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”
THINKING ABOUT CHURCH MUSIC
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?
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.