“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
(Johann Sebastian Bach)
I love music . . . all sorts of music (except for rap) . . . and, rarely does a day go by that I do not spend some time surrounded by music. I am not an expert on music . . . especially church music. Though I am a minister, I know very little about church music . . . or the theology of church music . . . or hymnology . . . or even the theology of secular music. I took one, maybe two classes, in seminary dealing with church music . . . and, to be honest, I must have slept through them because I do not know anything about church music. I share this because a friend and reader of this blog, knowing my ministerial background, asked me for my thoughts on church music. This is my attempt at answering his request . . . and, hopefully, not sounding too dumb.
As much as I love music, I am not musical. I cannot play an instrument . . . no piano, no guitar, no dulcimer, no flute, not even spoons. I have a difficult time tapping my feet to the rhythms I hear . . . and, no I cannot chew gum and walk at the same time. Nor can I sing . . . ask any congregation that I have ever served . . . ask my children who endure endless hours trapped in a car on vacation with their old man singing away to the music being played . . . ask the neighborhood dogs, and they will all vouch for me when I say that I cannot sing. I am firmly in that camp that the psalmist refers to in the psalm asking people to make a “joyful noise unto the Lord!” That is me despite my deep love for music. With that disclaimer my statements are made out of a love for music and not out of an ability to perform it.
I think that music has always been . . . always been from the very beginning of God’s creation. I think that it is like the air that we breathe . . . it surrounds us mostly unheard, but that it is always there waiting to be tapped into. Some of us hear, some of us don’t. I think that it is a big part of the contemplative life which calls all of us to silence so that we can hear . . . that we can hear the voice of God . . . and, that we can hear the music. I think that the purpose of music is to take us to the depths of our souls . . . to open us to our real selves, the people that God created us to be . . . to open us up to ourselves and to the presence of the Holy . . . to open us to the true reality that remains after all the facades have been stripped away. Like the presence of God, music surrounds us and we need to listen carefully to truly experience its holiness.
It has always amazed me . . . kept me in awe . . . how anyone can pick up an instrument and play music. I have tried and I cannot produce music . . . noise, maybe, but not music. It has always amazed me that someone Johann Sebastian Bach can sit at a piano or harpsichord and produce the great and beautiful music that we enjoy today. I read once that he stated that all that music was just floating around in his head and all he had to do was to get it out of there and onto paper. He said, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” Music amazes me and puts me in awe . . . where does it come from? Well, it is all around us . . . always around us.
In preparation of this blog I read a lot of articles about the purpose of church music. There are as many opinions as to the purpose of church music as there are people writing them. Yet, there is the central theme of “worship” in a lot of them. The purpose of music is to worship . . . to worship God. There are hundreds of references in the Bible towards this idea of music being used to worship God. And, I guess that is as good a purpose as any other . . . it beats listening to the preacher. Yet, I have been in a few churches and numerous services in which the music that was offered was less “worship” and more of a sacrifice. I think the intentions were good, but the ability was not. But, I can buy that music in church is to help worship God . . . sometime, though, I really think we ought to reconsider that when I hear some congregations sing.
Maybe music in church is to enhance the worship experience . . . not so much to worship God, but to entertain those who are gathered with a little heavenly noise. We humans do not do well with silence . . . without music in church there would be a heck of a lot more silence. That would not be good for business. Using music to fill the gaps of silence in worship is like putting commercials into the service . . . sort of mind candy to occupy our minds during those slow, awkward moments of silence that make people uncomfortable.
Some churches and congregations use music to entertain the masses. This is one that I hear a lot of complaints about from those whose churches believe that “traditional” is closer to the will of God, is done in red letter style, and holier than those churches into that Satanic, non-biblical, and paraphrased scriptures “contemporary” rock and roll offerings. Of course this argument often has the age bias connected to it. Is one form of church music better than another? My goodness, there are as many different styles of church music as there is music in the world . . . there is Christian rock, Christian heavy metal, Christian reggae, Christian country, Christian bluegrass, and (I shudder) , Christian rap. Everyone has an opinion . . . people are on both sides of the fence . . . and, the ones who are straddling the fence . . . well, those are the churches and congregations that have both the traditional and contemporary services being offered on the same day . . . or they do a “blended” service. There is a church music war being waged and sometimes it gets pretty ugly. Again, not good for business.
Personally, I really do not care. The congregation that I am presently serving falls solidly in the traditional area . . . with a heavy splattering of the gospel music of Bill and Gloria Gaither. We also have a lot of music that twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago was considered “contemporary”, but today it is thrown into the “traditional” category. We often forget that the music that the great church musicians were writing and playing way back then was the rock and roll of their time. I think that music has been unfairly labeled and categorized much like we humans have been. Music is music . . . why do we need to label it? We need to let music be music . . . to do its thing . . . and, to enjoy it.
I remember the first time that I had heard the hymn Amazing Grace played and sung to the tune of that rock and roll group’s song The House of the Rising Sun . . . wow, that was moving to the toes of my soul! I suggested to the choir director of the church I was serving that we should try that in worship some time. One would have thought that I had suggested blasphemy of the highest order. Yeah, I know that the “house of the rising sun” was a house of prostitution . . . but this song gets into the holy. Listen for yourself as the Blind Boys of Alabama sing it here. (Yeah, I like the Blind Boys of Alabama!) Music is music and if it gets me closer to knowing and understanding who I am as God created me . . . understanding the life I am living . . . getting me closer to God and the intimacy we have . . . then music has done its purpose. It doesn’t have to be church music to do this.
As I stated at the beginning . . . music surrounds us like the air that we breathe. Music’s purpose is to open us to ourselves and to God. It is to strip away the barriers that keep us from touching the deepest roots of our own creation and who we are . . . it reveals our thoughts, feelings, and emotions whether we want to deal with them or not. It reveals to us the Holy . . . the mystery of intimacy . . . it reveals to us the multi-faceted presence of God in so many unique and different ways that we are sometimes elated with joy or awestruck in fear. Music is a means to the Holy . . . sometimes intentionally (like with church music), more times unintentionally. Music moves us . . . makes us want to dance. As the children of God we need to dance to the music we hear. So what if no one else can hear it and think us crazy (Nietzsche) . . . it is a holy dance with the one who created us, loves us, and desires us to move in closer for the dance. It doesn’t have to be church music that does that . . . any music can do that. We just have to learn to listen.
Okay, last confession . . . I can’t dance either. I know I joking say that after a few beers I am a regular Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire . . . but the truth is, beer lies to us. But, I dance . . . it ain’t pretty, but I dance. The Spirit . . . the music . . . moves me to dance. Dance doesn’t even seem to care if I step on God’s toes. I am not going waste time arguing with anyone about the music that should be played in churches because it takes away my time of listening to the music that is already there . . . like the air that we breathe . . . and, I can’t dance when I am arguing. Whatever it takes to get you to dance . . . play it. God wants to dance.