Thursday, July 5, 2012

Spring Cleaning My Old Myspace:

Only This


Image from Xaxor

Secret and sweet solitary solace sought
Shut the windows, close the door
Steal away, say nothing
Let it wash over me, cleanse my soul
Make all my thoughts focus
On this one, this essential life giving knowledge...
Love is...
Piercing through every second
Woven in the thread of life
Flowing in the river of events
Permeating the air I breathe
There is no escape, no other existence
No alternate reality
Only this great, unthinkable love
This broad, blindly giving torrent of good
Overlooked, everyday

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

That Awkward Moment When...

You realize you went to a Keane concert, and stood for hours in the same 12 inch square spot, singing every song along with the other fans, and then you went to church the next morning and mumbled your way through the music, wishing for it to be over soon.

Of course to the casual observer, this looks like some sort of faith crisis, or at best a lukewarm response to God, alongside the reality of the thrill of a live secular concert.

I've examined my heart, and I'm not sure it's either.

As a Christian with a degree in theology and music, I've rooted my way through several decades of upheaval in the Christian church, the bulk of which involved the music scene.

Let me look back on a bit of music history and give my two cents on what I believe is the current vogue in contemporary 'Christian music', why it is often ineffective, and even sometimes reflects badly on the very entity it purports to enhance. 

For nearly six millenniums, sacred, or religious music has been written, performed and enjoyed in many venues, from private homes, and backyards to temples and synagogues. About fifteen centuries ago massive cathedrals and concert halls were built to amplify the sound, and create a sense of grandeur. According to historians, when the music of the church (in concert with the doctrine of the church) began to be inaccessible to the average parishioner, and often sung in Latin, Martin Luther introduced spiritual songs, which were scriptural lyrics set to popular melodies of the day (often 'bar tunes'). The music of the Reformation reflected the movement itself in restoring a personal and accessible Deity, as opposed to the politically rigged and powerfully corrupt tendencies the Church Universal had fallen into.

Four part harmonies, written in classical style of AB, or verse and chorus then became the predominant style in the Protestant church for nearly five centuries, with little variation, while the Roman Catholic church retained the masses in Latin, and other classical literature.

Congregations could be found in varying degrees of these two extremes, but popular music became a separate thread, and classical music, once composed only by commission for the church now slowly inched out of it altogether, becoming an entirely separate entity, categorized primarily by its form and sound.  

The common denominator in all church music was the accompaniment, which consisted of a single instrument, the piano, or organ or many instruments which doubled the melody and harmonies thereby enabling the singers to match pitch with the accompaniment. People sat while singing, and sometimes stood, as instructed by the music director. Written music was provided in most Protestant congregations, as reading music was encouraged, as was the private reading of the scripture, while often in the Roman Catholic church, neither the reading of music or the scriptures were encouraged for the man or woman in the pew.

When the syncopated, amplified music of the fifties and sixties blew onto the scene, it was immediately denounced by church leaders as worldly and ungodly, most likely by association. In truth a large percentage of the performers of secular music could not have been identified by any faith or piety whatsoever.  The term "Rock and Roll' itself has quite vulgar roots, and given the climate of the times, rebellion against all established authority was the theme of many a song, and the goal of most musicians.  Due to the often violent nature of the music, and the strident tone of its proponents, walls of convention were broken down which may never be rebuilt. If you were born after the sixties it can be quite impossible to imagine the magnitude of the reversal of society created by the burgeoning music culture and what has occurred  in its wake.

More traditional church denominations clung to the four-part hymns, inserting a casual-styled 'chorus' into less formal services. The daring embraced, if tentatively at first, the new contemporary sound. However, they insisted on a strict spiritually instructive lyric at first. It was the words which made a song sacred, they insisted, not the music. A division was made between those who believed that music itself of has an intrinsic 'morality' and those who didn't. There was also much discussion about the types of instruments used, as many believed adamantly that the guitar and particularly the drum was inherently evil. Inferences were made to certain primitive societies which used such instruments for purposes other than Divine. It took a while before both of these were allowed on the platform of any church. Drums were the last to be accepted.

