Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Music that Sounds Contemporary

T. David Gordon has a brief chapter in his book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Popular Culture Rewrote the Hymnal  on aesthetic relativism.  I liked the chapter for a few reasons.  First, I liked it because of what it tells us about ourselves as image bearers of God.  Second, I agree with Gordon's point about the danger of aesthetic relativism.  Third, I believe Gordon is correct in applying all of this to contemporary music, or as it should be called according to Gordon, music that sounds like it is contemporary.  Here is the gist of the chapter:

"Aesthetic relativism was a commonplace in the twentieth century, and will probably remain so in the twenty-first.  Aesthetic relativism states that there are no standards by which artistic creativity may be measured; it is merely a matter of taste.  But such relativism may be as unbiblical as (or, as I think, more unbiblical than) ethical relativism.  In the firs twenty-five verses of the Bible, God is presented as a Creator; and the human whose creation is recorded in verse 26, is said to be the "image" and "likeness" of God.  While this image may include more than creativity, it certainly cannot exclude creativity.  The only thing expressly affirmed about God prior to Genesis 1:26 is that he creates.  So when the text then says (four times) that the human is made in God's likeness or image, there is the strongest implication that the human is essentially (not incidentally) a  creator.  And God's creative activity in the Genesis narrative is not merely practical (what we would call the creativity of the artisan); his creative activity is also beautiful (what we would call the creativity of the artist).  The garden that God made for Adam and Eve to cultivate was "pleasant to the sight and good for food" (Gen. 2:9); it was both lovely and life-sustaining, both beautiful and practical.

"Ultimately, then, God himself is our aestheitic standard, just as he is our ethical standard.  As bearers of God's image we have as our creaturely duty to imitate him in all the ways a creature can imitate the Creator, and surely this means that we are, like God, to make things that are beautiful or practical.  Whenever we make something, we imitate God; and the evaluative question then becomes: have we made something well, as God makes things well?

"Thus, when I cook dinner at our house, the meal I prepare should provide nourishment and should be pleasant to eat; it should be both pleasant and practical.  I say it should be because it is not merely a matter of taste (the Gordons enjoy good food); it is a matter of imitating God well or imitating God less well. Now, the standards by which we evaluate creativity may be difficult to develop, and those standards might be more difficult in some fields than others (perhaps it is easier to evaluate literature than architecture, for instance).  That the task of establishing aesthetic criteria may be difficult, however, does not mean that we should abandon the task.  After all, the task of establishing ethical criteria is also difficult, and we have not abandoned that task.  Christians routinely produce books, essays, and articles (not to mention sermons) about ethical matters, even though such matters are sometimes difficult.

"Even non-Christian or nonreligious thinkers recognize the profound importance of aesthtics. . . .

"In the current situation, one of the most frequently repeated errors regarding our evaluation of contemporary worship music is that it is "merely" a matter of taste.  Such dismissive comments should be resisted.  When arguments are made (on any side of the discussion), they should be seriously entertained, weighed, and rebutted, not merely dismissed on the erroneous ground that human creativity is "merely" a matter of taste.  Human creativity is a matter of imitating God the Creator; it may very well be the most significant thing humans do, so it is not "merely" anything, and it is surely not "merely a matter of taste."  Indeed, in the current situation, for some individuals the only aesthetic criterion they recognize is contemporaneity.  Think of it: A church has a sign that reads "Conteporary Worship," as though sounding contemporary were the only criterion that mattered.  All the criteria by which previous hymns were evaluated are tossed aside, and this new criterion replaces them all (or moves to the top of the list of criteria).  But why?  Why does this criterion trump the other criteria?  Some of the things God makes are new, such as a newborn child; but other things God has made are old, such as the Grand Canyon, the earth itself, and the universe.  So in God's case, his creativity is not measured by the time in which the creativity took place; it must satisfy other criteria.

"Indeed, when people talk about "contemporary" music, they are not, in fact, referring to the date of composition.  The people who promote contemporary music, for instance, are not promoting the hymns of a twentieth century hymn-writer such as E. Margaret Clarkson (b. 1915; d. 2008), whose hymns, though recently written, do not sound as though they were recently written.  Nor are they promoting the fourteen hymns cowritten by the late James Montgovery Boice (d. 2000) and Paul S. Jones, written just a little over a decade ago.  Thus, not only is contemporary not an adequate or appropriate aesthetic criterion, it is not even an accurate criterion.  People who use it actually mean something like this: a cluster of musical choices (primarily that the song be accompanied by a guitar) that have the aggregate effect of making a piece of music sound as though it were recently composed.  What we call contemporary music, then, is actually music that sounds contemporary.  Using such language would clarify the conversation, but it still would not answer the question of why some people prefer music that sounds conteporary.  And it still would not justify contemporary-sounding as an aesthetic or liturgical criterion, at least without further argumentation."

