This is an article on church music. In the first place, the author discusses the foundation of liturgy and spirituality which is key to church music. Secondly, the author maintains that church music is a form of art, and discusses what we can learn from modern art in relation to church music.

Source: Diakonia, 2001. 8 pages.

Liturgy and Spirituality: The Substratum of Church Music

It is great privilege for me to think together today about what church music is, or can mean for us. Together we will trace a number of key moments. First I will ask your attention for the substratum of church music. I see this as situated in the liturgy and spirituality. De facto we practise church music in a certain latitude, namely that of liturgy. It in turn concerns spirituality. After that, we will examine what the evocative power of art can be, particularly in modern art. Church music, in my opinion, is also a form of art. What then is the interface of liturgy and art? Can you apply the characteris­tics of art to church music and how? Hence the question: What does (modern) art really do to us?

In the first part of this lecture, I will trace a few biblical concepts and next share a few funda­mental insights about liturgy with you. After a brief section about the liturgy, as a form of spirituality, I will conclude with a few remarks about church music, taking into account the preceding considerations.

  1. A few biblical concepts🔗

When we open the bible, we first of all come across the words about the creation: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. This is very revealing, it does not say that God created the universe, but that He called heaven and earth into being. Next it is about the earth as the space where God begins to write His story with man. This earth is in jeopardy, for this reason the creative acts of God continually bring about separation be­tween light and darkness, between water and water so that a firmament comes about. Next the water on earth is separated so that there will be land and sea. The whole creation then ends in man who will live in this freed space. The darkness and the waters are still there, but they appear to be confined.

In the twelfth chapter of Genesis we hear about the land promised to Abraham. In the midst of all the nations, there is a territory where the Lord has prepared a living space for His people. And when His people live in this land there is a makon, a dwelling place, Jerusa­lem, the city where God takes up residence. In the course of time Solomon built a house for the Name of the Lord in this city. There, too, things are very concentric there is a forecourt, a holy place, and an Holy of holies.

What I wish to indicate by this is that in Scripture there is a kind of progression to­wards the place of meeting. A place where God and man meet each other, where sacrifices are brought and blessings are expected, where song is given voice, where man humbles himself and asks for forgiveness, and where life becomes transparent by the song of praise. In all the simplicity of biblical language about liturgy and liturgical music, this central accent on the coming of God and the waiting of man, who anticipates this coming, is essential.

If, next, we ask for some biblical data about the liturgy, we ought to realize that nowhere in the bible do we come across a worked-out liturgy. No matter how much information we find about the cultus in the Old Testament and about the meetings of the congregation in the New Testament, we cannot derive a general order of service from these data. Our various liturgical traditions are historical acquisitions, people do appeal to the bible, but then it is mostly about aspects as regards contents and only indirectly about the modus quo.

In spite of this supposition, it must be said that the bible incorporates much liturgical material, particularly so in the New Testament. The Letters of Paul contain traces of liturgical language and actions, certainly when he speaks about baptism and the many meta­phors, describing the life of man, derived from it. Very old confessions also resonate in the texts concerning Jesus as the Lord of the world. The language of liturgy was there before the language of dogma. The develop­ment of dogma is unthinkable without the liturgy that preceded it. This is an extremely interesting given. It seems to me that the language of dogma, and thus also the reflec­tion on it, one way or another ought to have a connection with the liturgy. When that is no longer the case wonder and amazement disappear. And that, for the faith reflection, is disastrous. I can also put it as follows: the celebrating congregation precedes the learning congregation. Learning can not do without celebration, it would wither into sterile thought from which all creativity has van­ished.

