I’ve been honored and delighted to read the responses to my essay on church music and secularity from an incredible slate of respondents. I am lucky enough to be able to close the conversation, which means my voice is the last one ringing in the room, a privilege I’ll try not to abuse too much. As far as conversations go, there has been little in the way of dissonance. I can hardly find a handful point to disagree with amongst all my responses. Still, I think there may be a subtle dispositional difference between me and my interlocutors that might be interesting to tease out.
COVID is rattling the world at the present, and so I will draw an analogy that may not seem as far-fetched as it might have a couple of months ago. Imagine the world undergoes some strange series of events – supply chain disruptions, food shortages, famine, or whatever – that leads to the atrophy of people cooking in their homes. Over a couple of generations, people just start to eat out, for every meal, every day. Of course, a lot of things happen as a consequence of this. Kitchens disappear as an architectural phenomenon. Grocery stores become a thing in economic history textbooks.
On the one hand, dining at restaurants becomes an absolute artistic experience for some people. The quality of ingredients, the ethics of their sourcing, the presentation, the flavors all become unfathomably more complex and nuanced than we can conceive of. Culturally speaking, this imaginary world far outstrips our own in culinary achievement. On the other hand, fast food is bigger than ever and, especially for those who haven’t money, time, or inclination to be aesthetes, restaurants increasingly commodify the food experience and expand it into entire lifestyles. What burger they eat becomes, to them, as important in personal identity as what car we might own or what clothes we might wear.
You can imagine a conversation between a few intellectuals, analyzing the situation: one might say that fast food is great and you’re a snob to think otherwise; another might point out that humans were created by God to steward the earth, and fast food exploits land and animals; another might say that we ought to enjoy our food more aesthetically; another might say that the problem is that take-out is isolating and increases loneliness and we ought to return to the old-fashioned sit-down restaurants with big round tables.
Of course, what all these voices subtly agree on is that someone else cooking your food is normal. Now, of course, they might agree that this is a regrettable aspect of modern culture. They might favor starting cooking clubs (renting a space, because home kitchens don’t exist). Or they might just face reality–this is the way it is.
It’s a pretty thinly-veiled analogy, I admit – we are that culture, but with respect to music rather than food. But my point here is this: most discussions of church music are predicated on the assumption that this one central aspect of modernity, that we don’t produce our own music, is unchangeable. But, in truth, we really can’t even ask any other questions if we don’t deal with this one first. I want to suggest that (1) this musical vicariousness is a consequence of secularity and (2) the Bible and the Christian tradition are fundamentally incompatible with such a musical culture. Consequently, musical vicariousness can’t be inevitable, since, if I am right, it is something a Christian ought to be dispositionally against. In order to move through our church music malaise, it’s crucial we squarely face the sort of musical dystopia we live in. Anything else, and we risk an incessant wilderness of half-measures.
I don’t sense any strong disagreement from my respondents on this point – at the very least, we all sense something is amiss, that, as Steven Guthrie puts it, “there are many who recognize that the loss of shared song is a problem.” Of course, there are some nuances that need teasing out. Peter Leithart somewhat conflates two separate issues in his otherwise excellent treatment of the history of Western church music: Jacques de Lieges, for instance, was quite opposed to many of the “musical innovations” of his time, but by this he meant notational apparata; but he absolutely would not have objected to new composition of church music. He wouldn’t have been remotely scandalized if the vast majority of sacred motets sung in European churches had been composed in the last 50 years; that is a normal, not abnormal, feature of church music history. Whether the theory behind those motets changes is another matter, of course.
More broadly, Peter makes the point that perhaps my historical arguments are self-defeating: if it’s modern to be a “traditionalist,” as I’ve argued, it is also modern to see any binary at all between an us and them of present and past, as Latour points out. This is entirely correct, and so I should clarify that I am not against modernity, nor even against modern ontologies of music (nor even post-modern ontologies of music). But there is one aspect of modernity which I can’t see my way to reconciling with, and this is precisely the secularity of music – what Daniel Chua and others have described, and which I think is most symptomatic in the dystopian way in which we have ceased to be singers and musicians ourselves. If that musical secularity is incompatible with the Bible (and no stronger case for that could be made than Peter’s, I think), then it is not a matter of whether we reject modernity but which features of modernity we reject.
