February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
May 22, 2012
Before moving to North Carolina to begin a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill, I lived just outside of Nashville, TN. During my four years there, many of my friends were Nashville natives and even more of them were aspiring audio engineers, producers, and recordings artists who came to the city hoping to find work on Music Row. For this reason, the Ryman Auditorium held a special spiritual significance within my circle of friends. Not only is the Ryman the original home of the Grand Old Opry, but it is also one of the most intimate and acoustically wonderful places to hear a show in the whole city. On Valentine’s Day 2006, the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós played an engagement at the Ryman which would become a watershed moment for nearly all of my Nashville-area friends, and despite the fact that I was not in attendance––and in fact, my 19-year-old Philistine ears had never heard of them at the time––I would come to think of this concert as an important and transformative spiritual experience within the lives of faith that I saw lived out around me.
Of course, the idea of having a “spiritual” experience at a rock show––even if it is technically a post-rock show––is not new. Accounts of concerts as “religious experiences” have become nearly ubiquitous in the blogosphere and in pop criticism. What makes Sigur Rós a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon is their lyrics. Since the band is from Iceland, the majority of its songs are written in Icelandic, a language which none of my friends who attended the concert understood. But even more interesting is the band’s frequent use of an entirely fictional language called “Vonlenska” or “Hopelandic,” which is intentionally devoid of any semantic content. Their 2002 album, called simply “( ),” is sung entirely in “Hopelandic.” So what does it mean to have a spiritual experience with music that not only conveys its textual meaning in a language that one doesn’t understand, but even actively resists semantic meaning altogether?
As I observed in my first post last week, cases studies like the music of Sigur Rós mean that our analyses of rock-inspired praise and worship music must account for theology that is being constructed at a non-verbal level in the music itself. Below, I would like to sketch out a few of the implicit theological tenets of praise and worship music, partially by drawing on some of the observations that James K.A. Smith made in his recent “Open Letter to Praise Bands.” I would like to emphasize that as someone working in the humanities––and someone without any formal theological training whatsoever––I am not interested in whether or not this implicit “theology of worship” is orthodox or even philosophically cogent. I am simply interested in providing some articulation of this non-verbal theology in order to begin an honest conversation.
1. “Worship is not something you do, it’s something that happens to you…”
The above statement is something I heard a local mega-church pastor say at a recent worship event I attended. In the contemporary evangelical neo-Calvinist (mis)readings of concepts like “sovereignty” and “depravity,” there is little (if any) room for human agency. Worship becomes a place where we actively surrender our claims to agency and wait for the activity of the Holy Spirit. Smith notes in his “Open Letter” that the type of passive consumption that characterizes a concert experience is not conducive to worship because it does not provide a space for the community to act. But under the logic of depravity (at least as outlined by this mega-church pastor), any assertion of one’s self or one’s community within the arena of worship is nothing short of vanity. If worship is not about acting, but rather about being acted upon, then the overwhelming sonic experience of the rock concert––especially when paired with the semantically meaningless phonemes of “Hopelandic”––provides a perfect recipe for the evangelical worshipper to simply get out of the way and let the Spirit move.
Parenthetically, this may also explain the penchant among many young worshippers for listening to worship music on their iPods and in their cars. As I mentioned in my last post, John Calvin warned that the use of instruments and even the singing of harmonies in worship ran the risk of distracting from the purity of the worship experience because of the potential that they could create a visual focal point for an immaterial God. It seems that the fullest realization of this logic would be the individual worshipper sitting along in his/her room or car and simply receiving the words of worship which are sung over them by the disembodied voice of a recording. Here there is no risk of visual confusion and thus no risk of creating an idolatrous “graven image,” but there is also no risk of accidentally exercising one’s agency. The recording ensures that the focus of the worshipper is immaterial and the effects come from outside.
2. “Join the angels now!”
One of the results of the aforementioned loss of individual and communal agency within the worship sphere is the inability to use communal authority to assert and affirm theology. This can be seen clearly in the case of David Crowder’s version of the traditional Protestant “Doxology” (begin around 2:50 to hear the final “verse” and “chorus” and please ignore the visual component of the video).
We see many significant things going on in Crowder’s performance which complicate more traditional readings of the “Doxology.” First of all, the sheer fact of repetition which is inherent in a verse-refrain structure complicates a reading of the Doxology as simply a statement of belief. The implication would seem to be that the statements of the Doxology are not propositional beliefs that we assert once––punctuating our assertions with a communal “Amen”––but that we rather enter into a process of continual assertion. Crowder suggests this with his encouragement to the congregation to “join the angels.” Rather than being a statement of faith that originates in and is validated by communal participation, Crowder’s “Doxology” originates in and is validated by the disembodied, eternal singing of the angels which is always already in progress.
Similarly, the word “Amen” undergoes a musical and theological re-imagination due to its numerous repetitions and the alteration of the traditional plagal cadence. Typically, the strong closing cadence provides an opportunity for communal assent to the propositions contained in the Doxology, drawing musically on the traditional meanings of the word Amen as “so be it” or “truly, it is so.” Crowder’s performance, however, replaces the strength of the traditional cadence with an open-ended vacillation, recasting the Amen as “chorus” and the traditional Doxology text as “verse.” Despite his evocations of its more traditional definitions with shouts of “so be it Lord” and “it’s true,” Crowder’s “Amen” indicates a sort of musical and theological openness when compared with its traditional counterpart. It would seem that rather than simply affirming the truth of the propositions articulated in the doxology, the chorus of “Amens” challenges the congregation to participate in their eternal enunciation, which is at once certain and still incomplete. In this case, it is not the promises of the text, but rather the very act of singing together with one’s fellow believers which reifies both certainty and expectation.
3. “When we all get to heaven…”
It should come as no surprise that evangelicalism is relentlessly eschatological. References to heaven, hell, and judgement are mainstays of evangelical vocabulary, and music is very important to this conversation, particularly with reference to heaven. Nearly all instances of corporate singing at major evangelical gatherings frame the experience as “the sound of heaven,” relying on both the eschatological language of the songs themselves as well as introductions or interpretations provided by worship leaders and speakers. While references to heaven help give the gathered congregants an interpretative lens through which to understand the overwhelming concert experience, there is perhaps less recognition of the fact that defining “heaven” experientially in contexts such as these causes the word, even when divorced from contexts of corporate worship, to take its referent from exactly this type of experiential overload. Smith observes in his “Open Letter” that worship should not traffic in “that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload,” but if the aim of worship is to capture heaven itself, it seems that anything short of total sensory overload would be disingenuous.
All of these observations are provisional, but I hope that they at least pave the way for a more serious theological engagement with praise and worship music in the future. If nothing else, I hope to silence criticisms that praise and worship music isn’t valuable because it “doesn’t communicate any substantive theology.” While the theology that it communicates is certainly subject to scrutiny and critique, we must take seriously the ways in which the music itself participates in its articulation.
If you missed part one or two of my discussion of praise and worship music, you can find links to them below.