Meanwhile the contemporary music scene was exploring new horizons and exploding in popularity, fast becoming the most lucrative entertainment business ever, trumped only by cinematic and Broadway blockbusters that increasingly used the new music to enhance the magic of storytelling on the stage and screen.

The church, now perceived as  a bit behind the times, rushed to catch up with the culture, placing worship bands onstage, marketing celebrity musicians, and selling God along with Rock and Roll (Christian rock and Roll, mind you). For the first time the word "Christian' became attached to inanimate objects. We now identified, 'Christian music', and 'Christian bands'.

The theory was that the church was losing young people, and the way to bring them in was by giving them their beloved music. One compelling argument for accepting contemporary music into the church, ironically,  was the story about the bar tunes that Martin Luther introduced during the time of the Reformation.

And so a huge counter-culture of contemporary Christian music has grown up, nearly smothering all other forms of church music. Hymnals have disappeared, pianos are moved offstage, replaced by the accoutrements of 'the band.' Reading real music is replaced by chord charts, because the guitar dominates as the instrument of choice.The melodies are often improvised versions of the original as the lead singer takes great liberties in embellishing the notes as he or she wishes.

Let me insert here, lest by my tone you think I disapprove, that I was the one who enjoyed every minute of the aforementioned Keane concert.

Why then, can I enjoy this, and be so utterly disengaged at church?

Several reasons come to mind:

Melody- We love melodies that are singable, and catchy. When songs are always chord driven, (composed by the strumming of a guitar) they run the risk of  being melodically dull. And often a myopic attention to lyric has extinguished the musicality of the song.

Instrumentation- The use of a guitar as the main accompanying instrument is counter-productive to sing-ability. In order for the average singer to follow along, the melody must be prominent. A piano, violin, or saxophone, for example, can do this easily.

Performance- A leader must lead. If the worship leader is undulating unpredictably around a pitch, his followers have difficulty finding their notes. It is discouraging to hear your own voice just a bit 'off'. It is surely unintentional  egotism to expect people to follow you if you are not clearly leading. In this case the leader is  only performing, and should not expect audience participation.

Auditory Learning- To someone who can read music, learning a new song by just listening can be quite frustrating. The lack of written music available to the congregation suppresses musical literacy.

Lyric- The composing of good lyrics is an art. Using tired old phrases over and over is just plain laziness. Why must we always numbingly rhyme lines such as  "hung on a tree' with 'set me free' and then repeat them sixteen times?
Some song lyrics are an insult to intelligence.

Peer Pressure- Standing, raising hands, and other bodily movements are subtly promoted by faith groups as being a sign of greater devotion. All this underlying 'prescribed movement' has become a distraction.My problem is that now I have to think about what I'm going to do, rather than respond in honesty to the ministry of music in my soul.

I am 53 years old. I was born the same year as Michael Jackson and Madonna. I have seen changes; some good, some not so good. Change is neutral; it is not an enemy. The danger is in either embracing change blindly for the pure thrill of it, or the opposite, opposing it vehemently without examining why.

As a musician I am enthralled by the immense spectrum of music that I have the opportunity to enjoy. The Creator gave us so many possibilities for musical expression. While the singing of thousands of Christians in one place is an overwhelmingly uplifting experience, (like CATWEST, or PROMISEKEEPERS, for example) I don't really believe that I must enjoy only music that was written by Christians for Christians any more than I must find food prepared by Christians for Christians to eat. That was another issue in another time, remember?

I 'did' church music for decades. I have dear friends who give boatloads of time and energy to leading  their congregations in worshipful music. Our paltry attempts to mimic the music of the Eternal God must at best make Him smile.

That awkward moment when you realize your attempts to chide your fellow believers must make Him smile, too.