Because I am a worship pastor, and I work with musical ensembles, praise teams, choirs, and such; I am often asked this question: “What is your feeling on contemporary versus traditional music?” This is the wrong question to ask, because it is a fanciful way of saying—well, nothing. What is contemporary and what is traditional? In a way, these are relative terms. When someone says “Do you prefer traditional or contemporary music in worship,” the only correct response should be, “Contemporary or traditional compared to what?” The truth is, what is contemporary today will be traditional tomorrow. When using the word contemporary however, one can legitimately mean contemporary to our lifetime, the last 10 years, the last 20 years, the last 5 minutes, the last 100 years—or any length of time that puts that date and the person within a relationship to one another. Traditional on the other hand just means that it is not of today. The problem is that the term traditional faces the question—which tradition?
If you look back into music history, specifically around the 17th Century, you will see the development of the Sonata. The Sonata for our purposes here, was a dance-inspired instrumental work. In the Baroque era, there were several dance types that were incorporated into nearly every musical idiom. These dance styles included the partita, suite, ordre, ouverture and the air. The way it worked, was in a multi-movement piece like a Sonata, these dance elements were composed as the various movements; meaning, that you had different tempos and time signatures dictated by the dance. These were ubiquitously understood to be present in the Sonata. The important note to take away is this: Secular Sonatas were called Sonata da Camera while Sacred Sonatas were titled Sonata da chiesa. Here is the rub: In the secular Sonata, the dance forms were unashamedly written into the score with the relevant names for each movement. In the sacred Sonata, the same forms were used, but were given DIFFERENT titles. Instead of using the names of the dances, the different movements were given names like, Adagio, Fuga, Siciiliana, or Presto.
My point: Secular music was informing sacred music. This was being done knowingly by composers and church musicians (who were most of the time the composers as well) used this idiom liberally. A great example is Bach’s first three violin sonatas. They were written exclusively in the da chiesa (sacred) form—yet they sound like—(gasp)—dances!
What is my point? My point is—this traditional church music was clearly influenced by the secular. Is the fact that something is traditional or not—a barometer of something’s worth in worship? I say emphatically, “No.”
What about the person who says, “Traditional music to me is the ‘good ‘ole hymns’ and anything other than that is rubbish?” Well, this is a relative statement, and is indicating that person’s view of traditional and good, more than it tells me about their view on music in worship! Nevertheless, let us look at a few hymns. Let us take one of the most prolific writers of hymns, Fanny Crosby. Francis (Fanny) Crosby was one of the most prolific hymn writers ever, having penned the lyrics to something like 9,000 hymns, including many that are still favorites today including “Blessed Assurance,” “Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Savior,” and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” One biography of Fanny Crosby adds this tidbit:
“By the early 1870s, she was well on her way to becoming the queen of hymn writers. Fanny often matched her poems to familiar tunes. An example is “We Thank Thee, Our Father,” written to the melody of the famous “Adeste Fidelis.” She set poems to Scottish and Welsh airs and used tunes by Stephen Foster.”
Another prominent hymn writer, William Booth used parodies, too. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, an extremely evangelical organization that did much to help the poor and the drunks in the streets, used the music of popular tunes for hymns (see Tin Pan Alley). In the biography, William and Catherine Booth: Founders of the Salvation Army, by Helen K. Hosier, it states the following:
“Satan would have to be battled within his own strongholds, and any means was justifiable, William decided, if it would attract sinners to listen to the message of salvation … Thus it was that as the work grew, the music and street parades attracted increasing crowds of people who scorned the regular churches. ‘Why should the devil have all the best tunes?’ William replied when chided for appropriating music of popular tunes for his hymns … ” The book goes on to say, “The saying that ‘the devil has no right to all the good tunes’ has been attributed to both William Booth and Charles Spurgeon. But it was George Scott Railton, who was to become William’s lieutenant general in 1873 and was well-known as an author and songwriter, who concluded an article ‘About Singing’ (1874) with this impassioned plea: ‘Oh, let us rescue this precious instrument from the clutches of the devil, and make it, as it may be made, a bright and lively power for good!'” The people in the Salvation Army weren’t the first to use secular music for sacred purposes, though. Note the following: “[The absence of contrast between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ styles of music in the Middle Ages] ‘can be shown simply by the observation that a secular song, if given a set of sacred words, could serve as sacred music, and vice versa. Only recently has it been recognized how frequently such interchange took place, and the more we learn about medieval music, the more important it becomes. The practice of borrowing a song from one sphere and making it suitable for use in the other by the substitution of words is known as “parody” or contrafactum.’”
So, while it isn’t always the case–we see clearly that there is alot of “accepted” music has moved from the secular to the sacred realm. Still, what is meant by traditional or contemporary? After all, aren’t some traditions practiced in contemporary time, and aren’t some contemporary things traditional in nature? To me labeling things unequivocally with these terms is dubious at best.
