Sunday, July 20, 2008

Schmaltz, praise and worship

Regular readers know that a major theme of this blog is questioning the suitability of praise music and other modernized forms of liturgy as a form of Christian worship. Even ignoring the creeping effects of modern theology on worship, the modernized liturgy (favored by evangelicals) poses its own problems. In the old Issues Etc. show, guests Terry Matingly, Barbara Resch and Jon Sollberger explained the inherent problems of chasing the culture to epxress even the most traditional theology.

Almost every Sunday I avoid this problem by spending my worship time in Anglo-Catholic worship. However, today I visited our former church. Its rector is very Biblical in his worldview, but a couple of years back he decided to convert the main service to praise bands in hopes of attracting more congregants. Like so many other parishes, the traditional liturgy is relegated to the early (in this case 8:30) service, which is why we don’t make it back very often. But if growth is the success measure, the strategy seems to be working.

More than a year before the praise band service began, the new music director was moving the hymn service away from Bach and other 16th, 17th and 18th century composers. Instead, there were a fair number of schmaltzy postwar hymns — the netherland between traditional hymnody and CCM/praise music that’s occupied by Hymnal 1982. It got to be a running joke — she would offer me now and again Bach to keep me in the choir, but any other week I would expect something schmaltzy.

What do I mean by “schmaltz”? The American Heritage dictionary definition:
schmaltz n.
1. Informal
a. Excessively sentimental art or music.
b. Maudlin sentimentality.
According to Random House, the term is Yiddish slang dating to 1930-1935, which in turn goes to the Old High German term for animal fat.

Today, with the choir on vacation, we had guest musicians on flute and piano. But even without the words, the three pieces certainly met the definition of schmaltz. One of them was “The Lord’s Prayer,” composed in the 1930s by Albert Hay Malotte.

Obviously, the words of this song (not used today) were not schmaltzy. But the music — written by a man who wrote film scores during the 1930s and 1940s — was designed to stir the listeners’ emotions. So much of what we lament about CCM was foreshadowed 75 years ago.

One of the other songs they performed was “I need thee every hour,” written in 1872 by Baptist parishioner Annie Hawks and her pastor, Robert Lowry. Hawks was later quoted as saying:
I did not understand at first why this hymn had touched the great throbbing heart of humanity. It was not until long after, when the shadow fell over my way, the shadow of a great loss, that I understood some thing of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out to others in my hour of sweet serenity and peace.
The refrain seems to presage the egocentrism (if not narcissism) of praise music a century later:
I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Savior,
I come to Thee.
In trying to link this schmaltz to the problems of Contemporary Christian Music, I found this interesting factoid. Ten years ago this month, the Gospel Music Association instituted formal criteria as to what would count as gospel music. Even this definition has serious problems when applied to popular CCM. I’m particularly suspicious of the clause allowing lyrics reflecting a “testimony of relationship with God through Christ,” which would appear to cover lots of feelings.

Still, briefly using Google to identify popular CCM lyrics, the first two examples of Michael English seemed OK: “In Christ alone” and “Mary Did You Know?” But, more generally, CCM in the view of many leaders has veered away from its nominal Christian roots.

Obviously not all CCM was meant to be used for worship, and pastors have their choice of what to use and what to reject. However, the lines between CCM and praise music are blurring.

For me, the first warning sign is the use of the first person pronoun. Contrast Lowry’s hymn with Amazing Grace:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Even with the first person pronoun and the additional Harriet Beecher Stowe stanza, the emphasis is on God’s grace rather than our individual needs. This is even less of a problem for older hymns — such as Martin Luther’s classic of the Reformation.

Clearly praise music lyricists could make their text about God rather than human feelings. So why don’t they? Is the culture so corrupting that they don’t even try?

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