Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I apologize for the lack of posts in recent weeks. The recent election was rather totalizing!

But we "trust not in rulers; they are but mortal. Earth-born they are and soon decay." (LSB 797:2) We need to be reminded to that no matter who governs us. And as our leaders prepare to increase taxes and regulations on us, let us also sing "and take they our life, Good, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our victory has been won; The Kingdom our remaineth." (LSB 656:4) God is indeed our fortress; we shall never be shaken!

So, turning back to things eternal, I thought we all could use something a little lighter, and so I point you over to my latest post over at the Johnny Steadfast website. It shares a fun little video Stephen sent me that I'm sure will brighten up your day.

Here's part of a follow-up comment I posted over there. I'm quoting it here to pique your interest and perhaps stimulate some more serious discussion regarding the art of church music:

"For late 70's, it was fairly cutting-edge New Wave. And I do give them credit for being tight. (musician slang for being in sync rhythmically and not hitting any wrong notes) And one has to admit that there is a certain catchiness to the whole thing.

But now I think this illustrates an even stronger point: even if the Church can succeed in being "hip" for a moment, the world will move "hip" immediately somewhere else. And so looking back such efforts will always seem comical, at best. (I have had similar riots singing some of the religious pop sheet music in a Sinatra style by well-intentioned Anglicans in the 50's, and have had a real fun time singing some religious pop from the 1920s.) So I think people will look back at LCMS "praise teams" in 30 years and get similar chuckles. It's just the way of our "fast changing world", to quote Dr. Barry.

The core problem with ALL of this is that the music is driven by a desired sound. It may be the beat of the Charleston, the lush chords of the jazz era, or the punky grooves of New Age. So the text is then contrived to "fit" into the prescribed sound, and deemed OK as long as the sentiments are judged to be religious and sincere. Music is valued for its psychological effects, not for its ability to magnify the Word.

A good text may actually find its musical form in a peppy beat ("Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia"), pick up some jazzy chords ("How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord"), or even be hip for a moment ("Gabriel's Message" as sung by Sting, for example). But such music succeeds over time in the Church - and is valued as good art even by secular musicians - because it is driven by the words, not by the beat or the harmony.

Jesus is indeed our Friend. The great Good News is that He calls us friends, even though we are unworthy servants. But without the primacy of the lyric element, music cannot proclaim that message. At best it might be able to carry it along in an obscured way; at worst it is simply a diversion."


Orianna Laun said...

Thanks for making "Jesus is a friend of mine (Jesus is my friend)" echo incessantly in my head. . .
A teacher I had once talked about why classic liturature had staying power and was considered classic. I don't remember the exact wording used, but the main concept was that it had staying power from generation to generation.
Same holds for liturgy and hymnody.

Phillip Magness said...

It is kind of catchy, isn't it?!!!

But as for "staying power", I think the problem with music like "Jesus Is a Friend of Mine" (aside from the poor theology, of course) is that it is immediately absorbed. So whatever pleasure there is to be had in this song is had instantly. And then comes the hangover! This is the challenge pop music runs up against: whatever is most soon loved is also most readily loathed.

On a more serious note, this same principle is why pop-influenced liturgical music succeeds more often as psalm antiphons and Offertories than as hymns or canticles. The refrain to the Psalm of the Day needs to be quickly picked up by a congregation, and so needs more 'immediacy". But because they aren't sung each week, they don't become tiring when written in a more accessible style. The regular Canticles of the liturgies (Gloria in the DS or Benedicuts in MP, for example) on the other hand are intended to be sung week after week and so need more sophistication.

Thanks for the comment!