Choral Dissonance: Separating Musical and Biblical Literacy

“Who’s Goliath?”

The past week, I’ve entrenched in Christmas concerts and rehearsals with a community college, a public high school, and a community choir. It is the first Christmas in a long time when I have not been busy accompanying a church choir, where the question “Who’s Goliath?” would never need to be asked.

And yet, in the midst of rehearsing “Little David Play on Your Harp,” one high schooler finally worked up the nerve to ask her director about the names in the song.

“Who’s Goliath?” was quickly followed by more questions, most significantly, “Who is David?”

The teacher carefully sought to explain these characters without referencing the Bible…with little success. The students looked more confused than ever but continued to sing about the mysterious David and his musical prowess. I can only imagine how much bafflement they must have felt as they sang about “Joshua the son of Nun.” (Can nuns have sons? Is ‘nun’ a typo? Did Joshua not have a dad? How does that work?)

I am not writing to shame these students or their teacher, who is a wonderful educator. Instead, I want to illuminate an interesting phenomenon: the attempted (and failed) divorce of musical and biblical literacy.

During my last concert season, all of the choral programs I work with sang either overtly sacred repertoire or repertoire with strong sacred undertones. No matter how secular the choir, the Western canon of choral literature cannot be separated from Christian tradition. There’s a reason that my “History of Western Music” textbook read very similarly to a Church history textbook; as John Rutter famously stated, “Christianity has always been a singing faith.” Even the most secular composers struggle to escape the embrace of this historic, singing faith, which has provided dominant forms and subjects since its earliest years.

Today, though, Christianity is becoming less and less welcome in public schools, as demonstrated by this teacher’s attempt to tell the story of David and Goliath through song but not scripture. And yet, the profound influence of Christian scripture and liturgy on choral music remains. The choral program at this particular school is outstanding because its educators emphasize musical literacy in even the lower level classes. By stressing musical literacy, however, sacred music becomes unavoidable. At the last concert series, at least two thirds of the songs were explicitly Judeo-Christian in origin. Why, if students proclaim scripture in concert, can their teachers not explain it in rehearsal?

There are two ways of looking at this: sorrowful that truth is sung without understanding and hopeful that it encourages those who believe. This is not a clear-cut, either-or situation, for I am both sorrowful and hopeful at the prevailing presence of sacred music in secular programs.

I am distraught as I think of the student who asked about Goliath. She knows nothing of the story except that which is included in the song, but even this seemed confusing. She has learned the music, but is totally disconnected from its meaning. This not only furthers biblical illiteracy but robs students of the musicality that comes with understanding. By trying to amputate the sacredness of sacred music, both truth and beauty are hobbled. I lament that so many young singers sing in ignorance. I fear for them as they profess words with their mouths that they do not understand with their minds nor believe in the hearts.

More hopefully, though, I recall my own story. When I was in high school, I heard the chamber choir sing a setting of John 1:1-3 and was immediately captivated. These singers were proclaiming my faith! Did they, like I, believe? The verses I knew so well took on a new spirit, enlivened by beautiful harmonies. It was at this moment that my fascination with choral singing began. When I enrolled in choir the following year, I was thankful for the opportunity to express my faith within a public school fine arts department. As a lonely Christian teenager, choral singing was my lifeline. I rejoice, then, that Jesus Christ is sung to those who have ears to hear—even in secular spheres.

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