Monday, February 15, 2010

In Praise (not) of Praise Music

For better or worse, Facebook allows one to make short, sometimes snarky comments by simply joining a "group" that exists purely to make such comments.  I'm afraid I did that the other day by digging through the groups and finding one that said "Praise Music Sucks!"  While that was not likely to trigger as many yea and nay votes as Farmville or Mafia wars, I'm afraid it did touch a nerve among some who have enjoyed it or associate a particular song or style with a significant spiritual experience - some who graciously but pointedly (and correctly) called me out on it. To the good discussion we had there, I'd like to add the following.

It is no secret that I have strong, sometimes too strong, feelings about liturgy and music in church. It comes, in part, from the fact that for a very long time my only strong connection to church and religion was through music.  My earliest deeply spiritual experiences (if I may call them that) were in places like Orchestra Hall in Chicago where, for example, I heard more than once Bach's St. Matthew's Passion (Georg Solti conducting, I believe, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, etal. singing).  My tenuous faith in God was rooted in music, religious and otherwise.  While there was (and is) much about my Methodist upbringing that gave me the creeps about organized religion and what-a-friend-I-have-in-Jesus piety, the one thing I loved about it was the hymns and the tradition of congregational singing (everyone sings - talent or no - from the pews - Lutherans I've known were pretty good at that, too).  So for the decades when I dropped out of church altogether, toyed with atheism out of a sometimes militant anti-organized religion attitude (driven partly by the antisemitic and racist tones of some of that earlier Methodist upbringing, which in turn engendered a prejudice against U.S. Southern culture, which I associated with it), what kept me coming back time and time again was music and literature (some will recall my delving into Melville, Shakespeare, Nietszche, and Dostoevsky - ah to be young and to take oneself SO seriously!).

What finally brought me back to church was, first and foremost the birth of my son, the happenstance of meeting for LaLeche League and later a non-denominational children's play group at  a Lutheran church (the family tradition of my first husband and father of my children), and an extraordinary Lutheran pastor.  But what really hooked me for good was the liturgy and music - first in an oldstyle, sung Eucharist Lutheran setting, later in a somewhat Anglo-Catholic Episcopal setting with a deep tradition of Anglican music.

For many, many years now I have struggled with the way I have clung to "my kind" of liturgy and music - to the point where even Jim, who very much liked what I liked, thought I carried it too far.  Yet as we increasingly talked about where we would live in retirement, the very first thing he thought about was where he could find one of the few progressive Anglo-Catholic parishes remaining or at least something not too Protestant as long as it had a "decent" music program. A top contender was the cathedral in Buffalo (and how we loved to tell people that we might retire there, of all places, rather than someplace idyllic further south or even north - though Maine was also in contention).  I was happy to follow his lead, in that respect (although I looked forward to the opportunity to visit and maybe even consider joining non-Episcopal churches if only to feel I had a choice again or might want to escape the drama of As the Anglican World Turns). 

But now all those abstract discussions and daydreams have come crashing into reality.  Now I don't have to leave my parish family as I would have had Jim lived (a former rector needing to stay far away from his or her old parish - what's that called?  oh yes, Good Church Order).  So if I stay in this area, that may settle things as a practical matter - family is, after all family, blood is thicker than water or even liturgy or music!

But for me it will never be all about where or with whom I worship on a regular basis.  I will always struggle with how much of my faith is grounded in what some may see as trappings or mood music and decor.  Jim could weave it all into his understanding of incarnational theology, which saw the face of God in music, in vestments, incense, and above all in the Eucharist, but none of that superseded or diminished encounters with the face of God in other human beings (though I would add the non-human as well - possibly a bit of pantheist lurking somewhere) - it was all of one piece, and there was no question that for those who chose it, so-called High Church was not only compatible with mission and outreach and mutual support in community but was something that strongly supported and nurtured faith and spiritual formation.

While I may make the occasional snide remark about Praise music or other clap-happy developments (as I see them from my biased and admittedly not entirely open-minded perspective), I do so not simply to advocate my tastes and preferences or even to preserve them for others who feel the same way, it is because I am deeply disturbed by comments from clergy, bishops, and even the Presiding Bishop, about the need to move away from traditional Anglican liturgy and music to save the church, which as we all know (but Progressives are loath to admit it), is declining in numbers and influence daily, no matter how many spurts of growth here and there (mostly in large urban and suburban areas).  We're supposed to all "open our eyes and our ears" and "discover" that in our multicultural society that most people are not "into" Anglican chant, Renaissance music, or even "modern" English church music with organ music and classically trained choirs, so we must give up what some of us love all for the sake of reaching out to others who are not like us.