Gordon's point is that contemporary-sounding is seemingly the only criterion we now use in many evangelical and Reformed churches to determine what we should sing, and this is absurd.  We no longer look at, for instance, these kinds of considerations that are found in the front of the Psalter Hymnal  of the Christian Reformed denomination in 1976:


1. The music of the church should be liturgical --- In spirit, form, and content is must be a positive expression of Scripturally religious thought and feeling.  It should serve the ministry of the Word.

2. The music of the church should be beautiful --- Its religious thought or spirit should be embodied appropriately in the poetry as poetry, in the music as music, and in the blending of these in song.  It should satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint and fitness which are the conditions of all art."

Then, follow a number of "Implications," just a couple of which I will list and comment on:

1.  "The music of the church should represent the full range of the revelation of God."  In other words, the content of our songs go beyond just the category of praise, just as the Psalms include, instruction, wisdom, lament, confession, prayer, trust, exhortation, etc.  Also, the songs we sing must faithfully echo the revelation of God.

2. "The poetry of the songs should be good poetry."  Read some of the contemporary choruses we routinely sing in church.  Is this really good poetry to be used in the worship of our glorious God?  Here is a song we used to sing at the PCA church I attended.  Judge for yourself the poetry (the form) and the content of these words and whether this is good enough to put on the lips of Jesus' people:

Jesus, be the center
Be my source, be my light

Jesus, be the center
Be my hope, be my song

Be the fire in my heart
Be the wind in these sails
Be the reason that I live
Jesus, Jesus

Jesus, be my vision
Be my path, be my guide

Be the fire in my heart
Be the wind in these sails
Be the reason that I live
Jesus, Jesus

(Instrumental solo)

Be the fire
Yes, Be the fire

Be the fire in my heart
Be the wind in these sails
Be the reason that I live
Jesus, Jesus

Jesus, be the centre
Be my source, be my light
Be my source, be my light

I'm not an expert on poetry, but I don't think this qualifies as good poetry, nor would it move anyone to love Jesus or serve him, because  of its content.  It doesn't tell us who Jesus is, what he did for us, and why we should trust and love him.  So why do we sing this tripe that any Mormon would be happy to sing with us?  Apparently, the fact that the music that accompanies it sounds contemporary is enough of a reason to sing it.  "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" does not have a contemporary sound, so we are justified in not singing it!  But read the content and the poetry of O Sacred Head Now Wounded and make a biblical judgment --- a "right judgment" as our Lord taught us to make (John 7:24) on which is better, Jesus Be the Center or O Sacred Head, Now Wounded?  Which of these will lead us to truly worship, trust and love our triune God?  Which better heeds the commands found in the Psalms concerning the praise of our Lord (see, for example, Psalm 105:1-3, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 136, Psalm 150:1-2)?  Here is O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, whose words are unknown to many in the church because we are busy singing Jesus Be the Center and songs like it.

1 O sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame bowed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown.
O sacred Head, what glory,
What bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.

2 What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered,
Was all for sinners' gain:
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour:
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

3 The joy can ne'er be spoken,
Above all joys beside,
When in thy body broken
I thus with safety hide.
Lord of my life, desiring
thy glory now to see,
Beside Thy Cross expiring,
I'd breathe my soul to Thee.

4 What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine for ever;
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for Thee.

5 Be near when I am dying,
O show Thy Cross to me;
And for my succour flying,
Come, Lord, to set me free.
These eyes, new faith receiving,
From Jesus, shall not move;
For he, who dies believing,
Dies safely, through Thy love.

Instead of trumpeting "contemporary worship" in our churches, we should be seeking and promoting worship that is reverent, profound, and meaningful --- worship in which Jesus Christ is offered to us each Lord's Day in Word and sacrament --- a time in which we might truly commune with the Lord as He speaks to us by his law and gospel and we respond to Him in confession, trust, and praise.

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