Monday, September 30, 2013

Rationalism and Liturgy

I am barreling down to my self-imposed thesis submission deadline. All along the way, this fairly focused study has offered up many opportunities for rabbit-trails, tangents, and distractions. Some of the “side bar” details show up in footnotes. Some show up on a list of ideas I’d like to explore post-thesis. This past week, something I read stopped me in my tracks.

Outside the scope of my thesis, but very much behind the motive for my thesis, I have had this nagging feeling that in the church generally (that is, the kind of churches I have served) we have a suspicion of the Enlightenment world view; specifically, we reject (or at least distrust)
* the human subject as the center of our studies –
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.
The proper study of mankind is man.
Alexander Pope
* scientific materialism – only what can be measured is what is real
* physical causation – if one cannot “connect the dots” then one cannot know
* empiricism – knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience
The Romantic layer to the Enlightenment is seen in the cult of “Genius,” and the triumph of sensuality (meaning, at one level, the celebration of the senses, though of course this resulted/results in a heightened focus on sexuality). I would point, again, to the delightful Evening in the Palace of Reason for a very readable account of the conflict of this world view (represented by Frederick the Great) with that of the Reformation (represented by J. S. Bach).

So, anyway, when set out like this, we tend to say that the Enlightenment – the door into Modernity – was not, in the end, a friend to the Church.

And yet, it has seemed increasingly clear, to me, that in one area, in one arena, in one field – namely, music –  the Church (mirroring our culture) has embraced both the Enlightened and Romantic world view. The most evident manifestation of this embrace is the claim that music is incapable of containing meaning, it is not interpretable; music is neutral, or amoral; and so music itself (i.e. without words) is insignificant. It doesn’t matter what music we choose for the words we sing; it’s all a matter of taste, or (worse) preference.

Let me interject that I am not (here) arguing against that conclusion. I simply offer the previous paragraph as a précis of my reading of “the problem of music in the church.” Yes, this is one of the Big Ideas I want to follow up post-thesis. It may well be that even if everything else about the 18th and 19th century philosophies were questionable, the conclusions about music would be valid. In that case to argue against this conclusion re. music would be ad hominem: “that can’t be right, because it comes from a source whose character is questionable.”

Still, this is the way I think, and I realize I need to do more work on it. But, with that in mind, imagine my surprise when in my reading last week I came across the following:

In his ground-breaking study, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, Günther Stiller portrays the vibrant Lutheran church life in 17th century Leipzig. Old churches were restored, worship services included catechistic features, attendance exploded, the number of communicants at Holy Communion swelled. This was the condition of the churches in Bach’s time there (1723 – 1750). At the same time, in Bach’s day, the clergy were coming under the influence on the Enlightenment. It is fair to say that some of Bach’s conflicts with church leaders and city fathers rose out of this changing world view, particularly as it related to music and the liturgy. What happened in the second half of the century? Based solely on the attendance figures at Holy Communion, during the period 1785-1815, when the churches were superintended by Johann Georg Rosenmüller, who “always tried to introduce the worshipers to the ideas of the Enlightenment.” (158). During this time participation in Holy Communion dropped from thousands (annually) to less than 100.

What happened during that time? The historic liturgy was gradually shortened, then parts of it were eliminated, in favor of longer sermons. The role of the service was instruction, and what did not serve that purpose was minimized or excised. Even the reading of scripture at the center of the liturgy was curtailed. During that time, a vibrant culture of multiple weekday services gradually diminished, total attendance across the city went into steep decline, people stayed away from church. Stiller notes: Nothing else but the figures provided can so clearly show to what an extent rationalism had a negative effect on the Leipzig liturgical practice and a disastrous influence that eventually – which means even now [1970] – led to a real “neglect of Communion.” It is apparent that Lutheran orthodoxy is in no way to be blamed for this misfortune, but rationalism alone. (165-166)

Don't get me wrong - I never argue against preaching at the center of Christian worship. But now I have another theme to explore regarding the church and the Rationalism. Is the dominance of the sermon to the exclusion of other, congregational, participational, expressive elements of the service also a legacy of the Enlightenment? And, is that OK? (By which I mean, does that square with the rich New Testament evidence about gathered worship?)