Central lines🔗

  1. Old Testament (from the meeting between the individual and JHWH to the tent of meet­ing). In all religions we encounter the phenom­enon of man being called by his god for service. We also see this in religions other than the Jewish and Christian faith. We do not only have to point to the Muslim religion, we also find this phenomenon in Hinduism and other religions. In the bible we hear about Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul and so many others. In the descriptions of these meetings the distance between the holy and the profane, between God and man always comes to the fore. In this meeting God calls man to "approach" Him and in this "ap­proach" the eternal bridges the distance. It is precisely this "bridging" that I want to deal with for a moment. All religions know of the phenomenon of "sacrifices" with which people go to their gods and seek contact with them. In this liturgy the priests play a very important role. They "mediate" the salvation of the gods and occupy an arch typical office. In prophetic religions the distance remains, in the priestly service it is taken up in the approach rituals and in the process is bridged. Precisely the Old Testament gives witness that this bridging is a precarious undertaking. You, therefore, always come across the opposition between priest and prophet, that is to say, the criticism about rituals remains. It brings with it the assump­tion that the faith of Israel is a matter of the heart. There are very impressive texts that speak about this, we come across this in the Psalms in particular, for instance Psalm 40 and 51.
    Yet, a cultus in and around the tent of meeting comes into existence. And in the liturgy of the tabernacle and later in the temple the concept "remembrance" stands central. People "remember" the deeds of JHWH because He Himself has established a "remembrance" for His wondrous deeds. In order to understand this concept one only has to think of the Passover night, "what makes this night differ­ent than other nights?" And then follows the story of the Exodus and liberation. The pres­ence of JHWH is essential for "remembrance. What He then did, He also does today, and will do in the future.
    Take note of the dynamics in the texts that deal with liturgy. It is always again to the point. The attention to quality also seems to me essential, not only for the singers in the temple, but also in the preparations for the festivals, etc. This aspect ought to be valued more.
  2. New Testament. Central in the New Testament is the way of Jesus as accentuation and "fulfillment" of the way of Israel. Note well: "fulfillment" does not mean "abolishment"! In this the Passover story plays a certain role. Jesus inserts himself in the story of his own people. From this point of view the Lord's Supper can be understood. He applied this story to Himself at the service of the God of Israel. He is the Son who kept the command­ment to the end, to the cross. This is why the evangelists sketch Jesus' way and message from this central perspective. That has conse­quences for what is celebrated in the "narra­tive community," read: the New Testament congregation. That is, the death and resurrec­tion of Jesus the Christ. Hence the great accent on the celebration of the last supper, all evan­gelists hand down this story. Paul as well gives directions for it in 1 Corinthians. The celebra­tion of the Lord's Supper then is central. And from this centre, we can also read those other stories such as the miraculous feeding and the appearances of the Resurrected. One can also think of the story of the encounter on the way to Emmaus and of the meals as feasts of acceptance of those who were disdained by society, among others Zacheus and the prosti­tutes. What I am trying to say is that the celebration of the Lord's Supper has appar­ently to do with breaking down barriers and not with establishing and requiring bounda­ries.
    The New Testament, particularly in the Let­ters, does not leave any doubt that the Holy Spirit essentially influences and changes the human community. It certainly can be stated that the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the congrega­tion, particularly in the Greek-speaking con­gregation, were frequently experienced and also called for its own form with regard to the liturgy. It was different in Palestine and surrounding areas, also in Rome. Take, for instance, "glossolalia," one of the most fasci­nating forms of "worship." People who "speak in tongues" do indicate that we here are dealing with a pure form of adoration. There is no "sound" between God and man. The question about the meaning of the gifts of the Spirit deserves an integral approach. In the Calvinistic tradition, for example, it is stated that the gifts of the Spirit are restricted to the New Testament period. That would mean that you would have to abolish the offices as well, because they came from the gifts of the Spirit. It requires the necessary attention and disci­pline to deal maturely with this phenomenon in the Christian tradition, especially because it may not happen that people put themselves in the centre of the liturgy by presenting prophe­cies and speaking in tongues, prayer healing and witnessing. It is not without reason that Paul in his letters asks for an interpretation alongside these expressions of the Spirit. What remains is that we may not ignore these gifts in our own tradition. That would be detrimen­tal to the pastoral intention of (home) liturgy. We also come across other forms of liturgy, such as the "anointing of the sick," in the New Testament. I myself would like to make a earnest plea for this ritual that in a very special way signify the unity of body and soul and the healing power of prayer..
  3. People celebrate liturgy🔗

When we today celebrate liturgy, we do so in our own way. As already stated, we cannot distill orders of service from the bible, we are free at this point. There are, however, a few things that matter, which, as a kind of basic given, undergird our celebration. Liturgy lives by the grace of what we call "the second language," of the "narrative of faith" and of the fact that we express ourselves, i.e. give expression to what we hold high and what touched us deeply.

