Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rock n' Roll vs Praise & Worship

I attended a Seder Meal earlier this evening with several families that was delightful. The dinner was inspired and organized by a new friend, Joesph, a local music minister at Zion Lutheran. He studied at the Dominican Center in GR and also serves as a spiritual director. Joseph has been gifting me various kinds of choral music via iTunes downloads. His latest gift was The Hillard Ensemble's Perotin, the best I've heard yet of his picks. Unfortunately, all I have to send him back are various odds and ends. I think he really dug one track from Jonsi & Alex's Riceboy Sleeps though.

The meal consisted of an attempt at the traditional Jewish kosher meal with lamb, eggs, salad and matzah. However, there was also bratwurst, chicken, beef and 'gentile' wines. The experience demonstrated how Jesus' instructions to eat his body and drink his blood fit into the context of the original passover celebration. Several families sitting on the floor around some battery powered candles (safety precaution with so many kids), grape juice/manischewitz and some buckets of water to cleanse our hands with. We danced and sang some. The kids all had various instruments to shake and beat on. Good times.

I didn't know I'd have such a beautiful group of friends and families like this a year ago. Thanks be to God.

Susanna is downstairs with her women's group. Casper is asleep despite his first ear infection. I just finished the second half of the Bourne Identity which I'd started last night. Why do I like these movies? Geesh, I'm such a dude.

Now I'm thinking about the worship team audition process that is almost coming to a close.

We've auditioned just over 50 people in order to recruit nine, the largest group I've ever had to recruit before. We've heard: 27 young ladies, 10 drummers, 4 bass players, 2 acoustic guitar players, 4 keyboard players, 4 on electric zithers, didgeridoos or auto harps though (joke).  We follow up each initial audition with call backs for a smaller set of prospects. Of those people, each is personally interviewed by myself and separately by students from the worship team. By interview I mean we take each potential recruit out for coffee and try to get to know them better and answer any questions they have about what they'd be getting themselves into. Its a rigorous process but I believe in starting things well. Each recruit knows exactly why we've recruited him/her and each has a sense of their strengths and also their weaknesses. I want each to know his/her place and be ready to eagerly participate in the kind of relational give and take that makes up the substance of our worship life. I don't just want warm bodies behind various instruments and microphones. I want a deeply committed family of worshipers who are capable of giving and receiving love as we in turn love God together. When it is all said and done, I don't want to graduate students who can put on a worship event. I want to graduate lovers of God, friend and neighbor.

One of the things I find myself talking about a lot right now is the difference between 'Praise & Worship' and Rock. The bubble burster is that I don't want P&W. We must attempt the full spectrum of Biblical worship (which I've written about HERE). We do more than 'Praise Music.' We are not a 'Praise Band.' Unfortunately, local churches in an attempt to make sounds that attract younger people have ended up making a kind of music that has a strained and confused relation to the pop music it is attempting to resemble. For example, consider the electric drum kit, an piece of technology primarily designed only for churches. It is understandable on one level. I don't want to be mean about this. These churches are trying to make contemporary sounds that don't overwhelm the many ages represented in their congregations. They are looking for tame sounds that would otherwise be sonically bombastic in their worship spaces. However, the trouble is that an electric drum kit can never serve to create anything close to something that might resemble music (in my admittedly snobbish opinion). And there are similar instruments that are marketed to the church electric guitar player or especially the keyboard player. So we end up with a sonic palate that is a caricature of rock music. It's like the difference between Velveeta and a good aged white sharp cheddar, Cool Whip and homemade whip cream, Near Beer and Guinness, a planetarium and a clear, un-polluted night's sky out in the farmland where I grew up.  
Umberto Ecco describes much of American culture as a kind of mausoleum of imitations, what he calls ‘hyper-reality.’ We are content with wax museums and Disneyland, television and Hollywood. The philosophy “is not, ‘we are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original,’ but rather, ‘We are giving you the reproduction so that you will no longer feel the need for the original.’”[1] Unfortunately, the church is just as busy offering imitations as the rest of American popular culture.