Well, I've been down that road in the Lutheran Church and left because of it.  I can't claim that it was right to leave a community I loved because it was overtaken (for awhile, at least -a bloody and awful ten years with something like 6-7 pastors, interim and "permanent") by the bishop's staff and their party line, based on focus group research of the unchurched (real scientific stuff like asking people with no experience with church or classical music whether they "like" or "prefer" it or might even be put off by it - without ever having been in a church and experienced it with others - and based on the assumption that someone is only going to walk into a church building based on a good marketing campaign aimed at convincing them it suits their spiritual and musical preferences and needs).  I also realize that there is a great deal of truth to the notion that TEC and like mainline churches will, in fact, die if they insist on being exactly as they once were, in terms of music, liturgy, governance, and parish culture.  But.... what disturbed me 15 years ago with the Lutherans and more recently with the Episcopalians is that our churches are peopled with those who are so invested in the institution that they cannot conceive of the possibility that maybe it should grow or die "naturally" and that in the meantime what should be nurtured are healthy communities, in whatever size or setting they find themselves, and that there is no global, quick fix or salvation (earthly) for all by certain kinds of programming.

What "works" in one place will not necessarily work in another.  In some places people and events will produce entirely new ways of doing and being church, and that is fine and good.  But it seems crazy to me that we cannot do better at respecting and leaving space for the old, as well.  More important, it seems to me that churches should be, as much as possible, cleansed of those influences that manifest themselves in corporate-style image-making - everything aimed at the appearance of change, innovation, forward-thinking, along with increased market share, funding, participation, etc.  To some extent every generation attempts to remake Christianity into what people think will finally bring about the Kingdom of God on earth or herald the Second Coming or whatever.  People love to slough off the old, seemingly as if cleansing in the waters of baptism, being Born Again anew.  But now in the 20th-21st century, with all our anxiety, super-rapid communications, and cut-throat Western competitiveness, pride, and can-do spirit, we seem to be shooting ourselves in the foot time and time again, scrambling to be the one with the best and truest route to the Future and back to God, but only producing the scattered debris of failed efforts and empty church houses from which the old church faithful have been cavalierly driven.

I guess I'm trying to get at two different, but somewhat related thoughts.  First, I do question and struggle with my attachment to certain kinds of liturgies and music, knowing there must be people equally attached to or inspired by very different kinds, and in the end, it really should not matter what style one follows.  Yet what I "like" is more than a preference and is deeply meaningful and an integral part of what I understand my lived out faith, the part that engages in corporate worship and private devotions, to be.  How do I keep all that in proper perspective, what indeed is the proper perspective?

Second, on a policy level, when and where and how should I or anyone else stand up for what others seem blissfully ignorant of -- that some of the old traditions and ways continue to be meaningful not just to aging Baby Boomers like me but also to young people and others who are drawn to more vertical-style worship and the particular kinds of communities that engenders?  It's partly a matter of preserving something I find valuable, but it's also seeing the music and liturgy issues being part of larger tensions we have in TEC due to what sometimes seems like rampant clericalism (many clergy taking it on, after years of blaming lay people for it) and the overall push-pull that exists in a hierarchal church such as ours.  Of course the flip side of that is that sometimes the bullies are from the laity, as well.  But then, when is it bullying, when it is speaking up for something one finds meaningful, how much mix can we all support and tolerate without it turning into mish-mash?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I very much appreciate all those who have thrown in their two cents worth on it because they are questions I will continue to ponder.  My natural bias and experience is contrary to preachers using the pulpit for anything but an intelligent and humane shedding of light on the Scripture readings, to bringing people together to the Table, to feeling and tasting the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and having all that bind us together, enfold us in God's love, peace, forgiveness, and prickling of consciences to do more and better in our everyday lives, to reach out to care for and attend to others, to each day try to best lead the lives God calls us to live.  As much as my mind loves to study the Bible, theological tracts, philosophy, science, etc. and relate it all the best I can, and listen to what others have to say about such things, when ideas and ideologies overtake the enterprise, when obedience to self-proclaimed leaders and self-styled prophets, to church growth gurus, to higher ups for the sake of their position and supposed authority become primary, then it is the music and poetry and deep-in-one's-bones meaning of the Incarnation that sustains and inspires me, despite all the rest.