And then, here’s the real stinger, for me. Eleven years into this “reform” of the Leipzig churches, one of the preachers noted: “Our city churches have in recent years registered smaller attendance than previously,” and proposed that this was . . .

wait for it . . .

due to the use of the old hymnbook.

There is nothing new about church life. Ever.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Silent Night at Slippery Rock

Last weekend I went to my first Big Ten football game. A musician friend and I saw Michigan play in the “Big House.” In order to take it all in, we drove over the night before and stayed in the farmhouse which has been in my family for exactly 100 years. It was fun to introduce a friend to some family history there.

I had no idea that the next day would also be steeped in tradition. Which just means that I wasn’t thinking about it. Because, without tradition, sport can’t sustain itself.

And what a glorious tradition! From the pre-game show played by the marching band drum line, to the voice of Michigan football (Chicago classical music announcer Carl Grapentine), the Star Spangled Banner, the marching band cum pep band, the honoring of celebrated Michigan athletes . . . Something like six hours of tradition-rich experience.

Well, and for the students, it begins earlier. By the time we were on campus, it was crawling with students. Dance music blared from porch roofs and front yards. Students were decked out in team colors, swarming the campus neighborhoods. This started well before 9am . . . on a Saturday. And they occupied a huge section of the stadium – a solid mass of Michigan maize.

Because I don’t watch televised sports (which people mistake for disinterest) just about everything about the Big House event was new to me. When the opposing team is in a fourth down situation, the band plays the old popular standard, “Temptation.” Wha?!? The marching band takes the field in the same way they did back when I was a lad. (That is to say, when TV still showed the half-time shows.) When the announcer gave scores of other Saturday games, one event, which had not yet begun, elicited a roar from the students: Shippensburg v. Slippery Rock. Again: Wha?!? I didn’t even know that these are actual schools. And there’s a fun story behind this, the gist of which is that Slippery Rock scores are announced at every Michigan game. After the game the band took the field again, to play highlights from their show, to the opposite side of the stadium from which they performed earlier. That post-game show was abridged, but then included three traditional marching band classics: “Temptation” in its full arrangement, “Hawaiian War Chant,” and the university Alma Mater.

I thought of these things in the days following, whilst preparing a lecture for Taylor University church music students: “Integrating Tradition into Contemporary Culture.” I realized that students – no less than all of us – are surrounded by traditions in all arenas of our lives. In fact, Taylor athletics also have a basketball tradition that I would love to experience. It is their “Silent Night,” a December home game during which the Taylor crowd is completely silent until the 10th point is scored.

These athletic traditions provided a neat introduction into my topic. We don’t need to “integrate tradition” into contemporary culture; culture is tradition. But it raises the question: why is the church so eager to abandon its own traditions?

Why, in athletics, do we celebrate local athletic traditions, including – especially? – those which are unintelligible to outsiders . . . But apologize for the same in Christian worship?

We explain (even if we don’t defend) all kinds of tradition. To paraphrase Calvin, the human mind is a factory of traditions. Whether it’s specific meals, things we do in certain ways, movies we watch during specific seasons . . . we are constantly establishing and living in traditions.

We find ourselves suspicious of people who dismiss or mess with athletic tradition. What if Taylor brought in a new athletic director or basketball coach who thought “Silent Night” was just silly, and tried to do away with it? Awkward! The other day I heard a radio conversation about Chicago team mascots; much of the talk was about the hassles team owners had when they either did away with a beloved mascot, or tried to introduce a new one. “Tradition” is everything in sports.

So why are we so willing to toss out centuries (or even “just” generations) of worship tradition?

