February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
May 16, 2012
“Praise and worship” music is one of the most oft-evoked and heavily contested markers of evangelical Protestantism in the United States. Its most vocal advocates herald praise and worship and its meteoric rise since the 1960s as nothing less than the rebirth of Western Christianity, citing its unique ability to attract an entire generation of “lost sheep” into the fold. On the other hand, its most virulent critics condemn praise and worship as dangerous or blatantly heretical, believing that the rock-inspired musical style and lyrics drawn from the misguided teenage sensuality of popular culture provide a feeble and treacherous theological grounding. Regardless of which side of the debate people find themselves on, their conversations demonstrate clearly that this music generates meaning in very powerful and specific ways. But in these conversations about meaning, a duality is often evoked between the musical form and textual content of musical selections. Even when it is not made explicit, this divide between form and content is evoked in nearly every positive and negative assessment of the repertory. By this account, music is little more than a container, capable of making theological texts more or less palatable to the congregants’ ears but not charged with any theological significance in its own right. Ethnomusicologist Monique Ingalls has identified this duality as “a core tenet of evangelical musical ontology: that music, in and of itself, is a morally neutral carrier of the Christian message, and thus any musical style can be used in worship” (Ingalls, “Singing Heaven Down to Earth,” 265).
While dualistic musical ontologies such as these are certainly not new within Protestantism (more on this in a forthcoming post), scholars are beginning to recognize their limits and are proposing new modes of engaging with religious cultural productions. An affront to Descartes and Christian “worldview” thinking alike, the work of Christian philosopher (and fellow TOJ contributor) James K.A. Smith strongly makes this point, arguing that human beings are not primarily “thinking things,” but rather are most fundamentally affective creatures: driven by desire rather than through convincing syllogistic argument. While traditional notions of “worldview” and “belief” require the accurate internalization of propositional knowledge for proper transmission and dispersal, desires are trained and inculcated by what Smith calls “liturgies.” For Smith,
liturgies or worship practices are rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity––they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us. They also inculcate particular visions of the good life through affective, precognitive means, and do so in a way that trumps other ritual formations (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 93).
In this way, religious music plays a role in shaping belief, not merely through its ability to preserve theological texts, but also in its ability to convey theology through the communal experiences of sound. Even when music conveys or contains textual elements, it is not reducible to those elements.
While Smith does plenty of the “hard work of unveiling” the specifics of these liturgies in his book, he regrettably affords only a few short pages for the discussion of music, directing readers to arguments advanced in works by more “musical” theologians such as Don Saliers or Jeremy Begbie. Curiously though, despite the clear support they would seem to receive in Smith’s, Begbie’s, or Saliers’ or articulate critiques, there is still a lack of serious engagement with praise and worship music. Certainly this is due in part to the lack of familiarity with the core of the repertory or with its rock-inspired musical grammar, but even within the scholarly community, arguments against praise and worship music are often couched in the same bald terms as those advanced by its least nuanced critics––namely, that it is musically or theologically bankrupt and thus unworthy of attention.
But reconsidered in light of Smith’s observations, one must explore the ways in which the music itself––what Smith calls “the materiality of song”––is implicated in these assessments. Identifying modern praise and worship music as insufficiently sophisticated in comparison to Western classical music or traditional Protestant hymnody is once again an exercise of the rational cogito which scholars have spilt so much ink trying to decenter. If we are to embrace a more affective model of subjective as proposed by Smith, this model must run all the way to the ground floor. In his philosophical tour de force A Theory of Art, musicologist Karol Berger observes that
While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object (Berger, A Theory of Art, 34.)
Acknowledging that this provocative statement does not necessarily hold true for divisions between visual and musical arts, I think it does provide an interesting––albeit aphoristic––distinction between the theological paradigms at work in traditional Protestant hymnody and modern praise and worship music. Praise and worship constitutes its theology in the experiential shaping of desire, rather than through the construction of desirable objects for mental scrutiny. In short, praise and worship music is offering its listeners compelling theological content, but that content is intimately bound up with the “materiality” of the music itself.
In this way, praise and worship could be considered one of the most truly “postmodern” products of the contemporary church, despite the protests that this statement might raise from its most ardently conservative devotees. For many, if not most, fans of praise and worship music, the repetitive and piously simplistic texts of the songs are not a detriment, but rather their biggest advantage because they do not detract from the overwhelming experience of singing/listening to the songs themselves (more about this, including the role of recordings in this scheme in a forthcoming post). It is an art form that is thoroughly and primarily engaged in the creation of a non-verbal theology through the manipulation of emotional content in sound and time rather than in a rationalistic construction of propositional theology.
This diagnosis of the problems surrounding contemporary reception of praise and worship music is only the first of a three-part series that I’d like to do on this topic. In my next post, I’ll discuss the ways in which the “form/content divide” which I identified above is rooted in several crucial intellectual changes around the time of the Reformation and in the final post, I’ll attempt to identify the ways in which the proliferation of rock-inspired worship music enacts a particularly evangelical theology of worship by engaging with some of the observations from Smith’s recent “Open Letter to Praise Bands.”
Berger, Karol. A Theory of Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Ingalls, Monique. “Singing Heaven Down to Earth: Spiritual Journeys, Eschatological Sounds, and Community Formation in Evangelical Conference Worship.” Ethnomusicology No. 55, Vol. 2: 255-79.
Smith, James K.A.. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.