John D. Witvliet, “The Virtue Of Liturgical Discernment”, in Kroeker, ed., Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy

Almost The Caricature Of A Church Organist

Almost The Caricature Of A Church Organist

A Typical Praise Band In A Typical Worship Setting

A Typical Praise Band In A Typical Worship Setting

Moserious, A Rap Group From Houston's Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church

Moserious, A Rap Group From Houston’s Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church

In the end, the activity of discernment is a tool, a means to a higher end, a way of helping us become, through the Spirit’s power, “pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the flory and praise of God.”  May we yearn for and cultivate this gift, and then see it bear fruit in worship that is God-honoring, Christ-centered, and Spirit-inspired. – John D. Witvliet, “The Virtue of Liturgical Discernment”, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed., Music in Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, p. 97

Few things are more true than the reality that church politics, especially local church politics, are a nasty business.  People invest so much of themselves in their local congregations that attempts to change can be met with a vehemence, even violence, that can be surprising to those viewing events from the outside.  Add to this the reality that most clergy and church lay persons are bad at politics, and we have the perfect set of ingredients for potential destruction.  It is John D. Witvliet’s intent in this essay to press for discernment as a theological virtue practiced at the local and denominational level when considering the multiplicity of choices churches face when it comes to making choices for music for worship.

Among the things he writes that flies in the face of far too much alleged received wisdom is his insistence that decision making is a community process.  Only when the whole congregation is involved can discernment be properly recognized as a virtue of the Spirit’s work.  We so often hear laments about ideas or plans that are arrived at or prepared by committee work.  Yet, how many of these consensus-driven plans or ideas fair far better than those that are the product of individuals pushing particular agendas without consultation, without consideration of the views and opinions of others, and most of all without communal prayer?  I would far prefer greater inclusion of more voices to the imposition of the views of a few, no matter how expert they may be.

Of course, there are limits to the efficacy of discernment, properly considered.  When considered alongside the realities of church politics, it is always best to have allies, to work from positions of strength, and to be willing to compromise whenever possible to include as many voices as possible without discarding whatever larger goals a community in search of a proper balance in their music ministry might be.

All the same, as a general rule, Witvliet’s ideas and proposals, particularly on the necessity of plurality of voices working through issues, trying to do what is best to serve the needs of the whole congregation, are an important yet neglected part of the process of being a church.  Of course, there will always be those persons and voices that are either negative on any proposed change; those persons and voices that will embrace any change whatsoever; and those voices that will remain silent, for a variety of stated reasons.  All any persons in positions of authority in a local church can ever do is encourage and entice as many persons become involved in such discussions, and work as best they can with the results.

That guiding light of these essays is that church music always be at the service of the liturgy of the congregation, the on-going segregation of “traditional” hymnody, the ever-expanding library of “praise & worship” music, and other forms of music including hip-hop, ethnic musics, and even jazz-inspired, rock-inspired, and other musical styles becomes more and more difficult to sustain.  The only reason for its ongoing practice is the time-worn phrase, “This is the way it’s always been”.  This excuse is no excuse at a time of changing demographics, the explosion of musical styles that interpenetrate one another, influence one another, and seek to be in service to the God of Jesus Christ.  The only way to burst through the barriers to music truly serving the liturgical needs of the local congregation is the courage, vision, and humility to seek ways to incorporate the best choices theologically, pastorally, and that enhance the worship experience rather than interfere with it.  That ours is a multicultural, multiracial society with more choices than ever when it comes to musical styles, there is no real reason to exclude anything from potentially serving the needs of the congregation and its worship except fear, inertia, and calcified tradition.  Working to discern what is best, that is what we are called to do as Christians about all things.  Why not the music we use to enhance our worship experience as a community as well?


Wilma Ann Bailey, “The Sorrow Songs: Laments From The Old Testament And African American Experience”

I once passed a colored woman at work on a plantation, who was singing, apparently, with the animation, and whose general manners would have led me to set her down as the happiest of the gang.  I said to her, “Your work seems pleasant to you.:  She replied, “No massa.”  Supposing she referred to something particularly disagreeable in her immediate occupation, I said to her, “Tell me then what part of your work is most pleasant.:  She answered with much emphasis, “No part pleasant.  We forced to do it.” – The North Star, April 28, 1848, quoted by Wilma Ann Bailey, “The Sorrow Songs” in Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgyp.77

Bailey’s survey and commentary on the slave songs considers the use of Israelite lamentation form and imagery among Africans enslaved in the United States.  Among the things most clear from this particular essay is Bailey’s belief – offered without evidence – that enslaved Africans and African-Americans were not particularly Christian until after Emancipation, at which point they suddenly (as she puts it) joined churches in droves.  Belied by the existence of large African-American churches even during the years of slavery (the AME and AME Zion churches just to name two), I find it interesting, to say the least to make this particular claim in light of the larger theme of the work: that this language and imagery – much of whose original content and musical organization is now lost due to freed slaves seeking to distance themselves from much of that history – was not in service of religious pursuits, i.e., to lament to God their plight and ask for divine intervention, but were far more often coded messages using what many whites would recognize as simple hymns to disguise the communication of messages.  Bailey sets to one side, after a time and after a fashion, the whole question of the theological and even liturgical uses to which the Sorrow Songs were put, in part because there is little evidence to support any theory on these matters.

