Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is liturgy fragmenting with the culture?

In my previous attacks, er, comments on modern worship style, I had assumed a stylized dichotomy of Anglican worship: centuries-old high church hymns, and modern guitar masses complete with praise bands. I realized that was an oversimplification, but since I only attend churches where the argument is over allowing music newer than Vaughan Williams, I was content to lump all "modern" worship into one pile.

This of course blurs the distinction within both hymn-based and non-hymnal modern worship. The former would be formal hymns with organ that happen to be composed since 1960 -- some with sound theology and some not, some with sappy tunes and some real music. The latter would cover a wide range of praise music, from a simple guitar mass to an amplified praise band.

I'd previously praised Terry Mattingly's coverage of this topic, as with his interview last year on KFUO. Thus, it's not surprising that TMatt has contributed two other observations on the topic this month to his GetReligion blog.

On Veterans Day, he commented on a NY Times article on a Southern California megachurch that has three main bands (and many lesser bands) to cater to various tastes. To Terry, this one quote says it all:
“When you start a church,” said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, “you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.”
To which TMatt -- the Baptist-turned-Epsicopalian-turned-Orthodox worshiper -- commented:
So is there anyone in the church older than Boomer rock? Are there any ties that bind this congregation to the church of the ages? It would seem not.
I agree with Terry: I hope my grandchildren will someday be singing Rock of Ages (to Toplady), Isaac Watts, Wesley, and all the other classics of hymnals 100 (or 200 or 300) years ago.

But then today he posted a really thought-provoking postlude, in which conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks notes the fragmentation of the popular music genre.
The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.

But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.
Brooks ties it back to modern marketing:
[Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt] describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. . . .

If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.
In other words, there will never be a single "contemporary" worship style for those who reject traditional liturgy, but a pluriform of alternatives.

The modernists in liturgical music make two major arguments: we need to be modern to be relevant (or popular or to reach young people), and every era has added contemporary popular music to the liturgical canon. I have never considered the former to be a serious intellectual argument, but rather a matter of personal preference.

The latter, however, seems a valid rebuttal to those who would freeze back in 1906 or 1940. Whatever I might say about most of the additions to the 1982 hymnal, for example, I think Hymn 335 is a keeper: it was used for the 2005 communion celebrating the unification of two continuing Anglican provinces.

After thinking about it for several years, I've come up with an answer: I'm not rejecting everything in the new hymnal, but most of the new stuff is mediocre and will soon be forgotten. I only want that music that will be used 100 years from now. Most of it is not going to stand the test of time, just as there are hymns by Luther or Watts or one of the Wesley clan that have deservedly fallen into disuse.

Meanwhile, I think the fragmentation of popular culture will make traditional hymnody more not less important. If there is no common thread among the various "contemporary" worship music (whatever that might be), then the only thing sure to survive is that which has already stood the test of time and can make the claim of continuity across the generations. A hundred years from now, I'd bet none of today's top 50 hits of CCM (or anything from Wonder, Love and Praise) will be used, but Christians will still be singing Ein feste burg, Adeste fidelis and Sine Nomine. Maybe those in English-speaking parts of the world will still call themselves Anglicans.

This makes it even more important that we preserve what is known about the writing and performance of 500 years (or more) of Christian hymnody.

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