Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

An Atheist Presents A Compelling Vision of Paradise For Christmas

Tim Minchin has a lot of objections to Christianity that he presents his Christmas tune White Wine In The Sun:

But put that aside and you get to this part of the song where he addresses his infant daughter:

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won’t understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl
When you’re twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You’ll know what ever comes

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun

I don’t understand a lot of visions people have of paradise – giant gold cities, endless orgasmic pleasure, it’s all kind of weird, but this, this I get.

Happy Easter

I’ll just leave this little ditty here:

What is Best In Life?

Permit me a bit of amateur psychology. I think we in the Western world would have to try very hard to miss that a lot of us spend time seeking a handful of things. We pursue goods that are easy to reach. Food and alcohol, sex, contest, and music are the most obvious examples.

Food and alcohol do their work immediately, with the taste, and then with the feelings of satiety and/or relaxation.

Assuming one is not starving or dying of thirst, it is fairly common knowledge that the strongest of physical passions is the sexual. Basically everyone thinks sex is good. Just the thought of it can cause people to obsess, and even the lacking of it can satisfy in other ways (e.g., the feelings of having a “crush” can themselves be pleasant). We seek and give sex, broadly considered, in various ways. A good number of regular Western pastimes involve indulging in this, if not always with the intent of actually having sexual intercourse, then at least with the intent of enjoying the sensations that imagination brings. Romance movies generate “crush” feelings; pornography more directly aims at sexual titillation. Advertisements often play on one or both pleasures. The lyrics of much music uses these tropes. The general habits of the clubbing world are obviously all circling around this particular passion.

People also enjoy defeating threats. The hope of victory, the risk of failure, and the adrenaline rush that drives us to seek the first in the face of the second. The two most obvious instruments for creating this sensation are sports events and action films.

Then there’s the good of music. I’ve quoted Richard Hooker before on this blog on the power of music, but here he is again:

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.

Music is so beloved because it has the power to alter our moods in a very direct way. Though we may lack a certain good in reality, music can still make a chimera dance on our mind’s stage.  Pop music is certainly not an exception here. As Roger Scruton notes:

This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop—from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga—is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. … The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. … And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended.

This aspect of pop music might be one of its main attractions: in its common forms, it overwhelms with the passions. It forces people to feel. Of course, a great deal of it aims at producing one or both of the previously mentioned passions: sexual euphoria or something like what the Greeks would have called thumos.

These goods are the easiest to reach, and so become the highest end for many. As Wittgenstein said in another context, people are captured by an image, a picture of something within their grasp, and often lose desire for any others beyond their immediate reach. But there are other kinds of goods, ones that often have more of a slow burn than a quick sizzle. Yet these kinds of goods can provide a more deep and lasting enjoyment of life than the ones above.

Imagine accomplishing a difficult objective. You decide to do something that seems like a good idea,  you eventually face opposition from nature or other people, you persevere and reach the goal. How do you feel? Bored? Of course not. The experience is often more pleasant than it would have been had there been no resistance at all. The victory through struggle gives knowledge of self as adequate to overcome difficulties, and to know this is to know something good. Further, you will have the good you originally sought.

Another good difficult to reach, but which provides much deeper and lasting satisfaction, is friendship. Knowing and loving another human being in a significant way. Human beings are the height of creation. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, creativity, beauty, humour, quirkiness, majesty, and piety, both in combination and separately, when deeply appreciated, can bring much joy to the people who experience them. But these are things that can only be discovered with time and effort; one must decide to sacrifice time and comfort and, instead of seeking directly pleasurable pursuits, to endure boredom, awkward moments, moral flaws and injuries, weaknesses and insecurities, and any number of other things that make people unattractive. Yet when another person is deeply known and loved, the happiness is almost incomparable.

