Musical Stasis

Buddha In My Liturgy? It's More Likely Than You Think!

The Christian Story

We've spoken about different styles of musical composition that constitute a type of musical narrative. The way in which Music progresses (or doesn't) communicates meaning independent of whatever text with which it may be associated. It is cynical and misleading to draw meaningful conclusions from limited data, and a person who hears an F Major triad in a Wagner Symphony and believes that's a meaningful point of comparison to an F Major triad in a Grateful Dead song ("Hey, it's the same chord!") is probably misguided. The real story lies in the deeper connections that are (or aren't) made as a song progresses.

For our discussion, the most meaningful dimensions of Music are the ones that resonate with our worldview. The Christian way of understanding life--in the most sweeping sense--is vastly different than the secular, for we understand the universe as a created entity that has a beginning, and an end. The time between these two events is guided by God's will, and illustrated from Genesis to Revelation.

The Christian submits to God's will, admits to His working in history, and rests secure in the comfort provided by God's Word. The importance of this is present in all manner of Christian artwork--from the visual arts, to architecture, to the Liturgy, and to the Church calendar itself. In Music this is heard as a narrative style--a progression that humbly and somberly mimics God's grand narrative.

The story being told in the micro-narrative of a Bach Prelude and Fugue reflects, at a deep level, the macro-narrative of creation. As such, it may be considered "Christian Music" -- though there are no lyrics!

...And The Rest of It

It is no secret that Commercial Worship Music draws from a variety of traditions, among which are certain perspectives that should give the Christian some pause--namely the rejection of the macro-narrative, and a focus on the "here and now," an Eastern approach that coincidentally dovetails quite nicely with the American "live for the moment" perspective so prominent in youth culture.

Eastern religions have provided significant influence in American Popular Music -- in fact there's an entire subgenre dedicated to the incorporation of these philosophies ( Many famous Rock musicians eagerly embrace(d) non-Christian religions. Music can induce a "trance state" -- an altered form of consciousness that may be brought about by repetitive, mind-deadening sounds (see here for much more, which definitely has its roots outside Christianity. The list goes on.

What I'm saying is that the "stories" being told by such Music are incompatible with the central tenets of Christianity. The message being carried is not the Christian view of God's plan of salvation operating through time and history, but an inward-facing emphasis on momentary consciousness.

The diagram above illustrates the nondirectional, "in the moment" sense such Music provides. There's no beginning-middle-end, or a progression from one idea to the next, but a static, endless cycling. The emphasis is not on a transformation of ideas through time (as in J. S. Bach) but rather a static, circumscribed oscillation.

Certain non-Christian "spiritual disciplines" seek to induce a meditative state through mantras (short, repetitive phrases or ideas-- see, or concentrating on a single, tiny object. Somewhere, someone's probably already written a compelling paper comparing the "raised arms and teary eyes" of a megachurch event to hysterical or trancelike states in other religions--if they haven't, it would probably be compelling!


It's not hard to find examples of this philosophy in modern hymnody. Below is an example (I've changed some things slightly, to avoid insulting any still-living composers) taken from the hymnal of a mainline, semi-conserative Protestant denomination:

Some points to consider:

  • The melodic line is simplistic, entirely stepwise, and nondirectional.
  • The melodic contour is limited, circumscribed within the interval of a perfect fifth.
  • The ascending segment in the first half is mirrored by the descending segment in the second.
  • The I-vi-IV-V-I progression is about as minimalist as one can get--no modulations or suggestions of tension.
  • The repeat signs reflect a "mosaic aesthetic," the idea that compositions aren't "developed," but rather "copied and pasted" together.

In terms of the piece's form or structure, we find an "additive" approach (even the accompaniment is a "cut and paste" job in Finale). We've discussed "mosaic" idea previously and how it differs from our traditional "fractal" approach (see here The form of this hymn is built along those lines:

Remember that the "mosaic aesthetic" simply juxtaposes sections of the song together, adding segments untilt the piece is "done." This is heard quite frequently in popular Music ("Verse, Verse, Chorus, Solo, Verse, Chorus, Repeat and Fade") and represents a rejection of what it used to mean to "make Music."

This Explains A Lot

It is no secret that many of the past and current adherents of Rock and Roll were/are heavily influenced by Eastern religions. Though most of the invective levelled at it in the past has concentrated on sexuality or drug use, there needs to be an honest appraisal of its spiritual dimension.

When Commercial Worship Music began to take hold, many traditionalists complained at its repetitive, simplistic nature. Their strenuous objections were based, I believe, on a deep sense that the overriding worldview espoused by such Music was at odds with their own--and they were correct.