Apples and Oranges – 2

I have argued that if the similarities between historical worship wars can be shown to be greater than the differences, we must concede the point to advocates of Contemporary Christian Music that our problem is merely one of slow adaptation, fear of the unknown and traditionalism. On the other hand, if the differences are far greater than the similarities, then while those similarities might be instructive, we must deal with the fact that we have an altogether different battle on our hands, requiring something more than the sentiment of “Just adapt or die!”

Let me begin by noting the similarities.

Certainly, we still have hard-bitten traditionalists, who take refuge in the tried and tested. This is not always a bad thing, either. However, there are still some who defend ‘the old hymns’ even if those old hymns are impenetrable or even inferior in quality. Theirs is not a defence of piety, but a defence of a methodology they are comfortable with.

We also still have those calling for music and the lyrics to be accessible and plain to the common man, some moderate, and some radical. In moderation,  this is not a bad thing, either. However, the radicals want to replace tradition with contemporaneity as if older hymns are like worn furniture, an embarrassment for a generation high on novelty. There are also some who, like the unthinking traditionalists, defend ‘the new songs’ even if those new songs are trivial, unhelpful to piety, and inferior in quality. Once again, theirs is not a defence of piety, but a defence of a methodology they are comfortable with.

In fact, both groups should begin to focus attention on the matter of piety: what is appropriate to say or sing to God? Who, in fact, is God? How did the Christian church for two thousand years express their devotion to Him? What affections are appropriate? How do we express those affections artistically? Once we are approaching some kind of agreement on the nature of our God and meaning of poetical or musical idioms, we can examine songs, new and old, and see if they reach the minimum standard.

These similarities exist, and perhaps always will.

However, my contention is that the differences between our worship wars and the previous ones are far greater than the similarities, making the situation not parallel, as Miller insists. If the situation is not parallel, then the force of his argument ceases.

 First, what is being borrowed is a very different animal. To point out that Christians were borrowing from ‘secular sources’ attempts to say too much. It attempts to say that the act of borrowing music from non-church sources is essentially the same act, whenever it is performed. But that is like saying that borrowing a neighbour’s lawnmower and borrowing his wife are both essentially the morally neutral act of borrowing. Here the emphasis is on the act of borrowing, and the source of the lending: the neighbour. This is precisely wrong. What matters always is what is being borrowed. Borrowing a man’s lawnmower can be acceptable; borrowing a man’s wife is always immoral. It is inconclusive to say that Christians have always borrowed from secular sources. The important question is: what kind of music were they borrowing when they did so?

Well, consider Luther. Of his many hymns and other compositions, Luther used one secular tune for a Christmas hymn, which he later replaced, embarrassed over its associations. Indeed, Luther himself said that he wanted to write music that would attract young people “away from love songs and carnal pieces and [would] give them something wholesome to learn instead…” (Paul Jones, Singing and Making Music, p172). Luther did borrow from folk tunes and Gregorian chant, a common practice, even in the Baroque era.

This leads us to a second, and perhaps even more significant difference. To have borrowed from a ‘secular’ culture during the Patristic era, the medieval era, or even the early Enlightenment era was a very different thing from borrowing from the secular culture of our era. This is the major flaw in Miller’s argument. He does not define ‘secular’. It seems to be a vague category of ‘whatever is outside the church’. In fact, secularism as a true system of thought and belief is a product of the Enlightenment, so it isn’t entirely accurate to speak of Luther or Bunyan borrowing from ‘secular sources’. Secularism as we know it didn’t exist then.

Prior to the Enlightenment, high culture was effectively controlled by the Roman Church. This did not make it all perfect, but it did make it at least theistic. Music, art, philosophy, poetry, literature was created, sanctioned and controlled in this kind of environment. Folk culture was the culture that grew up amongst various languages, regions and localities and reflected a trickle-down from high culture. The music, poetry and traditions of villages and towns was simpler and more accessible than high culture, but it was largely influenced by its categories. That did not mean it did not contain anything objectionable. The point is, when Luther, Calvin, Wesley or Watts borrowed from non-church sources, they were borrowing from a folk culture still largely riding the wave of 1000 years of Christian expression.

On the other hand, the Enlightenment was a conscious jettisoning of Christianity, beginning in philosophy and extending to music, poetry, literature and the plastic arts. With the development of mass media, folk culture began to evaporate. The culture spread through the mass media is true secularism: a worldview where God does not matter. Furthermore, it is an unprincipled secularism: a secularism that lives on mass appeal, fuelled by advertisement revenue, leading to a cycle of debasement to reach the appetites of consumers.

This is a very different culture from the Christianised culture of Luther, Wesley or Watts. To say that borrowing from the folk culture of Medieval, Renaissance or early Enlightenment Europe is the same thing as borrowing from 21st century pop culture is comparing apples with oranges.

Culture has changed. It has not merely changed its ‘style’. It has changed its view of reality. We live in a post-Christian era. I might borrow a cup of milk from my unbelieving neighbour. But should I borrow his DVD collection for my personal devotions?

Few informed Christians would contend that Western culture has not declined in Christian sensibility since the Enlightenment. However, we are far more apathetic than any generation prior to ours. Ancient Christians were willing to vigorously contend for what they thought was sacrilege; we’re content to hold two services.

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8 Responses to “Apples and Oranges – 2”

  1. Neoclassical Says:

    I don’t want to jump the gun, but I hope you discuss the difference between folk culture and pop culture, too.

  2. David Says:

    Yes, confusing the two is where many evangelicals make their errors.

  3. dandelionsmith Says:

    Your essay is very well put. I thank Pastor Mitchell for directing the way here a few times over the last few weeks.

  4. David Says:

    I’m glad if all this blog does is cause some reflection.

  5. Neoclassical Says:

    It’s too bad some of the peace over here has been disrupted by publicity among some circles. 🙂

  6. David Says:

    I may be conservative, but I love to share.

  7. Neoclassical Says:

    Yes, sharing is good, as long as you’re not sharing your pearls with pigs.

  8. David Says:

    Sorry, I didn’t get your meaning at first. Yup, gone are the pleasant days of rest once you’re known at the House of Steely Fundies.

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