This is the third part of a four-question interview.
How would you respond to the person who says the old liturgy you’ve opted for is merely a cultural expression from yesteryear and we need to communicate from our culture not one from the 17th century?
Well, the question wrongly assumes that the Western liturgy is from the 17th century. It’s not. The kyrie can be seen as early as the 3rd century. The creeds are from the fourth century. The sanctus is ancient. The Psalms (which practically no Evangelical church sings) go back as far as the Exodus and the early days of the Hebrew monarchy.
Luther’s 16th century contribution was primarily to put the mass in the common language of the people. He did not scrap the mass and start over. History has proven Luther correct on his changes to the mass, since now all major Christian church bodies – even the Roman church – agree that the worship offered by the people should be in the language of the worshipers. Luther sought to retain what was handed down unless it could be shown to be contrary to the word of God. He didn’t fall into the genetic fallacy that Zwingli and, to a lesser extent, Calvin did, by arguing that unless it could be shown to be explicitly required by Scripture we should abolish it. As I said before, the historic liturgy is a cultural expression, but it’s the church’s cultural expression. The only alternative is to parrot a secular culture.
The boomers are the first generation to demand that the theology of the church be expressed in the language of pop culture. What they failed to see in doing this is that when you parrot pop culture, you make it impossible for you to redeem it. Why? Because churches that are parasitic on pop culture need it to continue so they can feed on the host. They need pop culture to lead the way in order to follow. They need pop musicians to take the next step so they know what steps to take. This is a thoroughly non-Christian attitude toward the glory of God in music, and it is not how the church has historically viewed music.
There’s a rumor that continues to survive in the dark corners of the internet which has been thoroughly debunked by music historians – the claim that Luther, for example, borrowed bar tunes and turned them into hymns has been thoroughly debunked. Robin Leaver Luther has shown that of the 40 hymns which Luther created or partially created, he put only one to the tune of a secular song that we know for sure. From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” was based upon a light-hearted love song, “From Distant Land I Come To You.” It was a children’s folk song that he sang as a child. That hymn made an appearance in the 1535 Wittenberg hymnal. But that tune didn’t stay with the hymn for long. Shortly thereafter, however, Luther wrote a new tune for it which is the standard tune for it to this day. There does seem to be one thing that Luther borrowed from folk music, but we have to be clear about what he borrowed. What he borrowed was not the tunes but the storytelling element of folk music. In Luther’s view, if there is any story worth telling it is the story of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign of the Son of God.
If the approach to music in the church had historically followed the theology and practice of Evangelicals today, we would have never heard the music of Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn and Palestrina. You don’t get music like that by accident. It comes from the kind of theology that can give it birth. Sometimes the artists confesses that theology themselves, and other times it is alive in the culture and the artist comes under the influence of it even though the artist doesn’t confess a rich theology.
Nevertheless, the theology that gave birth to the church’s music historically was not motivated by a desire to appropriate the common music of a particular era and put the words of Scripture and the church to it with the goal of helping people connect with it. It had a much nobler purpose: glorifying God with excellence. The arts are a sensory and ideological reflection of one’s view of God – whether the artist is aware of it or not. And the music in most evangelical churches – to say nothing of the lyrics – reflects a trite, banal, romanticized view of God.
This does not mean that we cannot write new music cannot for the church, but when we do, that music needs to stand in the stream of the excellence that went before it. Contemporary church music should reflect the character of the music of the church which has been handed down. It should be recognizable as the same language. Ironically, those who attempt to “reach the culture” by copying its musical forms, end up accomplishing the opposite of what they intend since a secular culture picks up on the parasitic nature of this approach and doesn’t respect a church that needs unbelievers to lead culturally – a point aptly expressed by the cartoon character Hank Hill. “Can’t you see that you’re not making Christianity better. You’re just making rock and roll worse.”
In the end, one is left with only one choice between the church’s culture that stretches across its history and uncreative mimicry of secular pop culture.