Not a Universal Language

You may wipe away tears of worshipful awe while hearing a mass choir sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” [Some] who’ve shared the famous chorus in other countries find that it’s not universally appreciated.

  • Senufo people in Ivory Coast said it sounded “like crying music.”
  • It reminded Maasai people in Kenya of noisy jet engines.
  • Tibetans said it was “not steady.” They wondered how a song with so many high and low pitches and loud and soft volumes could be considered fine art.

“Music is a universal phenomenon but not a universal language. In other words, our response to music is learned and not intrinsic,” says . . . Robin Harris, an ethnomusicologist who’s been a missionary in North America, Siberia, and Russia.

—Joan Huyser-Honig, “Ethnodoxology: Calling All Peoples to Worship in Their Heart Language”

Pleasing the Father

We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. To which an answer came, ‘mine are the cattle upon a thousand hills’, and ‘if I am hungry, I will not tell thee.’ If God (in that sense) wanted music, He would not tell us. For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.

—C.S. Lewis, “On Church Music,” Christian Reflections 98-99

Music: Good for the Body

The unity of the Body of Christ is not a bland, undifferentiated uniformity, but a rich and manifold concord. Music is uniquely equipped to provide an aural image of this kind of community, in which union is not unanimity, nor multiplicity a cacophony. With every resonant sonority, music testifies to the possibility of this sort of life.

Music provides a compelling sounding image of life together; but it is a shared life in which the distinctive voice of the individual is not negated by communion with the other. In music, we encounter identity which preserves particularity. As we sing together, different sounds—your voice, and mine—occupy the same time and the same space, without obstructing or negating one another.

—Stephen R. Guthrie, “Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46/4 (December 2003), 645, 643

Church Music not an End in Itself

“Church Music: A Functional Art”

–Don Hustad, title of Chapter 2 in his Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal.

“Art in the liturgical context is not an end in itself. It is instead a servant of our chief end, which is the praise and glory of God.”

–Dean Thompson, “Art in Service of Worship,” Reformed Liturgy and Music 21 (Winter 1987): 63

“If ‘music as art’ itself is the ultimate goal, then music can even become idolatry, in which the musical art form is worshipped for its own sake, not created and presented as an offering to God or a means of praising God.”

–Dean Thompson, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 135-6

Properly viewed, church music “runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

–C. S. Lewis, Letter to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 90

New text for “Suo-Gan” (Welsh carol)

Lo, a child, born of Mary,
Rests this night in Bethlehem.
Bowing here before his count’nance
Magi, shepherds, ox and lamb.
Come, o wand’rers, come, o restless,
Here your riven soul shall mend!
Fixed between the constellations,
Heav’n’s own light shall guide you there.

Nothing for your journey taking,
Bread and money leave behind.
He who calls you shall sustain you:
All your needs his pow’r shall meet.
Rise you now, o risen Christian.
Tarry not, O hasten there!
By the Christ child’s lowly manger,
Kneel and laud the newborn King!

Make your way in bless’d communion
With your neighbor and your kin.
These, His people, these, His body:
God’s own saints will go with you!
Through the tempest, through the desert,
Hand in hand your way shall be.
Go in vict’ry! Go, rejoicing!
Let your song outlast the night!

–Christian Man (my son!), 2013

The Place of Song in Worhip

How shall I sing that majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust, in dust and silence lie:
sing, sing , ye heavenly choir.

Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?

They sing because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluyas be.

I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fore and light;
Yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Than shall I sing and bear a part
With the celestial choir.

–John Mason (17th-century hymnwriter)

Theology and Worship

Good church musicians constantly ask whether the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” of the church’s worship are sung “so that the Word of God may dwell in us richly” (the forgotten purpose clause of Col. 3:16). Good liturgical musicians worry about the link between theology and worship:  whether worship in their church depicts God as only indifferent and far removed; whether it gives the impression that prayer is simply an act of cognition, or conversely, an act of pure emotion; whether worship in their congregation makes it clear that the Bible is central to the life and faith of the church. The good ones, as I describe more fully elsewhere, know that worship expresses the deepest theological convictions of the community and that it reveals as much about the belief of the community as do catechisms and confessions.

–John D. Witvliet,  “Training Church Musicians as Pastoral Liturgists,” Musicians for the Churches: Reflections on Vocation and Formation (2001, Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, New Haven CT), p.18.