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“Good” Theology?

Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.

 

 

 

Words Words Words

We get so caught up in what a song or hymn says through its lyrics/verses. I’ve watched debates rage on about what a text means and whether it has “good theology.” There are books written on analyzing texts, and pastors often analyze a song or hymn’s appropriateness for their congregation based on the words alone. We are fixated on words and the words are the primary and often only metric we use to determine theological content. But this overemphasis on words (or neglect of other aspects of congregational singing) misses the point. Let me give two scenarios to consider:

 

Scenario 1

Imagine, if you will, a congregation standing up to sing the opening hymn for their Sunday morning service. They wait for the instrumental introduction as usual and then begin singing. Their singing could be described in the following ways: partial interest, partial participation, mezzo piano dynamic, lazy and at times indiscernible diction, slumped shoulders, heads down, no bodily movement, a few smiles but mostly neutral facial expressions.

 

As they sing, the instrumental accompaniment goes like this:

Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise God in his sanctuary; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him in his mighty firmament! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him for his mighty deeds; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him according to his surpassing greatness! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him with trumpet sound; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him with lute and harp! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him with tambourine and dance; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him with strings and pipe! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him with clanging cymbals; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him with loud clashing cymbals! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1 with added crescendo pedal and long last chord]

 

The theology of the words is hard to critique since they’re straight out of scripture. So I’m assuming the majority of you who are reading this would not attempt to argue the theology of the words. This song has “good theology,” right?

 

Scenario 2

I recently attended a “Circle Songs” retreat at the Omega Institute in New York State. The leaders were Bobby McFerrin and his colleagues that make up the group “Give Me Five.” In what they call “circle singing,” a group standing in a circle is led in multiple improvised repetitive parts usually using an improvised (made up) language by the leader, very similar to scat in jazz singing. Here’s an example of a circle song in that style:

Now imagine a worship service emphasizing the creativeness of God and God’s creation that includes a song like this. There are no “words” per se, but rather the song contains made-up syllables that provide the mechanism for the improvised melodies to interlock with each other. The singing is embodied and joyful. The singers make eye contact with each other and everyone is engaged in the music making. The textures of the sound change constantly as new layers are being added or subtracted or as the leader improvises a melody over the top.

Using the typical conversations I’ve seen to determine whether this song has “good theology,” it would quickly become apparent that this song not only doesn’t have good theology, it has no theology.

By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.

Expanding Our Metrics

I’d argue that both scenarios help us see how the current conversations surrounding whether a song has “good theology” are woefully unsubstantial. By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.

Scenario 1 contains words that have what most of you would consider “good theology.” But if the hymn is led and sung in the way described above, I would argue that the song has terrible theology. By singing in that way, we’re telling God, “I’ll praise you a little bit…but not with ALL my being…that would be ridiculous.” We’re telling God, “I’ll praise you with 40% of my being…that’s all I can muster right now.” We’re telling each other, “I love God, but not as much as I love watching the game and eating wings.” This, my friends, is bad theology. I don’t care what the words say.

Scenario 2 most certainly contains theology, but none of it can be ascertained by listening to the words. In fact, I’d argue that scenario 2 contains better theology than scenario 1. While the words don’t contain any explicit theological content, the embodiment of the singing and the spirit with which it is sung contains strong theological content. Furthermore, by placing a joyful improvised piece of music within the context of a service centered around the idea of God’s creativeness and the creativeness of God’s creation, we are telling God, “We are thankful for and enjoy the gift you gave us that is creativity.” We are telling God, “We will praise you in every way we can think of and in constantly new ways.” We are telling each other, “You are a part of God’s creation and we are in this together. I’m listening to you and want to be in community with you.” These are theologically rich statements, all made without uttering a single word of an established language.

The challenge for many of us is to listen.

The Challenge

The challenge for many of us is to listen. Before determining for ourselves or especially for others whether a song has “good” or “bad” theology, there must be a process of listening.

Listen to the experience of others. How are they experiencing a song?

Listen to the experience of our elders. How have they experienced a song in the past?

Listen to the community’s voice as it sings. Is it sounding? Is it silent? Is it anemic? Is it joyful?

Listen to the context. What surrounds the song culturally? What surrounds the song liturgically?

Listen to your own voice. Does the song resonate with your own faith journey? Does the song challenge your faith journey?

Listen to the words. Yes, of course words are important! They form our minds and shape our hearts. Are the words borne from scriptural waters? Are the words pastoral or prophetic? Do the words support or challenge God’s people on their journey? Do the words speak Truth?

