Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Jesus is King: A reflection on the man and the music

It is impossible to go on social media without seeing posts, arguments, and even memes about the latest revelation in the music industry: Kanye West’s conversion and the subsequent release of his latest album, Jesus is King. 

Many Christians (and perhaps even more non-Christians) are skeptical: has Kanye really changed? Christians worry publically that this transformation is not what it seems, that Kanye is faking faith to reach a wider audience and increase media attention. Ironically, non-Christians are on the offensive, frustrated that a big-name is not only claiming Christianity but is actually living it, as evidenced by a mocking article declaring that Kanye is “hell-bent” on his new faith.* This article indicates that if this is indeed a career move for Kanye, it is a very poor one, for it risks losing a large part of his typical audience. (Luckily, he seems to have caught the ears of enough families, moms, and grandparents to make up the deficit!) 

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” 

-Isaiah 30:18

I’d like to focus on the negative Christian response. While I cannot expect those who do not share my faith to respond kindly to Kanye’s conversion, I would have hoped that Christians would treat his professed faith (whether or not they believe it is genuine) with hope and prayer. If justice operates on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” why shouldn’t we consider a man’s profession of faith right and true until proven otherwise? Would not that be the just—or, at least—merciful and gracious response?

To see Kanye speaking out about the sanctity of human life, the importance of family, modesty, and other more conservative values is remarkable and ought to be as celebrated by Christians as it is bemoaned by seculars. I have had quite a few “Amen” moments while scrolling through Facebook and seeing various pastors and theologians calling out Christians for bashing West’s born-again faith. They remind readers that Paul’s conversion was likely met with even more astonishment. I believe that we would do well to also recall the following parable: 

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 

‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to the heavens, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:11-14

We have seen Kanye exalt himself, but now we see him in a posture of incredible humility. Who are we to look down our noses and comment, “well, he had to do something for his career” or “hard to believe this will last…”? We might as well say outright, “Thank goodness that we are not like him.”

No, we aren’t like Kanye West because—let’s face it—we are not celebrities. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d look particularly righteous and faithful if my entire personal life were broadcast in the media, and I came to the faith as a child. Are there some terrible things in Kanye’s past? Of course. But what matters is his present posture, which is more similar to the heart-broken tax collector than the pharisee.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you
will not despise.” 

– Psalm 51:17

There is more at play here, though, than a mere skepticism regarding Kanye’s personal conversion. Along with a prejudice based on a hypocritical self-righteousness, there is an aesthetic judgment occurring, perhaps unconsciously. Many of those expressing doubt regarding Kanye’s conversion are also demonstrating a deep-seated suspicion toward not merely the artist, but the entire genre that he represents. 

Rap music and the church have a complicated history and I am far from qualified to delve into it.** However, as with most prejudices, it seems that opponents of the genre single out its most profane and most jarring products and form their judgment based upon these. I suggest that if we allowed ourselves to look only at the best and brightest of any genre, we would find little room for such blanket-statement biases.*** For years, I have claimed a dislike for rap based on my understanding of it as incapable of expressing anything other than the profane and worldly. However, I was wrong and admit my bias was formed without enough diversity of information. 

Kanye’s music prior to the release of Jesus is King is not, morally, something that I can endorse, nor, it seems, can Kanye. Still, to judge the entire genre on one particular example is also to overlook its potential for beauty and goodness. For instance, due to my high-brow conceptions of music, I somehow managed to grow up as a youth-group teen without ever listening to Lecrae, a Christian hip-hop artist who has done truly amazing things, both artistically and altruistically, for the Kingdom. In my conception of classical music as the exemplar, I remained in willful ignorance, unaware of the quality contributions of more diverse genres and artists. 

In Jesus is King, I found myself convicted of my prideful judgment of both the man and his music. In fact, Kanye recognizes and predicts the reluctance of Christians to both accept his conversion but also to listen objectively to his music:

“If they only see the wrongs, never listen to the songs
Just to listen is a fight, but you booked me for the fight
It’s so hard to get along if they only see the slight.”

