In praise of church music

taizeAfter the rant I made several days ago on the subject of popular Christian music, it might seem surprising that I return to the subject to make a positive appreciation of other kinds of music in church. I was then objecting to the popular music which Chris describes as giving him brain fever and also leaving behind in the brain a disturbing beat. In short I object to a certain style of church music because it leaves behind all the symptoms of being exposed to excessive noise. I suggested also that the bedrock of Christian spirituality was silence. Anything, including popular music, which prevents an immersion into such silence was going to be unhelpful, to say the least, for Christian prayer.

I do in fact believe that there is music within the Christian tradition which can still the mind and prepare it to enter more effectively into this sphere of silence. The problem is that for many people this music is completely unknown. The religious music of the past, whether Gregorian chant or the sacred music of the Elizabethan age is not exactly at the top of the Pops. It is, as we say, an acquired taste. There is however one genre of music that does seem to appeal to a wide number of people when they encounter it and also helps them to become still as a prelude to prayer. I refer to the music of Taizé. This music written by Jacques Berthier picks up the melodies of a variety of periods and helps those who sing and those who listen to become still. The music’s power comes partly from the way that the same musical phrase is repeated over and over again. Because there are different accompaniments to the melody line of the song, the repetition never becomes boring. These melodies are specially composed or taken from one of a number of musical traditions in Christian Europe. They do seems to have appeal for almost everyone who hears them.

The music of Taizé would perhaps be used far more if our services were a little less wordy and more focussed on silence. The problem for most congregations is that those who conduct worship do not want to allow any empty space to occur in the service. Thus we have a quick movement from a prayer to a reading and then to a hymn. There is little opportunity for silent reflection in most of our church services. For myself Gregorian chant is a suitable introduction to a time of silence and also it does not intrude on attempts to meditate and think quietly about the will of God for our lives. Others may well be moved and assisted in their contemplative worship by the soaring notes of Tudor polyphony. Whatever style is preferred, there are a variety of church music styles which do in fact assist an individual in coming to a place of peace and prayer.

It is not easy to talk about these ‘classical’ styles of Christian music without being thought a cultural snob. But, as I have said, the more accessible music obtains its popularity by, arguably, only appealing to shallow sentiment or the attraction of an incessant drum beat. It is hard, as I suggested before, not to be affected by a loud noise of Christian popular music. The sound is often overwhelming but it is hard to see how this kind of beat music will ever assist an individual in the task of silent prayer. One wants to move from singing or listening to a piece of music so that the individual is led towards silence. There can be no silence within when there is the echo of frenetic drumbeat inside one’s head. The brain fever which Chris speaks about is never going to be conducive to still contemplation.

I am one of those people fortunate enough to have been brought up with the contemplative style of Christian music around me from a very early age. I have thus had the opportunity to enjoy and to be immersed in styles of music which I believe help in the process of stilling the heart and mind towards a consideration of the spiritual dimension. Music is a little bit like religious art in the sense that it communicates spiritual things without the use of words and logical concepts. I have returned to this theme of the spiritual being beyond the verbal many times in the blog as it is a point that is close to my heart. As the mystics would say, God is beyond words and human concepts, even being itself. If we are to know anything about him at all, we have to approach God through the assistance of these non-verbal media. These point to spiritual reality but they never contain it. Art and music are tantalisingly indirect in the way that they point us to what can never be known fully on this side of the grave.

The people who do theology in the way that I have learnt, will always prefer never to define mystery or spiritual reality. We can only go so far with words and explanations. In our imaginations we come to a threshold of a building in which we believe that God dwells. To enter further, to know God as he truly is, we have to use other means of access. One will be the human capacity to love. This is a capacity given to every person on the planet. Alongside this means of approach towards the unknowable God, we have the tools of music and art. These always have to be used carefully and sensitively so that in the best way possible their power can be utilised in this search for the unknown. But, as this blog post has made clear, the journey towards God can often utilise the tools of music which draws the individual into silent prayer. This may one of any number of styles, perhaps Gregorian chant or the music of Taizé. Such music, as I have explained above, will never be used to fill the brain with sensation, but will always help to still and quieten the mind so that it can kneel before God in love and adoration.

