Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tim Challies on "Why I didn't Sing When I Visited Your Church" a model of passive aggressive 2nd person generalization articulating some worn but still-valid concerns in the cycle of worship wars

There's a certain kind of ineffable elegance to a Christian blog post that is so exquisitely coached in luxuriant prose with so indefinite a second person address.  You know the kind of post even if you don't think you do.  But since the axiom among writing teachers is "show don't tell" ...

Of course Tim Challies could have said which church he actually visited and had in mind for this piece but perhaps the better part of Christian scruples advises against this.

It was a joy to finally visit your church a couple of Sundays ago, and to worship with the believers there. You know I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. Just as you promised, the pastor is an excellent communicator and a man who loves God’s Word. His sermon was deeply challenging and led to some great conversations with my children.

Now, you asked me why it looked like I wasn’t singing. I know that was probably a little awkward, so thought I’d send along a brief explanation. Primarily, it’s because…

Here we were just discussing at the blog the potential problems inherent in a plea to revive the didn't-exactly-end worship wars earlier this week.  Ten years ago, actually, that church could have been one like the former Mars Hill.  For that matter ... five years ago it could have been a church like the former Mars Hill.  Or the church could have been inspired by example.  In any event, let's consider Challies' reasons for not singing along. They do get to issues that keep coming up in worship wars between ambitious musicians on the one hand and people considered about liturgical or doctrinal fidelity on the other.  This is hardly to say that these two impulses and groups never overlap.  Those for whom both aspects are primary concerns tend to make the history of Christian music here and there.

I was not familiar with the songs. Your church has a tremendously skilled group of musicians leading them and it was a true joy to hear them play and sing. They sound as good live as they do on their album! But, unless I missed something, all of the songs on that Sunday were drawn from their own music. There weren’t any hymns in the service or even any familiar worship songs. So it’s not that I didn’t want to sing; it’s just that I didn’t know the songs. I want to be fair—every church has some of its own songs, and there is nothing wrong with that. I tried to follow along the best I could so I could learn some of yours, but even then…

Before he moves on to his inevitable next point let's make a few observations here.  Many of the churches that tilt more contemporvant also tend toward what Theodore Gracyk described as an "ontologically thick" approach to musical culture.  In lay terms this means it's all about the recordings and the audio files, and it may only secondarily (if at all) be about media that are "ontologically thin", which was Gracyk's slightly unwieldy term for what we'd colloquially know as "sheet music".  Fans of the "thick" approach to music and styles that are produced and mediated primarily by recording technology tend to fetishize authenticity by way of specific timbres and extra-musical narrative/social contexts.  It's not even remotely the case that this DOESN'T happen in the "thin" cultures that rely on music  notation and the rest of the nominally "classical" idioms.  They are as picky themselves on all of those kinds of issues.  The teams have their shibboleths in both directions. 

Having said all that, the kinds of churches that are into being contemporary may not necessarily have more than a few charts indicating the words and basic chord shapes.  It might be impossible to follow the music simply because unless you're already steeped in that specific church culture you couldn't possibly begin to guess at what the texts are or what the melodies are.

But given the "literate musical tradition" we so often associate with "classical" music the tricky part is that what if you go to a church that has a full-blown hymnal with hymnody and you're musically illiterate?  You're still just as stuck.  What if the liturgy is Serbian or Ukrainian and you don't know those dialects?  Well  the same  problem accrues even if the chants are written out for people to sight-read and sing along with.

Challies is describing something like the alienation that can happen in either direction on the part of those who may not be musically conversant or who may not be conversant in the culture they're visiting. 

That conveniently gets us to the next point.

the songs weren’t congregational. Most of them seemed to have been written with the band in mind more than the congregation. What I mean is that they were unpredictable and often went beyond my vocal range and ability. This made them tough to learn and difficult to sing. Sometimes I would just begin to think I had it, but then…

There's this old book, decades old actually, called Why Catholics Can't Sing.  Maybe you've heard of the book or read it yourself.  The fusillade is largely against the importation o fthe Irish "sweet song" tradition for solo voice that had crept in or flooded into the Catholic church scene in the United States over the last half century.  The complaint was not that the songs themselves lacked for beauty but that they were often soloist material and made some more or less impossible demands on the vocal abilities of anyone who wasn't Sundays-special-soloist. 