Then there are intellectual goods. The human capacity to understand reality abstractly, as a coherent whole, to ask and answer the question “why?”, is arguably what distinguishes us most from the kingdom of nature. And curious people fulfill this potential when they encounter an intriguing but difficult question, and then pursue the answer with determination. When they reach their destination, a deeper understanding of the “why?” produces a sensation that artists and poets have long compared to elemental forces of nature: fire, light, electricity, and even a kind of intoxication. To seek and to find wisdom is one of the most exquisite pleasures human beings know.

But the highest good is not any of these things in themselves. It is nothing other than God. The most pleasurable good that human beings can pursue is understanding of the Creator, the ultimate answer to “why?”, and friendship with this being, the one who contains every good quality in its most perfect form. But of all pleasures, this is the hardest one to reach, and it cannot initially be reached through the kind of effort to accomplish that I mentioned above. Indeed, Jesus taught that it was impossible unless God gave us a taste for it first: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” God rescues the soul by giving an experience of God’s goodness: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Once this gift has been given, effort to see it more clearly is also given, and when increased clarity is achieved, the root of joy sinks ever deeper. But that gift is laid on a foundation of the first one; to want to pursue God further one must first have seen why he is indeed worth pursuing. The darkened character of our intellects will prevent us from seeing this until God opens our eyes to do so. When he does, we will forever want to see things in the aura of his light.

Give Me That Old Time Worship War

Some things in the past don’t stay in the past. Here’s an attempt to re-hash the internecine struggles over worship music that transpired through the 1980s and 1990s (interspersed with my own thoughts):

By imminent decline, I do not mean imminent disappearance. Commercial forces have too substantial an interest to permit contemporary worship music (CWM) to disappear entirely; and human beings are creatures of habit who do not adapt to change quickly. I do not predict, therefore, a disappearance of CWM, sooner or later. Already, however, I observe its decline. Several years ago (2011) Mark Moring interviewed me for Christianity Today, and in our follow-up communications, he indicated that he thought the zenith of CWM had already happened, and that the movement was already in the direction of traditional hymnody. He did not make any claims about the ratio of CWM to traditional hymns; he merely observed that whatever the ratio was, the see-saw was now moving, albeit slowly, towards traditional hymnody. If the ratio of contemporary-to-traditional was rising twenty years ago, it is falling now; the ratio is now in decline, and I suspect that decline will continue for the foreseeable future. What follows is a painfully abbreviated list of eight reasons why I think this change is happening.

So this gives you a pretty good idea of how this articles is going to go, if you still use contemporary music it’s probably because you’re under the sway of some manner of “commercial forces” which seems to suggest you’re a stooge for some record label or something. A decline, for what it’s worth, would likely be about the only direction that contemporary worship music *could* because, for better or for worse it has become pervasive in evangelical culture. This is like predicting a relative decline in Taylor Swift’s popularity, when you’re on top, there’s pretty much one way to go.

1. CWM hymns not only were/are comparatively poor; they had to be. One generation cannot successfully “compete” with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so. If only one-half of one percent (42 out of over 6,500) of Charles Wesley’s hymns made it even into the Methodist hymnal, it would be hubristic/arrogant to think that any contemporary hymnist is substantially better than he. Most hymnals are constituted of hymns written by people with Wesley’s unusual talent; the editors had the “pick of the litter” of almost two thousand years of hymn-writing. In English hymnals, for instance, we rarely find even ten of Paul Gerhardt’s 140 hymns, even though many musicologists regard him as one of Germany’s finest hymnwriters. Good hymnals contain, essentially, “the best of the best,” the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?

Just speaking arithmetically, one would expect that, at best, each generation could represent itself as well as other generations, permitting hymnal editors to continue to select “the best of the best” from each generation. Were this the case, then one of every fifty hymns we sing should be from one of the fifty generations since the apostles, and, therefore, one of every fifty should be contemporary, the best of the current generation of hymnwriters. Perhaps this is what John Frame meant when, in the second paragraph of his book on CWM, he indicated that he had two goals for his book: to explain some aspects of CWM and to defend its “limited use” in public worship. Perhaps Prof. Frame thought one out of fifty constituted “limited use,” or perhaps he might have permitted as much as one out of ten, I don’t know. But our generation of hymnwriters, while talented and devout, are not more talented or more devout than all other generations, and are surely not so by a ratio of fifty-to-one.