The second language. In an essay about language the poet and writer Huub Oosterhuis distinguishes two languages. The first is the lan­guage of clear logic, objective information, the exact science. Then speaking is: to unravel the riddle, defining, demarcating, true and not true, 2=2. We cannot do without this language, we need it. But when it is about life and death, God and man, this language does not cut it and, according to Oosterhuis, is even danger­ous. The second language underlines the first as a deep stratum, the second in attention and valuation, defenseless and modest, "the language of what really cannot be said." Emotion, ecstasy. Signifying much and some­times even paradoxically. Think about the language we use to describe the two natures of Christ or the trinity of God or the "presentia realis" in the Lord's Supper. It is the language of poetry, of the dream and fantasy, of the myth and fable. Man needs this language to express his individuality and hope, his passion and longing. The liturgy is the place for the second language par excellence. I am thinking of songs and bible stories, prayers and procla­mation. Perhaps here then lies the great problem for the church. The age in which we live does no longer know this second lan­guage, things have lost touch with mystery, objective language has made life "superficial." I think here of the world of kitsch and the demand for simplistic sermons that are "understood" with little or no effort. As such, it does not so much deal with people's spiritual laziness as with the general inability to under­stand the second language.

The narrative of faith and liturgy. At present one can ascertain a strong development towards a manner of thinking about and understanding of reality that is based on the "narratio," the story. In all that people say and do there hides a story. People give sense and meaning to their life by expressing their life's story. The story is a broadly conceived concept in order to give coherence to events. Think, for example, of the study of history. People give meaning to events, casu quo facts, by placing them in a certain context. A context that at the same time colours these events (casu quo facts). That is the prominent and general line of thought at the moment. In this there are scholars who go so far that the events become separated from the story. Others, on the other hand, defend that it is precisely the event that recalls the story. In theology this approach plays a significant role as well. It is then said that the church came from a narrative tradition. In the church, we tell each other stories, we hear the story of God and His people, but in the prayers, proclamation and songs we also hear our stories, what we have or not (no longer) have in God. With the second language as presupposition also comes the story concept. The way in which we believe and celebrate has a story structure. Ask people about their faith experiences and they come with stories. For the liturgy, as accom­modation, this means that not only in a single element, for example the sermon or the read­ing, stories are told, but that the order as a whole forms a story as well. This also means that you can examine a liturgy on the basis of its narrative structure. What meanings are mediated by these structures? What direction does the order celebrated indicate? Why do we use this particular order? And so more ques­tions could be asked.

Expressivity. In conclusion of this section, I will make a few remarks about one of the essential human characteristics, that will include the previous considerations, namely expressivity.

  1. It has been pointed out that we are "ex­pressive" in all our actions. Often we do this subconsciously, think of body lan­guage and the way we use our voice. When we say something, we also express ourselves, also when the expression is about something other than ourselves.
  2. In our encounters with the world, we gain experiences, and our being is molded by it. We are part of all that surrounds us. That, too, we bring to expression. In other words, we have already stored a whole lot in experiences and things around us, of which we are part, before we are aware of it.
  3. These two together indicate that our expression is always a giving and taking of meaning. Thanks to our speaking, we can see and understand our lives in a new perspective. This is essential for liturgy: in our expression we give and receive a new view of our reality. It is important to make these ideas central in thinking about liturgy.

