The theologian Karl Barth, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, was adamant that no knowledge of God was possible other than God’s triune self-revelation. Somewhere in his vast Church Dogmatics (I’ll have to remember where), Barth even criticizes the use of organ preludes in worship as potentially a false “point of contact” between God’s grace and the believer! Yet Barth listened to Mozart every day, found that music essential for his theologizing, and spoke glowingly of Mozart’s ability to understand and communicate divine mysteries. Barth’s own aesthetic sense contrasted with his epistemology.
The relationship of religion and art/music is a fascinating one. One would not want to judge a person’s spirituality based on their artistic and musical taste, but on the other hand a growth in taste and appreciation can accompany spiritual growth. I’ve been reading about this subject in an interesting book by Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).
Among several topics, I was interested in Brown’s reflections on new Christian music, or “Next Music.” He comments that the music is “club-style soft rock” which leaves out a broad range of “morally daring” music such as the Indigo Girls, Paul Simon’s Graceland, U2’s The Joshua Tree, “just to mention a smattering of widely accessible, equally white, and mostly middle-class alternatives” (p. 233). He also mentions composers whose religious music is quite profound but would likely never be heard in either megachurches or smaller suburban churches: Arvo Paert, John Tavener, John Adams, not to mention Olivier Messaien, James MacMillan, and others (p. 234).
Brown also discusses ideas of the church consultant and author William Easum. I appreciate Easum’s passion for evangelism and mission but his pronouncements can be imperious and (I worry) thus potentially misused by church leaders who fail to prayerfully adapt his ideas to the needs of their own congregations. (As another author puts it: Saul’s armor fit Saul, but it didn’t fit David, therefore church leaders need to understand the Spirit’s will concerning that congregations’ special circumstances and ministry needs: but that’s a topic for another blog entry).
Easum believes music that attracts the most vital (to church growth) generations is soft rock. Traditional church music and classical music are not for Easum culturally relevant to church growth. “Quality” music is the well-provided, synthesized music used by praise teams. Easum implies that if music in churches is good if it brings people closer to God, but in his view, older and traditional styles of music belong to aging and perhaps dying congregations (Brown, pp. 235-236).
I’m glad that Brown writes, “many readers will find that [Easum’s] assertions regarding church music are not only uncompromising but also discordant and at points uninformed and misleading“ (pp. 238-239). In criticizing the perceived (and perhaps actual) elitism of professional church musicians, he himself is musically elitist: “The music that wins his contest is bound to be the music of those churches that grow the fastest” (Brown, p. 240). Among other arguments, Brown points out things that Easum misses: the growing (although still small in sales figures) audience for classical music, including opera, and also the significant influence of classical music in film music (Brown, pp. 242-243). “[T]he range of ’culturally relevant’ music in general is altogether more diverse than many promoters of church vitality recognize” (Brown, p. 244).
Not to personalize, but as one who listens to Pärt, Tavener, and Messiaen plus Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and other older masters while I write church-school curriculum (to help church people grow spiritually), I hate to think I’m against church growth and evangelism just because I like a range of different styles of music. I’ve worshipped at churches wherein the music program is good but a balance of contemporary and traditional styles is missing, which is frustrating. I was once on staff at a church where, in fact, a balance of traditional, classical, and contemporary music made for an overall program that was a dynamic part of a growing congregation. If Brown’s book doesn’t make it into the hands of many church staffers, I do appreciate his thoughts.
Here are just a few more interesting ideas from Brown’s book. He writes (obviously) about musical taste in connection to religious faith and distinguishes “at least four concentric circles of [artistic] judgment, each broader in scope than the one before” (p. 193).
First, he notes that he dislikes Chopin’s Ballades because his brother practiced them during meal preparation, and now he associates those pieces with “cheap hamburger and other food odors” (p. 193). He knows that no one else would share his associations: it’s a purely personal judgment based on his own experiences, but which prevent him from making any judgment about the music’s suitability for a church (p. 193). (A lot of music can function in a deeply associative way!)
Second, music judgment can apply to a particular place and be most valuable there. For instance, a church choir may sing well enough to warrant their own CD, which in turn might sell well in that area. But that doesn’t mean other people beyond the community would find that music as lovely as those familiar with that choir (p. 193).
Third, certain music is aesthetically great but would not be appreciated by everyone or even by most people. Brown’s example is the religious music of Frank Martin (1890-1974).
Fourth, certain music are recognized as religious classics: works of Bach, or the singing of Marian Anderson, and many others. Brown even uses the example of Miles Davis’ trumpet on Kind of Blue (p. 194). You could add John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to the list.
“Church musicians are aware that music of their music must make it s mark within a particular community or tradition, or not at all. Yet within that tradition, a musician will want to distinguish between work that is good for very special purposes and for a limited time and other work that promises to be far more enduring and of more than local appeal. That judgment must be ratified, of course, by some significant portion of a church community. A church cannot reach any such judgments, however, without experiencing various possibilities for itself… Dialogue must be accompanied by musical encounters” (pp. 194-195).