Thanks to Dan Kempin for alerting me to this song “Do Everything” by Contemporary Christian Music artist Stephen Curtis Chapman. It is about vocation, but it is about the Reformed doctrine of vocation, rather than the Lutheran doctrine of vocation. They overlap, but the Reformed emphasis is that the purpose of vocation is to glorify God, as in this song (lyrics and video after the jump). The Lutheran emphasis is that the purpose of vocation is to love and serve our neighbors. What difference does that make, if any?
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck died at age 92. The man and his quartet showed sheer genius. My old guitar teacher once sat in with him and it was one of the highlights of his life. Brubeck was a Christian who composed a great deal of sacred music. From David A. Anderson:
“I approached the composition as a prayer,” jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck said of his “To Hope! A Celebration,” a contemporary setting for the Roman Catholic Mass, “concentrating upon the phrases, trying to probe beneath the surface, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through the centuries.”
Probing beneath the surface marked all of Brubeck’s music, from the revolutionary 1959 polyrhythmic album “Time Out,” to his oratorio, “A Light in the Wilderness,” and his setting of Thomas Aquinas’ hymn, “Pange Lingua.”
Brubeck is best known in the secular jazz world for his startling compositions using different time signatures, such as 5/4 time in the classic “Take Five,” or the mixture of 9/8 time and the more traditional 4/4 rhythm of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Both pieces are on the “Time Out” album, the first jazz album to sell 1 million copies and still one of the best-selling.
Religious faith, however, was never far from Brubeck’s creative mind. . . .
In a 2009 interview with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Brubeck said his service in World War II convinced him “something should be done musically to strengthen man’s knowledge of God.”
That experience gave him the idea of an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments, particularly the “Thou shalt not kill” part.
But he did not act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965, when he wrote a short piece, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” to comfort his brother, Howard, whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.
That piece was incorporated into 1968’s “A Light in the Wilderness,” his first full-scale sacred composition.
That was followed by a series of pieces including 1969’s “The Gates of Justice,” a choral work using words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Truth is Fallen,” in 1971; “La Fiesta de la Posada” in 1975; and “Beloved Son,” in 1978.
“When I write a piece, a sacred piece, I’m looking hard and trying to discover what I’m about, and what my parents were about and the world is about,” he told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
Raised a Protestant although never baptized, Brubeck became a Roman Catholic in 1980 after completing “To Hope!”, a Mass setting commissioned by the Catholic periodical, Our Sunday Visitor.
Brubeck shows that it’s certainly possible and desirable to have contemporary Christian music, even to have it used in worship–if it could only be rich and complex and artistic and in accord with the Christian sensibility, unlike much of what passes for that genre today.
Here is his “Celebration” Mass. It’s just over 10 minutes, but keep listening for the choral parts and for when his quartet breaks in (around the 4 minute mark).
Here is “Take Five,” Brubeck’s most famous piece. (Pick out the 5/4 time.) Brubeck right now is taking five before the Resurrection.
I have spared you my American Idol reflections up to this point, that show being one of my pop-culture vices, but a recent performance was so emblematic that I cannot help but comment upon it. Joshua Ledet, arguably the best singer in the contest (who made the top three but, unfortunately, got voted off before this week’s finale), sang as his personal choice John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Now that has to be one of my least favorite songs, a treacly anthem to atheism. Joshua, though, has made much of the fact that he’s all about the church, his father being a pastor, and singing gospel songs or non-gospel songs with gospel stylings every chance he gets. He sang “Imagine”–“Imagine there’s no Heaven;it’s easy if you try/No hell below us; above us only sky”–not to go against type, though, but, according to what he was telling the judges, because of its uplifting and inspirational message! He obviously didn’t understand what he was singing. The reason, I would suggest, is because the music sounds uplifting and inspirational–in a peculiarly sappy way–and that overwhelms for most listeners the nihilistic lyrics.
This is the same principle demonstrated by the avant garde East German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote with musical collaborator Kurt Weill the song “Mack the Knife” for his play The Threepenny Opera. You know the song, which has become a “standard” of light jazz and lounge crooners. It’s got a light swinging tune. But notice the words, all about how a shark has teeth that are razor sharp and is like Mack, who will kill you with his blade. The melody is sunshiny and peaceful, but the lyrics are dark and violent. Brecht was purposefully playing form off against content. Usually, the two go together, mutually re-enforcing each other. But Brecht was trying to write a song in which the two go in opposite directions. In his experiment, he believed that the form would overwhelm the content, that audiences would pick up on the happy melody and consider it a happy song with the disturbing lyrics having no impact! And he was right, as evidenced every time “Mack the Knife” gets played in an elevator or as Muzak in a shopping mall.
This is important to realize when it comes to contemporary Christian music. The assumption has been that to make Christianity relevant and to communicate with the culture, all we have to do is take “secular” forms–rock, metal, hip-hop, whatever–and put Christian words to it. But Brecht’s experiment with “Mack the Knife” and Joshua Ledet’s performance on American Idol prove that it’s not so simple. Death metal with Christian words will come across as and will have the effect of death metal, with the Christian words hardly registering. Form is not neutral. Form will drown out the content.
What we need from contemporary Christian artists (musicians, painters, filmmakers, authors) is not slavish following of other people’s styles, attempting to Christianize them; rather, we need original styles, ones that can carry the Christian message and that other people will imitate (thereby promulgating, even unintentionally, the Christian content).