3. Liturgy as form of spirituality🔗

All the forms that we encounter in liturgy, are about the meeting with God. Such meetings are never matter-of-course, what's more it is a miracle when people experience that their reality has become somewhat more transpar­ent by the celebration of liturgy. There is something like a waiting for God, because we can never force the presentia Dei. God is free to come. That is the critical issue in each liturgical matter-of-course. And that is why liturgy is always something that happens on the edge. In the liturgy we cannot play act, we come as we are, all our inhibitions and blockages included. I think then as well that liturgy is precisely the place where a man is healed from his illusions and projections, that is to say, when the liturgist writes his or her prayers and medita­tions with a warm heart and much pastoral wisdom. Is it not in our liturgy where we hope for a gesture from Him who promises us friendship, and whose Name is near to our joy? But always again as the miracle that enters our lives. The question then is also whether or not we really have room in our lives to wel­come Him whom we call God. That for me the most thrilling question of a church service. It is of course fantastic that people come to sing, to pray, to give and to listen to the word of God and a meditation on it. In our culture this is an extraordinarily encouraging sign. Apparently the lamp of the word is not yet completely extinguished. At the same time I want to hold on to the fact that God is not available on call, certainly not in a church service.

4.Church musical remarks🔗

When we today reflect on church music and its numerous forms, we cannot get around a few, let me say, starting points. I will mention a few and in the course of what follows we will notice how well or not they function.

The biblical lines with regard to liturgy differ greatly. That does not take away from the fact that we can indeed speak of a central theme in the Old Testament, and that holds true for the New Testament as well, namely that great importance was attached to quality in the temple as well as in the house congregation. The stories in the bible are absolutely clear about this. People were not satisfied with kitsch. For me this is a fundamental church musical and theological starting point. Kitsch lives by the grace of imitation; kitsch is a parasite and has no right of existence. I will come back to this idea of quality over against kitsch later. Whatever the case, the Eternal is enthroned on Israel's songs and not on those of Baal. This indicates how much we depend on quality in church music. This remark directly raises the question whether or not the Baal services in our culture have quality.

Church music, as all forms of music, deals with what people experience. That's why I will try to make an analogy with the concept "second language," "narrative" and "expressivity." It seems to me obvious that church music as art form takes up these characteristics and works them out in its own way. As far as I am concerned this, among others, means that church music has as object "more than the ordinary." We can really not be satisfied with the every day "hype" and "fads" in church music. When we communicate in the liturgy in "the second language," then we may expect that church music submits itself to this as well. When we attach ourselves to the "narrative" in the liturgy, then we may expect from church music that it hands us forms that stimulate our imagination and prompt us to self-examination and self-reflection. When we are convinced that in the liturgy we give expression to our longing for God, we may also expect from church music that it supports us in this and, who knows, help us on our way.

Much more can be said about this. In any case, when we practise church music, we are invited to go beyond our own bounds and to admit renewing sounds into our lives. Church music today asks for a reconsideration from what we all along found. This discovery can be ex­tremely fruitful for us.

  1. Art and our own story🔗

In the second part we will deal with the question in how far art, church music in­cluded, has its own story and what modern art in particular does to us, casu quo could do to us. First a few remarks about the relationship between religion and art, after that a few things about "modern art."