 

 

We’d like to welcome our latest guest blogger, David Bjorlin. David is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, seminary faculty member at North Park Theological Seminary, and a published hymn writer. David has found a wide range of outlets for his passion for worship and the church. His interests include hymnody, connections between liturgy and ethics, and children in worship. He loves being able to plan worship so that a congregation may enact and indwell the redemptive story of God in worship week after week. – Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song

A Key Question

Over the past few decades, one of the key questions that liturgists have been asking is how what we say and do in worship shapes our theology and ethics. Because we are liturgists and need to show just how out of touch we are with contemporary trends, we even use Latin shorthand to describe this connection—lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Literally this saying means that “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief [is] the law of living.” That is, prayer/worship shapes theology shapes ethics. While debates rage over how the three are connected, most would agree that worship helps form our understanding of God and the way we live in God’s world with one another. If this is the case, it means the words we say and sing in worship are vital to Christian formation.

Atonement Theology

Because this is true, I have grown more and more concerned about how our songs, particularly contemporary worship songs, sing about the atonement—the way we are reconciled to God through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In the vast majority of contemporary praise songs, Jesus’ death is almost always portrayed as substitutionary: we should have been punished for our sins, but God took our place and the punishment that was rightly ours and saved us. In its most extreme forms, Christ’s death satisfies the wrath of God that we incurred through our sin (penal substitutionary atonement). While examples abound, here are just a few of the most well-known from CCLI’s Top 100 list:

 

“This is unfailing love / that you would take my place, / that you would bear my cross” (“This Is Amazing Grace”); “Behold the man upon the cross, / my sin upon his shoulders… / It was my sin that held him there / until it was accomplished” (“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”); and the granddaddy of them all, “till on the cross has Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied” (“In Christ Alone”). Lest we think this trend is only found in contemporary praise songs, many classic hymns rely heavily on the substitutionary trope as well. Take the second stanza of Philip Bliss’s “Man of Sorrows!”: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, / in my place condemned he stood; / sealed my pardon with his blood: / Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

That is, if our central atonement theology claims that God needs retribution for his (male pronoun used purposefully) wrath or justice to be satisfied, it’s no wonder that our justice system would also be built on the idea of retribution rather than restoration.

To be clear, there are differences between substitutionary atonement and penal substitution. In my estimation, there is some biblical warrant for the former (much of the book of Hebrews, for example), while I find the latter to be less biblical and more pagan in origin. However, in both modes, the clear message of the atonement is the need for retribution for the sins of humanity. I have long understood how this myopic focus on substitutionary atonement has led to theological distortions. God the Father becomes an angry God of justice who must be won over by the merciful Jesus (God the Son saves us from God the Father); wrath often becomes the motivating force of the cross rather than God’s unrelenting love; and Christ’s life and resurrection seem to become unimportant additions to Christ’s death. I believe this overemphasis on substitutionary atonement theories is part of the reason why many Christians find it so much easier to believe in an angry God just waiting to punish them than a loving God seeking to reconcile all things through Christ.

Ethics

However, I was struck anew by how this singular view of the atonement can warp our ethical lives in reading Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s excellent new book Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores.

The entire book is a must-read for those who wish to understand and challenge the racism endemic to our justice system that continues to disproportionately target and incarcerate people of color. However, what struck me was the connection Gilliard drew between penal substitutionary atonement and the punitive way we treat those who are arrested and incarcerated in our society. That is, if our central atonement theology claims that God needs retribution for his (male pronoun used purposefully) wrath or justice to be satisfied, it’s no wonder that our justice system would also be built on the idea of retribution rather than restoration. A crime has been committed, and satisfaction must be paid for that crime even if we desire to show mercy. What happens before and what happens after is of little consequence; punishment is the key. And if we lay this theological system onto a racially-biased criminal justice system, Christians too often find themselves “theologically justifying racism.” In the end, if we distort our worship, we not only distort how we understand God, but also distort how we treat one another.

A Challenge

I think this is offers a challenge to worship leaders and songwriters to offer congregations different ways of understanding Christ’s atonement. We desperately need more praise songs that sing of Christ’s saving way of living in the world that challenged oppression and injustice and continue to challenge us to new ways of living in right relationship to God, others, and creation. We need more songs that celebrate Christ’s resurrection as an integral part of Christ’s victory over death, not just to save me from my sins, but to reconcile the cosmos. We need more songs that remind us that God’s death was motivated not by an angry God who scares us into obedience, but a God whose “love so amazing, so divine, / demands our souls, our lives, our all.”