This next point Challies gets to is quite possibly proof of a couple of things 1) he's white and 2) he's either never been to a Pentecostal church or hasn't been to one in a reaallllyy long time.

your singers would ad-lib. Twice through that final chorus they sang it one way, but then on the third they did something I didn’t see coming and just couldn’t follow. Was I supposed to follow them up the scale as they went high on that final chorus, or was I supposed to stick with the original melody? I didn’t want to mess it up, so figured I’d better keep it quiet. I might have had help there, but…

You may already know where he's going with this and he ends in the unsurprising riff about how it all seems like a rock/pop concert so he sat back and enjoyed the show.  It's got no suspense at all and if he'd led with how pervasive he might find this ethos in American churches he could go on to have enumerated how often this happens and perhaps even gotten specific about which churches or brands of churches are apt to do this.

Here in Seattle this was Mars Hill.  Many of us who went loved or didn't-quite-love Luke Abrams' voice and his vocal range was in the zone of what some guy kinda joked was the sound of a 12-year-old-boy.  Around 2005 when the congregation had a groundswell of complaints along the lines Challies has shared about why he didn't sing at church X recently these criticisms were considered the basis from which to give the entire church a tongue-lashing courtesy of then pastor Tim Smith. 

There weren't just complaints about the songs being difficult or impossible to sing along with there were concerns about the loudness of the music.  Challies kinda gets to that next.

I couldn’t hear the congregation sing. I wanted to learn from the people around me, but I couldn’t hear them. A lot of them seemed to be singing along, but they were far quieter than the band. Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music and often crank it to silly levels when I’m at home or in my car. (I’ve even got it at an obnoxious level as I write these words.) But as I understand it from Colossians 3:16, a key element of congregational worship is hearing the congregation. Singing is in the realm of “one-another” ministry, meaning that we are to sing for the other people there. But that was tough because…

finally ... he gets to the central, unifying point that he could have led off with.

it felt like a performance. We were in a darkened room sitting on theatre-style seats. The band was on a brightly-lit stage at the front of the room, singing their own songs with the volume cranked right up. This set a context that struck me as more concert than church. I really enjoyed watching the band and listening to them, but it felt to me that they were doing rather than facilitating the worship. So finally I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

Now, please don’t think I’m trying to rekindle the old worship wars. I believe there is room in congregational worship for both traditional hymns and modern worship songs. I love them both! But the way the music was structured and implemented in your church was just not conducive to congregational worship. It was good, it was professional, but thinking about it now, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it wasn’t a bit too good and too professional. I wonder if the desire for excellence may have robbed it of much of its usefulness. It’s worth considering: If our desire for excellence puts the music out of reach for the congregation, perhaps we’re pursuing a wrong definition of excellence.

Whereas the Mere Fidelity crew want to revive the worship wars it seems Challies would like that to be avoided.  Still, he's clearly willing to articulate some grievances with the state of contemporary praise and worship. 

Maybe there was a visited church at some recent point or maybe it was just the sort of abstracted thinkpiece that seems virtually inevitable in the Christian subset of cyberspace whenever articles come along a few days earlier, such as this little number from Michael Lee Ed Stetzer.

Challies' points are boilerplate as they go and they're sound concerns.  There are some potential caveats pertinent to musical culture and education.  In contemporary music there's more likely to be a guitarist leading the song time.  This is likely to be a guitarist who is not really comfortable playing in every imaginable major and minor key and who may also not have invested in a capo.  Now the music director at my church knows I absolutely hate capos but I can easily forgive his use of one because while he ... uses a capo on his guitar, he's also played the violin.  Anyone who's learned how to play the right notes on a bowed string instrument will have done something we fretted instrument players don't have to deal with unless we've got some custom-built microtonal instrument, consistently nailing down the difference between F sharp and G flat. 

So, anyway, a key that is easily played on the guitar by a guitarist of modest skill is likely to be a key signature that is NOT easily handled by an untrained voice.  The reverse is also the case.  An average singer in a choir can sing in F major more comfortably than E major because of where all the register breaks happen in the voices of adult males and females.  But which key do you think the guitarist is going to try to play the song in?  E major, of course.  If the singers were to ask the guitarist to play in F major instead do you think a guitarist would comply?  I would because I love F major and F minor on the guitar! Were it possible to pre-order the scores and recordings of Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar today I would have done it already! 

But for the average, or even slightly-above-average church music guitarist odds are still pretty good that the guitar-friendly keys are not going to be voice-friendly keys.  This problem shows up even when we're talking about faithful old stand by songs like "What Wondrous Love is This?" or even "Amazing Grace".  Just because a tune is easy to sing doesn't mean it's easy to sing above a shimmering open A major chord struck on the silvery strings of a Stratocaster. The situation is not necessarily changed if we're talking about Martins or Taylors or Ovations.

