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Church Music in Cultural Contexts-beyond the metaphors of gourmet and fast food

Gourmet vs Fast Food

In the courses I teach at Concordia Seminary, we still use the resource Text, Music, and Context prepared by the LC-MS Commission on Worship in 2004. While I find the tools and considerations of this resource helpful, I have always found it a bit ironic that “context” comes last, when it is the context itself that determines the hermeneutical engagement with both text and music! We’ll leave the hermeneutical relationship between context and text to be explored some other time; here I will focus on the connection between context and music. What makes good music good? Text, Music, and Context offers some helpful evaluation tools for music, including consideration of the sturdiness and accessibility of the melody for the congregation. In this article, I hope to demonstrate a more important consideration: the manner in which music fosters good connections with the culture. I’ll offer some constructive opportunities at the end of this essay. First, however, we must clearly see the destructive dangers at stake here.

There are two destructive dangers when negotiating the relationship between cultural context and church music. One danger assumes that there is a culturally-appropriate music of the church. The buzzword here is “reverence.” Proponents of this perspective suggest that there is a particular musical soundscape that most rightly carries and communicates the profound truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. As one example from a generation ago, Marva Dawn, in her book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, suggests that worship should be designed in a way that “pleases God,” not that “entertains people.”1 She advocates for “reverent” worship that subversively stands against some contemporary worship contexts.2 Dawn does this by working to distinguish various cultural levels: high, folk, and popular, equating them with culinary levels gourmet, traditional home cooking, and fast food, respectively.3 She suggests that fast food has certain deficiencies that the other levels do not have, and that there is an associative ethos, a kind of cultural stigma, that comes with each level of dining. Dawn relates this to music and to the levels of cultural ethos and stigma between the three categories of music. The issue comes, for Dawn, when the overwhelming persuasion of the culture values the fast food too highly, at the expense of the other culinary experiences and benefits. She uses this entire line of argument to suggest that “worship that is predominantly influenced by the ethos of popular culture is… depriving worshippers in significant ways.”4 Instead, she advocates for “music of the faithful church,” which has been largely “jettisoned” by many churches who overindulge in the engagement with present-day cultural influences.5

A generation later, we are now more culturally conditioned to see the subtle and destructive biases inherent to this line of thinking. To assume that a particular cultural construct is “leveled,” and to associate the “high” level with gourmet culinary experiences, and to appropriate that “high” and “gourmet” stigma to “music of the faithful church,” especially church music dominated by white, Western, elite voices—this leads us dangerously close to neocolonialistic thought and action. Too often, this kind of thinking ends up inevitably devaluing and dehumanizing all who are not fully immersed in this white, Western, elitist culture (i.e., how can one advocate that gourmet food is the best without inherently dehumanizing the many in our society have no access at all to such “gourmet cuisine”). When you follow Dawn’s argument to its end, to be “reverent” in worship that “pleases God” is to sing songs written predominantly by white, Western elites. In our life and activity as God’s people in 2020, it is no longer tenable for us to argue that the music of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, or other heroes of Western Classical music is in any way superior to that of folk or popular genres. To even attempt to do so perpetuates our participation in the very systemic sins with which we continue to struggle as the people of God today.

Culturally, therefore, we must evaluate the music of Gibbons and Getty, Hassler and Hillsong, Tallis and Tomlin, and even Bach and Beyoncé, without discrimination. The same goes for instruments; we must consider the usefulness of the guitar and other stringed instruments, the piano and other percussion instruments, the organ and other winded instruments.

No one cultural context, soundscape, instrument, or musical genre corners the market on reverence; rather, reverence is encapsulated in, as the Newsboys sang a generation ago, “all God’s children singing ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns!’”

There is another danger, however, stemming from the opposite extreme of this argument. Here, one assumes that a cultural context is inherently value-neutral. This value-neutral perspective often assumes that the words of a song determine its value associations, not the music itself. The buzzword here is “relevance.” From this perspective, music can be used indiscriminately as a means to communicate content. The destructive danger is not in music as relevant, but instead is the manner in which music is appropriated and manipulated towards a particular end without recognizing the inherent meaning in the music itself. One might consider the “Thong Song”… yes, that “Thong Song,” the one written and performed by Sisqó around the turn of the century. People my age know the song well, but it is not a song that has stood the test of time. One could, conceivably, appropriate Christian words to the music (it strikes me that “Kyrie Eleison” or even the English “Lord, have mercy on us” could fit the rhythm and melodic contour of the refrain particularly well, much as some have parodied the Agnus Dei to “Baby Shark” in recent years). Copyright issues aside, one could even envision a creative and well-meaning Christian community working to use this new setting of the Kyrie in their “contextualized” Divine Service. Many in the assembly would never know it as the “Thong Song;” they would only know it as the “Kyrie.” But to some in the room, those my age—that particular configuration of melody and rhythm will always be the “Thong Song,” and I’m not sure that any amount of Christianizing in lyrics or aesthetic context could ever change that.

Notice, however, that this is not necessarily a genre issue, as many wonderful and faithful Christian hip-hop artists are producing excellent music for the church. The song does not speak for the whole genre. Nevertheless, the song does speak as a cultural symbol of a few different value-laden systems. It participates in the values of those systems. It receives the critiques of those systems. The song itself has meaning, meaning derived not only with its own lyrical/musical content but also associated with and representative of those cultural systems as a whole.

It is evident, then, that songs, genres, instruments, etc, all have inherited and inherent meaning based on their relationship with various value-laden systems. To appropriate a song, genre, instrument, or other musical element without attending to this inherited and inherent meaning can cause significant confusion and conflict. This includes the indiscriminate appropriation and elevation of Western Classical music as the epitome of “reverence,” already discussed at length above. The “relevance” of a song is determined by its cultural associations; thus, all the various associations of a particular song must be considered as fully as possible (space does not allow, but this should also nuance how choirs and congregations of predominantly white membership engage in singing hymns and spirituals of African-American origin).

Having considered these two destructive dangers—the danger of confusing “reverence” with cultural elitism and the danger of confusing “relevance” with cultural misappropriation—we briefly consider some constructive possibilities. I’ll offer a few values we inhabit in our worship life at Concordia Seminary, hoping these foster ideas that might relate to your context.

  1. We learn and sing songs that represent the global church. This isn’t always comfortable. This often involves us learning and singing unfamiliar melodies. It sometimes involves tricky rhythms difficult for an assembly of people. We even work to sing in various languages when we can. We don’t totally jettison the familiar and the historic, but we don’t privilege it either. We embrace the notion that our “familiar and historic” is expanded and enriched by our immersion in the songs of the global church.
  2. We learn to listen to songs. Lutherans love to sing; Lutherans value the voice of the congregation lifted in song. Nevertheless, there are also times to listen. Listening—to a cantor, a soloist, a band, an ensemble—allows us a different access point to music. Listening—to different instruments, whether a saxophone, marimba, electric guitar, organ solo, etc.—increases our awareness of the rich diversity that comprises a reverent soundscape.
  3. We privilege patience, not preference. No song is everyone’s favorite. We celebrate the times when we sing someone’s favorites, even as I can attest that my “favorites” have grown to include the very global songs that I didn’t know a few years ago!

Culture matters. Context matters. Through these practices, we learn to value culture. We learn to value the uniqueness of culture that guards us from cultural elitism. We learn to value the inherent meanings of cultural symbols that keeps us from misappropriating culture. This, as the Newsboys so eloquently taught us years ago, is truly how we learn to sing the “song of the redeemed.”

1Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 130.
2 Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 149.
3 Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 185, referencing the work of Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989).
4Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 187.
5 Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 166.

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