Bert F. Polman, “Forward Steps And Side Steps In A Walk-Through Of Christian Hymnody”, in Kroeker, ed. Music In Christian Worship

As a Christian I believe in the resurrection of the dead accomplished in Christ, in new life processed by the holy Spirit, and then it becomes relatively easy for me to trust that God will correct our human foibles, our squabbles over church music, and our current obsession with sometimes ephemeral repertoire. – Bert F. Polman, “Forward Steps And Side Steps In A Walk-Through Of Christian Hymnody”, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed., Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, p.72

No essay that purports to be a sketch of Christian hymnody can do much more than name some names, highlight those hymns most Christians, regardless of denomination, know by heart, and talk about the most important controversies, historical and contemporary, that music in Christian worship brings in its train.  This essay, for example, doesn’t mention the controversy that arose with Baroque polyphony, its temporary anathematization, and how it is now revered (including by this author, who has a hundreds-long playlist on Spotify dedicated to Palestrina, Tomas Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, and more).  Also left out is the controversy within the African-American community over the far-too-close relationship between the spirituals and the blues, and especially the sense of betrayal when a Spiritual or Gospel singer abandoned the style for mainstream music.  These are as much a part of the history of church music and the controversies it excites as Calvin’s insistence on singing only Psalms, or the move from Latin to vernacular in the Roman Mass.

As usual, it is important to note the musical background.  While I didn’t listen to anything while reading this short historical overview, while I write this I’m listening to the Norwegian Black Metal band Emperor’s Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire And Demise.  I find the juxtaposition between youthful blasphemy (as a substitute for political action) and a consideration of the history of church music to be edifying, to say the least.  As someone for whom the whole notion of blasphemy holds little power, it is as much the stylistic differences between the complex, polyphonic (in more than one sense), and technically exacting Black Metal and the far-too-often banal music presented for the church that push this particular reader to think more deeply about the matters before us.

Polman frames his discussion within the Biblical framework set forth not only by the Psalms (a subject to which he returns several times) but also the Pauline injunction that when the congregation gathers, it is to sings hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs.  From the beginning then, ours has been a singing church.  Polman then jumps ahead to his rather extended medieval period, from roughly AD 600- 1400, in which the element of a singing congregation is replaced over time by a performative, chant-based ritual.

It is with the Protestant Reformation that there bursts forth new hymns and songs and once again the congregation becomes a participant in the sung praise of God.  Of course, with Calvin, such singing is limited to the Psalms and Polman, a Calvinist, calls out the Genevan Reformer on this gross theological and pastoral error.

He skips over the next centuries, name dropping Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, Fanny Crosby, and others. He turns to the question of contemporary “praise” music, and his criticism of it as containing theological “milk”.  From here, he develops a series of criticisms of the practice of music in worship that segregates music based upon theological content as much as generational preferences.

His biggest criticism, and one I think hits something squarely on the head, is how even the Calvnists, with their insistence on sola Psalma tended to avoid the lament Psalms, which make up roughly a third of the Psalms.  Even those hymns we know well, such as “It Is Well With My Soul”, that are rooted in tragedy, nevertheless are not so much laments as they are the second half of most lament Pslams in which the author insists God will be praised even in the midst of the mystery of suffering.  Along with the common theme that choirs and “special music” create a performative aspect in our corporate worship, whereas music should serve the whole community, include inviting everyone to sing along, Polman insists there needs to be space for voicing our anger and sorrow over illness, suffering, and death.  The overemphasis on “praise” as the sole criteria for hymnody misses the point that even the Biblical authors saw fit to address complaints, demands, questions, and sorrow within the texts of their songs to God.

It is this lack of lament that brings me, in a curious (but not unintentional) way back around to Black Metal and the screeched blasphemies of Emperor and other bands in the genre.  We in the west, particularly since the end of the Second World War, have sought to extend material comforts as well as social and political freedoms as far as possible.  At the same time, the realities of the horrors of two world wars brought much of Europe to the conclusion that the churches just did not address the realities of human brutality, a situation much of 19th century Christianity insisted was overcome.  While the official churches limped on, the vast majority of Europeans (and increasingly Americans) set it all to one side.  Without a vocabulary, save perhaps political radicalisms of various sorts, with which to express their frustrations with the combination of a cloying mediocrity imposed for the beneficial sake of all as well as perennial complaints about death, illness, and suffering, there seemed little to which young people could turn to voice their rage at elders who continued to speak in a religious language that was no longer understandable.

Thus the rise of death metal and its far more blasphemous step-cousin, Black Metal.  We in the churches continue to fight over praise music versus traditional hymnody; Tridentine Mass versus Vernacular; contemporary hymnody versus Gospel music; all the while our children and youth seek out their own ways to express their frustrations, their pain, and their rage at a world that continues to make no sense.  Listening to the blaring blasphemies of Black Metal offers us the opportunity to hear lament in a vocabulary that some youth understand.