Nicholas Wolterstorff on worship and "fitting" music

Mark Gornik and Greg Thompson have pulled together a fine collection of essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff titled Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Church and the World (Eerdmans: 2011). Written over a fifty-year period, the essays range in topics from worship, church architecture, music, lament, and women's ordination to the spiritual health of institutions including churches, colleges, businesses, and government. Five essays are of particular interest to me:

1. “Trumpets, Ashes, and Tears”

2. “The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism”

3. “The Theological Significance of Going to Church and Leaving and the Architectural Expression of That Significance”

4. “Thinking about Church Architecture”

5. “Thinking about Church Music”

To my mind, the last essay on the list is, hands-down, the most clear-headed statement I've yet read on the relationship between music and corporate worship. In the interest of encouraging you to read the essay in full, I'll offer a summary of it here. I'll identify the basic argument, highlight the main content, and include a few quotes along with a couple of simple critiques. My use of the term liturgy, for what it's worth, is intended to be a short-hand for corporate worship, whatever it may look like in your particular context.


Basic argument of the essay: liturgical music should primarily serve the activities and purposes of the liturgy.

If liturgical music primarily serves the liturgy, and if liturgy is primarily a sequence of actions, then:

1) The liturgy calls for music (though of course it can happen without it).

2) Any action of the liturgy can be enhanced by music.

3) All music used should enhance one or another action of the liturgy.

4) The character of the action must fit the liturgical action it serves.

5) Fittingness, not style, should primarily govern our decisions about music.

A few quotes:

A quote from Calvin which Wolterstorff cites favorably: “For five or six days at the beginning, when I looked on this little company of exiles from all countries, I wept, not for sadness, but for joy to hear them all singing so heartily and as they sang giving thanks to God that He had led them to a place where His name is glorified. No one could believe what joy there is in singing the praises and wonders of the Lord in the mother tongue as they are sung here” (254).

On "proclamation vs worship": “Liturgy is [quite literally] public service” (260). In what manner? “Liturgy is action,” not primarily religious experience or intellectual classroom. What sorts of actions are primary? Both proclamation and worship, not “proclamation only” (which Reformed Presbyterian, for example, might prefer) nor “worship only” (which Eastern Orthodox, for example, might emphasize). These terms are technical ones in his essay and are used, perhaps simplistically, to stress different orientations to the church's historical practice of public worship.

On learning to sing new music: With respect to the desire that “the music of the liturgy fit comfortably the ears of participants in the liturgy, I do not mean to imply that the congregation should never be invited to sing or listen to music for which it has not acquired the ears; but it should then be taught how to listen. It should be assisted in acquiring the ears. The liturgy, after all, belongs to the people; it is the dialogue of the people with God, not the performance of some specialists to which the people are invited to listen” (266).

The sum of all things for Wolterstorff: charity must inform all our decisions about church music.

Two critical comments: 

Positively, Wolterstorff rightly argues that music comes into its own when it serves its intended function well: whether as a cantata, an advertising jingle, a soccer song or a church hymn. (This is a key idea, to wit, that he develops at length in his book Art in Action.) This idea stands over against the notion that, with church music, what matters is that “God wants the aesthetically best music” or that "God wants the most reverential music" or that "God wants the most authentically expressed music."

Negatively, it struck me as odd why Wolterstorff, in light of his general comments, couldn't easily imagine how rock music might effectively or "fittingly" serve the purposes of liturgical confession. Why not? On what criteria might such a decision be made? What culturally conditioned ideas or convictions come into play here? Beyond this, how do these kinds of concern inform multigenerational settings for worship? What of multicultural settings? And how do we as worship leaders help a congregation grow into both "difficult" and "accessible" music?

A postscript: 

With that said I end, and now offer you two photographs and two videos. One photograph, which I took this past week, led me to believe that Phaedra and I had quick work to do to get ready to perform publicly, and a second photograph which confirmed that we were in fact, and perhaps lamentably, the wrong Taylors. The two videos, both of which were passed along by Wendy Morrow, include: a parody of "Famous Musicians Sing to Raise Money for Africa" which turns into "Africans Sing to Raise Money for Freezing Norwegians," and a lesson in Batwa dancing, which I sorely want to teach Blythe.


Greg Scheer said…
You know what's a little intimidating? Nick goes to my church. That'll keep a humble church musician honest.
Yeah, I've thought about that before. I feel for ya. I also think you should prepare several rocknroll anthems for your Lenten confessions, and ask him to lead them.
Mark Chambers said…
I heard Wolterstorff speak at IAM in 2009 where I had a piece played. I was looking forward to his talk but was a little nervous as he followed my performance. As he took the stage he said that the performance was "mesmerizing" and I was elated that he found that in my work. I didn't know how he was going to respond since I had just recently read Art in Action at that time.
Anonymous said…
Greg, I'd love to be a fly on the wall when you ask N.W. to lead the rock anthems...

David, thanks for posting this. I apparently need to get this collection of essays!
Have you ever come across anyone who actually gives satisfactory answers to your questions re: fitting "rock" music into the liturgy, or multicultural, multigenerational settings, etc?
Mark: that is truly a good report. So glad to hear it.

