Church Music: Some Problem Principles
A former editor of a church periodical once referred to church music as the "War Department" of the church. He was writing about something most of us have experienced personally: disputes about "good" and "bad" church music. In some congregations these disputes center upon the tastes of a choir director or an organist. In the most tragic instances church music disputes have led to some members refusing to attend worship services or even leaving for another congregation where musical tastes are more to their own liking.
In the first article of this series I attempted to show that one can find a greater variety of worshipful instruments, music and songs in the Bible than in many of our congregations today. Most of our churches are comprised of a majority of one ethnic group which over the years has developed a certain taste for church music. This taste has been reinforced in our churches by the exclusive use of one hymnal and one main musical instrument for the past eighty years or so. This has resulted in less musical flexibility in our congregations today than in ancient Israel three thousand years ago. If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, ask yourself how many of the sixteen instruments mentioned in the Old Testament (or their modern equivalents) you have heard played in your church's worship services lately. Or, when has one of your song leaders recently chosen an imprecatory psalm for the congregation to sing, asking the Lord to destroy His enemies? Have you recently been led in song on your way to church or as you entered the sanctuary? Has your choir ever marched around the sanctuary as they sang? Have you ever sung a psalm responsively, with the choir leading and the congregation responding? Israel worshiped in song in all of these ways and more. Compared to these ancient musical practices, our modern traditions are very limited.
In the second article of this series I sought to demonstrate how variety has also characterized church music over the past nineteen centuries of church history. Of course, not all of this variety has been to the glory of God or to the edification of the believer. But, among the truly God-glorifying and believer-edifying church music, a great variety of types and styles can be found. And, as we noted in that earlier article, certain musical instruments that were forbidden for church use in one century often became accepted and even highly praised in another century. We learned how John Calvin, for example, forbade the use of organs in sixteenth century Reformed worship. In the twentieth century hardly any Christian Reformed church in North America can be found without an organ (or some organ-like keyboard)!
As we observe the rise and the fall of musical regulations throughout church history, we ought to be wary of specific principles which would seek to define pure, "liturgical" or "ecclesiastical" music. Almost all of our church music today would fail the tests for "liturgical" music as defined and applied by John Calvin or Ulrich Zwingli. The Roman Catholic popes likewise, were quick to make decrees about music "truly ecclesiastical in style, grave and devout in character," as one pope put it.1 For some pontiffs, music sung by a soloist would never be considered "truly ecclesiastical" music. What an irony when today in many Roman churches the modern solo rendition of "Ave Maria" has become a favorite "ecclesiastical" song!
Nor has the Christian Reformed Church escaped this tendency to officially define "liturgical" music. In its main attempt to write principles for "good" church music, the Synod of 1953 declared that "the music of the church should be appropriate for worship" and "should be liturgical."2 To further clarify what constitutes "liturgical" music, the following were some of the "implications" referred to the churches for further study:
- The music of the church should be suitable to the liturgical text to which it has been adapted. It should be free from association with the currently secular or with anything that does violence to our Reformed conception of worship.
- The music of the church should not be borrowed from that of the dance nor from concert or other music which suggests places and occasions other than the church and the worship service.
- Such devices as extreme syncopation and extreme chromaticism (although on occasion these may be of value for special text settings) should generally be avoided.
- Great care must be exercised by the organist and choir director in selecting organ music and anthems, lest secular association with the music interfere with the worshiper's service.3
Understand that these selected "implications" are directed mainly to the tune of a song, not to its words. Now, no one would recommend that we take a tune from the rock-and-roller Elvis or from the contemporary rapper "Ice T" and join it to the words of a psalm. Such "secular" associations would be altogether wrong, even blasphemous. But, what shall we say about the organ and the piano, which have been "borrowed" by the church from their originally "secular" even "theatrical" settings? To be consistent with the above-mentioned principles, the use of the organ and the piano in the worship service probably should be prohibited. Do you see the problem here? Strictly speaking, the organ and the piano are not "free from association with the currently secular." The organ and, to a greater degree, the piano, with their historical connections to the "secular" concert hall make them run afoul of our own "principles" for good church music.
I would contend that a strict enforcement of the distinction between secular/sacred or theatrical/liturgical is not always helpful. At times such distinctions can lead to some unreformed practices. Look at it this way. Simply because an unredeemed human being has used a musical instrument in a sinful way, does this mean that instrument should be labeled as "secular," "theatrical" or "worldly"? True, Chuck Berry, Mick Jagger and others sang some wicked lyrics while playing the guitar. But does their strumming forever condemn the guitar as a forbidden, non-liturgical instrument? David played the "kinnor" and, presumably, sang the songs of Zion while strumming this eight (ten?) stringed instrument. That "kinnor" was the early version of the Greek "kithara" and has become our English word, "guitar," today. So a case could be made for the guitar as an early "liturgical" instrument. But history will show that contemporaries of David in other cultures and in the worship of other gods were also strumming the "kinnor." The determining factor here is the heart of the music maker: David used his guitar "liturgically"; the pagan peoples made "worldly" use of it.
