I adore playing the music of choral composer, Dan Forrest. An accomplished pianist himself, he knows how to fully engage accompanists, making them feel as if they are featured soloists and equal members of an ensemble rather than merely supporters. Even his simplest pieces cover the whole range of the keyboard and develop across glorious dynamic ranges. It feels almost indulgent to play this music, especially in church services.
There are two reasons that I’ve been almost embarrassed of my deep appreciation and enjoyment of Dan Forrest’s work. The first is an elitist discrimination against any art that might be considered “kitsch,” and the second is a semi-Puritanical fear of worship music becoming too showy. Both of these concerns, though, are ridiculous, for the Gospel that Dan Forrest’s music seek to convey is itself unashamedly jubilant and wholeheartedly extravagant.
One of my first assignments as a postgraduate in the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts was to share a piece of art that I consider kitsch. This turned into a hilarious class session in which my peers and I laughed at corny dog videos, cringe-worthy souvenirs, and appalling decorations which more often than not featured be-ribboned kittens.
Considering kitsch, however, was a humbling experience, for it reminded my peers and I of our own pretentious proclivity to look down our high-brow noses at art that is genuinely loved and valued by others. Even in our laughter, we were forced to reconsider whether some of the art that we found the most uplifting could itself be considered “kitsch.” For instance, “Morning has Broken” is one of my favourite hymns, but is it perhaps also a bit cheesy? A bit too ignorantly merry in a world full of dark realities?
In studying kitsch, I realised the power of overly-sentimental art to obscure horrible realities and to distract us from our responsibility to confront sin and suffering. The opposite of this cautionary realisation, though, is an equally-damaging view of “real” art as that which reflects only darkness and sorrow. Christianity equips us theologically to engage both, for Christ assumed the brokenness of humanity as well as brought about its glorious redemption.
My fears, then, that my favourite songs and arrangements by Dan Forrest are “kitsch” are prideful and unhelpful. His music, characterised by techniques that are perpetual crowd-pleasers, can and should be enjoyed wholeheartedly, for the heart of Christianity is itself the radiant joy of recreation.
Similarly, Forrest’s usual subject matter, familiar hymns, cannot be snubbed as kitsch, for these simply and profoundly proclaim the Gospel, regardless of seemingly “higher” aesthetic tastes. Just as obscure theological language does not automatically make one a better Christian, complexity and difficulty in sacred music does not necessarily make it more appropriate or conducive to worship. Indeed, the familiarity of topic and technique in Forrest’s music—recreated in his wonderful arrangements—is perhaps a better representation of the enduring simplicity, constancy, and relevance of the Gospel.
My alternate concern is that music such as Forrest’s is too showy for church services is perhaps equally unfounded. Although arpeggiation, augmentations, and accentuation may seem better reserved for the concert stage than the choir loft, completely eliminating such music would be to rob the church of artistic excellence.
One of the books I’ve referenced most frequently throughout my studies is The Extravagance of Music by David Brown and Gavin Hopps. In it, Brown and Hopps propose a more “hospitable” and “generous” theology of music, which allows for delight, discovery, and transcendence in all musical genres and styles. More so, they present the nature of music itself as essentially extravagant; music is not a bare necessity for existence, but an elaborate and even prodigal blessing.
As an organist who thrives on the ornate counterpoint of Bach’s preludes and the earth-shaking vibrations of the organ’s lowest stops, it is hypocritical of me to even consider deeming something “too showy” for worship merely because it includes gorgeous dynamics and ornamentation. Instead, these may musically testify to the intricate and expansive glory of God, as well as to the immense blessings bestowed upon believers in Christ. After all, if grace is being given more than we deserve or imagine, ought not such grace be manifest in the very music of our faith?
To conclude, let us read the words of Dan Forrest himself, which represent his personal artistic creed and are well worth our reflection:
Regardless of conflicting concerns of sentimentality or extravagance, any music that reflects the goodness, truth, and beauty of Christ is worth sharing together in fellowship. As Forrest notes, this is true of the “secular” as well as the “sacred.” In concert halls and in church services, the glory of God can be proclaimed. Therefore, if there is anything true, noble, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy in such music, let us as Christians humbly and happily “have ears to hear.”
Therefore, if there is anything true, noble, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy in such music, let us as Christians humbly and happily “have ears to hear.”Tweet