 

David Bjorlin – Blog Author

 

 

It’s my privilege to be joined in this special conversation with Dr. Markus Rathey, the Robert S. Tangeman Professor in the Practice of Music History at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, in New Haven, CT. It is a privilege not only for Markus’ expertise in this area but also because he was one of my own advisors and mentors during my time at Yale Divinity and the ISM. Markus joins our conversation here at Centered in Song—a blog of the Center for Congregational Song—to enlighten us on the experience of church music and musicians at the time of Luther’s Reformation as we mark this 500th Anniversary.

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.

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Adam: Over the last year, many have been writing about the lasting influences of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and many musically-inclined friends have reflected on the changes in music making that parallel changes in preaching, bible reading, etc. Let’s start there. Tell us about the Reformation in music. Is music as central as we like to believe when we sing “A Mighty Fortress” together? 

Markus: It is probably less essential than most musicians and those who do music and theology want to imagine. The reason for the Reformation was, of course, the question of Justification and the struggle over indulgences. The musical side of the Reformation came later. If you just look at the timeline, the Reformation starts on October 31, 1517, and Luther starts publishing his hymns in 1523—so there is already a gap of six years.

And if you look at Luther’s liturgical reforms, first in the Latin Mass and later with the German Mass, again the reform of the Latin Mass happens much earlier than the German Mass (in 1526), and only then does hymnody become an integral part of the liturgy.  A similar phenomenon happens when musicians talk about the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation. They talk about the myth of abolishing polyphonic music altogether, and the idea that Palestrina saved church music. First of all, it didn’t happen that way, but also the music-related session took place toward the end of the Council—and you have essentially two sentences that talk about music. So I think as musicians, our perspective is a little bit skewed, and music wasn’t actually as essential to the theological discourse as we want it to be, especially early on. I will add that in the popular discourse of ordinary people, however, music was more important because it is where they encountered the doctrine, internalizing it by singing and memorizing it. This would have been happening in 1524/5 with the publication of the larger collections such as Johann Walter’s Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn.

 

Adam: You teach a class called Music and Theology in the 16th Century (which I had the privilege of taking, Fall 2013) and study Lutheran church music in the 17th and 18th centuries—what do you find is commonly misunderstood about music and the Reformation?

Markus: Two things in particular. First, one we talked about a little already: the idea that music was so central for the Reformation. The reformations don’t start with music—though music does become very important later on, once the theological ideas have been established. Second, we often forget that music in the Reformation was not so much about taste or personal preferences but the theology of music, and the broader theology of the different reformers were intimately connected. For Zwingli, influenced by Erasmus’ Neo-Platonism, rejecting music comes from broader rejection of the physical world. For Luther, music is pre-lapsarian, that is, part of the good, divinely created world that comes directly from God. Thus we can and should use music. Calvin is in-between. He definitely understands the power of music, but he also sees its dangerous potential (very similar to St. Augustine more than 1000 years before him). Therefore, music must be harnessed by asking composers to create new melodies for the Genevan Psalter—an attempt to exclude other musical references—while sticking to the pure, biblical texts. The other feature for Calvin is to not allow instruments in corporate worship.

 

Adam: The way we often think of Luther seems to me to be more similar to the Romantic-era musical titans than anything else—sort of one übermann against the powers of the world. Is Luther really the jack-of-all-trades instigator, preacher, translator, theologian, composer, grass-roots organizer, etc. that we make him out to be? 

Markus: Luther did have a lot of skills. As a preacher and rhetorician, a theologian, a poet, and author of some of the early hymn melodies—though it’s a bit unclear how many were written by Luther because he collaborated so much with Johann Walter. He’s not a Josquin-level composer, but they are good, beautiful melodies. But music was also an important part of his life. He played the lute, liked to sing; he sang with his family and friends, and music was an important part of his private life, and he appreciated the power of music.

 

Adam: Who is the typical church musician? How would musical changes of the Reformation have affected their lives and work? 

Markus: The job of a church musician in the 16th century is very different than it would be today. The cantor would be the main church musician responsible for church music and conducts the boy choir who provides vocal music for the service. The organist is often a musician with other duties, including some outside the church. The cantor is also part of the school system, where he would teach the choir boys to sing, preparing them for the Sunday service, so the school system and the liturgical duties on Sunday morning are closely connected. Essential to understanding the life of the church musician is that he was a music teacher at the school.

