The following was first published in 2011 at Firstthings.com.
“By the twelfth century,” Christopher Page writes in his magisterial The Christian West and Its Singers (2010), “the Latin West could be imagined as a soundscape of Latin chant.” From the eighth-century alliance of Pope Stephen with the Frankish King Pippin, a Frankish-Roman “repertory of plainsong” spread throughout Europe, suppressing competitors. By the end of the first millennium, cathedral singers in Hungary knew the same liturgy and sang the same chants for the same days as monastic singers in Spain and Sweden. When monasteries and hospitals expanded Christendom’s reach to frontier areas, they took their music with them. The sonic space of Christian cities was delimited by the sounding of bells.
In the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, Christendom’s soundscape was demolished by Islam as the wails of muezzins replaced tolling bells. “There is only the abominable melody of Saracens where there should be the worship of Jesus Christ and chant,” lamented a Franciscan friar after the fall of Crusader Jerusalem. The medieval soundscape took another hit during the Reformation, when metrical Psalms, chorales, or modified plainchant displaced Latin chant wherever Protestantism took hold. Still, for centuries after the Reformation, and across the Reformation divides, churches continued to cultivate a distinctive culture of liturgical music.
What Islam and the Reformation initiated, American churches have completed, voluntarily. Beginning with the charismatic revival and the Jesus movement, the most theologically conservative Protestant churches abandoned the tradition of Christian music and took on musical styles adapted from popular music. It has been an astonishingly rapid and thoroughgoing change. Praise songs routed gospel hymns, and today Reformation-era Psalms and chorales are unknown in wide swathes of American Protestantism. Presbyterian theologian T. David Gordon captures the shift with an anecdote about a theology student at a Protestant seminary puzzled by a professor’s reference to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” Musically, evangelicals are all charismatics now.
I am not assessing the quality, theology, or sincerity of contemporary worship music. I merely observe the fact, and offer a preliminary interrogation of its cultural sources and effects. What ideas, standards, and forces shape liturgical music? And, what does the church’s musical culture say about the church and its future?
Contemporary worship music is, for starters, “contemporary.” Of course, the age of music doesn’t determine its quality, but that bromide misses the point. In a world peopled by advertisers and entertainers, “contemporary” is a hurrah word, a marketing tool, branding liturgical music that is fashionable, up-to-date, oozing youthful cool. Contemporary is young, and young is good. The desire to make worship more appealing to young people was a major impulse behind the development of contemporary Christian music in the first place. The magnitude of this shift cannot be overestimated. Culture is a gift from the old to the young, and the younger generation’s grateful reception is a sign of honor for fathers. Cultural transmission has been thrown into reverse, also in the church.
Expertise is one of the values of modern culture, but expertise has always had a limited scope. We trust experts in physics and computer programming and perhaps foreign affairs. But the suggestion that there are experts in aesthetics, musicians who know what music one shouldappreciate, is greeted with hostility, also in the church. “I know what I like” stops every argument, buttressed by “Musical taste is subjective.” Lebanese organist Naji Hakim has lamented that in the Catholic Church “many in positions of liturgical responsibility, with no musical education as regards technique or aesthetics, have come to believe in a tabula rasa , denying any lineage whatsoever.” Professional musicians have been “sidelined” as “the lost common denominator has become the rule.” He wonders whether Catholics “realize the level of mediocrity which the present liturgy has reached.”
The church created the soundscape for Western Christendom because she cultivated her own musical life in the liturgy that united human voices with the angelic choirs of heaven. I can hardly imagine a more worrisome sign of worldliness, or clearer evidence of the church’s identity crisis, than our eager renunciation of our own soundscape and our determination instead to reproduce the world’s.