is that once I've come to it, I've often lost the spirit of it. Although discernment is a blessing, I've realized I have to be careful that it's not a cloak for criticism. I find myself frustrated sometimes because I want to be able to listen to special music that may not reflect all the principles of Holy music that I understand and acknowledge it as a blessing; instead, I find myself tense. But I think that God knows the heart and recognizes all good impulses that come from it as a reflection of His character, and I want to learn to look for those things in others. Because we're all at different stages, being shown different things, and reflect His character differently.

That tendency to respond to extremes with extremes is I think very widespread, and I can relate to it as well. I know for me that what has minimized some of those extremes in myself is when people on the opposite extreme seek to find balance, be humble, and give a little. I've been wanting to reflect that in music, especially church music and I think this means exactly what the Bible says: singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs with grace in our hearts.

Barry Howe said...

Perhaps both liberals and conservatives have lost genuine enthusiasm for the deeper theological concepts of salvation. Liberals thus sing vacuous praise songs and conservatives sing hymns with vacuous hearts. Either way, you get vacuity.

Then again, you can find a minority of both liberals and conservatives who do in fact care--and care deeply--about their faith. As a result they sing with grace in their hearts, as Kelsey put it.

More often than not, the problem is not with the form the worship music takes, or even necessarily the content per se, but the lack of authenticity in the worshipers. Content and form still matter, of course, and are doubtless inextricably linked in some way to the level of authenticity in the worshipers