24 July 2011

Further Praise and Praise Music

The post of 22 July concerning praise music excited a touch of comment. Mostly, it was verbal and opinions were mixed. That’s a good thing. If there were only one available opinion and one available set of important or relevant facts, we would only need one blog and that would hardly constitute a thoughtful discussion at all.

So let me continue a more interactive version of these Dispatches. Perhaps this, too, will be another beaker on the burner in the laboratory of human behavior.

Take one of my customary detours, let me note that on some topics we bring strong feelings. Strong feelings and strong opinions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad except insofar as they prove that one cares and is showing interest. There’s one intellectual challenge similar to what you go through reading good fiction, which requires a willing suspension of disbelief. In discussing the controversial subject or for that matter anything where there are a number of viewpoints, it is helpful to be able to willingly suspend judgment until you have “downloaded” to your mind the information or even opinions offered. Of course, then we have to analyze what we have heard.

By the way, the best jury theory I know (and the one that I practice) is based upon the presumption that jurors do not suspend judgment until all the information is imparted. One great teacher of trial lawyers, Herb Stern, tells students that in the trial, you “hit them the firstest with the mostest,” thereby getting the jury on your side and prone to listen to the remainder the evidence while rooting for you.

Mere words about music don’t work well or tell us much. Neither do mere words describing art or nature. The words are not the reality, and the words can only feebly describe the reality. So we have to take the time actually to look at the music performed.

So, let me offer a YouTube audio/video of the untitled hymn by Chris Rice commonly referred to as “Come to Jesus,” to which I referred on the 22nd:


A short & sweet commentary: The purity of Rice’s voice strikes me. For that matter, when the musical worship leaders at our church perform this, the purity of their voices strikes me, too. The range of the song is fairly broad. And the lyrics, beautiful: “Come to Jesus… Dance with Jesus… Fly to Jesus.” These generate a response in me.

Another example:


What excitement and what joy these performers and listeners alike have. Those lyrics don’t say a whole lot to me and the music doesn’t get in the stir me at least the extent of those in that video. Do they need to? Is it enough that it stir someone and add to their faith experience?

A nonmusical (or at least non-melodic) example:


This, to me, is ultimate cutesy. It doesn’t speak to me, mostly because I lack a lot of the modern cultural references. But as you can see in this live performance, a lot of the audience does react strongly. I’m going to refrain from much discussion about the content. I think I get the message that modern cultural references are not nearly so important as “timeless values.” But I’ve never talked to the author of this one minute sermon, and she may have another point entirely.

Which is yet another point about worship styles and methodologies. Does it matter what the intent or detailed theology of the creator of the work might be if it produces a positive result? And that, my friends, is not an expression of an opinion, it’s a legitimate question.

And finally:


My commentary? None. And that’s the point of this little essay – you listen, you decide. If it brings you closer to your faith, my opinion really doesn’t matter as much as either the vice presidency or a warm pitcher of spit, to quote John Nance Garner. Pick one.

I do know that I enjoy music, but I don’t know why. How do tones, vibrations in the air really, from different devices which create those tones bring me pleasure? I don’t know why verbal material presented at various differing frequencies and in various patterns give me pleasure or inspiration or even information. Is this is purely a learned behavior? After all, we can quickly recognize the music of other cultures because sometimes it sounds strange or even cacaphonous to us. And the rules of how these tones are arranged and what devices/instruments are used are very detailed and yet from this learned behavior somewhat common knowledge to the point that we can remember lots and lots of different patterns (musical pieces) or even styles. For some odd reason, I can usually pick out Russian orchestral music. What is the common feature of that music that makes it recognizable to my brain? Go figure. How is it that these things create an emotional response? Honestly, I do not understand it.

Perhaps there’s something instinctive about all this. Parents know that strange phenomenon of sleeping through all kinds of noises and yet when your baby makes a noise, even a soft one, you snap awake immediately. What is the filtering process that goes on in the mind?

Other sounds bring associations. To me, hearing dispatch radio tones brings a strong association and I’m always up for that sweet blast of mechanical siren. Those are my associations. Others find them confusing or even annoying.

Were trying to find beauty here. I don’t know how.

Can anyone help me out?

Pippa passes.


1 comment:

Jim N. said...

Roger, Thanks for these very provocative reflections. I especially enjoyed "Come to Jesus" by Chris Rice, and took the time to listen to another of his pieces, "Go Light Your World." Both seem to me to be good fits in a blended worship service, which was the implied point of the essay that initiated this current conversation.

The other examples you linked didn't do much (actually squat) for me, but that again points to the issue of what appeals to different people. These other examples obviously fit well in the settings in which they were performed, but I would have much difficulty with them in church. And chances are I would never knowingly attend the venues where they were performed.

Could your immediate recognition of Russian composers have something to do with their music usually being very "heavy" and in minor keys? Perhaps that's a stereotypical categorization, but it is my impression, and I do really enjoy listening to Russian compositions. In fact, there was a new (to me) piece of Russian origins on NPR this afternoon that was hauntingly beautiful. (I'm going to go on the search for a recording of it, and if I suceed, I'll share with you.

It probably is true that when it comes to the arts, it's a matter of "different strokes for different folks." What the reasons are for our resonating with different musical styles is a mystery. Perhaps that's the reason some refer to music as the "language of the soul."

My one practical, gut-level question in this has to do with the appropriateness of unilaterally introducing or blending into traditional worship settings contemporary pieces that don't really blend well (for a host of reasons) with the faith understandings and/or stylistic differences of at least some so gathered. It seems to me that in order to move in such a direction, a broad base of consensus would need to be achieved.