Music and Christian Worship

Six Thoughts on Church Music

(This is from a handout I used in one of my Bible Studies)

  1. Remember that the center of gravity in Lutheran Worship is twofold: the Word as it is heard and preached -- and the Sacraments, the ways in which our physical nature is touched by the Divine. God through the working of the Holy Spirit, brings us to and preserves us in His gifts of Faith and Forgiveness (Rom 10:14-16.) Conversely, nowhere in Scripture do we find the Holy Spirit working through Music (that is to say, audible pitches and the vibration of molecules). This informs the points that follow.
  2. The service and the lectionary act like a Microsoft Word "mail merge," where Scripture is fed into the framework of the Divine Service over the course of a year. The church year itself acts as a miniature replica of the story of our salvation, beginning in Christ's birth, punctuated by Easter and the Ascension, and finally ending in Judgement Day--framed by periods where wait (Advent and Trinity). As such, it's entirely Scriptural.
  3. To reinforce the activities of #2, hymns and sermon topics change to reflect the centrality and importance of the Scripture readings (the Lectionary.) The importance of God's Word is essential, as the Word is Preached through the work of the Pastor and reinforced through the texts of the Hymns. To the greatest degree possible, the texts of the ordinaries (ex. Invocation, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Offertory, etc.) are direct quotes or paraphrases from Scripture. The result is a cohesive exposition of the Scripture.
  4. As such, the role of Music is to support and amplify (where possible) the text--but never to supplant it. This subservient role is seen and heard in the simplicity of plainsong, the careful and restrained meter of the Chorale, the simple but tasteful harmonization of our hymns. The Music is always in service to the sung text, which itself points (unapologetically) to the activity in #2.
  5. The teaching of the Word is important enough that even instrumental Music, when used, should reflect the ideas in #2 -- Chorale Preludes are a great example of this, where a musical theme (example: a melody from the hymn of the day used as the basis of a prelude) is referenced and musically developed. In the same way Scripture is self-validating and self-referential, the Music of Orthodox Lutherans (ex. J. S. Bach) is also self-referential.
  6. Finally, the settings and devices used to express these musical relationships must be of the proper character, reflecting the Christian's unique world-view.

Addendum: What is Proper Character?

"Proper Character" is delightfully prescriptive yet vague. Here's where things get exciting, because most of the “Music is neutral” people draw heavily from Marxist/Postmodern theories to deconstruct or abolish the notion of any absolute value.

Music and the arts are particularly susceptible to this corrosive perspective, because it's difficult for the even the musically trained to analyze and evaluate the myriad of styles, gestures, and musical vocabulary we encounter every day. Here are some considerations:

  • As believers, we believe that history as revealed in Scripture and in time is teleological--there's a beginning and an end, and a God-guided direction in which history and the events therein, happen. The world begins in Genesis, and ends in Revelation, and in between God works his divine plan through history. The structure of our church year (and at a weekly level, the structure of the Divine Service itself) reflects this.
  • As such, Music can also be teleological--at a small level (the proper introduction and resolution of dissonances), a mid-level (antecedent/consequent phrases), and at a structural level (sonata/allegro forms, cyclic/rondo structures, etc).
  • Moreover, Music can be motivic and unified – consider how a chorale prelude can be built from the cantus firumus, or how a fugue is an organic extension of a motivic idea. This need for unity, and formal structure reflects the Christian ethos, our Weltanschauung.

The logical result of this way of thinking inevitably results in traditional "Art Music," or "Classical Music." It's no accident that one of the greatest musicians in history (J. S. Bach) was a Lutheran. It is no accident that his Music shows an uncanny level of telos and motivic unity--such a constructive technique was inevitable, considering his Theological leanings.

Postmodernists et al. reject, at a macro level, telos or intentionality of history. They are also hostile to the notion that the primary function of music is structural, or expressive of musical narrative. The ancient notion that Music can transcend time, space, and culture, seems ridiculously passe. Music, according to the Postmodernists and Marxists, is a cultural artifact that is useful or interesting only to the extent that it reflects various cultural/class struggles.

You hear echoes of this school--even in our own congregations--when people cry "Music is Neutral" or "Everything is relative." These same argumentative techniques are gleefully used to challenge the authority of Scripture, and should be viewed with great suspicion.