If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn. For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:
The present chapter is entitled: “Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water or Putting the Baby in Fresh Clothes: Music.”
FAITHFUL CHURCH MUSIC
Dawn argues that many churches seek to reach out to the unchurched – to fulfill the great commission. But when the church fails in this, music becomes a convenient “scapegoat.” “The music of the faithful church is jettisoned to compensate for long-term failure to be the Church, inviting unbelievers by friendship and by active Christian life.” (p. 166)
In other words, the church is failing, and the assumption is that the way to “fix” the problem is a new approach to ministry, including worship. David Wells writes:
“[T]he fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to staunch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.” (David Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 30)
But this is a problem that is not often seen. Questions of style and cultural relevance are assumed to be the same thing. Evangelism dies a slow death because the burden is placed on the weekly worship gathering rather than the scattered community.
But in such a consumerist culture, the task of the musician becomes little more than “to market a product whose truth is not the issue. The issue is solely how well the advertising is done and how many customers you can sell on your product. “ (Paul Westermeyer, “Professional Concerns Forum: Chant, Bach and Popular Culture,” The American Organist 27, no. 11, (Nov 1993), p. 35)
GOD AS THE SUBJECT AND OBJECT OF MUSIC
The question is simply this: should worship be designed to reflect God or to appeal to those who have rejected Him?
Those who suggest the latter have three problems to deal with, according to Dawn:
(1) The congregation is there to worship, not to be evangelized.
(2) This approach assumes that God’s work is benefited from human efforts.
(3) Such songs diminish if not ignore key issues of God and faith.
Dawn suggests that it is possible that such approaches can actually be promoting “disinformation.” She again quotes Neil Postman, who suggests that disinformation is not necessarily false, but is instead
“misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing….[W]hen news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp. 107-8)
Dawn suggests that many contemporary worship songs rely on repetition and blurry theological distinctions (she cites a song in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are described as “savior,” which only adds to the confusion over the Trinity).
FORMATION OF THE BELIEVER’S CHARACTER
This does not mean that worship should be cerebral or didactic and ignore feelings. Worship that engages only the head or “heart” (and here I use “heart” in the contemporary sense, not in the Biblical sense) does not shape character or encourage the participation of the human will.
“We want our worship music, then, to appeal to the whole person – will, emotions, and intellect. Our goal is that worship practices will form character so that believers respond to God with commitment, love, thought, and virtuous action. The Scriptures make it clear that God wants his people not just to feel good, but to be good.” (p. 175)
She goes on to discuss the way music shapes both thought and character.
“Does our choice of worship music increase or reduce our capacity to listen or to think theologically? Does superficial music dumb down the faith? Does our music nurture sensitivity to God?…Another important question that we must ask is whether our worship music is true to human experience.” (p. 176)
What often happens, Dawn observes, is that churches seek to engineer false experiences through “happy” songs that reflect neither the joy nor the sorrow of genuine Christian life. How can we teach our people to mourn if we have jettisoned the language of mourning? I often think of a worship leader I once knew who was removed from his position for not smiling enough. We’ve exchanged sackcloth and ash for Colgate.
FORMATION OF THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
Dawn suggests that one of the major questions to be asked is whether the music unifies a congregation. She rejects the suggestion to split congregations into two different services, often categorized as “contemporary” and “traditional.”
Doing this requires selecting music that speaks of God’s character rather than the felt needs of demographic groups which, she argues, have radically different felt needs based on age, gender, personal preferences, etc.
But here is where I regrettably part ways with Dawn. In principle, I agree wholeheartedly and see value to the health of both the individual and the community they inhabit. In practice, however, I feel that Dawn underestimates the consumer-driven culture that she spent so many pages explaining. When consumerism has had its final say, congregation members will insist on music that speaks to their own subjective experiences. The idol of subjectivism she identified in chapter 3 cannot be so easily escaped. Worse, is that when consumerism has had its say, other music is not just discarded based on preferences, but vilified for the inherent “wrongness” of the approach. This is why for many churches, organ music is sneered at but guitars are welcomed – or vice versa.
DIVERSITY OF STYLE
Dawn does argue for a diversity of styles of music in the worship experience, which, she argues, not only reflects the diversity of expressions in the Psalms but also can speak to the diverse experiences of the congregation.
While she insists that such diversity is not a “matter of taste,” I again feel that she does not fully evaluate the consumer demand for songs that fit personal experiences rather than appreciate the diversity represented in the worshipping community.
THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE
Dawn argues persuasively that “lower” forms of culture can actually shape the way we digest spiritual truth. She cites C.S. Lewis in arguing that art can either be “received” or “used.” When we use a work of art, literature or music, we are not allowing its message to shape our lives.
Recall Smith’s category of the “thick practice,” one that shapes our character. In cultural studies, we often speak of art as having a “thick description,” meaning art that speaks to multiple levels of experience whether they be religious, social, economic, political, etc. When we “use” worship, we often digest only the surface level meaning – and often contemporary worship’s penchant toward feelings and emotion prevent it from even having a thick description. The end result is that shallow, emotive worship music develops shallow, emotive worshippers – and then we wonder why the Church has so little impact on our culture.
QUESTIONS TO ASK OF STYLES
Here I’ll summarize her key points:
Honesty: Does the music express truth accurately? Is the emotional weight of the lyrics reflected by the subject, or does it contain “happy” lyrics simply because it is upbeat?
No vanity/show: Music is performative, yet it is not merely a performance. Is God the subject and object of worship? A better question is: does the worship experience deepen appreciation for God? Some music may actually disrupt worship by turning focus from God to human experience.
Association: Do we associate music or worship elements with a particular venue? Some object to certain genres because we associate them with contexts where worship does not happen. We might object to a disco ball in the worship service – not because there’s anything immoral about it, but we associate it too closely with the dance club to be used without becoming a disruption.
Edification: Are worshippers edified in their worship? The desire to use worship as evangelism is built on solid motivations, but this is not its purpose. Worship is for a believing community to respond to the revealed character and will of God.
PROPIETY AND MUSICAL WORTH
Dawn concludes her chapter with a discussion of music that is both proper to the worship environment and worthwhile to the congregation. I will cease my discussion here as I believe her earlier points are well-founded and well-made.
The issue I see affecting the Church as a whole is a diminished understanding of what and who worship is meant to be for. Underneath this problem is the lack of true connection and commitment of younger generations to the Church – which in itself is caused by a multiplicity of factors.
Part of the problem stems from the ascendancy of preference and opinion over the truths of God as revealed to us through scripture and the community of faith that surrounds it. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll look at Dawn’s chapter: “Worship Ought to Kill Us: The Word.”