Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Brief Theory of Modern Church Music

The most common criticism levied at traditional church music is that it is entirely disconnected from the realities of modern life. It is too careful, too remote, too complicated and passionless to ignite the spiritual desires of modern man. It establishes a dualism between life in and out of the church building. What the church needs instead is simple, accessible, welcoming music that does not break with the day-to-day rhythms of the congregation. The continuity of sound will, at its best, inspire continuity of practice inside and outside of the church service.

There is some credibility to this argument. The language and harmonies of Psalms and hymns now sound archaic, and popular taste seems to make the window of what is contemporary smaller every year. Very well then. Historically the rhythms of American popular music have been those of everyday life: on horses, next to the train tracks, at work in the factory. Let us write church music in a style that mimics and then transcends the lives of church patrons.

Unfortunately, art imitates the monotonous suburban life in which everything is clean but nothing is elegant, where there is no terror and no beauty. What we are left with is music with none of the unbearable grandeur of God enthroned, and none of the bloody indignity of God on the cross. One of my favorite films is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack is probably more popular than the film itself. The soundtrack is filled with traditional American songs of praise and worship, songs that retain their truth and power far outside their time and place of writing, rugged and dirty tunes that captured the intersection of the present and the eternal. This is what contemporary church music writers ought to strive for.

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