Even if we grant there's too much of a rock concert vibe to a lot of contemporary church music this is a problem that has been incubating for generations and is not likely to go away inside of even one generation.  We'd need to ask questions about where music education for people happens.  Gone are the days when families would entertain themselves and each other by playing parlor music.  Sousa warned more than a century ago that once the mediation of music rested in machines and technology rather than people that we'd see and hear a flattening out and homogenization of musical culture.  That's not ... entirely true but that's not the point.  The point here is that most people get their musical education from music they hear by way of machines even if they are used to singing songs in church. 

Do something to address the musical literacy issue across the board and it may become easier to articulate when and why this or that song doesn't sit well in the throat of X number of congregants. 

The thing about shifting musical styles is that this is literally the history of church music.  Would we expect Lutherans in German to insist on singing Veni Creator Spiritus in Latin?  NOt so much.  Would a Catholic rite for Pentecost have that?  Likely.  One of the fun parts about music history and musicology is tracing how a chant like Veni Creator Spiritus can appear vestigially in the fugue subject of Bach's C major fugue from his famous violin sonata.  There's a historical case to be made that the version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" that you may have sung in church is probably not the version that was first penned but the isorhythmic post-Hanssler version.  One of the weaknesses fans of old music can sometimes have is forgetting (almost as if on purpose) how much the standard repertory of even an earlier generation was steeped in incremental modification of existing traditions. 

If the adage that ninety percent of everything is crap the musical canon means we've preserved or had preserved for us just the most workable stuff from preceding generations.  There are reasons we may still sing hymns by Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby more often than B. E. Warren, for instance.  Decades ago I remember checking out the Rolling Stone guide to albums from a city library and was surprised to see entries for Amy Grant, Al Green and Keith Green.  Both entries had jaded introductions about how those who don't believe may have qualms about listening to Gospel music.  The verdicts were that with Al Green the fears were unjustified because the music was great.  For Grant the fears were justified.  For Keith Green the riff was that even though Keith Green's songs were often pedantic and doctrinaire you never had moments where you felt like the person singing the songs wasn't a real human being. 

If I wanted to I could diverge into a fantastic episode of South Park called "Christian Rock Hard" but that's not something I feel like doing on a week night.  Besides, the 20th anniversary of the show is this year anyway so there's some other occasion during which that episode can be discussed.

Challies' points aren't exactly bad points.  They were concerns I had about the musical culture of Mars Hill a decade ago.  But there's a point past which we might want to ask what the broader scope of our musical culture is.  Given how frequently unoriginal and uninventive evangelicals can tend to be let's be mean about it here for a moment, evangelical musical culture probably lags behind mainstream musical culture by something on the order of a decade, right? ;) 

Just a day or so ago we were looking at how historically the Baroque era, particularly the high Baroque era, was full of exalted church music that was completely beyond the abilities of the untrained to follow, participate in or understand.

Challies' comments are not exactly original or even inspired and yet in a way they're perfect because if we were to compare them to Bukofzer's general observations about the complaints made that the music of a J. S. Bach was too esoteric it lets us know that these concerns go back centuries.  If it be protested that there's no way a Chris Tomlin three-chorder is at the level of J. S. Bach we'll just grant that point while noting that for the purposes of this blog post that's not where we're going.  There's nothing new under the sun.


Cal P said...

I loved this quote from the Challies piece:
"Now, please don’t think I’m trying to rekindle the old worship wars. I believe there is room in congregational worship for both traditional hymns and modern worship songs. I love them both!"

I use to talk/write like this more. I think it's kind of symptomatic of the "winsome" attitude pushed by Evangelicals and a general social skidishness about confrontation. It's all this "third-way" trickery. I would rather have him say, "No, old school hymns got it right. Contemporary Christian music is garbage" or vice versa. I'd want to hear an actual solution rather than the passive-aggressive criticism! Sometimes for intramural debates among Evangelicals, the old adage about liberals never taking a side, not even their own, applies. It's kind of exhausting. It'd be better to just start the war again.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

In that sense the Mere Fidelity/Mere Orthodoxy crew is more honest about just wanting to restart the wars. I have my issues with that but I've already explained that at length. But I can always write more!