23 comments

  1. Chris Pitts

    How I wish what Stephen has written could be broadcast widely.
    I believe at the centre of all contempt for the church by the outsider is this great issue of ‘happy clappy’ trite so-called ‘worship’. I have tried to use on this blog my experience of falling far away from my faith and getting to know those outsiders. I have asked many times, ‘does the Church care about how it is being perceived by the outsider’, and is it willing to change? The answer that I seem to be getting is a resounding ‘No’.

    I was in at the start of popular Christian music. I remember Larry Norman singing, “ Why should the Devil have all the good music?” I have now found out that my former heroes like Gene Vincent, Elvis and Buddy Holly could never touch the majesty of Mozart ‘s Requiem or Benjamin Britten. To me this music is simply cosmic.

    Jesus may well have listened to Gene Vincent at the Marriage at Cana, (If it was available) but I bet he would get bored stiff after a while!

    Chris

  2. EnglishAthena

    Well, Stephen, I’m afraid I don’t care for Taize music! My first experience was with just singing the top line, the melody, over and over again. Very boring. To do these chants properly everyone has to learn the parts. That in itself would put off the stranger, surely? I’m with you about what really good “old” music can do for you, totally. But I don’t see why we can’t just go for silence. Where I am now, we use silence a lot. And when I started a Bible Study with silence, the group wanted more! Gregorian chant is lovely, but it isn’t silence. If people are singing, it is in the end, noise. Well that’s just me. I do like some modern stuff by the way. I’d like to see a scientific study on the actual physical effects of persistent beat and loud noise. I work in a high noise environment, I find it very oppressive.

  3. Chris Pitts

    Thanks E/A

    Anything is better than “Shine Jesus Shine!” My point, when the outsider regards Christians as “Mad” because of happy clappy praise band walls of sound,I simply ask, how do we get them to take Christ seriously? Can we be absolutely sure that He would not turn the tables (In this case Amps, Drums etc) over? If He was here in the flesh today?

    Chris Pitts

    Chris

  4. haikusinenomine

    hi EA

    I’m sorry we disagree about this a bit, I could never make such a sweeping generalisation that “if people are singing, it is in the end, noise”. For me, singing can be very spiritual and bring me nearer to God and to the fullness of life that Jesus promises. But I accept not everyone responds in the same way. And as Stephen is saying, it depends on being music you can respond to in that way. I was very sorry this year when our church ditched traditional sung psalms from out main service in favour of just hymns. But that was as much to do with the loss of the psalter as well as the music.

    • EnglishAthena

      Hi, sis. I suspect we agree. I love singing, and I love good music. But if you’re aiming for silence, music isn’t it! We had an incumbent who thought every service had to filled with sound. His idea of meditation was background music. I probably wasn’t very clear.

  5. Chris Pitts

    Forgive me for asking, is Church music for the congregation alone or, is it to also make God attractive to the non-Christian outsider? If only the former was Billy Graham ever necessary, several Church of England bishops befriended him including John Robinson?

    My time on this blog has fatigued me over this unanswered question.

    There is a screaming silence in a vacant space of unknown measure.

    Ah well, goodnight everyone,

    Chris Pitts

    (I now have a website for any further contact : chrispitts.co.uk)

  6. Dick Davies

    I also don’t share Stephen’s aesthetic. I happen to mostly like rock music. So for me my best worship experiences are in that genre. But I am totally with Chris in strongly disliking much current “praise band” music.

    Like all of the arts music appreciation is very conditioned by context and experience (ie “taste”). And I believe it is more difficult to engage in worship in a context which is in any way “foreign” (though it can be good to be challenged!).

    • EnglishAthena

      Agreed. I like some Christian rock, too. But if I’m alone, I either don’t put music on at all, or I play something Celtic, or Rutter’s 23rd Psalm.