 

Adam: How does this system develop

Markus: Luther already talks about reforming the school systems in the 1520s and 30s, collaborating with Melanchthon—one of his other sidekicks. The reform of the schools was a very important part of the Reformation because in order to read and understand the Bible, to go back to the sources (ad fontes), you have to teach kids to read. You need an educational system.

 

Adam: What was the role of music in the educational system—how did it differ between contexts?

Markus: Luther once said he wouldn’t accept a teacher if he wasn’t able to sing; musical skill was a basic qualification for a teacher. So if you have smaller, poorer schools, the schoolteacher would teach everything, including music. The boys in that school might not be very skilled but would still be able to sing the hymns in unison on Sunday morning. In more affluent urban schools with more skilled singers, the school would have a Cantor who gives music lessons and conducts the choir, and the boys would be able to sing polyphony. The school system leads directly to congregational singing in the liturgy.

 

Adam: How long did it take for this vernacular singing to get established alongside the vernacular liturgy?

Markus: The common assumption is that Luther came and said, ‘Okay, now we have to celebrate the liturgy in the vernacular; let’s get rid of all this old Latin.’ This is not the case at all. Even after Luther develops the German Mass, the primary liturgy at the major churches is still in Latin (with the exception of the sermon, of course, and some other parts of the liturgy). The second type of service, for the lesser-educated people, was the service in the vernacular. Within the vernacular liturgy, the vernacular hymns played a large part. But we also have to remember that singing the hymns was something one also did at home. For domestic piety, vernacular hymns were even more important. The boys came back from school where they learned these hymns and taught their parents how to sing them. So to say, through the kids, the music teacher also had a strong impact on the families.

 

Adam: What are some lessons you think the church today can learn from studying and understanding music in the Reformation?

Markus:

  1. Start early—teach kids! You can’t have a functioning church choir if your people don’t know how to sing! You can’t expect to have a good worship band if you have kids who can barely play an instrument. For any kind of music, teach them how to sing and make music. This is especially important since our public school systems often don’t have good music programs or are being cut altogether. And even if you want to teach the parents, the best way to do it is to do it through the kids.
  2. Understand our task as church musicians is not only to be administrators of tradition, but teachers of all ages.
  3. When you make liturgical changes, consider your congregation. Like with Luther’s introduction of German Mass, there are some changes you might like to make, but you shouldn’t because it will confuse or upset your parishioners. Your ideas about any reform and change must be taken pastorally, with love for the congregation. If you can’t do it in a way that is acceptable to them, you should think twice whether the change is really necessary.

 

 

Adam: Now that we’re excited about this history, what books should we go read?

Markus:

Let me begin with a recommendation that doesn’t primarily deal with music but that gives a great overview of the Reformation(s) in general. It was written by my Yale colleague Carlos Eire, Reformations. The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale Univ. Press 2016). For readers who are interested in the history of congregational singing in Luther’s Wittenberg, I recommend Robin Leaver’s new book The Whole Church Sings. Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg (Eerdmans 2017); and for a broader overview of the theological and liturgical contexts of his musical ideas, Leaver’s Luther’s Liturgical Music. Principles and Implications (Eerdmans, 2007).

 

Author – Adam Perez is currently a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC.

Launch Event Recap

We began our time together in just the way you might expect for the launch of the Center for Congregation Song: by singing! In fact, singing was the ligature that bound us (and our lovely schedule) together at Harmony!

In the elegant setting of The Room on Main in downtown Dallas, we began in worship with Ana Hernandez. She lead us into contemplation through song—not for turning inward, but for turning and tuning our ears to the beautifully diverse voices around us. Accompanied by simple shruti box or guitar, the breath carried our song together. It was a beautiful microcosm and model for the rest of the weekend.

After opening worship, attendees shared round table discussions where many were able to connect and converse with various affinity groups before heading down to our “Gospel Sing in the Park.”

Main Street Garden Park and the Dallas skyline

Joslyn Henderson leading our song

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down at Main Street Garden park, Joslyn Henderson lead our worship with songs from across the spectrum of Black gospel music. In the late afternoon light, as dogs barked and city buses bumbled past, it was a deep joy to see so many pause to share in our song. In the late evening, attendees gathered for a relaxed time of socializing and sharing (and in my case, stumble upon some help for a research project—thanks Ben Brody!).