It is not difficult to see all of the problems and inconsistencies which arise when we set out to strictly define "appropriate" instruments for use in the worship service. Musical instruments are morally and spiritually neutral. That is, they carry neither holiness nor profaneness within themselves. So too, the musical sounds which these instruments produce. A note is merely a "designed" sound — a sound produced at a certain pitch and volume with a certain timbre. A length of string or a piece of metal is plucked or struck and thereby made to vibrate a certain number of times per second. These vibrations are carried through the air and cause our eardrums to vibrate. These inner ear vibrations are "interpreted" by our brain as a certain musical sound, a note on the musical scale. The producing of such musical notes can be boiled down to simple mathematics and physics. The musical instrument is simply a machine, a device, that produces these sounds. Thus, there is nothing inherent in any musical instrument which makes it good or bad.
Think of a church member playing the hymn "Amazing Grace" to accompany congregational singing in a worship service. Playing the tune on an organ or on a bagpipe would make no difference in offering truly spiritual worship unto our God, provided that the instrumentalist and the congregation were worshiping in spirit and in truth. Now, you and I might personally prefer the organ over the bagpipe, but this would be a matter of our individual tastes, not a matter of spiritual worship or Reformed principles. I suspect that if I were a Scot, I would prefer the bagpipe over the organ! Of course, pastoral wisdom would say that one should not needlessly offend the worshiping people by forcing bagpipes on an organ-loving congregation. But, once again, this becomes a practical matter, not a moral or spiritual one. To suggest, as did the Synod of 1953 in its "implications" for church music, that our music must be "free from association" with the secular, could put virtually all of our musical instruments at risk of being prohibited outright. For surely at one time or another any given instrument has been associated with a worldly or secular musical artist. No doubt many of our beloved tunes could be employed to carry the words of a sinful song. Because of these "associations" will we be forced to give up our beloved instrument or tune? I would hope not.
So, what should be our principles governing certain tunes or certain rhythms? Synod 1953 recommended this to the churches for study: "Such devices as extreme syncopation and extreme chromaticism (although on occasion these may be of value for special text settings) should generally be avoided." Without delving into an overly technical discussion, with this "implication" synod basically was warning against certain rhythmic arrangements and certain non-harmonizing musical scales. But synod realized the limits of its own restriction by adding the disclaimer: "On occasion these may be of value for special text settings." Sometimes it is alright to syncopate, synod suggested, especially in connection with some song texts. Thankfully, the synodical delegates that year did not go on to make an "official" listing of texts to which a syncopated tune may be attached and which texts may never be accompanied by syncopation! Again, let us ask the all-important question: are certain tunes and certain rhythms "worldly," "secular" or "sinful" in themselves? I recall attending a Bible-based seminar in which the speaker tried to build a case against any rhythm that mimicked the beat of the human heart. Any such rhythm, he declared, was obviously Satanically inspired. Where is the proof, Biblically or otherwise, for such a claim? Or, how about the oft-cited charge that some musical tunes are "of the dance"? It appears to me that often such an accusation is an expression of concern that some songs have too strong of a "beat," something to which you might want to tap your foot. Generally, these tunes are played at a faster tempo than most of our hymnal tunes; they tend to be of a 4/4 time signature instead of 3/4 time. But, should we be declaring, or even suggesting, that a certain tempo or a certain time signature or a certain rhythm pattern is, of itself, "worldly"? Is 4/4 timeless "liturgical" than 3/4 time? I think not.
This is why I believe that most principles, affirmations and implications for acceptable church music are doomed to failure. Even to prescribe, as did Synod 1953, that good church music ought to conform to the "aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint, and fitness which are the conditions of all art"4 is bound to run into difficulties. For who shall determine which specific "aesthetic laws" ought to govern each song that we sing in our worship service? Art is not and has never been an exact, precise science. Art critics, even Christian art critics on the faculty of the same Christian college, cannot agree on the overall merits of certain paintings or sculptures. And even if they could agree on the "aesthetic laws" which should govern church music, I'm not at all sure that I would want these art scholars choosing the music for our weekly worship services! Often, their tastes are completely different than the tastes of the person in the pew.
Where does all this leave us? Do I think it is best just to "feel" our way through the search for "good" church music? No, I don't. My warning in this article is simply for us not to insist on one type of musical instrument, one type of tune or one type of rhythm. Anyone who has visited a foreign mission field or a multi-ethnic congregation knows that different cultures employ different instruments, tunes, rhythms, tempos and volume levels. And so have our forefathers, depending on the century and the country in which they lived. I am convinced that we should not get involved in the business of declaring which instruments, tunes or rhythms are pleasing to God. Let us be more humble and admit that the Scripture gives us very little insight into these matters. About the most we can say is that the instruments, the tunes and the rhythms should contribute to the message, the text of a song. If they overpower a song or if they distract the singers from their praise of almighty God, then they should not be used in our worship services. This in my opinion, is about the only principle we need as we seek to determine God-glorifying accompaniment to our church music.
The most important element in any church music is the words, the text of a song. About these words the Bible has much more to say.