1. Interfaces, art and religion🔗

  1. The origin of art lies very close to religion. One can think here of dance, music, sculpture, painting, theatre, literature and architecture. The whole range of what we today are accustomed to call art. Note well: what we today call art. For people long ago that was different, for them works of art certainly had their appeal, but they functioned within a framework of rituals and traditions, its "usage value" in particular was the primary consideration.
    Only with the rise of art collecting and musea does the "enjoyment", the "contem­plation" of art come to the fore. With this the usage of works of art became decid­edly different than it had been. Works of art, according to the philosopher Walter Benjamin, originally had an "aura." Aura is "the one-time appearance of a distance, no matter how near." Works of art transmit the glow of a ritual and are also used in it, for instance the Pieta's in churches and chapels. The auratic character of art gives it a visionary, even revolutionary character, it provides "reflexes of the future." Benjamin, for that reason, uses the expression "auratic art." The percep­tion of it, however, has changed and it is no longer conveyed by the presentation of the original meaning, it becomes more and more dependent on the economic situation one finds himself in. To put it another way, much money and many possessions in and around the house extinguishes the longing for the messianic kingdom. For the late-bourgeois reflection this means that there is no societal praxis that can over­come this distance. The suggestion of a private nearness of the reflexes of the future reconciles the refusal to translate them into the present. Thus the private perception (in musea) is the compensation for societal impotence. I find this thought of importance, because it directly focuses our attention on our perspective and time. After all we no longer see things as in the past. When we then speak about art and religion, we must incorporate this distinc­tion in perception in our thinking. What once was religious, is often no longer the case for us. We listen to Palestrina and Bach in the concert halls and look at the Rhenish pieta's and crucifixions in musea, or in beautiful books with full colour photographs. Through the famous "repro­ducibility of the work of art" (Benjamin) something is essentially changed. The experience of the work of art is now tied to other conditions. That gives rise to the question what do we today understand by religion, indeed a critical question.
  2. What really is religion? First I will point out the ancient contradistinction between religion and faith whereby the first, parti­cularly within the dialectic theology, was made to suffer. Here it holds that man is religious but in his religion tries to keep the divine in his grasp. This "discussion within the church" induces a separa­tion between religion and faith. Faith then is the pure miracle in which man receives his identity by virtue of God's word. Religion is "unbelief." A theologian as H. E. Bahr has tried to write an ethics from the pre­suppositions of dialectic theology, "Poiesis, Untersuchung der Kunst." This attractive work centres on the question about the relationship between church and art. The theme of art and religion is broader. Nevertheless, he also arrives at a secularity of faith whereby the boundaries with the concept religion are fluid. After all in ecclesiastical art man responds to the presence of Christ. For that, as it is, he needs forms that are borrowed from what is available in his culture.
    Traditionally people have to tried to define religion in terms of "the awareness of the absolute," or the "experience of the reality of being," or the famous "schlechtinniges Abhangigkeitsgefühl of Schleiermacher. From which he even so wants to be independent?
    In the matter of "religion and art," I would like to plead for taking the concept religion rather broadly. With that, as far as I am concerned, the difference between religion and faith is not yet off the table. The question for meaning can be interpreted as religious and thus be under­stood as a question after God. That, however, does not mean that art per definition asks after God. There remains a distinction between the Creator and his creation. We do not, so speak, walk in on God.
    Religion is after all the (river) bed in which faith can originate. In terms of psychology of religion, think of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic religiosity. If there is to be a dialogue with God in a person's life then, one way or another, there ought to be forms present in which, all be it from afar, an appeal is made to the highs and lows in a life.
    Nevertheless, I would yet plead for a broader understanding of the concept religion. However much the distinction between religion and faith has its meaning, namely as critical reflection on everything that people experience and next interpret. Religion, as far as I am concerned, does not stand for the heteronomy of moral laws nor for the subjective arbitrariness of speculative whims, it stands for the always newly to decipher "meaning horizon" of all that is, mediated in each expression of a certain religion. Of importance is here the expression "meaning horizon." In reality there is apparently a meaning that can be perceived, and both art and religion are busy with this.
    A theologian as Paul Tillich has asked atten­tion for the relation between art and religion by referring one to the other so that one no longer needs to step into the pit of the classic metaphysica. For centuries art represented the "beautiful," and the "beautiful" belonged to the "transcendentalia," Besides the "good", the "only" and the "true." Art had as purpose to show and reveal the absolute beauty. Through the visible things to the invisible. Art, philoso­phy and theology were gateways to revelation. This no longer holds true for modern art, people no longer believe in objectivities behind reality. In your thoughts from theology you can thus no longer walk the path of the "aesthetical metaphysica" (Bronsveld). In modern aesthetics, art is the expression of a changed world view and self-expression of modern man. Art and religion, Tillich thought, are expressions of an "ultimate concern." He understood the art object as a symbolic form with which subjective interpretations of being and not-being of reality and feeling of life are transmitted. No matter how one-sided, Tillich really only found expressionism suitable for his theory, he built a bridge between art and religion on a theonomous foundation. For in the revelation of the human spirit the Spirit comes along, as no one less than Calvin more than clearly indicated this in his matchless and vaunted "Institutes."
  3. Modern art, beyond conventions🔗

Those who make the effort to acquaint them­selves a little with twenti­eth century art forms, in particular church music, make surprising discover­ies. In the beginning of the twentieth century artists became more and more convinced that the current modes of expression were no longer sufficient to depict how reality was experi­enced. A very interesting form of this new way of seeing is "Cubism." The so-called transfor­mation of the object here are not so much an artistic play but an expression of the idea that we live fragmentarily and as such also experi­ence our existence.