This is an extremely poor and confusing argument to lead with. The point Gordon seems to be making is that there have been several centuries of hymns and from all these composers over all this length of time our current collection of hymns represents the very best of the best. How can contemporary composers even try to compete with that? The implication is that our current collection of hymns is durable whereas most of the current “contemporary” church music is disposable. Except that hymns were also disposable, Gordon says so himself. According to Gordon, Wesley wrote over 6500 of them and we retain 42! Thousands of hymns were composed, sung, and forgotten, they were disposable. Most contemporary worship songs will be composed, sung and then forgotten. It’s the same process, Gordon sees a contrast here where there frankly is none. What of the sacred music prior to hymns? Again, pretty much all forgotten. If even the hymns of Wesley were forgotten, so what? T. David Gordon would be sad? The hymns of Wesley have no power to save! Music may grow and change and maybe some hymns will be recovered and much of contemporary worship music lost, but I do not see a straightforward return to hymns as they have previously been sung as the only inevitable future.

2. Early on in the CWM movement, many groups began setting traditional hymn-lyrics to contemporary melodies and/or instrumentation. Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music, Reformed Praise all recognized how difficult/demanding it is to write lyrics that are not only theologically sound, but significant, profound, appropriate, memorable, and edifying (not to mention metrical). If the canonical Psalms are our model, few hymn-writers could hope to write with such remarkable insight (into God and His creatures, who are only dust) and remarkable craftsmanship (e.g. the first three words of the first Psalm begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph (?), each also has a shin (?), and two of the three also have a resh (?), even though each is only a 3-letter word. Even those unfamiliar with Hebrew cannot miss the remarkable assonance and alliteration in those opening three words: “ashre ha-ish asher”).

I think this point translates as “I like the psalms, also I took at least one ancient Hebrew course .” I have no idea where Gordon is going here, that writing music and lyrics is difficult? So everyone should just give up and resort to Wesley’s attempts? What if Wesley had done that?

3. As a result, the better contemporary hymns (e.g. “How Deep the Father’s Love,” “In Christ Alone”) have been over-used to the point that we have become weary of them. These two of the better CWM hymns are sung a half-dozen times or a even a dozen times annually in many CWM churches; whereas “A Mighty Fortress” may get sung once or twice (if at all); but neither of the two is as good as Luther’s hymn. What is “intrinsically good” (to employ Luther’s expression about music) will always last; what is merely novel will not. Beethoven will outlast 50 Cent, The Black Eyed Peas, and Christina Aguilera. His music will be enjoyed three hundred years from now; theirs will be gone inside of fifty years.

Oh, I see, point 3 is merely a continuation of point 2, perhaps it’s actually point 2A? Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is better? Gordon doesn’t even bother to explain how. Maybe he likes the lyrics, and I won’t argue with them, but the melody I find clunky and the weird time changes are either obtuse or lazy, I’m not sure which. Marty did quite a bit for all of us, but that doesn’t mean that his hymns are automatically gems.

4. It is no longer a competitive advantage to have part or all of a service in a contemporary idiom; probably well over half the churches now do so, so we have reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “Tipping Point.” CWM no longer marks a church as emerging, hip, edgy, or forward-looking, because many/most churches now do it. Churches that do not do other aspects of church-life well can no longer compensate via CWM; they must compete with otherchurches that employ CWM. Once a thing is commonplace, it is no longer a draw. And CWM is now so commonplace that it is no longer a competitive advantage; to the contrary, smaller churches with smaller budgets have difficulty competing with the larger-budgeted churches in this area.

