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Monday
Jul052010

Why can't Johnny sing hymns?

This is the question dealt with in T. David Gordon's book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns.  It's quite a complicated question, and the answers aren't really simple, either.   I'm only halfway through the book, but I thought I'd share some of my initial reactions for what they are worth.

The basic premise of the book is that worship music has been profoundly affected by pop music.  Gordon points out that pop music (music that Gordon sees as beginning with the era of the Beatles) is a pervasive part of our culture; we hear it everywhere.  We hear it in stores, malls, restuarants, and even in offices and waiting rooms.  We heard it in television commercials and on movie soundtracks.  This steady diet of pop music has especially influenced people of my generation and younger to the point that what we recognize as music has become defined by pop music.  Because pop music is geared to the masses, it must be easy to listen to and understand, and that leads to music that is often trivial and banal.  Gordon sees those tendencies carried over into pop Christian music, which produces trivial and banal songs.  I think we can all think of some examples of that.  A hymn like "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" sounds rather foreign to someone who is used to hearing the song "Celebrate Jesus, Celebrate."  Furthermore, when it comes to worship music, the criteria that seems to control what we sing is the criteria of comtemporaneity.  This sounds a bit of a death knell for more complicated, older songs, despite their richness.

As I said, I'm only halfway through the book, and I won't re-cap everything I've read, but by far, the most thought-provoking chapter was the one about musical genres.  Gordon talks about the different musical genres by placing them within three cultural contexts:  high/classical culture, folk culture, and mass/pop culture.  High/classical culture focuses on the transcendent, the multigenerational, the significant, and the communal.  It seeks to be timeless.  It is also less accessible.  In the context of classical music, this inaccessability is not just a matter of learning to appreciate the music, but also to find a place to hear it; there are probably few, if any, commercial classical radio stations. 

Folk culture is also multigenerational, transcendent, communal, but is somewhat more accessible.   Gordon says this:

... it exists, in large measure, as a means of handing down a given tradition from one generation to another, lest a given subculture lose its identity.

It seems to me that folk music would be an excellent genre of music for Christianity, and indeed, hymns like "Be Thou My Vision" utilize that genre.  Gordon observes that classical and folk music are less individualistic, and focus not on the singer, but rather the song.   An example occurred to me.  The song, "Danny Boy," a folk song, has no doubt been recorded by hundreds of artists and performed by thousands.  It doesn't cause us a moment's worry that someone else is again going to perform or record that song.  Now, take the song like "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.  We see that song as belonging to the band; indeed, some fans could very well raise a hue and cry if someone dared to record it for commercial purposes.  We tend to see a lot more "signature songs" in the pop realm than the others.   My son, who has a band, absolutely refuses to do what he calls "covers."  He scorns them.  They are not his music.  He wants to sing his music.

This individualism is what characterizes pop/mass culture.  It is monogenerational, immanent, individualistic and accessible, an accessbility fostered by the commercial aspect of music.  Just think about what happens when a car company gets permission to use even 30 seconds from a popular song; we begin to equate the song with the product.  Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" and Ford trucks comes to my mind as I ponder that.  It would be interesting to ponder the question of how the commercial aspect of music has influenced it over the last fifty years.

Gordon's reason for examining these three genres is to put forth his assertion that the classical and folk genres are more appropriate for sacred music considering what Christianity is: transcendent, serious, multigenerational.  He sees worship as a sacred activity and should demand music that fits in with its purpose.  No doubt, there are many who would have a counter opinion to that, and I can hear some of the objections in my own head.

One thing that Gordon said I found quite interesting.  He said this:  "Surely Christianity is transcendant, not immanent."  I don't know as if I agree completely with him.  God is both immanent and transcendent.  Why cannot Christianity be both?  Is the problem perhaps that we focus more on the immanent nature of God than the transcendent?  In evangelical circles, with the emphasis on a "personal relationship" with Christ, are we focused too much on the immanence of God to the detriment of the transcendent?  If that is true, is it really any surprise that we look for music that promotes immanence?

This is a book that will definitely ruffle a few feathers, and challenge the sacred cows of others.  Gordon's views on the use of the guitar would no doubt offend many people, but they certainly were eye-opening for me.  I like it when I can see how a person arrived at his point even if there are points where I may not entirely agree. One thing I am continually agreed with, however, is that a lot of the words we sing on Sunday mornings these days lacks a lot of depth, and so do the melodies.

I hope to share more as I finish this book.  Whether one agrees with Gordon or not, one thing is certain:  worship music is a serious enough issue that we should think about it.  We should not make statements that is "simply a matter of taste," because the music we use to praise the God of the Universe matters very much.