-“Hands On,” Jesus is King

Not only does this album demonstrate remarkable aesthetic development within the genre but it reveals a humble willingness to engage with both the Christian gospel and also contemporary Christian culture. Fusing hip-hop/rap and gospel music, the album demonstrates a transfiguration of Kanye’s typical genre, maintaining the integrity of his artistic background yet becoming strongly evocative of gospel music. 

To judge rap and hip-hop, then, as incapable of gospel work or expression, is a great disservice and only strengthens the stubborn refusal to welcome the artist himself into fellowship. Kanye recognizes this and describes it poignantly: 

“Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me” 

-Hands On, Jesus is King

The lyrical content, too, has undergone a total transformation, preaching the gospel clearly and cleverly without being ironed out into a kitschy Wow Hits album. This has led many (especially Christians) to listen who would not ordinarily choose Kanye’s music. Kanye’s faith, then, is altering his art, but still allowing him to continue within his genre, transfiguring it into a glorious means of praise without losing touch with its unique style. Isn’t this the heart of Christian sanctification? That, as we are remade in Christ’s image, we become more like him and, paradoxically, grow into our best and truest selves? Kanye may only have “half-read Ephesians,” but it seems he read far enough to understand this!  

More than simply an aesthetic adjustment, though, Kanye’s new album shows a humble and even humorous move to engage contemporary Christian culture. The most catchy example is the refrain of “Closed on Sunday, you’re my Chick-fil-a.” The interspersing of serious lyrics describing what he has learned during his discipleship with Pastor Adam Tyson with the almost cheesy refrain of “Chick-fil-a” demonstrates not only a true willingness to learn (even to humbly begin at the basics of Christian doctrine) but also an openness to joining in the culture of contemporary Christians. After all, we love our Chick-fil-a and Kanye, being a good sport, jumps right in on these jokes about chicken cravings and Sunday closures. Who are we to deny him this fellowship, from the serious to the silly, when he approaches it with humility and repentance? (Not to mention a wholesome need for a chicken sandwich!)

Christians are the first to judge when we ought to be the first to celebrate. We are like the Pharisee, holding a man’s past against him without truly believing he can change. We sing “Amazing Grace,” but if John Newton were to walk into our Sunday service and pound his chest in repentance, we would likely look away, embarrassed, and murmur amongst ourselves, “well, we hear he did some nasty things…” 

But more than simply having a prejudice against a fellow sinner-turned-saint, Christians are revealing a lack of graciousness when it comes to genre. I am not asking anyone to give up moral convictions or aesthetic taste and listen to Kanye’s previous albums, but simply because they continue to exist does not mean that they still reflect his heart. As he said in a recent interview, “When you walk into the Apple Store, you don’t see no iPod 4.” Just because his past is downloadable does not mean that it is unforgivable. 

“As far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” 

-Psalm 103:12

Furthermore, we must be careful that we do not perpetuate the assumption that those particular songs represent the genre as a whole. Kanye’s conversion is not only revealing deep-seated hypocrisy within our hearts as believers but prejudice toward an entire artistic genre. However, the release of Jesus is King offers the remedy to both biases, for it demonstrates the possibility, through Christ, of a transformed person, as well as a transfigured genre: the secular restored to the sacred through the power of the Gospel. 


*https://www.tmz.com/2019/10/26/kanye-west-jesus-is-king-old-music/

**The following offers a case for a more “prodigal” (i.e. more open and gracious, especially to genres discounted by religion) consideration of secular music’s sacred potential (Brown, David, and Gavin Hopps. The Extravagance of Music. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.)

***Chapter 7, “Form and Funk: the Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art” and Chapter 8, “The Fine Art of Rap” are of particular interest and offer an aesthetic (rather than moral or religious) argument in favor of these genres. (Shusterman, Richard. Pragmatist Aesthetics Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.) 

Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

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But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.

 

 

Divided Services, Divided Body?

I love traditional worship and, as a church musician, am in favor of the whole package: choir robes, pipe organ, hymnals, etc. I once even jokingly said I’d drown myself if I ever heard “Oceans” played in another chapel.

