Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Already a nuance....Artistry vs. Corporate Worship

My friend Kara who is now living in NYC far away from our beloved home church in Oklahoma City, emailed me a good thought that is worth responding to here. I need to nuance, or finesse my statement about private worship. What I am getting at is that I personally don't find much of worship music artistically interesting in and of itself. That is why I don't listen to it on my own very often. But now I'm speaking as a snobby artist/song writer/recording engineer instead of a pastor.

Here is a good place for me to introduce Hope College to my own musical side project, Ordinary Neighbors. If you are interested, I've got a few roughs of some of our songs on myspace.com/ordinaryneighbors. This is the culmination of several years of working with independent artists at home. I recorded several small records for friends so that I could learn how to use microphones. My ultimate goal was to be able to record myself, but I kept putting off my own music. In some ways I do enjoy helping others develop their creative ideas more than working on my own songs. It is the pastoral part of me that loves to see others flourish and discover more about their gifts, but in another sense it has always been a cop out, a way of hiding from myself and my own unreasonable expectations for myself. It is easier to dream about something. To talk about it and never actually attempt it because once it is attempted it becomes real and may fall short of your dreamy ideal.

Fortunately, I got married. Along came Susanna Childress and her poetry. We started writing songs together over the phone when she lived in Tallahassee and I was in Oklahoma. I'd lay one phone on the sofa near my guitar and then sing into the other on my shoulder. Putting her poems to music has been a delight. With her companionship, I've found the desire and urge to make some recordings. They are growing and changing, and now it is time, not fear, that is holding me back. It might still be another year before I can imagine the record being completed. Until then, myspace will have to do.

I've been hesitant to make these songs well-known amongst the Hope community because they are so different than the kind of music I do for chapels. I haven't wanted anyone to suppose that my intention has been to take our corporate worship music in that severe of an artistic direction. I very much want the sound of our music to be shaped by the talents and interests of the students who play with me. I see now that all of my experience doing home recordings with friends has taught me to work with these students at Hope College. If someone were to ask me what the sound of our music is or should be, I would want to say that first and foremost the sound will be worshipful. What that exactly means depends on who is playing that day. My job is not to impose my own particular musical interests on the body of Christ. Will my taste influence our worship? Of course, but I work really hard to hand much of the creativity, song selection, and overall sound of the music over to the students.

Here is the interesting thing I have discovered after returning to worship leading: I find some of the artists and records that I love hard to listen to. The artistry, while interesting and exciting, is often heavy. Take Elliot Smith for example. I don't know if I've been more influenced by any other song writer. Sometimes when my itunes is on random and one of his songs comes up, I find myself absolutely giddy. There is so much about the sound and feel of his music that is right and good. His is a beautiful lament, sometimes angry, often sad, sometimes generous but always honest, always reliable. His music is consistent and steady. Unfortunately there isn't any of the final gladness, the bold hope of my faith in his music though. Now that I'm singing with Hope students regularly, my taste and hunger for God is more vibrant and tangible. There is something very helpful about doing this now instead of teaching that has awakened my faith. In this season I find that I miss something even in my beloved Elliot Smith.

It is tough. There is not much that I am aware of that combines something that is artistically interesting and also spiritually compelling in a way that I could categorize it as worship. I know that here I'm rubbing up against the unfortunate delineation between the secular and the sacred that is so harmful, but I can't tackle that today. Let me say for now that I don't distinguish between secular and sacred, but I do draw a distinction between "devotional" or "liturgical" as genres of art just like I make a distinction between action, comedy and drama in film. Charlie Hall, Brad Kilman, and Joel Limpic's latest records are exceptions in the way they are creative and devotional, but then again I'm biased because they are friends. I find myself wanting to say something that might be troubling to me in the future. This may come back to bite me some time soon, but here it is: I'm not sure if the corporate gathering of worshipers should even have the most progressive forms of musical art incorporated in its singing. Often the most progressive music is appreciated by a smaller group of listeners. It can often be elitist and even exclusive. What I mean is that you might need to acquire a taste for it. It might take time for you to understand its originality by comparing and contrasting it to other music. Art is mostly a conversation between artists and society, and not everyone can physically participate in the same conversation at the same time. So, these artists don't need to try to be elite and exclusive; the exclusivity is only part and parcel to the limitations of the artistic conversation. That is why we have regional art forms, particular crafts that are unique to a particular people. And I believe this is what is ultimately interesting to me about independent music, its various conversations and possibilities.