I don’t know if these terms can be empirically defined. I think in a way, when someone makes the critique about music being too contemporary or too traditional, more than expressing anything substantive to the topic of worship, they are exercising the human desire for consumption. This is consumerism at its basic level. On this view, we go to the worship service to “get something.” Have you heard this before?—“I just didn’t get anything from the service today. I didn’t like the music. It just didn’t touch me.” A statement like this is a statement of consumerism. We as consumers desire a short term lift despite what may be the long term consequences. In a way, even as worshippers, sometimes we exercise what economists would call Myopic Choice. It is a view like this that would see God as an object to be consumed rather than a person with whom we can have relationship. We get from God what we want, and then relegate him to the periphery of our lives–unless a topic like this comes up–in which case we will argue emphatically that either traditional or contemporary music is more ‘godly.’ It only seems natural that this would be the case–as this is what is currently seen in the culture. Why is it that the same feminists (Who stood shoulder to shoulder with Billy Graham) who used to wear signs that said, “I am a person,” are now wearing shirts that say, “I am a porn star?” People have moved from beings who have relationships to objects who are consumed. Why would they see God any different?
The sad thing is that this dubious way of living and viewing self has made its way into the church. The consumerism of aesthetic preference. I want what makes me happy. This is drive through theology. I want to get God, but he has to be my way, right away. If my burger comes with mayo–I reject it. We are so focused on the burger itself, that we forget to praise the effort of the one who prepared it! Even more practically, we buy the music we want–and on iTunes–we even buy ONLY the songs we want. We are programmed to consume. We care nothing for the whole–only the part we want! When was the last time you didn’t fast forward through the commercials or previews?
Let us look at it another way. Take the Lord’s Supper and let us build a framework for worship from this beautiful scene. Before we see the beautiful words of Christ, it is important to give some definitions. For the traditionalist, the past is most important. For the existentialist, the ‘here and now’ is most important. For the utopianist, the future is important. Keeping this in mind, and with our eye on our topic, we see that Jesus makes an incredible statement to the disciples at the Last Supper. “As often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup [now], you proclaim the Lord’s death [in the past], until He comes [in the future].”
Jesus is saying that all of history—past, present, future—are significant and hold tremendous meaning. To overemphasize any point is to become wholly partisan and subservient to an “ism.” This is idolatry.
Think of this statement—there is unity in diversity. Past, present, and future—all unite in the being of Christ through history. Different tribes, lands, and nations—all unite under the headship of Christ. In fact, different churches (who proclaim Christ as deity and resurrected Lord), despite their differences on some theological issues, are the same as well—under Christ. On a more esoteric level, scientists and philosophers have tried and tried to find one unifying theory for the universe—look into M Theory if you are interested here. The problem is—until we grasp the idea that unity in diversity are found first in the Creator (the Trinity)—we will never understand the unity in diversity found in our universe and in in all of life! Jesus has invited all of mankind into this unity in diversity through a relationship with His son, Jesus.
If one thinks about past, present and future—every point in history has a past present and future—well, except the ‘time’ when God had not yet created. At this point, God merely existed. He is timeless and immutable, by definition. Traditional or contemporary do not apply to God! Traditional or contemporary, I would argue—do not apply to the Kingdom of God! To emphasize any of these three as ‘better’ or more ‘important’ is faulty. There should be a unity in diversity—God is the God of all time—past, present, and future. We can rejoice in this.
I think of the music of Bach—and how it progressed through time to the music of—John Cage. In Bach, we see a musician who was focused on the transcendent. It was evidenced by his music. There was always a great deal of tension, dissonance—but always—and I repeat –always—there came a consonant resolution. There was a unity in diversity. Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer said it this way:
“Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was certainly the zenith of the composers coming out of the Reformation. His music was a direct result of the Reformation culture and the biblical Christianity of the time, which was so much a part of Bach himself. There would have been no Bach had there been no Luther. Bach wrote on his score initials representing such phrases as: “With the help of Jesus” – “To God alone be the glory” – “In the name of Jesus.” It was appropriate that the last thing Bach the Christian wrote was “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.” Bach consciously related both the form and the words of his music to biblical truth. Out of the biblical context came a rich combination of music and words and a diversity of unity. This rested on the fact that the Bible gives unity to the universal and the particulars, and therefore the particulars have meaning. Expressed musically, there can be endless variety and diversity without chaos. There is variety yet resolution.”
