Monday, May 3, 2010

Music and the Sacred

I'm not a big fan of 'Christian' music. When I say 'Christian' music, what I mean is, for the most part, 'praise' music to be sung in church, and 'Christian Industrial Complex' music that is played on 'Christian' radio stations.

(I'm also not a fan of using quotation marks to make a point. However, I'm not convinced that the music I'm thinking of is necessarily always Christian (see especially the thoughts on theology below), but many people think it is and refer to this music as Christian ... so, you get quotation marks. Sorry about that.)

Some of it is melodically decent, some of it is not theologically vapid (if, for instance, you can substitute the name of your boyfriend or girlfriend, instead of Jesus, and it sounds like a pop-music love song, it's theologically vapid). Very little, in my humble estimation, is both musically and theologically palatable, and most of 'Christian' music isn't even worth listening to. Now I understand that many people appreciate, like, and even meet G-d through the medium of this music; however, that doesn't make it any more interesting to me, or make me want to listen.

Earlier today, I was reading an article about sacred art, particularly about sacred music. Now I like much of what we call sacred music. But it made me wonder whether megachurch praise music is sacred. We don't often refer to it in this way. But if sacred music is that which is written for use during the sacred time and space of worship, then I suppose it must be.

There, though, is where it breaks down for me. It seems to me that (what people call) the contemporary church has intentionally moved away from any sense of the sacred. Pastors (ministers, preachers, or whatever title gets used) no longer dress in vestments, or even in nice suits. The trend has been toward dressing polo shirts and khaki pants to stand in front of latte-sipping families sitting in movie-theater chairs. Please don't hear me saying there's anything wrong with any of these things ~ I'm absolutely in favor of intentionally changing what's normal in order to make a point or change people's perspective. And I, for one, am happy to drink my coffee in church. But I'm wondering, in the creating of space that is comfortable and welcoming and as similar to regular life as possible, whether we've lost a sense of time and space being set aside as sacred, and whether we've lost the sense that the music that belongs in that space is sacred as well.

But then I wonder about the music that I do like, and whether that is typically considered sacred music. Bluegrass gospel, black gospel, southern gospel ~ are these sacred? I'd tend to think so, but they're not ordinarily referred to as such. Is it only classical and choral music that fit that category?

Which brings up a bigger question for me ~ with the shrinking of the world through fast travel and readily-available technology (laptops, cell phones, skype, etc.), where and what and when do we set aside as separate and set apart and sacred?



  1. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I can identify with much of what you say about "Christian" music (with quotes included). For me, I think that there might be something of a disconnect: in a worship setting, I don't always mind shallow lyrics if they allow the space to be present with God. (Sometimes, lyrics or tune are so compelling and complex that I spend my time with the song, instead of with God.) On the other hand, I wouldn't choose to listen to these songs any other time - they just don't do anything to build my faith.


    Changing directions slightly...

    One of my favorite musicians is singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer. She doesn't make the distinction between the routine/everyday stuff and the sacred. If you like acoustic/folk sounds, her music might appeal to you.

    Two examples:

    1) Her song "Geodes" talks about the hidden wonder inside some of those funny, hollow rocks and draws the obvious connection to the people around us.

    "You'll see if you try / in the next stranger's eye / that God walks 'round in muddy boots / sometimes rags, and that's the truth / You can't always tell, but sometimes you just know."

    2) My favorite line from "Holy as a Day Is Spent":

    "Holy is a familiar room / and the quiet moments in the afternoon / and folding sheets like folding hands / to pray as only laundry can"

  2. I'm a snob with music in church and really only feel the connection if it's the traditional classical stuff, even to the level of preferring acapella. But then at home, the connection is the same - it's classical - soemtimes it doesn't even have to have religion behind the title/piece - it's a feeling. But that could be my upbringing too - classical. When I go outside that, I can't feel the religion. I think other people are really moved by the praise stuff, and that's them - I just can't do it.

  3. There's absolutely something to the idea of recognizing the sacred in the midst of the ordinary, which Carrie Newcomer (among others) gets to in very surprising ways. But in our society, I don't think we do that very well, either. Further, I find that the people who are best able to recognize the sacred in the ordinary are those who also spend time and energy in and among the set-aside sacred. For many others, it seems like just an excuse to not make a commitment to a community of faith ... but that's a little far afield from the topic.

    But maybe that's the key ~ to be rooted in a faith community that recognizes the sacred in what they do is to have the freedom to then also see the sacred in everyday life more easily. Or maybe I'm way off base.

  4. I think this is really important. My son is 11 years old, and one of the things he finds most alienating about Christian worship is the traditional church music. This seems to distract him from finding the sacred in church. The separateness of church worship from the elements he cherishes in his everyday life seems to increase his skepticism of rather than impart a sacred aura to worship. Perhaps there is some wisdom in his 11 year old intransigence. Or he could just be playing his old mom so he can go biking instead.

  5. Thanks for getting me to think more about music. I don't think there's a right or wrong kind of "Christian" music to listen to for building faith. It's all so subjective, personal and often just a matter of taste. Your post has me thinking back on the "Christian" music I've listened to over the years. As a teen back in the 70s I listened to the "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" records over and over. Then in the 80s I listened to a lot of Phil Keaggy, Michael Card and John Michael Talbot. Now in middle age, I don't listen to any Christian or sacred music outside of church. Maybe I've lost something. But at least tonight I've listened to some of my old favorites on Youtube.