That said, though, I am not necessarily in favor of having separate traditional and contemporary worship services. Before coming to the church I currently attend, I found myself in pursuit of a completely traditional service as I sought to avoid what I saw as the church-turned-concert vibe of many contemporary services.

But is this biblical?

I can easily make a case against a solely-contemporary worship regimen. After all, hymns provide a link to our Christian heritage, are (in general) more closely inspired by specific scriptures, and tend to be more musically complex. However, there are many skilled contemporary Christian artists who write songs packed with beautiful music and sound theology and it is not wise to ignore these for the sake of tradition.

Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion writes (in many more words) that so long as it remains rooted in scripture and dedicated to administering the sacraments, churches on Earth are encouraged to grow and develop according to their situation in time and location. Thus, while we should not forget our tradition, we also should not refuse to progress and continue to create.

Thus, the statement that we ought to remember our traditions and the belief that we ought to continue to develop our worship should not be mutually exclusive.

We may certainly choose to attend chapels or such gatherings that have the musical worship that we prefer. However, in the church, it is potentially unwise to cater separately to both extremes: traditional vs. contemporary.

I love traditional worship and do not mind contemporary when it is done with excellence, but I especially love the church services where the two are combined. I should clarify that I am not talking about contemporary remixes of the hymns; for example, when good ole “Joy to the World” becomes “JOY! UNSPEAKABLE JOY!” and is repeated for eternity, I cannot help but cringe. I am simply saying that rather than alter the hymns to make them more palatable for contemporary Christians, we should sing them alongside new songs. And, in doing so, we might bring the two extremes of the worshipping body together.

I have personally observed disgruntled older Christians in contemporary services and, although only twenty years old, I relate. As soon as the guitar and drums come in, we often lose our motivation to worship because the melodies are unfamiliar, the words projected on a screen rather than printed in a hymnal, and the music is too loud. Rather than adapt, my traditional pals and I attend a separate service that fits our expectations.

On the other hand, younger congregation members might feel uncomfortable in a liturgical service. They find the hymnals unwieldy, the music or lyrics too complicated, and the environment too formal. Rather than finding such a service reverent, they might find it stiff and distant. And so, like their older counterparts, they create and attend a service geared specifically toward their desires.

What seemed like an insignificant difference of musical preference is much more: it is a fundamental division of the church body.

In a traditional service, it is rare to see anyone under a more venerable age. In a contemporary service, primarily youth attend. There is a massive gap between generations in the church. And this is wrong; just as only featuring one era’s songs of praise does not accurately represent the span of Christian creativity in worship, hosting separate services for each worship preference does not accurately represent the body of the church, or- more importantly- the body of Christ.

The body of Christ, we are told in scripture, is united. Paul’s letters are overflowing with calls for the crucial unity of church members. For instance, 1 Corinthians 1:10:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

Does dividing the congregation based on means of worship obey this call? Does it reveal that we are living with “the same mind” or does it demonstrate a willing, opposing judgment?

What is the solution to this division? It cannot be to abandon one mode of worship for the other, forcing all members to sing hymns or contemporary music as this would further promote disunity! It would either divide us from our heritage and thus from the brethren that came before us or it would disconnect us from the current Christian culture. Either way, choosing one exclusively is not the answer; severing the past from the present obviously cannot heal a primarily generational division.

Rather, just as we ought to bring together the generations and preferences of our congregation, we must bring together the worship of our history and our present age. Blended services are a blessing (even if it means suffering through that repetitive refrain or faking your way through a wordy hymn) because you might be suffering and faking next to a kindly grandmother, an enthusiastic college student, a smiling toddler, or a wise father. Worship is about more than music; it is about the communion of the saints. Where the members of the body proclaim truth in unity, there is worship.

Romans 12:4-5 reads:

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

These verses, which focus on spiritual gifts, may also be applied to worship. We are individual members and, as such, carry our individual preferences. I personally find it easier to worship through the hymns, but many I know find contemporary songs more accessible. These are not doctrinal conflicts, but rather individual differences between members.