The trouble with restarting the worship wars isn't that I can't agree with the reasons for starting it. If I get to choose between Tallis and hymns by Wesley on the one hand or CCM on the other OF COURSE Tallis and Wesley will win! It's just that this gets us to another historical point--the history of Christian music in Western culture is quite possibly the apotheosis of the survivorship bias with respect to earlier eras of church music. Even new atheist types a la Dennett don't really want to part with the Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach.

I'd feel more confident about the wars being restarted with cause if I could be convinced that the two broad sides displayed enough musical literacy to seem like they matter. Trouble is that when conservatives want to zero in just on the common practice Western stuff from basically Beethoven up to Mahler they lose me because I don't think we should be hamstrung by "just" the major/minor common practice period. Knowing that some of the farthest out avant garde musicians of the last century were, say, Russian Orthodox and Catholic makes the Anglo-American conservative canard about godless Marxist avant garde art impossible to buy. If we restart the worship wars hamstrung by assuming the good guys and bad guys in the arts have to follow a Cold War US/USSR style script that's a time-waster. At least Scruton's posse will admit that up front so it can be ignored but American evangelical debates tend to try to ignore the class element in the kind of church music people say they do or don't want.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

In the field of musicology and composition people like Leonard B. Meyer and George Rochberg proposed the crisis of the last century was, given that pluralism seems unavoidable, who has the best idea of how we could live with it? By and large the kinds of people who attempt to navigate what that might practically sound like sound less like George Rochberg or even maybe Schnittke and more, for regular people in the US, like Johnny Cash or David Bowie or Ray Charles or Chuck Berry. The Cuban composer Leo Brouwer has said that the quest for a successful fusion of already existing styles seems to have been more of a conscious commitment within pop music rather than art music.

Cal P said...

I'm onboard with Challies general burden for congregational singing. There must be a principled object in Church worship, whether beauty, or some sort of spiritual coagulation, or something. But I think it turns into those lopsided worship wars when it becomes about cultural purity/contamination or some firm 'canon'.

The upswing of Roman Catholic, Anglican, some high Lutherans, and E Orthodox congregation is that they know their worship and liturgy is some 'thing', and can be talked about in the abstract. Thus, you can write a book on how you participate in the liturgy. Evangelicals suffer from the delusion that they are just being pure, in the spirit, radically biblical, while importing their own particular worship. Maybe if Evangelicals owned up they have a, though perhaps really lame, liturgical uniformity, the Challies' of the Earth wouldn't be confused. But once Evangelicals were to abstract their amalgam of practices into the "Evangelical Protestant Vanilla liturgy" or something it would give up the ghost of their being different or "not religion, relationship" posture. It's funny because the article by Challies, even as he pretends to not know what's going on, he absolutely does understand and does get the Evangelical liturgy. He's just being a snob about it in the passive-aggressive way that you highlighted.

Yeah, I don't think worship wars are worth it unless they have a direction, rather than some sort of division over predilection for this or that.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Kinda getting back to the Mere Fidelity podcast, their direct aggression would be preferable to Challies' passive aggression. It's just, per your comments about liturgy that's high/known as opposed to low/hidden the Mere Fidelity podcast didn't quite camp out on where these guys are. Roberts, at least, seems to be pretty high Anglican type. The worship wars only seem like they can happen on either the low side of the liturgical divide or, worse yet, among those groups of American Christians who, because they would, if directly asked, deny they have a liturgy at all because they only associate liturgy with a high liturgical tradition. This might be a terrible way to put it but perhaps the worship wars in American Christendom are only possible for those who are raging closet cases about what their actual liturgical commitments are, whereas the out and proud about whatever explicitly liturgical traditions they're carrying on are slightly less likely to have "wars" of the sort that swept American church scenes. That's a sweeping and probably simplistic synopsis.

But this "is" a comment box.

chris e said...

At least in the UK, Anglican churches that are both theologically conservative and liturgically high are as rare as hens teeth.

There are a few BCP focused churches, but theologically they tend to camp out on some form of conservative Erastianism (where God is an Englishman who looks like WG Grace). Also BCPism tends to be musically high, but aggressively middlebrow in terms of the other arts, unless they end up Anglo-Catholic - which probably doesn't apply in this case.

When I listen and read to the mereorthodoxy crew, they seem to be aggressively young fogey - in a kind of yearning for a lost mythical past sense.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

aggressively young fogey does seem to fit. Now that they've added Samuel James to the roster ... it's hard to forget this:

Since, obviously, THIS blog was temporarily infamous for being some kind of watchblog/critical blog regarding a local celebrity pastor.