Laura Toepfer said...

You get a big, "Hear, hear!" from me. One thing that makes me grumpy is when churches ignore the likes of the people who are actually part of their congregation in favor of the hypothetical likes of people who are not in the congregation. This is not about not reaching out, but that we become, in the excellent phrase a friend coined, "the needy girl at the bar," trying to be what we're not in order to get a date. And it says something strange about us, I think. Besides, one thing that doesn't attract anybody is artificiality.

At any rate, it's good to hear from you. I've got you on the feed so any time you write, know that you've got readers wishing you the best.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Amen to the whole thing! I, too, find God through liturgy and music, and I know that aesthetics play a large role in my spiritual experiences.

I had a wonderful surprise when Dear Friend and I returned from a trip this weekend. My son, the not-so-Little Emperor, told me that he had accompanied his father to a new church--the one that my ex's new girlfriend and her children attend. It was a nondenominational church with praise music.

My 13-year-old announced to me, "Mom, it didn't feel like church at all! They had these big screens and guitars and drums. I almost feel like I need to be rebaptized!" ;-)

We've never had a discussion (that I can remember) about worship styles. The Emperor is a pretty typical teen, too---likes his metal and rap music. But he was totally turned off by the music and the lack of liturgy. (I explained to him that "once baptized, always baptized." ;-)

And I told Dear Friend "I think that boy is an Episcopalian!" Now I just hope he can remain one, without some "church consultant" convincing my parishes that dumping our music and our liturgy will somehow double the membership...


o-mom said...

St, Matthew's Passion, really??? hmmm

let us talk about rite and trappings and St. Matthews Passion another time. the head is fine, what says the heart?

BooCat said...

I completely agree. After being out of the church for twenty years, one of the things that attracted me to the Episcopal Church was the music and the liturgy.

Am I saying that praise music does not have its place? Not at all, it is completely appropriate up at our diocesan camp while on retreat, around the fireplace in the lodge with guitars blazing, or in the parish hall with the students at some social gathering. In the nave of the church during the Eucharist service, however, is not that place.

As a member of the choir, judging from the positive feedback we receive when we have sung some particularly beautiful anthem or setting for the Mass, I would gather that we are not simply singing for each other. The comments seem to more than mere politeness.

There have been several people who started off saying they would like us to sing praise music on Sunday morning, but after they stayed with us for a while, they admitted that the Episcopal hymns and service music had "grown on them."

Caminante said...

I wanted to post a comment to the other place where you wrote about it but typepad won't let me. Can you send me your email to lacinvt94 at aol etc?

IT said...

Sent over by Doxy from Elizabeth's blog...

Completely hear you klady! I have been in love with classic polyphony since high school. Which led my mother to a certain dry amusement when she would come home; her friends kids were listening to rock, her daughter had cranked up the Tallis and Allegri. (I was an odd child....)

As you know I'm churchy with BP, and we go to the Cathedral in San Diego. It has a fine, classic music program with multiple choirs and of course smells and bells. It is also politically very progressive and strongly involved in social justice. I bet it will be the first place in DioSD to bless same sex couples. It is growing place, and gives the lie to the idea that classical music and formal liturgy is a turn-off.

I think people do like structure, tradition, and liturgy--as Doxy's son said, it "feels" like church. But When BP was church shopping, we also visited our local parish, which is full of really nice people but a little "low". And struggling with numbers.

Just FWIW.

susan s. said...

Just have to tell you this. . . We normally have very good music and liturgy. And the congregation sings well and loves to participate. Our choir director/organist works with the various committees to provide good Hymns and Service Music, using the '82 Hymnal, Wonder Love and Praise, and Voices Found. The choir usually does an Anthem and a motet on Sundays. However, every Ash Wednesday during the imposition of ashes, the choir sings the Allegri 'Miserere.' The congregation in general looks forward to this. This year our choir director received an email last week from a member of the church who pointed out that the Miserere wasn't "very congregational!" This struck me as very weird.