Monday, March 14, 2011

Check it out

For those out there interested in the direction church music is taking, Les Freres Bayly have put up a link to an EP that their worship band has put together. More or less, it is traditional lyrics set to modern instrumentation and with some of the musical cues used by modern pop musicians.

In doing this, they are overcoming one of the chief objections that I have to most modern music; lyrically, most CCM hardly ranks as any kind of equivalent to mediocre hymns, so a good starting point for including modern music in worship--especially in our literature-starved day--is to "recycle" the great works of the past.  This EP succeeds there.  As the Baylys noted in another post, there is a lot to be said for proceeding from the heights our fathers reached.

Musically, there are high points and low points.  Being a naturally pensive person, I particularly like track 5, "Jesus with thy Church."  It's a bit slower, meditative, sometimes even melancholy.  Overall, there is a much greater range of musical style than is typical in church services; it speaks to a level of musicality that can be attained in a church with a number of members employed by and studying at Indiana University's College of Music.

Perfect rendition?  Of course not.  That said, it's worth noting that Isaac Watts wrote something like 700 hymns, maybe 1% of which are reproduced in modern hymnals.  Similarly, the Wesley brothers wrote 7000 or so hymns, and even Methodists only keep about 10-20 hymns by Charles and John Wesley today.  So there were a lot of eminently forgettable things done 300 years ago, so we need to be patient here.

So what can we do in our own churches? My first thought is that we can do little better than to remember that music is part of the Quadrivium, and start learning our Bach, Wesley, Tehillim, along with learning a bit about poetry while picking up an instrument.

Even if it's the accordion.  Don't forget for a minute that the goal of good music is to communicate, and we can only learn by trying, even if we fail.


MainiacJoe said...

I'm glad to hear this. My Mom is hung up on the quality of the old hymns etc. but that part of it isn't that important to me. The biggest difficulty that I have with church music is not the lyrics or music of the songs, but the singing of them. I am not in general emotional and when I see people getting emotional around me while singing worship songs, I feel ashamed that I "don't love God as much." It's stupid, but it is very difficult to get away from--and when I do overcome it, then I face the struggle of not being able to sing many of the lyrics that are so idealistic without lying about myself. The idea that singing equals worship and worship equals singing kind of leaves me left out. While I do on occasion worship in song, more often it's a distraction for me when singing corporately. Having to do this every Sunday is a way for me to be reminded every Sunday that I'm different from the typical evangelical. I'm an Ugly Duckling, and not enjoying corporate worship singing is one of the ways I'm a bad duck.

Bike Bubba said...

We should get you a job in MN, as we're about as emotional as dirt here. (how else could we cope with the ViQueens?) :^)

OK, seriously, I'm guessing a lot of the emotional types are just trying to fit in (didn't Mr. Andersen have something nice to say about ugly ducklings?), and may be jealous of you.

You might also have the all-too-rare ability to--perhaps without totally realizing it--recognize lame music, or fail to "respond appropriately" as someone is actually manipulating you.

This is a good thing; it means the brain is working, and true worship--prostrating one's self before God--has got to involve that grey stuff.

Hope this is a little encouragement--I've also thought, and written, quite a bit about this in the past year. Perhaps it might be an encouragement to you as well.

MainiacJoe said...

I read the Ugly Duckling story in its original at a point when I was struggling a great deal with not fitting in to the evangelical stereotype, and it was one of the most palpable times when I have felt that God loved me just the way I am. That story and/or the emotions that went with that reading of it, keep me going sometimes when little else can.

I suppose I agree that the emotional types are in some cases trying to fit in with the stereotype expectation. This isn’t universal, of course—some people are genuinely that “in love” with God still. I’m more typical, I suppose, in that my “in love” phase didn’t persist with God any longer than it did in my marriage, and then turned into something else (I’d hesitate to say deeper, at the risk of looking down the ones whose “in love with God” phase persists). However, the thing that I need to focus on it that I am trying to fit in instead of being genuine in my heart, instead of wondering whether others are doing this.

When it comes to music that I can’t sing honestly (let’s use “This is the Air I Breathe” as an example) I think the issue is more us using music to manipulate ourselves than the songwriter trying to manipulate us. I’m sure there are people out there who could sing that song and mean it. Myself, I cannot call it worshipping God when I willfully misrepresent myself to him. That is stupid on so many levels. So when we sing songs like that, are we trying to give ourselves a pep talk? Are we trying to impress people around us? Are we trying to impress ourselves? I don’t know, but I doubt much worship is going on.

So the big question is, when a congregation is bringing all this baggage of various kinds, is it possible to worship at all, or are we just singing?

Bike Bubba said...

Joe, if you don't get into "This is the air I breathe", you're doing good. (warning; I get a bit judgmental here....) :^)

What it is is a basic love song--cue that nasal saxophone with which Kenny G. afflicts the world--with God substituted for the girl. It's the church equivalent of Weird Al's "This Song is just six words long"--but without the sense of irony. Doggerel meets the synthesizer band.....what Gene Veith (Cranach blog, I link it) would characterize as the deadly literary sin of sentimentalism.

Yes, there are many today whose literary consciences have been hardened by lame modern literature, but you should not be ashamed to lack this disability.

MainiacJoe said...

I disagree. I don't think the lyrics of that song are intrinsically bad. The Bible is supposed to be our daily bread, and his presence is supposed to be what sustains us. I just cannot myself sing it without lying about myself, because I do not read my Bible every day nor is my life characterized by continual prayer. Simple? Yes. But the Songs of Ascent are, too. So my problem with the song is my honesty instead of my sophistication.

Bike Bubba said...

Will be praying for you as you navigate this, then--suffice it to say that I struggle with prayer as well. So if you'd pray for me in that....

...and regarding the song, certainly it speaks some spiritual truths, as you say, and is even longer than Psalms 117 and 134.

That said, there are unmistakeable signs that underneath, it's a basic love song. Six lines repeated over six minutes? Copious use of I and you, with little/no other topics introduced? Breathy singing with oh so mellow music behind it? Heavy, heavy sentimentalism.

See what I'm getting at? Thankfully, I was wrong with the Kenny G crack, but whether you're sophisticated or not, attaching those truths to the love song genre is going to confuse people, especially men.

MainiacJoe said...

No, I'm afraid I don't see what you're getting at. Maybe I'm just focusing on what's going on in my heart instead of what's going on in my pharynx. I just feel like my worship is fake, and I don't particularly know why. I don't think, though, that it's what I'm singing that's the problem, it's probably something a little closer to home.

Bike Bubba said...

Don't worry, I got what you were saying; that's why I'm praying for you (let me know how you're doing if you like--it helps ME with my prayer deficit too).

I just think that a #2 or #3 on the Pareto might be (for some if not you) an over-sentimentalization of faith. I can't guarantee it will help, but for me, upgrading my music does get reflected in the quality of my quiet times.