Why I'm Happy To Sing Bad Christian Music
Pope Francis has called for an end to the 'mediocrity, superficiality and banality' that has entered into Catholic liturgical music. He was addressing a conference on sacred music at the Vatican last week. As you'd expect,he was actually quite wise and balanced: according to Aleteia, he said Catholics should use the old stuff but not in a nostalgic or 'archaeological' way, but 'inculturate' worship in today's musical language. They should 'embody and translate the Word of God in songs, sounds, and harmonies that make the hearts of our contemporaries throb...'
Fair enough; and I don't know enough about Catholic worship to know what counts as banal and superficial.
I know a good bit about contemporary evangelical worship, though, and can confidently say that in the mediocrity stakes we're right up there with the best of them. I'm of the generation that saw the old hymns I grew up with largely swept out of use in the so-called 'worship wars'. Some of them were just lovely, as full of poetry as of theology. What's replaced them is largely, yes: banal, superficial and mediocre. It expresses a dreadfully limited range of theology, with very little feel for language or insight into real Christian experience. There are honourable exceptions, but on the whole it's religious pop: catchy, but shallow and disposable.
And that is absolutely fine.
Because every new movement in Christian music has been met with the same objections. Isaac Watts, the granddaddy of all English hymn-writing, was regarded as dangerously irreverent when he first put quill to paper. He had his day in the sun, but was scorned as primitive and over-emotional by the next generation. John Keble, the Victorian Anglican church leader whose hymns and poems – which sold hundreds of thousands in their day – now seem unbearably stuffy, was sniffed at as being too much like a Methodist because he dared to put actual feelings into his poems. Non-conformist Victorian gospel hymnwriters like Ira Sankey, unashamedly emotional, were regarded with horror by conventionally religious people. It goes even further back – followers of John Mason, the very odd end-times prophet of Water Stratford in 17th-century Buckinghamshire, were known for making up simple songs that wouldn't be out of place today. Here's one:
Our Jesus this day is proclaimed in the streets,
He's visibly crowned and he's highly renowned
From the East to the West, from the North to the South,
'Tis the language I hear in everyone's mouth.
That Jesus is King, let us joyfully sing
Our Jesus is King, our Jesus is King.
It was, the learned Puritans thought, trivial nonsense – and dangerous nonsense, too.
But what's happening – what always happens – is that there comes a point when spiritual experience just can't be contained within the words that used to be used to express it. The wineskins are too old. If the new wine of the Gospel is put into them, they will burst and it will be lost. The artists, the musicians, the wordsmiths have to do something new. Much of it will be pretty bad ('Jesus, I'm so in love with you') or sound as if it's come straight out of a buzzword generator (Lord, king, Jesus, love, praise, worship, glory – mix 'em up at random and there's your lyric). But out of it often comes genuine praise and genuine worship, in which the hearts of God's people are stirred with awe and wonder.
When that happens, musical traditionalists like me have two options: we can resist change and insist on everyone thinking and feeling like we do, or we can accept, learn and grow in unexpected directions.
Does that mean we should just sing whatever the worship group chooses to inflict on us? No: we have no excuse for not being discerning, and sometimes there are painful conversations to be had when something just isn't up to scratch artistically or theologically. And what the wise pastor has to do is make sure that creativity is liberated, but disciplined. He or she has to be open to the voice of God speaking through the congregation as well as the traditional gatekeepers of worship, while at the same time remembering who's been placed in charge and exercising that responsibility.
What's not often remembered today is the reason why organs became so popular in churches in the 19th century. One reason, at least, is that one person could be responsible for all the music in church – and one person is much easier to control than a group. So out went the village minstrels with their serpents and bass-viols and sackbuts, tipsy at evensong, perhaps, and in came the prim and proper organ voluntaries, the old dance tunes trimmed of their flourishes and made to keep proper time. What we've seen in the last 20 or 30 years is the return of the minstrels' gallery, only now it's a stage with speakers and wires everywhere. We should be glad: power is back with the people.
And if they choose, they can even sing hymns.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods