Christendom used to suffer devastating schisms over things like the “filioque” clause or a king’s right to divorce his insufficiently fecund wife – but we blessed denizens of modernity are far too enlightened and tolerant to suffer discord over such Lilliputian squabbles. No, we focus our inveterate habit of faction and contempt on weightier matters: such as the hymnal we use in church on a Sunday. If Jonathan Swift was alive today, he would surely characterize our ecclesiastical music wars as another phase in the perennial debate about whether to eat eggs from the large end or the small. Here at the Jagged Word, we’ve done our fair share of heaping calumny on the opposition. Low church or high church, praise band or seraphic choir – everybody loves this fight just as much as they love a climactic kung-fu showdown or the spectacle of titans trashing Tokyo.
And the only thing better than watching a good fight is joining in. So here’s yet another perspective on the standoff between The Band and The Choir: they are both, and in the same degree, bankrupt spectacles and deadly distractions.
Let me describe the vantage point from which this harsh outlook becomes clear. If you were to begin life in a hyper-traditionalist Roman fold, to the accompaniment of ethereal polyphony, and then wandered into the nose-bleed section of the high church Anglican club ( aloft on clouds of incense and King James’ stilted prose) and then – through a series of painful transitions – tumbled down the staircase of American liturgical practice to the basement landing of an evangelical day-school’s morning “chapel” services (replete with bongos, guitars, and a sea of upraised arms), then you too would see what has become clear to me. All of it – old or new, transcendent or profane, a capella or amped like a nightclub in Berlin – constitutes a very rehearsed and intentional performance. And a performance is essentially a theatrical act – whether aimed at mere entertainment or Aristotle’s “catharsis,” it moves and shapes the audience in the desired direction. The congregation is, as it were, swept along in the drama constructed and embodied by the expert performers.
We are indeed the “society of the spectacle” as the atheist but savvy Guy Debord termed it. Why else would mega churches pay their “worship team” six-figure digit salaries and lavish their tithe offerings on sound systems and lighting? Why else do church marquees proclaim “traditional service” or “contemporary worship” rather than “Nicene profession” or even “communion every Sunday”? Because the market – that’s us – demands spectacle, and the show must go on. I personally love an organ prelude and sixteenth century four-part hymns with tricky sharps and flats – but mea cula, mea culpa: this too is a craving for a packaged Experience, a reconstructed world I can enter and enjoy. Highbrow or lowbrow, we are perhaps all guilty of consuming an aesthetic construct offered to us on Sunday mornings.
So, what then? One suspects the real solution to this bone-deep malady will come when our tired civilization finally draws its last breath, or when we personally do the same; and yet, there was a moment a few weeks ago – mid-service on an ordinary Sunday in ordinary time – when I had a fleeting glimpse of the answer. It happened without warning, and within two blessed minutes. Our sound system cut out. For a moment, for one hundred seconds of glorious un-rehearsed, messy human existence, our ragtag congregation was left singing a hymn without the domineering blare of the accompaniment. The organ was reduced to a mere tootling box in the corner; no one voice – amplified to the decibel range of thunder – drowned out and absorbed all others. There we were, old and young, growling and piping, loud and soft, cautious and recklessly confident, tumbling along the melody like disorderly pilgrims wandering over the contours of the road, breaking into several different keys and tempos, twining and struggling along together: many, not quite harmonized, not quite perfect, not quite beautiful, but very much a living breathing singing body, a temple built not of stone.
We absolutely wrecked that hymn, but it was glorious. Immediate, unrehearsed, a work in progress made by imperfect beings who had no real idea what they were doing. You know, like the church.
And then the sound system recovered from its hiccup and we were once again restored to the seamlessness of performance, the all-assuring perfection bestowed by sheer volume. If in my heart I cherish a secret desire that the whole thing will someday spectacularly fail altogether and leave us once more in the act of singing God’s praise as badly and whole-heartedly as we did that one morning, for those graced two stanzas, I hope I may be forgiven. And if I suggest that the beginning to the armistice in our everlasting music war may simply be to eschew performance and constructed aesthetics altogether, perhaps by straight up unplugging our churches, and banishing all choristers and cantors from the stage to the center of the congregation – in the midst of which their voices would be as leaven– I hope not to summon derision. In the meantime, we can continue to distract ourselves with academic treatises and fruitless debate about the relative merits of various hymnals, because this too is a kind of performance art and a highly entertaining distraction.
Or we could just shut up and sing.