None of this is to deride the Sorrow Songs, dismiss the multivalent quality of many if not most of the songs in question, or recognize the desire by the newly emancipated slaves to put behind so much of their horrible history, not least because white minstrelsy continued to keep alive far too many ugly, racist images and tropes regarding African-Americans, their language, their culture, and their song.

A theme of the essay – the similarity of the lament Psalms and the slave sorrow songs – is their rootedness in this historical experience of oppression.  Functioning as communal catharsis, expressing anger, confusion, hope, and the need for praise to God, the original Israelite lamentations formed a closed structure.  The African-American sorrow songs, however, were open-ended, with neither denouement nor catharsis.  While not conclusive, this does at least hint that, while recognizing the Israelite lament poetry as a useful form to copy, they could alter it for their own ends, not the least of which was to communicate with others about escape attempts, resistance, or celebration when a slave master died.

The question, however, this article begs is simple enough: If, as Bailey suggests, the pre-emancipation African-American community, particularly the enslaved population, was not Christian, then in what sense were these sorrow songs in service of any liturgy?  Indeed, if as she claims there is little indication of actual belief in the Christian God (although there is nothing to suggest disbelief, either; there is, however, abundant evidence of at the very least the practice of certain forms of Christian worship among slave populations), then these become less liturgical songs and more practical, sensus communis poems, much as the Israelite poetry was without, however, the formal structure of closure, which included confidence in God to act in defense of the oppressed.  To the extent, then, that Bailey is correct, these Sorrow Songs are interesting as functional historical documents without identifying how they served a liturgical purpose for the worshiping community of African slaves who composed them

One such song she identifies, “Steal Away”,  was allegedly composed by Nat Turner as a way of communicating a rallying point should the rebellion succeed and the slaves move on (the destination was allegedly Courtland, VA).  From Nat King Cole’s short-lived variety show, here’s Mahalia Jackson singing this song as no one else ever has or ever could.

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.

Michael S. Driscoll, “Musical Mystagogy: Catechizing Through The Sacred Arts”, in Kroeker,ed. Music In Christian Worship

In conclusion, let me reference a statement issued in 2003 by John Paul II to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the document Tra le sollectudini, dealing with sacred music and promulgated by Saint Pius X in 1903.  The Pope’s new document is dated November 22, the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron of music, and in it he warns that not all music, even if sacred in nature, is suitable for liturgical use.  He goes on to urge the Congregation for Divine Worship to “pay closer attention” to the issues of liturgical music.  He repeats that exhortation in a plea for episcopal conferences to “pay closer attention” to the music used in the liturgy in their respective countries.  One interpretation of these warnings could result in a paranoid fear that Big Brother is watching.  I prefer to take the more benign reading and think the Pope recognizes the real power of music (as well as the other sacred arts) to transform us, to shape our life of prayer and our ways of thinking about God.  The more benign reading suggests the sacred arts, particularly music, are not merely something we use to decorate the liturgy but an essential part of worship.  As such they need as much care and attention as all the other details mentioned in teh General Instruction of The Roman Missal. – Michael S. Driscoll, “Musical Mystagogy: Catechizing Through The Sacred Arts”, in Charlotte Kroetzer, ed. Music in Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, p. 43

As with the other pieces, I read this while listening to music.  In this case a concert/interview with the now-defunct band October Project.  As I write, I’m listening to the Polish progressive rock band Riverside (I chose them because Poland is a Catholic country, believe it or not).  The musics in question are very different, providing a richness of context through which to consider what Driscoll, a Roman Catholic, has to say about matters of music, aesthetics, and mystagogy.  He spends an awful lot of time of John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists.  What’s most interesting to this Protestant reader is the vast distance JPII traveled between the 1999 letter and the 2003 statement.  The former, earlier letter is an open invitation to all artists to consider their works as possibly revelatory, even if they are not aware of it.  He also links the aesthetic and the moral in a way many artists (and the Pope was a poet and playwright prior to being made Bishop of Rome) have done through the centuries.  While I think Driscoll gives JPII a bit too much of the benefit of the doubt in his latter statement – considering who he was grooming to replace him – I do think both the more “paranoid” and “benign” interpretations have much merit to them, not least because of the reality that not all music, not even sacred music, is a good fit for the liturgy.

