Music and the Church II: On Regulation and the Unfamiliar
My first guest post was principally intended as an exposition of music’s role in spirituality and my own feelings about its potential to affect all of us. Now my aim is to explore some more specific issues regarding the Church’s complicated relationship with the art form.
First, let us note that music has always been an important component of worship in western religion and that church leaders have long viewed it with mistrust. One historical example: In the Counterreformation, as the Catholic Church struggled against the burgeoning Protestant movement, the Council of Trent convened to discuss changes that would bring back conservatives that had left because of the Church’s perceived decadence. Among the topics they discussed was whether liturgical music had become too ornate and complex and obscured sacred texts in their services. They worried congregations were beginning to focus their worship on the music itself rather than the message of the mass’s words. An oft-related legend (now considered spurious) is that Cardinal Borromeo, upon hearing the composer Palastrina’s new Pope Marcellus Mass, was so struck with its simplicity and purity of expression that he influenced the Council to pull back from its initially stringent regulations on church music.
Our own church’s conflicted attitude toward music is remarkably similar. As I noted in my first post, virtuosity and overly-complex musical performances are (at least tacitly) shunned for fear of distracting the membership from the Spirit. Also, popular idioms (unless somehow connected to EFY) are banned because they are (we must infer) somehow poorer in their capability to inspire devout emotion. (The music historian in me cannot help noting that the Council of Trent was also concerned with this issue. Composers of the day liked to use popular melodies as thematic material in their sacred and liturgical compositions [sometimes easily audible in the music, sometimes not]. Church leaders found that inappropriate and its practice was indeed suppressed.)
Before we all launch into a debate of whether music regulation is needful or regrettable, we ought to discuss the Church’s long efforts to establish worldwide correlation in the hopes of doing away with that most troubling, amorphous enemy: the Unfamiliar.
I have often heard Church leaders and lay members note with pride that they could enter a meetinghouse anywhere in the world and experience exactly the same worship service. It is no doubt comforting for long-time members to know that they (unlike visitors, investigators, and converts, especially those from other cultural traditions) would never be confronted with unfamiliar ideas, rituals, or music. But what about those who find our services unfamiliar? The attitude is get used to it or get out. Becoming converted is the idea.
Investigators undergo conversion when confronted with something new, come to terms with it (think search, ponder, and pray), become comfortable, and eventually become a changed individual.
Conversion isn’t just for non-members, however. We are all commanded to become converted. But is this possible in a correlated meeting style? Or, is it impossible without correlation?
As I noted above, the Church tacitly endorses one musical style as the most spiritually effective (hymns and reverent songs). All other styles (they’re unfamiliar!) distract from the Spirit. But I wonder if our musical practices don’t actually lull us into spiritual stupor. We sing the same 50 or so hymns week in and week out, usually without thinking about the text or trying to feel anything new. We could go to church in Brazil and have the exact same spiritually-numb experience.
I wish we were confronted with unfamiliar music more frequently. And rather than viewing it as “inappropriate” I wish we would become like an investigator and think about it before making an offhanded judgment.
In your comments from the previous post, it is obvious many of you agree that our musical experience should be more varied. I’d like you to discuss something different this time: What kind of music is inappropriate for Sunday worship services? What would you ban and why? Is there spiritual music and non? How do we differentiate? Or, what elements of church experience need to be correlated, and which do not?