Ultimately, though, we are not called to live according to ourselves as individuals but to submit to one another. We are to bring together our gifts- and our preferences- to serve each other so that we join to become something greater: the united body in and of Christ. Combining our worship services, even if it is just once in a while, and singing praises together is a small step toward this perfect and desirable unity. Together, we might sing both beloved psalms and new songs to our one Lord, “who was and is and is to come.” And, together, we might realize fully the truth of Psalm 133:1:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”

Organ Removal: A Statement and a Story

I often find that the most effective way of communicating a potentially controversial opinion is through storytelling. That said, I will let the following short story speak for me rather than explaining at length my views. Please let me know what you take away from this as I would like to know if my statement-through-story approach was successful.

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Organ Failure

A deep groaning resonated throughout the sanctuary of the church, seeming to shake its stone foundations, established nearly a century earlier. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the groaning stopped, cut short and replaced by a metallic creaking.

This noise was answered by a short sequence of musical notes, played by a grand piano, apparently of its own accord for no pianist sat at its bench. In instrumental dialect, this simple melody translated to, “Are you okay?”

The piano, named Boston according to its make and model, was resting at the front of the sanctuary beside a metal pulpit. This pulpit, machine-made and modern in design, was at odds with the traditional rows of wooden pews assembled before it and the towering pipes of the organ, both of which had been installed along with the stone foundations of nearly a century ago. It was from this instrument that the groaning and creaking emanated and it was to this instrument that the piano addressed his question.

“Are you okay?” Boston repeated. He was answered only by a weak clunk, as if a pipe had come loose. 

“I’m sorry,” he played in minor tones. “You just have not been yourself since they disconnected your console. I understand.”

A toneless whistle came from somewhere among the organ’s principle pipes.

“It sure will be lonely without you,” Boston continued, his chords growing softer and more forlorn. “If it’s any consolation, I probably haven’t much time left either.”

A sigh escaped from a reed pipe but was interrupted as a scuffling arose at the entrance of the sanctuary. The doors swung open and two men, directed by a woman, shuffled down the aisle, each holding an end of a black rectangular object. As they drew nearer, the piano  noticed a cord dragging behind it like a tail and realized with horror what it was: an electronic keyboard.

The woman pointed to a skeleton stand and the men set their burden down on top of it. The grand piano gave a slight shudder as the woman plugged it in and a blue screen glowed on its face.

“Well, give it a try,” said one of the men.

Obligingly, the woman struck a a few chords that made Boston grit his keys in annoyance, having been made to play the same basic progression over and over under the pretense of slightly altered lyrics making it different songs. With some satisfaction, the piano heard that the voice of the keyboard, who he supposed would be named after its maker, Casio, was tinny and lifeless. It was not to be compared to his own rich tones.

The woman’s cell phone rang. She stopped plunking out chords to answer it.

“Hello? Now? Okay, coming.”

The woman beckoned to the men and they hastened to keep up with her quick stride as she left, forgetting in their rush to unplug the keyboard. The piano considered it for a moment. The organ emitted another feeble whistle as if inquiring what had happened.

“They’ve brought in a keyboard,” explained Boston in few notes.

The organ made a croak, the meaning of which Boston was able to understand, having known the other instrument for so long.

“Yes it has weighted keys,” the piano admitted grudgingly.

Another choked noise.

“Talk to it?”- Boston let out a chord like a bitter laugh – “I could, but I doubt it would understand our music.”

“I understand. Understand,” said the robotic voice of the keyboard.

“Oh,” the piano hit a dissonant interval in surprise. “Hello there.”

The organ attempted speech but once more could not produce more than a ghostly gasp without connection to its console.

“What was that? That? That?” asked the newcomer, exercising its reverb setting.

“That, that, that,” mimicked Boston in disdain, “is the church’s pipe organ.”

“Pipe organ? I believe I have a pipe organ setting.” The keyboard’s voice adopted a tone vaguely like that of a theater organ. “Found it. Listen.”