Once again, the implication here is that no one actually *likes* contemporary worship, they’re just doing it to “compete” – maybe still under sway of those shadowy “commercial forces.” It seems that Gordon finds it impossible that anyone would actually enjoy worshiping with anything other than his particular canon of hymns. And these praise bands cost money. Because pipe organs are totally free and you can buy them anywhere. Actually every contemporary worship musician I know has purchased their own music equipment whereas I have never known an organist to do the same.

5. As with all novelties, once the novelty wears off, what is left often seems somewhat empty. In a culture that celebrates what is new (and commercial culture always does so in order to sell what is new), most people will pine for what is new. But what is new does not remain so forever; and once it is no longer novel, it must compete by the ordinary canons of musical and lyrical art, and very little CWM can do so (again, because its authors face a fifty-to-one ratio of competition from other generations). Even promoters of CWM prefer some of it to the rest of it; indicating that they, too, recognize aesthetic criteria beyond mere novelty. Even those who regard novelty as a virtue, in other words, do not regard it as the only virtue. And some, such as myself, regard novelty as a liturgical vice, not a virtue because of its tendency to dis-associate us from the rest of our common race, heritage, and liturgy.

Contemporary music is all mere novelty, and all commercialized. Once again, sure, most contemporary songs will fade away like most hymns did per Gordon’s own admission! He then returns to this specious 50:1 comparison. What about the generations that sang chants in monasteries? Monastic movements started in what? The 300s? And lasted till, um, today? 1700 years of chants, hymn-singer, you can’t compete with chanting! Surrender!

6. Thankfully, my own generation is beginning to die. While ostensibly created “for the young people,” the driving force behind CWM was always my own Sixties generation of anti-adult, anti-establishment, rebellious Woodstockers and Jesus freaks. Once my generation became elders and deacons (and therefore those who ran the churches), we could not escape our sense of being part of the “My Generation” that The Who’s Pete Townsend had sung about when we were young; so we (not the young people) wanted a brand of Christianity that did not look like our parents’ brand. Fortunately for the human race, we are dying off now, and much of the impetus for CWM will die with us (though the commercial interests will “not go gentle into that good night,” and fulfill Dylan Thomas’s wish).

“Thankfully my own generation is beginning to die” – I’m going to just repeat this bizarre statement of self-hatred. As if the baby-boomers were a monolith. I’ve encountered plenty of Gordon’s generation who were not especially counter-cultural. Woodstock was one place, less than a million people were there for what, a weekend? So what. If there is any reason to usher the baby-boomers off the stage it’s that they get caught in these “us versus them” types of dichotomies in ways that (hopefully) younger generations will seek to avoid. Gordon does not hold out any hope that some kind of compromise or fusion or future synthesis of different worship cultures will emerge. Nope, it’s hymns versus praise bands in a death match.

7. CWM is ordinarily accompanied by Praise Teams, and these have frequently (but by no means always) been problematic. It has been difficult to provide direction to them, due to the inherent confusion between whether they are participants in the congregation or performers for the congregation. In most circumstances, the members of the Praise Team do the kinds of things performers do: they vary the instrumental or harmonious parts between stanzas, they rehearse, etc. In fact, if one were to watch a video of the typical Praise Team without any audio, they ordinarily look like performers; their bodily actions and contrived emotional expressions mimic those of the entertainment industry.

Theologically and liturgically, however, it is the congregation that is to sing God’s praise, and what we call the Praise Team is merely an accompanist. But there is a frequent and ongoing tension in many CWM churches between the performers feeling as though they are being held back from performing for the congregation, and the liturgists thinking they’ve already gone too far in distinguishing themselves from the congregation. Many pastors have told me privately that they have no principial disagreements with CWM, but that they wish the whole Praise Team thing “would go away,” because it is a frequent source of tension. I have elsewhere suggested that the Praise Team is not biblical, that it actually obscures or obliterates what the Scriptures command. I won’t repeat any of those concerns here; here I merely acknowledge that many of those who disagree with my understanding of Scripure agree with my observation that the Praise Team is an ongoing source of difficulty in the church.

