The sample size might be too small for statistical validity, but I’ll go ahead and offer a data-influenced hypothesis nevertheless.
Concept albums are on the rise.
Or perhaps we should call them “cover” concept albums, since most of the ones I’m thinking of are a concept, but they are also “covering” an album from the past.
Here are the ones I’m listening to right now. You might have heard others. The Bad Plus recently put out a jazz rendition of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. It’s kind of audacious, and kind of perfect.
Then The Flaming Lips released this week a wild tribute cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s a headphones friendly album, and all the proceeds go to Oklahoma City’s Bella Foundation, which helps low-income elderly pay for veterinary care.
Next on the list is Primus’ new album, Primus and the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble. It’s their first album since 1995, and a tribute to the 1971 musical Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Then, maybe lesser known but still great, is Chad Eby’s jazz album The Sweet Shel Suite: Music Inspired by Shel Silverstein.
Finally, I should mention that my brother recently attended a Pearl Jam concert in the Quad Cities, and they played the entirety of No Code (their 1996 release) as a kind of tribute to themselves.
I could probably continue listing albums, like Annie Lennox’s new release of standards. But what interests me about this list is its implications for Christian worship.
Might it be wise for more churches to do “concept” worship or “cover” liturgies?
Think about the Mass Mobs phenomenon in Detroit. In Detroit, this is less a concept album, and more a concept congregation. It’s a tribute ensemble to what the pews might have use to be like.
But what if more churches covered older liturgies? It’s not that it hasn’t been tried, or is currently in session. Catherine Pickstock, in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, wrote a whole book about the old Catholic liturgy, in a sense re-playing it line by line in a philosophical key.
Cardinal Ratzinger encouraged a tradition which he deepened as pope of granting the Latin (Tridentine) Mass more generously to all those who desired it.
Episcopalians debate and discuss the relative merits of the 1928 vs. the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Some Lutherans of my own denomination like go back and do the liturgy as Martin Luther originally reformed it, either in Latin or German, and I myself have led services in the upper church at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church in rural Wisconsin using worn and loved copies of the Service Book and Hymnal.
The spiritual value in these practices, if there is one, is the same as the value of concept albums. There is sometimes inspiration in re-performing what has gone before. There are discoveries to be had in singing a song that has been sung before, but like it has never been sung.
It’s like the old adage, that you can never dip your toe into the same river twice.
I do quite like the fact that these recent albums are entire albums. The bands aren’t covering just one song. They’re playing an entire set, reworking an entire album. I think the same could be encouraged with Christian worship. If you’re going to cover something ancient, do the whole thing. Don’t just learn to sing one song from the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Instead, apprentice with a priest in the Greek Orthodox tradition, and learn and memorize the whole thing.
Why not? I’m sure Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, or The Bad Plus, made sure to know the music inside and out before the performed it. Why wouldn’t we also fully immerse ourselves, and give ourselves completely over to, something that has come from long before, and see how it plays us in the present?
Isn’t that the definition of worship? To give ourselves over to One who makes us sing.