Sunday, June 8, 2014

The sacred and the mundane

My family was recently visiting a (Catholic) medieval gothic cathedral in Europe, when it turned out it was time for the weekly organ concert. I stopped to listen, and was pleased to see (from the program afterwards) that the final two pieces were, in fact, by J.S. Bach. The organ was obviously the finest in town and for miles around.

Alas, less than 10% of the audience was under 40. That's probably true for most churches in Europe — and many I’ve seen in the U.S., too.

Still, it reminds me of a time — less than a generation ago — where church music was something unique. In the medium-sized church (ca. 200 ASA) in the medium-sized town (perhaps 80,000) where we worshipped, the best organist in town was at our church. I’d hazard to say that 4 of the 5 best organists in town were at our church. And the church where I grew up in a big city, the organist (and choir director) had one of the best music jobs in town.

We also had the best organ in town. It was nothing compared to the organ we visited (which apparently still has pipes from the 16th to 18th centuries), but it was obviously better than any organ that anyone had at home.

Today, children and young adults don’t listen to organ music or even classical music in general. Most churches play CCM because they believe that’s what people want, and it’s certainly plausible to conclude that few people are breaking down the door demanding organ music.

The problem is, the praise band is not set apart from the world — it is not only in the world, but (except for the J-word) it’s more or less of the world. Not only is the sound comparable to what you’d hear on the radio or in a bar, but (with one exception) the praise bands I’ve heard aren’t as good (even as the band in the corner dive bar.)

So instead of church music that is the awe-inspiring, sacred, set apart from the world — such as the Messiah or a great organ concert — what we have today is the profane of the ordinary life of the world (to use Durkheim’s formulation). And this profane (i.e. ordinary) music is rather mundane.

I’m not sure I have an answer here, but this seems like yet another reason why many of my most Anglican friends are — as the Episcopal and Anglican denominations teeter around them — skipping Catholicism and heading straight to the Orthodox faith. The liturgy is not my cup of tea, but (like the theology) has retained a millennial-old emphasis of being set apart, of being organized around the holy mysteries, rather than adapting and bending to the contemporary culture.