All the same, the larger portion of Driscoll’s essay concerns itself with mystagogy not as a part of the formal catechetical practice of the church, but a life long journey in which and through which the believer becomes ever more aware of the mystery of the Divine through the immersion in the sacred arts of the liturgy.  While critical of pre-Vatican II liturgical practice as more performative than inclusive, he is also critical of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for its overemphasis on getting the words of the Mass correct, neglecting the non-verbal parts of the total immersion that Christian worship is supposed to be.  Finally, while the title of the essay is “Musical Mystagogy”, its focus is far broader, on the arts in general as far as they contribute to the liturgical practices of the church, i.e., to draw the praying community together to the mystery of God-With-Us.

I think this essay could have benefited from a a focus on the specifics of the title; that is, now that much of the High Mass is spoken rather than chanted; now that the sermon is spoken rather than chanted; now that hymnody is flourishing in Roman Catholic circles, providing a variety of expressions of faith outside the ancient Missae, Driscoll could have talked about how all these changes have altered the important function of mystagogy.  In particular, as a Protestant, I can say that we de-emphasize the mysterious aspects of faith at the expense of rational clarity of expression, what with our emphasis being on the Word read and proclaimed, rather than the entire worship experience, including the aesthetic surroundings being a communal immersive event, offering the congregation the opportunity to live within while contemplating the reality of the mystery of the Incarnate Son, for the Father, through the Spirit.

Still, there is much fruit here, at least for a further discussion of aesthetics and liturgy and how they work to express the mystery that is the faith of the gathered community.  As someone who is always learning, I appreciate especially the insistence that mystagogy not be limited to a particular portion of the life of the believer (i.e., catechesis) but be something we explore throughout our life of faith.  I also believe we should be able to find in a variety of arts, most especially music, those moments of transcendence that demonstrate for us that mystery surrounds us, holds us, saves us, and will deliver us.  While not all music is suitable for the liturgy, I believe much of the music we humans create, from progressive rock to jazz to heavy metal to hip-hop can be a source of awe and wonder, giving the listener a glimpse of the ineffable mystery that is God’s never-ending love for all creation.

Donald Saliers, “Sounding The Symbols Of Faith”, in Kroeker, ed. Music In Christian Worship

When we gather in community to sing and make music to praise God, or perhaps to lament our grief, deep memory is required.  Any musical act of prayer itself must go beyond the surface of the words, beyond the musical score.  The memory of God becomes incarnate in the gathering beyond our own personal memories, something going on for many centuries.  We are more than we can think; we are more than we can feel.  So singing and making music together that expresses our life before God is, in this way, identity confirming and future opening – duty and delight.  Something about being human required this.  Something about the way we come to know and understand our destiny and our world through the senses is provided for us; things God holds out for us in the gathered assembly.  One thinks of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ slightly paraphrased poem here: “The beauty was there but the beholder wanting, which two, once they meet, the heart rears wings and hurls earth off from under our feet.”  Something is there waiting for us, waiting to be released. – Don Saliers, “Sounding the Symbols of Faith”, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed. Music in Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, pp. 19-20

Just as with Wolterstorff’s essay, I read Saliers’ while listening to music.  This time it was the rock band Porcupine Tree, a completely different musical environment, to say the least, from Arch Enemy.  All the same, to sit and read Saliers speak about the necessity of worship being a whole-body, whole life experience in which we taste and touch and sing and hear and even dance, all the while a rock band performs a variety of songs that offer listeners and concert-goers the chance to do just that offered a perspective that sitting in silence, or perhaps sitting and listening to Bach’s B-minor Mass might not have offered.  And while I write this, I am listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as conducted by Leonard Bernstein after the Berlin Wall came down back in 1989.  Yet again, a completely different musical environment, at a moment in our collective history in which the future seemed full of possibilities that had not existed for far too long.  Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s poetry combine to offer the world a vision of the human family gathered together in bonds of unity that even the most earnest liturgist could hope to accomplish.

Saliers’ essay does not focus so much on music per se as it does the whole context of worship qua worship, as a whole-life, whole body-and-soul experience.  More than that, as the quote above makes clear, when the Spirit is present, we are joined by all the saints, past and present; all creation in its glory as God made it; and the Spirit joins us all together, brings us all together so that all of us as creatures created in unity by God can and must and do celebrate what God has done, is doing, and will do, in that community we call Church.

And it is music that is, in a way, the binding force of it all.  Precisely because it brings together the human soma in a way no other art form can – we hear the sounds; our body moves to the rhythms; we see the instruments played – it is here that worship becomes true worship, liturgy the true work of the people of God, and we are blessed and God is praised and we can go forth together to do the work to which we are called.  This is the point of worship, after all, and it is precisely music that makes this possible.