I understand that it is unfair to over describe the efforts of very well intentioned church people. I don't mention these things to breed cynicism or elitism. I love the church with its warts hoping that it will love me with mine. So understand these observations for the sake of a much larger conversation that is necessary in the church--a conversation I'm outlining in my master's thesis.

Instead of asking how we can persuade younger people to stay in churches and approaching contemporary music as a set of whistles and bells to keep them coming back, popular music requires much more care and respect, discernment and effort. I'm interested in finding musicians who enjoy and want to play rock music but who are also willing and able to lay their gifts and instruments--their lives before God. The task is to disciple these worship teams, help them put on the life of Christ, to be lovers of the scriptures and people of prayer, to share this love of Christ off the stage so that when we come to rehearsal, the Life of Christ dwells in us in a way that forms and informs what and how we play our instruments. Discerning culture may requires some classroom learning (I enjoy teaching my class on these things) but in practice, redeeming the musical aesthetics of our day requires an 'internal dialectic' (ala L. Newbigin) where it is the renewed inner self that negotiates the application of the love of Christ to the sound of a played drum kit in real time practice and not in abstract ideals.

Thus my soapbox: I don't sense that the church has yet taken popular music seriously enough. Some are going part of the way with various subversive attempts at modern hymn writing that is fleshed out in folk and folk rock tunes. I appreciate these efforts, but I still believe there is more that can be done musically and textually with the musical "container of worship," as one well know worship leader has phrased it. That particular worship leader (sorry, I don't have permission to make his/her comments public) claims that in pop music, melody is of first concern while in hymnody, text is paramount. I can see his/her point, yet that is a pretty thin view of hymnody--perhaps a bit condescending to boot. I'll wager a guess that the hymn composers over the centuries were very keen to write what seemed to them and their contemporaries compelling tunes. And it seems like an underestimation of popular music too. To narrow it down to pop music/melody versus hymns/text is a false dichotomy, an over simplification. 

What if we had worship song writers who were deeply rooted in rock music who were as equally formed by Christian spiritual disciplines and were even Biblically and theologically literate? What would those songs sound like?

[1] Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Harvest/ Harcourt, Inc. 1986) 19.


Tamara @ Living Palm said...

Josh, any chance you'll be attending the Laity Lodge Ministers to Artists retreat end of May? I'd love the opportunity to talk with you more about what you've written here. You are striking a chord (an unintentional pun) that I think I need to dig into for the context I'm working in at our church. Would love time to talk with you about this. (by way of reference, I'm a friend of David & Phaedra Taylor and have been reading your blog after reading "For the Beauty of the Church")

Joshua Banner said...

Tamara, yeah...I've seen your posts on DT's blog and around. Glad to be of help in any way. Unfortunately, I can't make the Laity event. I'm so glad he's moving these events to May (after my school year is out) but I can't afford it right now (money and time). I'll get there some day. Feel free to ask away whatever I can help with. Perhaps I can turn it into some more blog posts that others might be interested in. I know that an entry like the one I posted last night might seem like a bomb of sorts for some people that may need more explanation and clarification. It takes my leaders at least a year to begin understand what I'm trying to do. So one blog entry won't cut it either. PEACE to you

Or if you want you can email or call. School will be done in just a few weeks and I'll have more time.

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

Thank you for your reply to my comment. I'd love to take you up on your offer to talk more on this subject and am open to phone or email options. Let me know your preference and a good time; I'll save my specific thoughts until then.

In the meantime, I'll be losing sleep pondering this question:

"What if we had worship song writers who were deeply rooted in rock music who were as equally formed by Christian spiritual disciplines and were even Biblically and theologically literate? What would those songs sound like?"

Grace and peace...

Joshua Banner said...

Tamara, you can contact me via School is out. I have a bunch of writing to do but can take breaks.