Most choirs have soloists. Let that sink in. Many organists can take on star status in their congregations (I was part of a congregation where this became something of minor blow-up). If Gordon thinks that “performance” is a problem that started with contemporary musicians than he is truly deranged in his view of worship. Consider the very nature of the organ, the old ones I mean, the giant mass of pipes at the front, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and dwarfing the altar.

8. We cannot evade or avoid the “holy catholic church” of the Apostles’ Creed forever. Even people who are untrained theologically have some intuitive sense that a local contemporary church is part of a global and many-generational (indeed eschatological and endless) assembly of followers of Christ; cutting ourselves off from that broader catholic body may appear cool for a while, but we ultimately wish to commune with the rest of the global/catholic church. Indeed, for many mature Christians, this wish grows as we age; we become aware that this particular moment, and our own personal life therein, will pass away soon, and what is timeless will nonetheless continue. Our affection for and interest in the timeless trumps our interest in the recent and fading. We intuitively identify with Henry F. Lyte, whose hymn said, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” We instinctively wish to “join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all” (to use Edward Perronet’s language). Note, in fact, the opening lines alone of each stanza of Perronet’s hymn, and observe how, as the stanzas move, our worship is connected to both earthly and heavenly worship, past and future worship:

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;…
Let highborn seraphs tune the lyre, and as they tune it, fall…
Crown Him, ye morning stars of light, who fixed this floating ball;…

Crown Him, ye martyrs of your God, who from His altar call;…
Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, ye ransomed from the fall,…
Hail Him, ye heirs of David’s line, whom David Lord did call,…
Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall,…
Let every tribe and every tongue before Him prostrate fall…

O that, with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!

It is not merely that some churches do not sing Perronet’s hymn; they can not do so, without a little dissonance. Everything that they do intentionally cuts themselves off from the past and future; liturgically, if not theologically, they know nothing of martyrs, of Israel’s chosen race, of David’s lineage. Liturgically, if not theologically, everything is here-and-now, without much room for angels or seraphs, nor every tribe and tongue (just those who share our particular cultural moment). To sing Perronet’s hymn in such a setting would fit about as well as reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at a Ku Klux Klan gathering.

“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the “holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.” The sooner the better.

I think Gordon is trying to conclude here by strongly hinting (but not actually saying) that all the saints of the church both past and future(!) are singing hymns, just like Gordon would! Really? The apostle Paul would not have recognized the language, melody or structure of anything that was in any of the hymnody. Same with Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. Even the Iraqi martyrs killed by ISIS this year would likely have no idea about Wesley and likely never ever sang anything by Martin Luther. What a parochial, narrow view of the church Gordon has!

Contemporary worship has problems, some contemporary worship is just terrible, but the same might be said of hymnody. To set up a restoration of hymn singing as a panacea is to do nothing short of constructing an idol.

The Ubiquity of Kitsch

Scruton

In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:

Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.

Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:

This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.

Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:

Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”

He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.

This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here:

Richard Hooker on Music

Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.38.1 and 3 (with some extra paragraph spacing to make it more readable), on music:

Touching musical harmony whether by instrument or by voice, it being but of high and low in sounds a due proportionable disposition, such notwithstanding is the force thereof, and so pleasing effects it hath in that very part of man which is most divine, that some have been thereby induced to think that the soul itself by nature is or hath in it harmony. A thing which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thing as seasonable in grief as in joy; as decent being added unto actions of greatest weight and solemnity, as being used when men most sequester themselves from action.

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other. In harmony the very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves.

For which cause there is nothing more contagious and pestilent than some kinds of harmony; than some nothing more strong and potent unto good. And that there is such a difference of one kind from another we need no proof but our own experience, inasmuch as we are at the hearing of some more inclined unto sorrow and heaviness; of some, more mollified and softened in mind; one kind apter to stay and settle us, another to move and stir our affections; there is that draweth to a marvellous grave and sober mediocrity, there is also that carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy and for the time in a manner severing it from the body.