Saliers is clear that he makes no judgments about the ways consumerist culture has pervaded even the sacred spaces of the church, saying we live in that particular glass house; he also is clear that the aesthetic ideal – art for art’s sake and no other – at least offers the unchurched an opportunity to experience the numinous and transcendent, as well as offering an opportunity for those who construct liturgy to understand the power of art in all its forms to create in us humans a sense of awe and wonder before the beautiful.  I also found his warning about the demonic potential of art, using the example of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, a model camp used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis, where Jews performed Bach, Mozart, and even Jazz before being shipped off to be gassed, as an important warning about being too romantic in our grasping after the aesthetic dimension qua aesthetics.  Unless we are willing to place our artistic desires under the guidance of the God we are to worship, we may very well end up on the shadow side of history without even knowing it.

All in all, Saliers’ essay is a beautiful introduction to how to do aesthetic theology, keeping in mind that the aesthetics serves the theological reflection rather than becomes an alternative expression of theological reflection.

Also, because it’s a piece by Don Saliers, I can’t resist including something by the duo of which his daughter, Emily, is a part.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Thinking About Church Music” in Kroeker, ed., Music In Christian Woship

My fourth principle for your consideration – one I regard as extremely important – is that the character of the music fit the liturgical action it serves – and fit the theologically correct understanding of that action. – Nicholas Wolsterstorff, “Thinking About Church Music,” p. 13, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed. Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, Liturgical Press, 2005

It was, to say the least, an odd experience reading this particular essay – which starts off Kroeker’s marvelous collection, culled from a 1999 conference of church musicians, theologians, clergy, and others – while listening to an Arch Enemy concert.  The specific juxtaposition of Wolterstorff insistence that we be more thoughtful in our approach to church music while all the time blaring, screeching death metal played in the background created a context for my own thinking about church music that made me wonder if, just perhaps, even more thought is needed not only about how music serves the liturgy, but how we as a Christian people must and should adapt to the changing musical environments in which we live.

After offering some anecdotes demonstrating the thoughtlessness toward music in worship offered by otherwise thoughtful people; then setting to one side the ridiculous musicological idea of “absolute” versus “functional” music, Wolterstorff makes several important points, not the least of them being what he calls “fittingness”, a concept he developed in another work, and which he sketched out beginning with the quote above.  At the heart of the idea of “fittingness” is the notion that the music should serve not only the theological and worship needs of the congregation; it should also reflect the theological and liturgical needs of the particular moment in worship in which it is used; finally, it should fit within the comfort zone of the congregation.  As Wolterstorff mentions elsewhere in the essay, if the music director loves Palestrina and the congregation does not, it does no good to have the organ overpower the congregation because the music director insists on playing Palestrina.

Wolterstorff also has unkind things to say about Contemporary Christian Music, which tends towards the simplistic, insipid, and overplayed.  This does not mean, however, that it cannot and does not fit, as Wolterstorff defines the term, the liturgical needs of the moment.  This is, rather, a matter of taste as well as choice.  We have yet, I think, learned how to integrate contemporary musical styles in traditional worship settings, usually setting apart a “contemporary” service with a band with electrified instruments replacing the more common organ/piano/choir.

I would further add that our churches are in desperate need of music education when it comes to contemporary culture and society.  As any record company executive or A&R person will tell you, the two biggest-selling styles of music are hip-hop and country; very often bought by the same people.  Rihanna and Reba McIntyre, Blake Shelton and Kanye West usually sit on the same shelves or within the same playlists.  While hardly a musical anthropologist, I think the reason for this is simple enough: as a society, we have yet to integrate, successfully, two important cultural strands, namely rural white (or those who yearn for a rural life) and urban African-American.  The best we can do is have separate styles on offer for people to play in order to suit their particular needs of the moment.

So, too, with music in church. Wolterstorff notes a common complaint: few things are more divisive in churches than musical selections.  These divisions become even more destructive when generational preferences become the focus around which the debates circle.  Those who prefer the same hymns with which they grew up because they are a source of solace and joy are angry that young people find these same songs meaningless, while a more contemporary – perhaps even not titularly Christian – song, might well speak to a spiritual, theological, and even liturgical need.  With the desire of most churches to attract young people, offering stale, cookie-cutter “Contemporary Christian Music” cannot be enough.  We have to be willing to open ourselves to the possibilities that many – perhaps most – forms of music “fit” in Wolterstorff sense.  The trick, of course, is integrating a variety of musical preferences and styles within a single worship experience and liturgical cycle of action.

It was The Who who said it the best, at the point in their career where it was about to come true in ways they couldn’t imagine: The Music Must Change.  We in the churches must be willing to allow these changes to occur, if for no other reason than we should be willing to sing in our own voices, instead of those of our grandparents, the Reformers, or the Church Fathers.