Friday, May 21, 2010

Should we use secular music in church?

As I see it, those who favour using contemporary secular music in church present their material in such a way that it looks like they are following what was done in the past, whereas those against it also slant their material to make it seem like it wasn't done previously.

As I understand it, Luther used only one secular song [which is the folk tune used in VOM HIMMEL HOCH]. In all that I've read, this one tune is the only one that Luther used which was being sung in a secular context, and when he discovered this, a new tune was substituted.

It seems to me that the popular myth that Luther used the bar tunes of his day is based on the misunderstanding that a bar tune is a tune sung in a bar, but actually it is a tune with an AAB structure, which is known as bar form, of which Luther, we are told [haven't checked], used many.

Those who want to say that Luther and the Wesleys used secular tunes don't usually cite any evidence, but simply make the assertion.

Having said this, I'm not against using pre-existing secular music in every case, but do see a problem with using a song which is currently played in a strip joint in church next week.

We sing hymns to folk tunes which Vaughan Williams set, we sing a Christmas song to Greensleeves [a song about a prostitute] and to The Tune from County Derry [which is popularly called The Londonderry Air or Danny Boy]. I don't think this is a problem if the tune doesn't make people think of prostitutes or give them maudlin thoughts of Ireland [in a song by a non-Irishman who never even visited Ireland!]

One Sunday many years ago when I was playing the organ in a church in Brisbane [in fact, the first Church of Christ in Australia], I played The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the conclusion of the service.

A little boy came out to the organ and sang in a loud voice
Little Peter Rabbit Had A Fly Upon His Nose
Little Peter Rabbit had a fly upon his nose
Little Peter Rabbit had a fly upon his nose
And he flipped it and he flopped it
And it flew right away
to my great embarrassment!

Another instructive experience, also in Queensland Churches of Christ, was in the opening convocation service for our college, held unusually in a large Presbyterian Church in Anne St, because there wasn't a Church of Christ big enough.

We weren't used to pipe organs in church, as we tended to have small electronic ones or pianos. As the organist played, I had warm spiritual feelings [whatever they are] as I listened to him play great classical organ music in his pre-service voluntaries.

A little boy from the country squealed "Oo! Sounds like a horror movie!"

Which shows that one man's Bach is another man's Boris Karloff!

David McKay

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Traditional or Contemporary Music?

In a discussion on the Yahoo Groups Theology List, a couple of people have argued that it is only acceptable to use Traditional Music and Traditional Instruments in church.

I don't think that this argument is sustainable. I don't think it allows for the diversity in cultures in the church today. I understand that there are now more Christians in China than in any other country. After that comes Africa.

Does God expect them to sing old-fashioned British and American hymns only?

There are many kinds of music that I enjoy and some which I don't enjoy. But I can't say that the music which I enjoy is godly but the music which I don't enjoy is ungodly.

And I think it is also dangerous to say that the music which makes me feel spiritual [whatever that is] is acceptable to God and the music which leaves me cold is unacceptable.

I am a Bach lover and have recordings of all his extant works [not to mention other music that has been attributed to Bach]. Bach's music makes me feel religious, especially the vocal music, but it leaves others cold. Also, the music of his secular cantatas is often very similar to the music in his sacred cantatas. Cantatas about hunting or drinking coffee include music that is similar to, or even the same as music that is in a cantata in praise of the Holy Trinity.

I think music has associations which we have made and so may make us feel happy or excited or sexy, but I'm not sure it is the music itself which does this. My wife just remarked that music might make her feel sexy if she was close to me, but we aren't sure it is inherent in the sounds! [Nice when your wife whom you have been married to for 36 years says that!]

Some of what people say about music borders on racism, I think.

For many of us, it would be extremely difficult to praise God in the ancient music of Israel or in the music of other cultures.

I think it is legitimate to say that music which makes us focus on the sounds and forget the message can be inappropriate. Unfortunately, for many people this would include a lot of the supposedly kosher spiritual music, because it makes many people focus on the sounds, on their emotions and not truly on our God and Saviour.

For many people Handel's Messiah is a lovely concert and doesn't make them feel remotely like worshipping the God whom it tells us about. But when I am at a performance of this wonderful work which has been performed every year since its creation over 250 years ago, I stand up in the Hallelujah Chorus, not because an English king decided to stretch his legs while it was being sung: I'm standing up for the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" the magnificent anthem is written about.

Loud music which drowns out the message must be inappropriate, but this is not at all to say that we can't enjoying shouting to the Lord in joyful song.

I'm interested to know what is meant by Contemporary Christian Music. Would you include the wonderful songs of Stuart Townend? His music is actually "wordly", because it is based on Celtic folk music to some degree, but I don't believe that rules it out from being used in praise of God, because the words are terrific.

David McKay
Theologically trained music teacher.