Yet another painful experience of modern Evangelical “worship,” once the fury and chagrin has drained away, awakens in my mind this scene from my boyhood:
It is a summer Sunday evening service in a little Baptist church in rural Michigan, hard by the fields and woods. Everyone who plays an instrument (all “acoustic” in those days), young or old, skilled or not, has been invited to accompany the congregational singing, for that is what is done on Sunday evenings, when the service is less formal. The minister stops the music near the end of the hymn, taps the pulpit, and says, “Last verse a cappella.” Everyone knows what this means and in four-part harmony a hundred voices, men, women, and children, sing,
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heav’ns morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
The sound drifts from the open windows and fills the glade, the hymn ending, as life does, unaccompanied by anything that can be heard or seen. Even as a small boy I find this almost unbearably beautiful, and must choke back tears.
You can’t go home again, so I wouldn’t expect to find that church now in the same condition. Long gone, no doubt, is the excellent pianist who, on a fine concert grand donated in the estate of one of its members, played perfectly executed Chopin preludes to those evening services after bathing her arthritic hands in warm wax. These uncommon things were not uncommon in the wilder, less homogenized churches of my youth; surprising things were often found, and rare beauty was not all that rare. It was a silver age, and I didn’t know it until it was past.
It was not a golden age, for even though the entire church sang from the hymnal in four-part harmony, the children learning the parts by standing with their parents and following the rise and fall of the notes on the page, the hymns, in whole or in part, were often bad. The worst offense was bad theology, particularly that of the Holiness Movement, which produced a great many popular gospel songs in which striving for holiness in this world became its actual achievement, the gracious work of God in Christ issuing in fulfillment or completeness of joy or freedom from sin in this world. This little church didn’t really believe the theology of these hymns, but sang them anyway for a good Arian reason: they were pretty. The theology, however, was false doctrine; it makes an unbeliever of our Lord, or at least shows him to be insufficiently sanctified, being, as he was, a man of sorrows--and it made liars or hypocrites of everyone who sang them.
The second offense, almost as great as the first, was the imposition in many of these hymns of prayers or effusions which were not properly those of the whole church, but only a segment of its membership, and thus were not appropriate for congregational singing. This would include songs that indicated the mental or emotional state of the singer, the nature of his personal relation with Jesus, patriotic hymns excluding Christians who were not citizens of the United States, hymns that presumed the singer had undergone a “salvation” experience, especially since many of them frankly indicated that before this experience the singer had lived a life of moral squalor, and after the Cleansing sin and unhappiness went away: “Life now is sweet and my joy is complete, for I’m Saved! Saved! Saved!”
So far the songs were not, perhaps, wicked, only private, but they became error with the unmistakable implication that so-called Christians whose lives hadn’t followed this course were not saved like we were--their apparent grace and piety obviously self-deception and works-righteousness. (This to my mind is the greatest evil of revivalist theology, not least since it assures sequestration of its adherents from the rest of the Church, encouraging ignorance of its history and character, not to mention mistreatment of other believers.) And there were hymns, both old and new (for it was a tradition open to the new), that impressed one as too “light” in one way or another to be sung in worship of Almighty God.
My generation, my abysmally stupid and culpably foolish generation, had the opportunity to keep the good--for there was very much good here--discard the bad, and bring in a golden age of church music, an age of beauty and invention, now in obedient harmony with the Great Tradition, with good theology instead of bad, and with an eye trained upon the history of whole Church and its music. Instead, however, it went as bad as it possibly could, seizing upon all the old mistakes it could find and amplifying them.
Instead of cultivating the use of the human voice combining in part-harmony that reflects the glorious differences of age and sex in the congregations of the faithful, it took away the good its church already possessed, electronically increasing and augmenting the instrumental voices, promoting the soloist and “praise team,” reducing the congregation to a unison accompaniment by taking away the hymnals and (being weighed in the balances and found wanting) projecting the words on the wall. Instead of turning their people toward the richness of the Christian musical tradition, their teachers spent their time justifying and promoting the music of rebels and drug addicts, now half-converted into something called “Christian rock.” When there was hymnal revision, instead of correcting the bad theology (where it could be done), the words were dumbed down and ironed out to feminist (egalitarian) specifications.
Whatever the Reformation revived in making the principal--not the only, but the principal--musicians the congregation itself has been effectively killed by a generation of willful, ignorant upstarts who, parading themselves about as specialists in worship, have turned the liturgy into a noisy religious spectacle whose Zeus or Apollo is now named “Jesus.”
Not only has the catholic advice of hiding the choir chastely from view, or turning its faces to the sides of the chancel to do what can be done about avoiding the disease of celebrity, not been followed, but the musicians have given amplified microphones and placed before the congregation as performers, where they, along with the pastor--stripped as far as possible of any shred of authority he might have had over “worship”--serves as part of the act that brings them in. He has in fact become a functionary and buffoon whose cash value as a minister is based on his ability to draw them in and keep them in, when if he were a faithful, apostolic, man it is more likely he would chase most of his ill-gotten congregation away.
The argument is that bringing them in will get them to heaven--but how can you show them heaven when you are presiding over a little piece of hell--a place where people are given vast quantities religious stimulation under the name of the “gospel,” the end of which can only be the a vast burned-over district where they have been effectively inoculated against Christianity by Evangelical religion, just as one is inoculated against Mozart by a steady diet of rock, or the realities of the world, including its beauties, by drug-eating, or against the power of words by overwhelming waves of pictures?
I have heard that some Christian young people, robbed of them by my generation, are beginning to learn hymns in part-singing again--a beauty denied them by parents whose jumbled piety reached no further than the concern that their children listen to Christian rather than anti-Christian rock. I wish to encourage these young people; they are headed in the right direction.
Not everything that has been produced in the last forty years has been bad. Some of it is excellent, especially songs that put scripture to music. That is the right track, and I would say to these young people that it is not one you need to follow alone. You should reject the mistakes of not only your parents’ generation, but those of your grandparents, your great-grandparents, your great-great grandparents--and your own--all the while appropriating whatever of the good, the true and the beautiful you have found among them. Your will find foolishness and ugliness everywhere, but I am convinced that the greatest help for you will be in looking for wisdom beyond your own brief tradition, correcting it by others (as the spirits of the musicians, like the spirits of the prophets, are subject to the musicians) and adding the good things you have received to what has been received by others in all times, all places, and all parts of the Church. This is all subject to the wisdom of its pastoral authority, which is greater than, and has the responsibility to define and control, the music of the congregation.