Ben: I hung out with folks at the CICW symposium who work extensively in the field of multicultural/ethnic worship. See here for example:

For the rock worship, no, not yet regrettably, though I've got my eye out for resources. Lester Ruth might know. Or Monique Ingalls, who is on the Liturgy Fellowship FB group.
Mark Chambers said…
It seems to me the challenge on the whole rock thing is dealing with the multi-furcated nature of popular/pop music (my distinction). Because rock and similar genres have arisen primarily through commercial outlets rather than through "orational", "folkloric", or even
"traditional" outlets there is a distinction that I am not sure has been explored fully yet between the multiplicity of genres as well as the "fittedness" of them for certain means.

The difference between music/art generated from/for/through commercial means and music/art generated through church, patronage, and folk channels, etc. is an area that I think Christians need to work through. The inherent value of art regardless of its monetary/creative impetus needs to be explored fully because it is something created by people made in the image of God. To follow the route that all music/art is bad if it bears any semblance to commercial kinds of music is invalid is not the way to go. The art must be weighed on the merits of its excellence within the genre it finds itself in, as well as its "fittedness" for a particular situation (ala Wolterstorff), and how it shapes our desires as creatures made in the image of God (ala Smith). And the list can go on. Sorry to drag on about it.
Good stuff, Mark. Thanks for the stimulating comments.

While there is always the danger of judgments based solely on the origin of a genre of music, can it really be said that rock music originated in commercial rather than in "folk" settings? More specifically, did it not originate out of an amalgam of "folk" music traditions--e.g., blues, country, jazz, gospel?

And while it is common today to associate rock and roll with an electric guitar, the genre originally took the piano or saxophone as its "lead" instrument, followed by the acoustic guitar, later the electric guitar.

So it seems to me that an appropriation of rock music might involve a more interesting--and fruitful--exercise of retrieval and re-appropriation than is often supposed.

How the genre is currently experienced, marketed, distributed, perceived, etc, certainly play into the difficult and complicated introduction of rock music into corporate worship, but those factors alone do not a priori negate its potential value to serve the "actions of the liturgy," no less, it seems, than the early church's struggle over the introduction of musical instruments at all (whose origins could just as easily be traced to Israelite worship practice as so-called pagan ones).

And I have my doubts that the "commercial" production and distribution of rock music merits an inherent negative judgment. Perhaps it's not so much "commerce" that is problematical as certain kinds of commerce, which might, as the case may be, indict "classical music" or "pup/ballad music" as much as rock music.

My two pennies.
Mark Chambers said…
Your comments, David are headed in the right direction. Please don't take my comments either as anti-rock (quite the contrary). But I do think that recorded media and it dispersion has shaped that way we perceive and consume music the past 100 some odd years. All of us have been shaped by it in some sense there are none of us who have lived without it.

The difficulty with appropriation of rock today (not the kind of 50 - 60 years ago) is the multiplicity of styles. For example, I cut my teeth in heavy metal and played and sang in various incarnations of rock metal and hardcore bands. The divergence of styles in that arena alone is quite staggering. (Consider this documentary
I wonder how that impacts and bears influence over corporate worship. The ongoing stylistic evolution runs progressively faster as time moves on because of technological advances which further complicates the matter.

Again, I do not disavow the use of rock in corporate worship. It is part of the flowering of culture and as such we need to give it due attention as it is work done by image bearers. (In fact I think some of the more thoughtful worship music is being done in that genre; i.e., Sojourn, Zac Hicks, etc.) But we also need to be careful in that all things may be lawful for us but they may not be healthy for us. Culture is not neutral and we are required to weigh it carefully. God will destroy the dross and refine that which is gold.

This statement, "Perhaps it's not so much "commerce" that is problematical as certain kinds of commerce, which might, as the case may be, indict "classical music" or "pup/ballad music" as much as rock music" is right on, too. It isn't the selling of art that is bad, I too want to be paid for my labors as an artist, but I do think that certain types of commerce should be within the consumers critique as they may may very well be problematic. I am afraid that often times we either reject culture outright or we accept it uncritically. There has to be a middle way between these two extremes. That is certainly a discussion worth having.

Thanks for the stimulating thoughts, too.

Just now found this blog and I have enjoyed the material, discussion, and resources - though I don't have a great deal of time to devote to your blog.

I know this is way late in the game. But, a couple of general thoughts. First, I am often reminded of a quip I once read (cannot remember the source) that was a play on a C.S. Lewis comment on literature - paraphrasing: "we don't need more Christian artists. We need more artists who are Christians." The author was lamenting that much of contemporary Christian music was simply a mediocre parody of popular music. This is just what I've found. And, I find it doesn't work well in assemblies. It pleases some but ultimately it's not a connector - and the individualism is frustrating.

A second thought, is related to the discussion about rock music. I think you're observation that rock music flows out of gospel and jazz is important. And, a great example of an effective and appropriate rock song (which is also gospel) in a church setting (of course, it depends in part on the church's culture) is the gospel rendering of U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - when they played in a Harlem church in the 80's (the black and white video can be found on Youtube).

A modern updated version of this is U2's recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel.

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