Calvin Stapert has hit upon a perfect historical example for some of these principles in Gregorian chant. In the Carolingian reforms, we have both elements, traditional and contemporary, exploding out of the ninth century hand-in-hand. Around the same time Alemar of Metz is recounting how strictly Charlemagne is imposing the (ostensibly) ancient Roman rite across the empire, Notker of St. Gall is composing new sequences to adorn the authoritative liturgy. Stapert also inadvertently hits upon just my point from above, as well: if we really want congregations who can participate in the polyphony of liturgy, congregations that sing cantus firmi, we must utterly change how and what people sing in church. “A strong tradition of singing traditional psalms, hymns, chorales, and chants is a necessary condition for a balanced harmony between tradition and vernacularism, whether by way of the cantus firmus principle or some other way of combining the new and the old.” To put it another way, professionalized music is the condition of church music’s possibility; Christians are tasked with changing the conditions of possibility.
If my initial essay was far upstream, Paul Buckley’s response encapsulated the implications downstream. I am particularly intrigued (but, knowing him, not surprised) by his comments on Eastern Orthodox music. I do sense that musical cultures like that may be more resilient against the malaises that afflict us because many of the less salutary effects of Western art music culture have been slower to seep into Eastern church music. I’m speaking outside my area of expertise, but perhaps what is Western about Charles Taylor’s secularity narrative applies less to the Eastern liturgical and musical context. It will be interesting to see how the project of an American Orthodox church music develops: Paul and I would agree that the problem lies in the dearth of folk music in the American popular imagination. The church’s task is, then, twice as difficult: in order to give people a musical language to praise God, she has to teach people musical utterance.
Paul Buckley and Steven Guthrie both pointed out an obvious lacuna in my essay: of course there are people, like Arvo Pärt or the Gettys, who are examples of holding together tradition and contemporaneity or are encouraging non-professionalized singing. This is a point I wish I could have emphasized more, and it also brings to mind another serious lacuna in my essay, which is African-American church music. In many respects, all of these people and traditions have been steadily delivering solutions every Sunday to what I called an “intractable” problem. But there is also a small caution I would add. The question is not simply, “Can I sing along with this?” but rather “Is a group of people singing this together – with the aid of no professionals or technologies – the primary use case?”
A great example is children’s nursery rhymes. If, like me, you’ve had the grave misfortune of looking up on Spotify or YouTube “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Hot Cross Buns”, you will discover many horrifying renditions of these tunes. And it’s not anything in particular about the quality of them, but it’s simply that we know, viscerally, that such tunes are meant to be produced not by producers but by ourselves. And so, it strikes me, much contemporary church music is the converse: it claims to be congregation-friendly, but its design was molded around studio production. Regardless of whether it could be sung by a congregation, its very idiom and paradigm cut against the grain of community music-production. This, once again, points us toward an uncomfortable thesis: Christians must recreate the musical idiom before we can even access a “vernacular” to use in church.
We can take undoubted comfort in the truth of Guthrie’s eloquent observations about the nature of musical harmony. Franchinus Gaffurius, fifteenth-century music theorist, described harmony as discordia concors, an “agreeing disagreement.” This will always be the nature of a healthy community, able to mitigate difference without resulting in dissolution. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” And, as Guthrie points out, Christ is the ultimate harmony music can only faintly symbolize. We can expect, just as Paul expects, that, when the Church is herself, at her best, she will naturally learn to embody this harmony, literally and metaphorically. She has learned to do so in the past and she will learn to do so again.
John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is a substitute organist for the Princeton University chapel on occasion. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.
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