(Editor’s Note: This comment is from the string of comments on Cantor Magness’ last post, “A Scary Video.” Some of you have read it already there but I thought it was worth a read for a broader audience. I have known Phillip for nearly a decade now and have learned much from him about the liturgy and music and look forward over the years as the Brothers of John the Steadfast learn from him as well. He is a gifted lay theologian and an even more gifted church musician. As a lay theologian he is a model for all Brothers of John the Steadfast. Phillip was not sure when the video was shot and not one, but three of our top notch readers did. Here is his updated commentary now that he found out the scary video was from the late 1970’s.)
Hey, hey! I knew someone in our BJS community would be able to help us out – but THREE of you in less than 24 hours! That’s great!
OK – so it was late 70’s, not late 80’s. That does mean I should change my article one bit: the style may have been sanitized rock-n-roll, but it was not “behind-the-times”. For late 70’s, it was fairly cutting-edge New Wave. And I do give them credit for being tight. (musician slang for being in sync rhythmically and not hitting any wrong notes) And one has to admit that there is a certain catchiness to the whole thing.
But now I think this illustrates an even stronger point: even if the Church can succeed in being “hip” for a moment, the world will move “hip” immediately somewhere else. And so looking back such efforts will always seem comical, at best. (I have had similar riots singing some of the religious pop sheet music in a Sinatra style by well-intentioned Anglicans in the 50’s, and have had a real fun time singing some religious pop from the 1920s.) So I think people will look back at LCMS “praise teams” in 30 years and get similar chuckles. It’s just the way of our “fast changing world”, to quote Dr. Barry.
The core problem with ALL of this is that the music is driven by a desired sound. It may be the beat of the Charleston, the lush chords of the jazz era, or the punky grooves of New Age. So the text is then contrived to “fit” into the prescribed sound, and deemed OK as long as the sentiments are judged to be religious and sincere. Music is valued for its psychological effects, not for its ability to magnify the Word.
A good text may actually find its musical form in a peppy beat (LSB 364, “Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia”), pick up some jazzy chords (LSB 853, “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord”) or even be hip for a moment (LSB 346, “Gabriel’s Message” as sung by Sting). But such music succeeds over time in the Church – and is valued as good art even by secular musicians – because it is driven by the words, not by the beat or the harmony.
Jesus is indeed our Friend. The great Good News is that He calls us friends, even though we are unworthy servants. But without the primacy of the lyric element, music cannot proclaim that message. At best it might be able to carry it along in an obscured way; at worst it is simply a diversion.