Sunday, January 25, 2009

Beyond praise in Praise Music

Like an anthropologist studying Southeast Asian aborigines (or the workings of a large corporation), I'm occasionally leaving my ’28 Prayer Book parish for a rock band ACN parish. Each time, I think about what’s similar and different to Anglo-Catholic worship, for two reasons. First is to better understand this tenuous compromise that is ACN (now Common Cause, soon to be a new province). The second is to help identify what portions of Anglo-Catholic worship are essential to preserve, and to be able to better articulate those arguments both to the Evangelicals and the High Church Progressives.

Today (as with a few months ago) I want to focus on the theology of the hymnody — i.e. the concept of Christianity contained within the lyrics. So a Sanctus accompanied by a rhythm guitar (or even a drum set) may not be my cup of tea — or timeless Christianity — but that’s for another time.

This morning, the rock band (3 singers, 2 guitars, ukulele, bass, drum, keyboard) played the service music and six songs. Five of the songs were in the bulletin; I don’t have the lyrics to the sixth, but the one line I remember (“Praising my savior all the day long”) suggests it was Frances Crosby’s 19th century hymn Blessed Assurance, albeit with an updated tune and/or arrangement.

Several things jumped out at me. All of these songs were essentially about praising God. Representative is “Shout to the Lord,“ composed in 1993:
My Jesus, my Savior, Lord, there is none like You;
All of my days I want to praise the wonders of Your mighty love.
My comfort, my shelter, tower of refuge and strength;
Let ev'ry breath, all that I am, never cease to worship You.
Some of the songs had an element of faith — usually promises to continue to worshiping, adoring or loving (but not obeying) God.

The other thing that the songs were was highly egocentric and emotionalistic: in 5 of the 6 (including Crosby’s hymn), the word “I” or “my” appears in the very first line of the song, and repeatedly after that. The song is about how I (interestingly, not “we”) feel about God — seemingly an outgrowth of the personal savior theology of evangelical Protestants combined with the narcissism of the Baby Boomers, “me” generation and Millennials. This may be a good sales strategy for the contemporary culture, but is it Christianity?

So the hymns are about me and my feelings (more precisely, the songwriter’s feelings). What is remarkable from reading and listening to these praise songs is how little we learn about God. Yes, he’s a great God, a comforting God, sometimes a powerful God, but what is he beyond that? If the point of liturgy or sacred music is to instruct (NB: Handel’s Messiah) or reinforce belief, what good do these songs do?

For that matter, except for the occasional reference to “your Son,” it’s hard to recognize the God of praise songs as being a Christian God, let along a Trinitarian one. Again, this fits today’s American civil religion — or even a generic New Age deity — but is it God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost?

It goes without saying that if the faith is (as Lutherans argue) is a combination of both law and gospel, praise music is all gospel love and no obedience or submission to the law. Of course, it’s possible to include repentance in the emotional expression of the first person: Exhibit A is Amazing Grace, which also testifies to the specific sola gratia promise of our benevolent God.

The juxtaposition this morning was striking, when the sermon of repentance was followed by the Rite II confession of sin — surrounded by sin-free, confession-free, obedience-free praise songs. When I asked the rector about the contradiction, he conceded that it was a known weakness of CCM — and then said I should talk to the “Worship Leader” (band director) because he chose the hymns. I used to resent rectors/pastors who interfered with the music director’s hymn selection — but at least hymns come from within a doctrinally approved hymnal. Now, it’s clear to me that any rector who doesn’t set parameters for hymn lyrics (either by picking a hymnal or approving specific songs) is abdicating his responsibility for the religious instruction of his flock.

The other thing that was notably absent was the Bible, the inspiration for so many timeless hymns. Alongside Hymnal 1982, in the pews this morning was another hymnbook: Renew!: Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship from Hope Publishing; inside, hymns 98-135 were listed as “Biblical Songs.” But today’s praise songs could not be traced back to any particular event or passage of Holy Scripture.

As an aspiring musician, it seems like there’s an opportunity here. Start with an eternal Christian message from the Hebrew or Patristic scripture — or maybe one of the many great medieval hymns. Give it a modernized paraphrase comparable to the TEV or Living Bible. Then set it to a four chord progression, add base line and drums, and then typeset it using a standard music scoring package. VoilĂ ! We’d have hymns for all those Rite II ACN/Common Cause types who feel bad about dispensing sugary sentimentality no vitamins in their weekly praise music.


Vicar Josh Osbun said...

My uncle once told me that if the first-person personal pronoun is used more than seven times then the hymn is garbage. While this is a generalization and not universally true, it's a good place to start.

The worship of a congregation should never be decided by one person. The pastor and the director of parish music must work together. The pastor must trust his director and the director must submit to his pastor. Besides, all of the music must fit the overall structure of the service, coinciding with the Scripture readings, the sermon, and the Sacraments. But ultimately it is the pastor's responsibility to determine which music is used. If it's garbage, it's not the director's fault. It's the pastor's.

9.West said...

I had assumed the I/me emotionalism is a recent pathology of the hippy/boomer/millennial generations.

Your uncle makes it sound like a timeless problem, but then I guess Freud would say that an undue fascination with the ego is a basic human trait.

I guess, as with other theological questions, there’s no heresy like an old heresy.