During the same period tonality is relin­quished in music and ways are sought on the one hand to penetrate the essence of sound and rhythm and on the other the temporary feeling of life. Someone like Schönberg turns all conventions upside down and gives each tone equal weight. With as result that the audience gets to hear an extremely compact musical text. A composer like Messiaen de­signs his own musical universum and in The Netherlands Manneke writes works that evoke silence and meditation. Other composers, such Part and Tavener, however, return to ancient musical forms, in particular those of Eastern Orthodoxy, and in their own idiom retell moments and events from the Christian tradition.

My point is that we, one way or another, try to develop a sensitivity for the art forms. We cannot step out of our time thus not out of our culture either. No matter how critical a person, who lives from Scripture and prayer, may be of culture, his attitude of faith will not stop him from being open to what lives in art. With regards to music in the liturgy I would like to mention a few central notions. As the bible does, and as we saw that in the first part of my story, art calls for quality, which ever way you look it, in the church one cannot be satisfied with kitsch. That of course immediately gives rise to the question what kitsch then may be. Kitsch, as indicated already, is the parasite of art, it does not engage emotions but sentiments, all or not religious. You do not need to expect concerts from a church organist during a liturgy. You, however, may expect that a certain concept underlies the way he accompanies the congregation and plays the organ literature in such a way that creativity plays a genuine role. This holds also true for the texts that are used in a worship service. When you keep in mind that the Bible for a large part consists of literature, think of Isaiah and the Psalms, you may expect language sensitivity from the liturgists. Here the ideas of Huub Oosterhuis play a determi­native role. There is also something like a "musical second language." As far as I am concerned, I would like to defend the idea that church music must have an element of sur­prise as well. After ten times singing a song, i.e. text and tune, ought to offer more than the experience of the moment. Always again, there is much more to hear and see in genuine art than we ever suspected. It is precisely this experience that for many people appears to be revealing and fruitful, the moment in which our perception is fundamentally altered. To speak with the (Dutch) versification of Psalm 51: "Grant my eye a bright morning, let my ear hear your glad tidings, then my heart rejoices, however much wounded by you, do away with my evil, erase the last traces." What I want to say: a mature church music has ele­ments of the tradition and at the same time contains a fundamental criticism with regard to the current fads and popularity. Therefore, church music somehow needs to find an echo in the faith life of people today. This is a genuine question, church music cannot be "rhymed dogmatics," that would completely hamstring the creativity of artists. When it comes to the musical idiom every­thing is admissible in principle. However much my heart goes out to the music of Bach and the chorales of Buxtehude, the modern organ music and the string quartets of Shosta­kovich, yet it is so that church music needs to be related to the congregation in which it is made to sound. And that does mean that one congregation feels at home with the Genevan Psalter, while somewhere else people happily draw on an ever increasing arsenal of revival songs. There, too, the demand for quality remains. Do different forms of spirituality, however, not call for different forms in the music praxis? A high-church service in the Anglican tradition also has church-musically another character than a celebration of Pentecost congregation and evokes different images.

This brings me to my last consideration. What does music do to people, what does it evoke and where does it lead to? This is a difficult question, there is no art form that is so diverse in its effect on the perception than music. You really cannot say much about it. What people experience by listening to Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Stravinski, to mention a few, is always connected to their life's story and their religious socialization. It is for each individual unique. This uniqueness, however, does not detract from the question for quality and involvement. That is why I would say that it is indeed possible to have a conversation about church music and its quality, and as far as I am concerned also the spirituality of it. Therefore: whatever we can do in the church is to listen to one another and to share our stories. We can also sharpen our hearing and try to come to an understanding. In doing so, we will discover to our comfort that a wider knowledge also brings about a deeper under­standing. Art appears to be able to intensify our perception of reality. That, indeed, is a great thing.

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