Monday morning we turned our hearts and our hands outward. John Bell lead us in songs and stories about the very real issues of food and justice worldwide. Simultaneously, Kids Against Hunger partnered with us to prepared dry meals for hungry persons around Texas and around the world.

Swee Hong Lim and Cynthia Wilson shared the Plenary Address. Their talks constituted a broader conversation about the relationship between congregational song and culture. On one hand, Swee Hong Lim asked how we, as congregational song practitioners, can prevent “ethno-tourism” and work against a kind of new colonialism enacted through music. Lim also used some examples of fusion musics to highlight the way we often project our own normative values onto what music from ‘other’ cultures should sound like. Likewise, Cynthia Wilson turned her attention to the margins, examining how congregational song can be appropriately contextualized with both the input of the ‘other’ and their full incorporation so as to be agents of transformation. For Wilson, this is especially important as music in the Africana context is part of a rich incarnational theology.

Just before lunch, CCS Director Brian Hehn introduced the mission and programs of the CCS. The guiding postures that pervaded his presentation included ‘conversations’ and resourcing. The afternoon practitioner talks also highlighted the practice of conversing or sharing over topics that can sometimes be either difficult, such as across lines of race and culture, or even taboo, like the struggles in one’s faith or spirituality.

After lunch, the community was graced by shorter talks from four excellent practitioners, Father Ray East, Amanda Powell, Jan Kraybill, and Tony Alonso. Each encouraged the group to push past norms and common boundaries: from using the Organ as an anti-bullying tool to bringing rap music and poetry more fully into realm of urban Christian ministry. We concluded the time with a panel discussion that included all the presenters. Questions related to music, songwriting, and pastoral concerns extended the groups conversation. The event closed with another contemplative time of singing and listening under Ana Hernandez’s leadership.

The world was a better place this morning thanks to your efforts.  Every segment of the launch was highly professional, inclusive, and engaging.  At no time was I tempted to sneak out for a nap or a bit of shopping!  My choir got a taste of paperless singing today and they were so excited!  One girl exclaimed, “Wow! this is so creative!” – Nancy Graham, Memphis, TN

 

Continuing the Conversation: Dissonance?

Over the course of the weekend at the launch event, “Harmony,” I found myself stuck on a phrase that was used by a few of the presenters as they reflected on their hopes for the future of congregational song. It’s a great one, really—eminently tweet-able. One that seems to bring together so much of religious life and experience. It goes something like this, ‘We need to be writing congregational songs that people will be singing on their deathbeds.’ The sentiment is well taken: we need to write songs (or ‘hymns’ if you prefer) that persons and communities can carry with them through their whole lives, ‘even unto death.’

The challenge is daunting. Many have asked the question over the years, ‘what is it that makes a text or text-tune pairing so long-lasting?’  It’s not like there is a formula for generating that je ne sais quoi—the one we find in songs like “Amazing Grace,” or “It is Well/When Peace, Like a River.” Of course, those two examples do share a certain comforting quality that makes them especially fitting for the harder times of life and it goes without saying that songs of comfort are especially fitting for those deathbed moments. But to take the commendation seriously, is the ‘deathbed’ the norm by which we should measure congregational song?

The other end of the spectrum seems to have been expressed by John Bell as he introduced the “Serve and Sing” session. Bell remarked upon the fact that we North Americans have very few songs that address the occasion for which we were gathered that morning: to address the problem of lack of food, rather than its bounty. Why is this the case?

In my ears, Bell’s reflection and lament about the state of song stood in stark contrast to the other laments about the (perceived lack of) longevity of song. While others seemed to be asking for songs that would transcend time and space, Bell seemed to be asking for songs immanently and intimately tied to lived experiences and issues of justice. Should this be the norm by which we measure congregational song? Can the transcendent and immanent co-exist? Can we ‘have our cake and eat it too?’

Okay, I know I’ve probably taken the sentiment farther than they intended, but I think it sheds a discerning light on our imagination of the ‘future’ of congregational song that we reflected on so richly at Harmony. It comes together, I think, around regular theme from the event: the power of story. One important reason those above-mentioned songs are so comforting at the bedside of the ill or distressed is that those same songs have been with us in those places before. Those songs not only have their own stories of comfort in the face of fear and distress, but we have woven our stories into them too. In some sense, the songs about hunger and justice are also part of stories and narratives in which we are involved. We must weave our diverse experiences of want for justice and plenty in the kingdom of God with those for whom food itself engenders this sentiment. The song can then become part of the script in our inclusive drama of life, death, deep hope, and justice in the kingdom of God.