More and more I get the sense that to the extent that evangelicals have intellectual capital they keep squandering it on the self-perceived and self-diagnosed problem of lost prestige or influence rather than trying to solve a problem anyone else on earth might regard as worth solving.

And the irony of the Mere O crew talking about reviving the worship wars is that if we believe Jesus died and rose again then of all the groups in the 21st century who have a quite literally doctrinal reason to be artistically eclectic it would be Christians. It's not like we somehow went the last two millennia bereft of a story about the Spirit and Pentecost.

So in a way I've been saying the problem with Challies is he's too passive aggressive about the problem of liturgical appropriateness in low liturgical American music while the problem with the Mere O crew is they seem far too musically illiterate to understand that there's never been an era of Christian liturgical music where the Bachs of the time and place weren't making music above the heads of normal people. They're both completely wrong by dint of what the one thing they have a good point about happens to be. :)

Cal P said...

That last comment was fantastic. I particularly liked this point:

"More and more I get the sense that to the extent that evangelicals have intellectual capital they keep squandering it on the self-perceived and self-diagnosed problem of lost prestige or influence rather than trying to solve a problem anyone else on earth might regard as worth solving."

My anchor point in this was when I discovered an Anglican blog/movement that seeks to be Tractarianesque Conservative Anglo-Catholics. They are literally in their own world about the work they are doing. And the worst part is that it lacks the glisten of fiery zeal that the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church has when it proclaims it, and it alone, is the only church left. They won't even do that, trying to wedge their way into being considered one of the branches of the Church, along with Rome and Constantinople.

I don't think it's a recent phenomenon, but it seems Protestantism, perhaps more than Orthodoxy or Rome, seems to churn out the most disillusioned and delusional factions that look for a world that never was to be in a time which could never be.

Eric Love said...

I don't think any keys are inherently easier or harder to sing in - it all depends on the song as well as the individual singers. For other instruments, though... guitarists like a few open string chords, I like white notes on the piano, while others like flats. I looked through a hymn book and found 1/6 songs in Ab while a book of 1990s songs had none.

Most amusingly, my previous church sang songs from the guitar era, but played by piano and organ. The organist didn't like playing in sharps, so songs in E or A went to Eb or Ab. In one case, D to Db.

The worship wars were a thing at that time, probably because old songs were played without enough energy, so some people wanted lively new stuff; new songs were often played poorly, so some people wanted to stick with old stuff that was played properly.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Eric, I agree in general that no keys are inherently easier or harder to sing in but if we throw in the right (or wrong) songs in the context of a very low musical bar for musicians and congregation some songs are going to be weakly rendered, which gets us to your last couple of paragraphs. :)

A Richard Taruskin style proposal, ever the polemicist, might be to point out that the worship wars may well have started after cuts to music education in Anglo-American schools began circa the 1970s and 1980s. Another possible zinger could be asking, just as a question, whether the worship wars were worst in regions that didn't have a history of a conflation of church and state. Since Americans seem to be questing for what is really American music (see the WaPo link from links for the weekend)

a seed of the worship wars in the United States could be a larger battle that's been brewing in the United States about what constitutes really American music. The Shadle book Orchestrating a Nation was a dry but still fascinating read about the critical double bind American composers and musicians have had to contend with for centuries.

CoffeeMatt said...

Just wanted to chime in and say I really loved the post and the discussion on this one.

Personally, having spent time in both the high-art and faux-spontaneity camps and now find both of their usual lines of argument unconvincing. Making music participatory for the congregation seems like a more foundational aspect to focus on though and so discussion on singing ranges and keys and transmission of melodies is of great interest to me. I've led some kind of 50/50 hymn/pop services regularly at an evangelical church for the past 6 years and it is astounding to see how much seemingly small adjustments in these sorts of things can make the music much more singable, easier to memorize, etc. These elements also cross boundaries and end up being important regardless of your tradition. I wish we talked about them more.

Arlie Rauch said...

We moved to our present community two years ago and visited fifteen churches before settling on the one we joined. We attempted to not choose a church based primarily upon the kind of music they had. Having said that, my wife and I both studied music in college and play instruments. Had we joined a church, certain ones in particular, that focused on contemporary music, we would have been unable to use our abilities there. Neither of us is very good reading a chord chart while pretty good at reading notes on a staff. Neither of us plays guitar or drums. Why have certain instruments been exalted to the denigration of others. Our church has a $40,000 organ pushed back into a storage room. Is it no longer possibly to praise God with an organ?

BTW, the Hebrew word for worship means to prostrate oneself with face on the ground before God. Is that happening in our 'worship music'?