Sunday
Jul042010

Heart Aflame - July 4, 2010

Psalm 80:16-19

Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire.  The calamities of the people are now more clearly expressed.  It had been said that the Lord's vine was abandoned to the wild beasts, that they might lay it waste.  But it was a greater calamity for it to be consumed with fire, rooted up and utterly destroyed.  The Israelites had perfidiously apostatised from the true religion; but they were still a part of the Church.  We are accordingly warned by this melancholy example, of the severity of the punishment due to our ingratitude, especially when it is joined with obstinacy, which prevents the threatening and rebukes of God, however sharp and severe they may be, from being of any benefit to us.  Let us also learn from the same example, when the Divine anger is blazing all around, and even when we are in the midst of its burning flames, to cast all our sorrows into the bosom of God, who, in a wonderful manner, raises up his Church from the gulf of destruction.  He would assuredly be ready not only to exercise without interruption his favour towards us, but also to enrich us with his blessings more and more, did not our wickedness hinder him.  As it is impossible for him not to be angry at the many offences which we we have committed, it is an evidence of unparalleled mercy for him to extinguish the fire which we ourselves have kindled, and which has spread far and wide, and to save some portion or remnant of the Church, or so to speak more properly, to raise up even from the very ashes a people to call upon his name.  It is again repeated that the Church perished not by the strength and arms of her enemies, but at the rebuke of god's countenance.  Never can we expect alleviation of our punishment, unless we are fully persuaded that we are justly chastised by the hand of God.  It was a good sign of the repentance of these Israelites that, as is observed in Isaiah 9:12, "they looked to the hand of him who smote them."

Saturday
Jul032010

Decorating has rules....

We have ugly, and I mean ugly, wallpaper in our upstairs bathroom.  Whoever invented wallpaper?  Probably people who had bumpy walls and wanted to hide them.  Anyway, we're in the process of getting rid of it and painting.  Give me a nicely painted wall any day, and I'll add colour with accessories.

But not all people have good decorating protocol.  Wallpaper sizing was invented for a reason.  It ought to be mandatory before people can use wallpaper.

Another hint?  Don't wallpaper over other wallpaper.  And if you're going to use a piece of wallpapered drywall, and piece it together behind the sink, at least tape and mud the seam that is above the sink.

Martha Stewart I am not, but I was around my dad enough to know that there are certain procedures that should not be left up to interpretation.

Saturday
Jul032010

Soundtrack for a Saturday

Last night, before bed, I was listening to a little Debussy.  It's wonderful "before bed" music.  I will admit, however, to being entirely disgruntled to hear from my teenaged son that many people are calling "Claire de Lune," the "twilight song," because the song is used in the silly piece of film known as Twilight.

My son likes Debussy.  He has been trying to learn "Claire de Lune," although it is a grade level above where he currently plays.  But next year, his teacher will help him learn it.  He was doing a very good job on his own, and I was thrilled that my son actually likes a classical composer.  I also heard him trying to learn this one the other day, "Reverie:"

I hope I get to hear this in my living room at some point.

Friday
Jul022010

Sin's Foul Bondage

That is the title of the most recent chapter I have read in Martyn Lloyd-Jones's book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.  I have been dragging my feet a little with this book, but not because it's boring, or I'm losing interest.  My best friend and I get together weekly to discuss this book, but over the past month, we have also been meeting with two other friends for a study in the attributes of God, so we have had less opportunity to meet and discuss this book. 

Lloyd-Jones discusses sin's effects in the context of the verses that remind us that we must not lay up treasure on earth, but rather treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).  One of the reasons we tend to lay up treasures on earth is that our minds are blinded by sin.  Lloyd-Jones states that our minds can only truly function in a rational manner when we have been redeemed by Christ.  He says this:

If you are not a Christian do not trust your mind; it is the most dangerous thing you can do.  But when you become a Christian your mind is put back in the centre and you become a rational being.  There is no more pathetic illusion than for a man to think of the Christian faith as sob-stuff, the dope of the people, something purely emotional and irrational.  The true view of it is stated perfectly by the apostle Paul in Romans 6:17.  You have 'obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.'  The doctrine was preached to them, and when they came to see it they liked it, believed it, and put it into practice.  They received the truth of God first of all with the mind.  Truth must be received with the mind, and the Holy Spirit enables the mind to become clear.  That is conversion, that is what happens as a result of regeneration.  The mind is delivered from this bias of evil and darkness; it sees the truth and loves and desires it above everything else.  That is it.  There is nothing more tragic than for a man to find at the end of his life that he has been entirely wrong all the time.