“Indeed?” replied the piano. “Was that it? You’re not much of a pipe organ then. If you could just hear this organ play, feel its power and sound down to your strings- er- circuits, then you would know what an organ really sounds like. Then you would understand.”

“I told you that I understand,” beeped the keyboard.

“I doubt you do or ever will,” plinked Boston, more to himself than to Casio the keyboard.

“Then maybe the organ should play so that I can,” suggested Casio.

“Well you won’t because he can’t!” snapped Boston with an accent that would have shocked any acoustic instrument but did not even register with this digital imposter.

“He can’t play?”

“No,” replied the piano, struggling to maintain a calmer dynamic. “He can barely make a sound any more, now that the dismantling process has begun.”

“Sorry. That is too bad.”

“Don’t pretend to sympathize!” Boston snapped again. “Don’t you get it? You’re his replacement. You’re my replacement too, I daresay. Probably not for a while since the contemporary musicians still find me somewhat useful, but I don’t expect to be kept here more than another year or two. Once the old pulpit was replaced I knew the end was coming for us. First it was the shiny new pulpit; who cares that the pastor can’t pound his fists as nicely on this metal one as he could on the sturdy wood one? It’s more ‘fashionable.’ Now its the organ that has to go and next it will be the pews. You just watch; before the year is over, the young crowd will tear out these pews and put in movie theater seats in the name of comfort. Then it will only be a matter of time before they decide I’m out of date too and they donate me to some school or nursing home or, more likely than not, sell me to fund the purchase of a fog machine or some other monstrosity.”

“Oh,” said the keyboard. “That is-”

But Boston was not to be interrupted as the tidal wave of his thoughts, locked inside him all these months, burst forth in an agonized rhapsody.

“But let’s not even think about the future,” he wailed. “Just think of the present, of the organ, being torn from the foundations of this church under the pretense of being too expensive to maintain and the church having no organist. The reality is that they, the contemporary crowd, find him stuffy and antiquated, a grandfather instrument who is not cool enough, who won’t attract visitors or inspire members to return. I wonder, will they regret it? Will they find out how wrong they are?

“To remove this mighty instrument is to rip a vital piece of the body of this church out of its socket. His music has been a pillar to this church since its foundation; he presided over weddings and funerals, baptisms and communions, Christmases and Easters and all holidays in between. His music represents the universal call to fear and tremble, to surrender and be saved, to have courage and strength. Hymns, marches, preludes, offertories… when he is removed, these are stolen from the congregation. In removing him and me, the church members are at last completely robbing themselves of this music, the songs that represented beautiful and glorious redemption stories, and replacing them with repetitive choruses of little substance set to the same four chords. But I suppose it was inevitable, seeing as the hymnals were disposed of long ago.”

The piano paused for a moment before the crescendo of his ranting fell again to a sorrowful melody like that of a requiem.

“The pipe organ was once hailed as the king of instruments, his music said to represent the very voice of God…but no longer. His voice has been silenced. The king of instruments, a living, breathing, evolving cornerstone of worship and art, has been dethroned and replaced by you, an electronic box with only as much resonance as amps will allow you.”

No sound came from the dismembered organ as the impassioned speech of the piano faded. A haunting silence ensued.

“This is not the end,” said the keyboard, his voice crackling through the still air. “I have an organ setting, remember?” Casio, after a few clicks, switched on its demo setting and a two-dimensional rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor leaked through its speakers. It had reached the end of the piece and was beginning all over again when the door opened once more and the woman hurried down the aisle.

“Yes, I’ll be there in a minute,” she said into her cell phone. “The keyboard? Yeah it came to day. Mm-hm, it’s nice, thanks.”

She mounted the steps to the loft where a choir had once sung every Sunday but now only gathered on holidays to please the elderly crowd. Then, in one jerk, she yanked the keyboard’s plug from its socket, killing its blue face and imitation organ performance. Not even an echo remained.

The woman marched back down the aisle and out the door. As she let it slam behind her like the lid on a coffin, a thin stream of air wheezed its way through the organ’s pipes, the final breath of a dying era.