Sunday, January 24, 2010

The classical-country divide

My entry about Bach last week drew a few comments that might be called evidence of a cultural divide. To be very broad, I'd suggest that most people fall into one of three classifications: There are people who love classical music and look down on country music. There are people who love country music and dismiss classical music as elitist. And there are people who are eclectic and love a variety of music, including some classical and some country. Of course, country and classical are chosen here simply as examplars from two broader categories (plus they have a nice alliterative quality, don't you think?).

Reality or talent shows sometimes play on this division. The finale of the most recent season of "America's Got Talent" featured an opera singer and a country singer. I didn't hear either of them sing, but I predicted the winner. Always bet on country music in a popularity contest!

Of course, there is beauty in simple melodies, folk music, gospel, jazz, country, bluegrass. Most of the American innovations in music have bubbled up from the people as popular expressions of music, rather than the European tradition of court music. We do want to include that sound in church. One difficulty from my point of view is that it often isn't appropriate for congregational singing or isn't written with a text that lines up with Lutheran theology. And so, as members of my congregation know, I play a variety of music but the majority stems from classical sources, and much of our hymnal reflects centuries of European musicians. I don't think I've played any Amy Grant. Since her music came up in the comments last week, I'll have to search out something as an offertory or communion piece, perhaps. Any other suggestions? Music you miss or music you'd love to hear? You can always share online or in person!

But keep in mind that maybe it's not a bad thing that church music is often different from what we hear in our daily lives. It helps create a sense of the sacred. We'll keep inviting in new sounds and aim for variety, and I'll have more to say on the debate tomorrow. But to close today, a simple country tune that I sang along with to a commercial the other day (much to the amazement of my significant other). Sing along!

Stick shifts and safety belts,
Bucket seats have all got to go.
When I'm riding in my car,
It makes my baby feel so far...

And God bless Lynne Rossetto Kasper at MN Public Radio for putting that hummable, memorable tune in my mind most weeks!


  1. Another issue involved might concern the question of what is the "purpose" of music. Is music primarily expected to make us "feel good" or "think good" (please excuse the poor grammer - I use it to draw an easy distinction)? I would venture that people who tend to fall on the "feel good" expectations of music would be more drawn to "popular" music, while folks who tend to fall on the "think good" expectations would be more drawn to "classical" music. If folks can't agree on what is the basic purpose of music (and even worship itself - because I see the same "feel good"/"think good" distinction in what people expect from worship), then it is difficult for them to agree on the style of music that is most appropriate for worship.

  2. Pastor, I appreciate the extension of such an idea to the rest of worship. As a personal example, I can think of memorable sermons in my life where a minister quoted a favorite author or carefully parsed the original Greek of the Bible. But I'm sure there are people who prefer stories to such an academic approach. My personal philosophy here is shaped by John Stuart Mill's idea of "high pleasures" as something that can be enjoyed and understood on many levels and repeatedly without diminishment...but then, that's too academic already, isn't it? It takes all types - is that a cop out or a good life philosophy?

  3. He’s a little bit country
    I’m a little bit Rock ‘n’ Roll
    I’m very little Bach and other old stuff
    Got contemporary music in my soul.

    Craig Courtney, Sleeth, Hal Hopson,
    You know I love them so.
    You’re a little bit country
    I’m a little bit Rock ‘n’ Roll

    OK, so I am psyched up to see Donny and Marie in Las Vegas next month!


  4. To expand on Rev. Robert's comment, there's something to be said for the "effect" that music has on the people. It is true that the most sect- oriented churches have in common use the musical form of chant: in particular the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Orientals, and Amish. The reason for this is simple: chant makes impossible the imposition on any one individual's (including the Pastor) personality on the Liturgy. Contemporary Christian Music, on the other hand, thrives on individualism to the extent that it employs a very colloquial (i.e. popular radio music) style and often discourages unified participation. A like example can be drawn from the gospel music and preacha' man tradition of the south. The principal reason for church attendance there is to hear the preacher, and the music reflects that individualist structure of worship. If the place of worship is to be likened to a great ship heading toward the rising sun, how great is the consequence of musical mutiny? Hopefully you all will find that more humorous than provoking, but it does open the room to questions that are often avoided.

  5. Joanne, I have no problem with Donny and Marie in Las Vegas. I just don't think they belong in worship. The purpose of worship is not to be entertained. Worship is not a Las Vegas Nightclub act. You, of all people, ought to know what happend to Israel when they replaced worship of God with what the people wanted, with what was "popular". Aaron and Ahab tried to give the people what they wanted, and what was the result?

  6. I appreciated the comment made by "Anonymous" (although I would argue against calling Roman Catholics and the Orthodox sect-oriented). It reminds me of an interview I heard with Frank Schaeffer, who was a major leader in the Evangelical and Religious Right movement who rejected both and became Orthodox. He said that one of his biggest problems with Protestant Christianity is that worship is so dependant upon or focused upon the pastor/preacher. In Orthodoxy the focus is on the Liturgy and the Sacraments, so it really does not matter whether or not the Priest is a good preacher, or entertaining, or "speaks to the people". In Orthodoxy, he can worship God irrespective of the abilities (or lack there of) of the Priest.

    As a Protestant Lutheran Pastor, who often feels the pressure to be "on" and to perform, an approach to worship that is more focused upon God and less focused upon me or in trying to "meet the felt needs of the people" is very appealing.

    I guess the answer to the musical mutiny question is what happens to the mutineers. Captain Bligh eventually made it back to England and was exonerated while Fletcher Christian and his followers were either murdered by the natives of Tahiti or arrested by British authorities. If the purpose of the ship is to sail into the sun, what happens when you turn it around and go the other way? Does it fall off the edge of the earth or just get there by another route?

  7. Yay, Pastor! Hear, hear!

  8. 1) The original purpose for Chant was to be sure that people did not hear the music of the local bar at church. The Catholic church of the Middle Ages was clear about what music was allowed.
    2)Have you seen "Sister Act" lately? The power of some music (and other activities) to draw people into the church can be used to then help them grow in their relationship to the eternal. If people are not present, there is little we can do to reach them.
    3) Finally, we are experiencing far too much mutiny in the ELCA today. We need to stay focused on our primary reasons for being Lutheran and not be distracted by events that will someday be regarded as historical oddities. The church has, unfortunately, divided over women's rights, divorce, baptism, confirmation, and many other issues that we now see as short-sighted.

  9. I don't think that it's fair to reason the use of chant in negative terms. Each and every patriarchate in the early church evolved liturgically and musically from the Jewish establishment. To this day, the so-called "Sojourner's Tone," based on a Jewish psalter tone, is used in the Roman Office. Both Our Lord and St. Paul speak about the continuity of Judaism in our faith. The Latins didn't have to look for music to keep it's people out of trouble; it already had a developed liturgical praxis.

    On the power of music: I doubt that anyone can listen to a recording of Georgian (Orthodox) or Znemanny chant, knowing what it is, and not walk away changed. The problem is that all music is inherently divisive and that lesser forms do inflict subtle harm upon the unexperienced. This very topic occupied the pen of the great philosophers long before rap music was being associated with violence or electronic music was being used in experiments to intentionally alter brain activity. The fact is that at every level, there's a consequence to sound.