There is the quaint stereotype of the indie music fan. Have you seen the button that reads, "cheer up emo kid"? When you consider indie music as a scene and try to stereotype it as the kids that wear plastic rim glasses, wear clothes from the thrift store and have long bangs that wag over their eyes, you can probably find a lot of music that sounds the same. However, I would like to protest that this stereotype is only the facade of what is really happening in the independent music world. There are thousands of artists across the world who now have home recording equipment (like me) who are finding their own voice and their own expression. Of course much of this is not worth listening to, but nevertheless, do the math. The potential for newer and more original music to be discovered is greatly increased today.

The point is not that corporate worship shouldn't be creative and grow in its creativity. The point is that creativity is not an end in itself for a worship leader. God is our purpose and drawing the attention of all mankind to him. I want to be creative in so far as it serves the building up of the body of believers that I am leading. Now I'm talking like a pastor. For example, so many in the church are stuck on a controversy between hymns and contemporary praise choruses. These people are not thinking pastorally. The question cannot be solved in an abstract cultural war. It can only be answered in the particular application of music to a particular body of believers. The pastor's question is always, what will truly serve my congregation in their pursuit of becoming like Christ and witnessing him to the world? This is no acquiescence to popular culture here either. Perhaps the best thing for a particular group of young worshipers is learning the great hymns of the church. Or perhaps the best thing for a mature group of worshipers is learning to sing a simple praise chorus; perhaps they need to re-frame their understanding of worship by simplifying their singing. Thus you can now see why I wouldn't want to impose my own artistic interests on a group of believers. If they can profit from my own style and taste, then so be it. I'll implement that creativity, but at the same time I make myself accountable to the other musicians and our ministry staff to help me discern if my artistry should ever become distracting and unhelpful.

So, Kara, my friend, we all are called to both private and public worship. Yes. I am just using a lot of words to explain why I don't personally enjoy much worship music on my own but still enjoy it corporately. Some might call it contradictory, but as a pastor I call it love. I can share in a particular kind of music meaningfully with a body of believers because our experience together in the singing of the song, in the communion of the saints, is what gives it life and meaning. On its own, the same song played in my car doesn't carry the same meaning. Plus, more often than not the worship CD has been recorded in such a polished and annoying way that I get frustrated. But now I'm talking like an artist/snob/recording engineer again, and that is a whole other conversation. Thanks for being the first to reply!


Steven said...

Banner, man, you're writing faster than I can process all this stuff... but I am definitely chewing on it, and perhaps sometime I will actually be able to construct whole thoughts about what you're saying.

great stuff though. Last week our little group had a listening party where we discussed the merits of some indie folk and underground electronica ... it was really good for me to read this in the context of that experience.

noah said...

ARGH. for the second time in a row, navigating to a different page has erased my post. Frustrations.

I'll see how much of it I can write again.

This is definitely good stuff to be thinking about; tough, but good. Thanks for getting the ball rolling.

To put it in blandly mathematical terms, what is the critical mass of art (in the context of the church) when it turns from being illuminating and direction-giving to being esoteric and exclusive? I guess that this tipping point would be different for different localities.

But..is it more than math?

I always think of dance when considering art and the church, probably because of how much my own perspective has changed recently. On the other hand, I also feel like I'm becoming aware of song (seriously) for the first time...

good stuff.