Behold, he waltzeth with clouds; or, The Form Is the Substance

Behold, he waltzeth with clouds; or, The Form Is the Substance May 7, 2021

One of the problems endemic to Christian worship today is the assumption that forms don’t matter as long as the substance is unchanging.

“It’s not the style that matters.”

I get comments like this all the time. The same is said in every church growth book ever written.

Here’s one cool pastor’s take.

You heard it. The guacamole is the important part, it just needs effective packaging. “THE GOSPEL IS THE GUACAMOLE!”

But the gospel is not guacamole. The form matters, because the form is the substance. They are inextricable, inseparable.

While this applies to most any aspect of liturgy – language, architecture, order – I want to talk about musical form just a bit. The music used in liturgy is not just a liturgical cargo truck. It must fit the substance. And a medium, namely modern pop music, that is driven by the appetites manufactured by those who want you to buy their offerings, does not lend itself to the transcendent beauty of the gospel. It actually subverts it.

The inimitable Hans Boersma published a post on this very topic. (You should read his right now, even if you don’t finish mine.) “The liturgical medium is the message,” Boersma says.

“Contemporary worship music is often banal. No matter the content, the form by itself trivializes what takes place in the liturgy. We keep trying to put asunder what God has joined together—medium and message, form and content—but invariably the divorce does not end well.”

Here’s a rather ridiculous example. I think I’m stealing it from a Reformed pastor, but I don’t remember which one, or if I read it or heard it.

John W. Peterson was an evangelical songwriter. If you were around evangelical circles in the 50s and 60s, you probably know that name. If not, you’ve probably sung a few of his gospel songs, the most popular of which are probably “Heaven Came Down,” “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” and “It Took a Miracle.” If you’re still drawing a blank, behold Peterson’s mighty mojo here.

Anyway, John W. Peterson wrote a gospel song called “Jesus Is Coming Again.” The text, as with most gospel songs of the era, is not theologically stout or poetically beautiful, but there is at least a nugget of truth: Jesus is coming again. But the form Peterson chooses here is something of a waltz, and a particularly campy setting at that. Take a listen.

Again, Peterson’s text is vapid enough, but how does such a tune capture this biblical account of the event:

Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

Not well, I’m afraid. Jesus is coming again, but he will not be waltzing.

Contrast Peterson’s text/tune marriage with this fabulous text by Charles Wesley and the lovely Welsh tune, HELMSLEY.

The text is deeply theological and biblical. The tune is stately, beautiful, and dignified. No waltzing Jesus here. Instead of honky-tonk piano (or whining guitars and lead singers, for that matter), we have the organ, which according to Boersma, conveys that “God is sovereign and puny creatures are not.” This form carries the substance with dignity and authenticity.

Friends, the form of the liturgy matters because the form itself is part of the substance. We cannot divorce the two. Our failure to realize this has led us through decades of liturgical folly, and has left us with a church that is hopelessly confused about the nature of liturgy, and malnourished by the poverty of contemporary worship and preferential worship formats.

When we say forms don’t matter, we are inadvertently teaching the idea that the truth of the gospel is found in the feelings those styles conjure in us.

When we tailor our forms in accordance with what we think will resonate with people instead of what frames the liturgy with beauty and dignity, we are crowning the people lords  of their own hearts.

It’s not just a mixed message. It’s a totally different message, which the church is unwittingly writing on worshipers’ hearts.

Pardon the grammar, but, “What you win them WITH, you win them TO.”

Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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