In the music of the Impressionists—Debussy, Ravel, Duparc—we see a music that goes nowhere. There is only unity—no diversity. In the modern music of Cage we see a music that only has diversity. Much of the music leading up to him—Webern, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky—used a methodical system called the 12-tone row—to mathematically order music. This made the music sound as if it weren’t ordered at all; but instead, chaotic. Isn’t that strange? When humans try to order things—it comes off as chaotic—rather than ordered! In the music of Cage, he used what he called indeterminacy to create music of chance. The problem is, no matter how you frame it—this music wasn’t purely created by chance and a random, unguided process. Here is Cage: “I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operations, I would die shortly. So I decided that I would not approach them in this way.” Francis Schaeffer comments, “In other words, here is a man who is trying to teach the world what the universe intrinsically is and what the real philosophy of life is, and yet he cannot even apply it to picking mushrooms.”
Obviously, at some point, Cage himself had to inject his will into the music—whether it was to interpret the Chinese cards he used to generate the notes and rhythms, or to know at what point to start his composition! All we were left with was diversity. So we see a progression from unity in diversity to unity only, to diversity only.
So that has been a polemic on looking to the future. Now—I am not arguing that looking to the past is the best way. To focus merely on the traditional is riddled with problems. Perhaps the most powerful indictment of the past comes from Malcolm Muggeridge:
“We look back upon history, and what do we see? Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions, wealth accumulated and wealth dispersed…Shakespeare has spoken of the rise and fall of great ones that ebb and flow with the moon. I look back upon my own fellow countrymen in England once upon a time dominating a quarter of the world…I have heard a crazed, cracked Austrian announce to the world an establishment of a Reich that would last a thousand years. I have seen an Italian clown saying he was going to stop and restart the calendar with his own ascension to power… all in one life time, all in one lifetime! All gone, gone with the wind…and behind the debris of these solemn superman and self-styled imperial diplomatists, there stands the gigantic figure of one person—because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone mankind may still have peace—the person of Jesus Christ.”
I think we can go further with our look at this debate. Consider for example Jesus’ interaction with Satan in the wilderness:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,” ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
In these incredible responses by Jesus, we see something emerge that is helpful. Satan challenged Jesus in three ways. The first is the will. “Feed yourself, Jesus—do a miracle so we can know you are God.” Jesus replies that physical bread is nothing compared to the bread of life. This is the fact that material things are not all that exist. There is another realm that is very real. The will. Secondly, Satan challenges Jesus intellect. He uses a scripture verse to test the intellect. Jesus replies to this verse taken out of context by reminding Satan not to test God. The intellect. Finally—once all the routes of will and intellect are exhausted—Satan enters the back door of the imagination. This is what we must look out for as music ministers and worship teams. The imagination can give way to some of the greatest failures we have as people. Jesus replies that “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”
It is interesting that the word used for worship here is prŏskunĕō. This is a different word than we think of in English. We get our word worship in English from the Middle English word ‘worshipe.’ This essentially means ‘worthship.’ Worth implies a consumer. A consumer may not agree with the seller on the worth of something. Prŏskunĕō is speaking instead about giving God His due. This means falling prostrate before the uncaused cause. This means giving to God what he is due—which is everything. Our human intellect, will, or imagination can lead us to believe that we have something due us—or that we are worth more than we really are. This is a great danger that looms always.
The final issue to deal with comes from the book of John. When talking to the woman at the well, Jesus engages her about her life. She says to Jesus,
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
In this wonderful exchange, we see a woman who knows what traditional worship is. It is living by the law. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain,” says the woman. What she means is—this is how we have been taught to do it. This is what we know. Jesus is saying, “You need a kingdom perspective. You must give up that earthly view of things.” Jesus is quick to show her—worship isn’t about a musical style, or a place, or a certain type of dress. It is about worshipping Him in “spirit and truth.” Period.
Worship isn’t about a certain thing we must know (epistemology). It isn’t about a certain feeling we must have (existentialism). It certainly isn’t about a list of things we must do and not do (pragmatism). It is about worshipping the being of Christ. That is all!
If I built a house that was made out of wood that wasn’t treated for termites—and put it on a foundation of sand—and despite all this, my house was absolutely beautiful to the eye. What would this beauty matter when the hurricane or flood comes—or when the termites show up? It would matter nothing. On the other hand—if my house was not aesthetically pleasing—but it was built out of treated wood, and put upon a firm foundation—it would withstand any test, but still may not look pleasing to man’s eye.
This is the difference between a corruption of substance and an error of form. We can deal with an error of form—even between denominations and age groups—and still worship! What we cannot deal with however, is a corruption of substance.
I think it is faulty to talk about contemporary or traditional in any “right” or “wrong” sense. What we need to talk about is—who we are worshipping, what worship is and how music can be used biblically in it. We need to remember music isn’t worship in itself. It is a tool we can use, but it is not worship by itself. If we make our argument about traditions or newness to be the center of our priority, we are worshipping the methodology of worship, not the object of worship Himself.