So that although we lay altogether aside the consideration of ditty or matter, the very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort and carried from the ear to the spiritual faculties of our souls, is by a native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled, apt as well to quicken the spirits as to allay that which is too eager, sovereign against melancholy and despair, forcible to draw forth tears of devotion if the mind be such as can yield them, able both to move and to moderate all affections.

…In church music curiosity and ostentation of art, wanton or light or unsuitable harmony, such as only pleaseth the ear, and doth not naturally serve to the very kind and degree of those impressions, which the matter that goeth with it leaveth or is apt to leave in men’s minds, doth rather blemish and disgrace that we do than add either beauty or furtherance unto it. On the other side, these faults prevented, the force and efficacy of the thing itself, when it drowneth not utterly but fitly suiteth with matter altogether sounding to the praise of God, is in truth most admirable, and doth much edify if not the understanding because it teacheth not, yet surely the affection, because therein it worketh much. They must have hearts very dry and tough, from whom the melody of psalms doth not sometime draw that wherein a mind religiously affected delighteth.

Be it as Rabanus Maurus observeth, that at the first the Church in this exercise was more simple and plain than we are, that their singing was little more than only a melodious kind of pronunciation, that the custom which we now use was not instituted so much for their cause which are spiritual, as to the end that into grosser and heavier minds, whom bare words do not easily move, the sweetness of melody might make some entrance for good things. St. Basil himself acknowledging as much, did not think that from such inventions the least jot of estimation and credit thereby should be derogated: “For” (saith he) “whereas the Holy Spirit saw that mankind is unto virtue hardly drawn, and that righteousness is the less accounted of by reason of the proneness of our affections to that which delighteth; it pleased the wisdom of the same Spirit to borrow from melody that pleasure, which mingled with heavenly mysteries, causeth the smoothness and softness of that which toucheth the ear, to convey as it were by stealth the treasure of good things into man’s mind. To this purpose were those harmonious tunes of psalms devised for us, that they which are either in years but young, or touching perfection of virtue as yet not grown to ripeness, might when they think they sing, learn. O the wise conceit of that heavenly Teacher, which hath by his skill, found out a way, that doing those things wherein we delight, we may also learn that whereby we profit!”

Exciting Radio Station Idea

Here it is:

“If I had a Christian radio station, I think it would be mostly silence. People who tuned in would listen to dead air, would wait quietly with all the other people listening, sitting in the presence of God. Every once in a while we might play an older hymn, or read a Psalm. Come Vespers we’d pipe in a feed from a Trappist monastery somewhere, and listen to the old brothers chant and sing and the organ echo in the high vaults. And Friday and Saturday night we’d take a few hours to play some of the best [Christian rock] stuff, so people could dance. Dancing is important. I’m pretty sure it makes you a better person.

But mostly it would be silence.

I suspect no one would listen.”

Hat tip.

The Preestablished Harmony of Pop

adorno1

Theodor Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt school, analysed pop music from the perspective of Critical Theory in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music”. Among his many reflections on the subject (of varying worth), he considered the reason for the hold of popular music on the masses. Part of his answer was the following:

The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.

The notion of distraction can be properly understood only within its social setting and not in self-subsistent terms of individual psychology. Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire. It induces relaxation because it is patterned and pre-digested. Its being patterned and pre-digested serves within the psychological household of the masses to spare them the effort of that participation (even in listening or observation) without which there can be no receptivity to art. On the other hand, the stimuli they provide permit an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

The promoters of commercialized entertainment exonerate themselves by referring to the fact that they are giving the masses what they want. This is an ideology appropriate to commercial purposes: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately. Yet this ideology of vested interest cannot be dismissed so easily. It is not possible completely to deny that mass consciousness can be molded by the operative agencies only because the masses “want this stuff.”