  7. David Pennant

    I believe that the word Christian should be reserved for matters Jesus was concerned with. So “Christian love” makes sense, as he had a lot to day about love, or “Christian baptism” or “Christian forgiveness”. To my mind, there is no such thing as Christian music, because Jesus never dealt with music; no such thing as a Christian book, or a Christian building, etc. etc. I want to be part of a church which puts Jesus at the centre of everything without getting distracted by matters he showed no interest in. I have yet to find such a church. I live in hope.

    • EnglishAthena

      Jesus read books! “Christian” means you believe Jesus is the Christ. Don’t you think that Christians should read books that will increase their knowledge of what we believe and think?

          • David Pennant

            English Athena, let me try. To me, the phrase “Christian book” means a book that Christ wrote, or possibly one that he authorised, but for people to claim that their writing is a Christian book because it deals with themes more or less to do with Jesus in their view is offside. My concern is that when we hear people say of something, it is a Christian book, we then think it carries some special authority when in fact it is only some human’s opinion.
            Same with the phrase Christian music. It gives the impression that Jesus was a musician, or at least authorised music in some way. The reality is that he could hardly have shown less interest in music. The words “when they had sung a hymn” they went out to the mount of Olives etc. show us that hymns existed then. In the Greek the phrase in inverted commas is one word – “hymn-sung”. If Mark’s gospel in ten thousand words long, then hymn-singing could reasonably be said to be one then-thousandth part of the gospel. You wouldn’t think so from today’s church.
            So please can we dispense with the idea that there is such a thing as Christian music?
            The idea of a Christian building is even more unhelpful to my mind. Jesus explained that the temple was His Body, which has come to mean his followers, i.e. us. It is the gathered followers of Jesus today who are God’s temple, not bricks and mortar.
            I believe that if we could wipe every building off the face of the earth that claims to be a sanctuary or temple or Christian meeting house for worship, the church would be in a better place. Christianity is not about religion but about people following the commands of Jesus. See my http://www.diychurch.co.uk .

            • EnglishAthena

              I admit to being puzzled. I don’t think anyone thinks that the phrase Christian book means that Jesus wrote it. So no-one is being misled. And he didn’t write the hymns they sang in those days. I’m also puzzled as to why you think that two thousand years of thinking and writing about Christianity is just a waste of everyone’s time. Would that include the writings of Paul?

              • David Pennant

                I did not say that any books were a waste of time, simply that books written since the New Testament era should be called books and not Christian books. They express the view of the author, not of Jesus. Some may be very much in tune with Jesus, and others less so, but if you want the view of Jesus, then read the Gospels.
                If you prefer, think of the Bible as the one Christian book in existence, as every part of it points to him, and then when you read what he said about the scriptures, you discover that he authorised every part of it, including the as yet unwritten letters of Paul and the rest of the New Testament (John 16:13).

                • EnglishAthena

                  Well, I’m afraid books on mathematics are called mathematics books, and books on art are called art books. So I doubt this way of talking is going to change.

                  • David Pennant

                    You may well be right. The reason I am worked up about this subject is because of the widespread tendency to describe disobedience to Jesus as Christian. I invite you to watch out for things that are described as Christian, and ask yourself when you hear the word used whether Jesus himself ever talked about the subject. Please let me know your findings! Best wishes, David

                    • haikusinenomine

                      Thank you both for this interesting conversation. I don’t agree with everything you say David, yet I share your allergy to the label “Christian” books – and also bookshops, since I know from experience I will find there things I’m not in tune with. Yet the label is used by those who see themselves as basing their lives on Christ, and the world sees these productions as coming form within (a section of) the Christian community, and I think we start getting into trouble if we are too quick to deny that belonging to all Christians we disagree with.

  8. David Pennant

    Fair enough Haikusinenomine. (I wonder how many people understand your name. I believe I do . . . Vaughan Williams wrote a hymn tune and called it Sine Nomine. “Church” music, how apt!)

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