I don’t think it’s fair to give the default answer, the unassailable, easy, clichéd answer: “We have to make the Gospel the main thing and strip away anything that complicates or obscures it.” In the first place, no Christian worship tradition was established to complicate or obscure the Gospel. Rather, thoughtful biblically minded people sought through worship design to highlight and celebrate the Gospel. We might choose to exercise temporal humility and try at least to understand the origins, purposes, and Gospel connections of a tradition before we reject it. (Or, for that matter, before we accept it!)

If my generation doesn’t “get” a tradition, it’s probably a problem with either (a) the previous generation’s failure to pass along (the basic meaning of tradition) well, or (b) the pride or arrogance of my generation. When we consider dropping, altering, or even making subtle changes to a tradition, maybe we should reflect on how we would accept the threat to or loss of our own beloved sports traditions. There are probably people in our congregation experiencing the same threat or loss. Over something more – shall we say? – profound.

Maybe people don’t connect with our churches because they sense that they are not as rooted as their own families, or their favorite teams. Let us consider our tradition(s) and, in the spirit of “handing on,” make sure it/they stay in the family. Don’t put them in a museum, but instead explain their purpose and value, as well as their source and vibrant history. And let’s attend to the meaning as well as the forms of those traditions, while at the same time entrusting them to the next generation, trusting that if we have done our work they will appreciate, benefit from, celebrate, and pass on those valuable, meaningful, Gospel-carrying traditions. We will know this is well done when our grandparents come into our churches and feel at home even though everything isn’t the same as they left it.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


The first time I was a grad student, my Karen and I lived in LaGrange, Illinois, and I commuted by train every day to Northwestern University in Evanston. We had a very generous arrangement with our landlord (Karen's uncle) and couldn't begin to match the deal any where near campus. So each morning I go on the Burlington Northern train at Stone Avenue, in LaGrange, rode into Union Station, walked to the nearest el stop with a purple line train bound for Evanston. In the evening I made the return trip, logging three hours of commute, five days a week.

Then, as now, I enjoyed the train. I always had something to read, and then I knew almost no one on either of the legs of my trip, so I could read without being anti-social. At first, I was gobbling up the new-found glories of musicology. Then one day - early on in my first term, thankfully - Karen said to me, she said out of the blue, "Chuck, I've had enough."* Yes, I easily and quickly fell into academic-speak and everything came out sounding like a lecture.

Apt words, fitly spoken. Karen helped me remember that unless fiction is a steady part of my diet, I am hopelessly irrelevant. So today, I am again thankful for that stack of books Karen brought home recently. Again, while she was reading, she said to me, she said out of the blue, "Chuck, I think you'll really like this book." I had just finished the lovely Yoko Ogawa novel, and was reluctant to start in on another novel. But the echo of that long-ago grad school conversation reminded me that all thesis and no literature makes Chuck a dull boy.

Today I wept as I finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. (Which, I see just now, looking up a link for the book, was made into a 2011 French film.) I'll spare you the details of the story - just find it and read it, why don't ya? - and say that it blends people watching, European philosophy (post modern and medieval), little vignettes celebrating grammar, and beautiful meditations on art, music, and beauty.

Again, because of my thesis antennae, there was much here to make me feel less guilty about reading a novel when my thesis is not yet completed. The chapter on William of Ockham is brilliant. Reflections on time are mystical. Appreciations of beauty remind me how unaware I am of the many places beauty exists without my ever seeing it.

Just a couple of quotations, and I'm out of here:
"Art is life, playing to other rhythms."
This speaks to an idea I am working with in my thesis.

"For art is emotion without desire."
I think here of C. S. Lewis urging us to receive rather than use art.

In a lovely exchange with the elegant Mr. Ozu, the plain, widowed concierge Mrs. Michel says:
"They didn't recognize me."
"It is because they have never seen you," he says. "I would recognize you anywhere."

The book is a dual narrative told through the journals of two women - Renee. Michel, who keeps her intellectual and cultural interests to herself, and the precocious twelve-year-old Paloma Josse. Paloma has the last word in this blog post. We so seldom have a moment like that described here:
"There's a lot of despair, but also the odd moments of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never."

* veiled Paul Simon reference. Please don't make too much of it.