But why do they want this stuff? In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them. The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music. Their spare time serves only to reproduce their working capacity. It is a means instead of an end. The power of the process of production extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be “free”. They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man’s holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow.

What’s Wrong With Contemporary Christian Music?

In the interests of full disclosure, I will state up front that I like some CCM. But perhaps I shouldn’t, or perhaps I should like a lot less of it. Being an objectivist about beauty, I am willing to admit that my musical tastes may be malformed.

But what is it about CCM that makes it bad art, when it is bad art? Here’s part of one argument:

… It is easy for me to spot a Christian music radio station within about 3 seconds. Far before any Christian lingo is uttered to make it clear.

It’s weird. I’m always trying to figure out what it is that makes something sound like Christian music, because there’s definitely something… I’d love to get some of your thoughts about it. But for me (and I’m actually one of the better players of the game if I must say so myself), I find something very disingenuous about most Christian music. This is something I can simply feel at a gut level. If I hear a song, and I hear any sort of pretending or false emotion, that’s a good first indicator. I’m really not trying to throw mud here, I’m being honest at how I am good at this game. Christian music often has a sheen to it that other music doesn’t have. Some pop and country music has a similar sheen, but the Christian sheen is like a blander sheen somehow.

The vocals are always really hot in the mix because for Christian music, the words are the most important part. That’s kind of similar to country though as well, so you have to be careful there. Country has some of the same Nashville tones, players, and compression styles that Christian music has most of the time, but the twang is just a little deeper with the country side of things. There’s also a little more “humanness” or “soul” in Country to my ears.

The false emotion that I’m talking about might be familiar to some of you. There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. And it’s really not even the style or the lyric that is the problem to me, it’s the fact that I don’t believe that the singer is feeling the kind of emotions in singing that lyric that would lead to that style of singing. It’s that same kind of creep out that you feel when somebody gives a really loud fake laugh. It’s just weird and uncomfortable feeling.

An example of this would be a song that somebody sent us recently of an older song of mine called “Wrap Me In Your Arms.” The lyric is a very intimate and soft sort of lyric. “Take me to that place where I can be with you, you can make me like you…etc” This person did a hardcore/screamo version of this song. Not just like getting a little loud, I mean full out death metal sounding, demon-voiced screaming. It was so freaking weird mostly because it seemed so disingenuous. You would never speak such gentle words to someone you loved by screaming in their face like you were possessed by Beelzebub. That’s an extreme example, but it’s very typical of the basic premise of most Christian music to me, which is–use whatever musical style you wish as a medium to communicate your message. It’s not about the art, it’s about the message. So use whatever tools and mediums you have at your fingertips to do so. If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language. The problem with this is that emo music is not simply reducible to certain sounding tones and chords. There are emotions and attitudes of different genres of music that are the soul of the music. You can’t remove the anger from screamo and have it still be screamo. It’s the soul of that music, whether that soul is good or evil is not the point, simply that it is the soul. So when you remove the soul from music and transplant the body parts (chord changes, instrumentation, dress, lights, and everything but the soul…) and parade it around with some more “positive” lyrics posing as Christian music, then what you have is a musical zombie.

It looks like a human.. It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. It just uses it’s human body for its own purposes.

This is what I initially feel when I play the “Christian or secular” game. I look into its eyes, and I perceive whether the thing has a soul or not. And 9 times out of ten, I can do it very quickly and efficiently.

Musical Religious Experience

My old friend Tim hosts a bbq every year during NXNE; 159 Manning is becoming something of a famed event. I’ve missed everyone so far.

At this year’s party they did some shape-note singing, a kind of southern-Protestant influenced communal sing-along. On Facebook, Tim linked to the blog of a girl who actually got to sit in the midst of the group as they sang; I love how she shares her experience of what it was like. As non-religious as she claims to be, she can’t help but use religious language to explain her experience. I find that telling.

I’ll leave it to C. S. Lewis to better explain what I think her words reflect: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).