by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

I've been having an interesting time reading your musical posts.  As someone who prefers higher liturgy to "low church," but who also harbors more sympathy for low church theology than high liturgy's more elitist theological constructions, I'm torn on the issue.  But there is one thing I would stress to your reader who objects to the "can church be hip?" thread and draws distinctions between a more consumerist entertainment-driven spiritual music and a more liturgy-and-tradition strain of Christian worship and practice.

Quite simply, I think there is a big difference between music designed for church and popular music with spiritual overtones: but I think that, in the right liturgical spaces, certain songs can become sacred, even if intended as "entertainment." 

Since your reader is truly Christian, I assume he or she grants that the hidden hand of Providence operates somewhere in this, and that music can and does reach from itself into the lives of people -- and communities -- in ways that can be hard to fathom but are intensely real.  For instance, Sufjan Stevens wrote "Vito's Ordination Song" with much of the fundamental imagery surrounding scriptural faith.  It resonates with Revelation's words about the bridegroom coming and there being a feast and a celebration, with Jeremiah's language of being known even before birth, Father and Son imagery, a crown laid up and made for you, ready for you to take -- it's all there.

This is the sort of song that can be used and utilized in a church service, but carefully, carefully, because people tend to be the sort of animals for whom aesthetic nitpicking matters quite a great deal.  Music and words that are not intended for a church often get play in church quicker and easier if their style is similar to "church music" even if their words are blended scripture and secularity even more than Sufjan Stevens' songs.  Take, for instance, Ralph Vaughan Williams' famous Symphony No. 5, "Dona Nobis Pacem."  This piece, while it contains myriad religious imagery, is not entirely religious: its libretto is largely Walt Whitman poetry, and even parts of a speech from the House of Commons during the Crimean War.  Yet there is something in it so powerful that I have seen churches perform it in their regular worship services, powerfully and movingly.  The same might be said for Rene Clausen's recent piece "Memorial," for victims of September 11th, which contains aspects of Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian prayer-chants.  While beautiful, it seems the sort of thing that many theologians might object to within the parameters of a specifically Christian worship service.

Which is all to say; the reason these pieces work in church, despite being made for other places, is related to their style, not their substance.  If opposition to deeply Christian, deeply scripturally resonant stuff like Steven's Vito's Ordination song was truly rooted in concerns about substance, there would be no reason to reject it without also rejecting the pieces mentioned above (not including The Messiah, of course).  I happen to believe all three, Memorial, Symphony No. 5, and Vito's Ordination Song to be uniquely suited to meaningful Christian worship for centuries to come, but the key is in the word "uniquely."  They must be deployed in stylistically pleasant ways, or they will point people toward obsession with all sorts of things that aren't God -- even if what they are becoming obsessed with is their own brand of liturgical snobbery, mine included.

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