Some of the most popular songs in 1967 included, the Beetle’s “Penny Lane” and “All You Need is Love,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” “Light My Fire” – The Doors, “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave (though many will know it from the Blues Brothers), and the Tremeloes’, “Silence is Golden.” In Gospel music that same year “Oh Happy Day” resonated with its hopeful tune of deliverance and salvation in the bleak time of the Vietnam War. And “Amazing Grace” is the all time most popular hymn since the reformation.
Thomas Aquinas defined a hymn in this way: “Hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico; canticum autem exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in vocem.” (“A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.” But not until 1820 was approval given to sing hymns in the Church of England. Indeed, the Wesley’s were not afforded the luxury of singing Charles’ hymns in church in their lifetime. What is more, Charles only provisionally included a single melody line with his poetic theology because he was ambivalent to the suitability of singing parts. And John and Charles did not even agree with each other on what was an appropriate level of affection in the lyrics.
Music is by far the most prevalent subject of disagreement in the church. Just yesterday Howie was cornered by someone accusing him of single-handedly ruining his church by leading with subpar, non-hymn/Wesley-prescribed music. Greer noted that in every church in which we’ve served, music has been the biggest source of criticism and venom. What is it about music that provokes such scorn, so much bitterness? Mozart was considered an apostate in his time, for heaven’s sake!
Scientists have dated flutes made from bone to 42,000 years ago, and one large collection of musical instruments dates to 7,000BCE China. Clearly, creating music is a key feature of being human. But just as each person is unique and every culture is distinctive in societal expressions, ought not a variety in music style and composition provide a greater, richer expression of devotion to the Creator God that made us creative in the first place?
Music heals. Music congregates. Music lifts the spirit and wallows with it in agony. It carries sentiments of love and strengthens the summons to revolt. Rhythms and tones are discerned in the expert thumping of hands on animal skin, carrying a message or supporting a communal dance. Music clears the mind and can clear a space, and it touches the deepest parts of us, indelible. A song can conjure the angsty, stomach-churning feeling from junior high while ice-skating with friends (and that boy I liked); or the comfort I felt when hearing my father sing How Great Thou Art beside me in church.
The power of music is indisputable. And it is incredibly fulfilling to really appreciate all types of music (well, except Country—I just really can’t appreciate Country music). It has changed throughout human history; the combinations of sounds and the sequences of chords are infinite. There is no inherent virtue in any specific sequence. One cannot determine an ethic of sounds ought or ought not to be combined. Music is art—it is an audible expression of the soul, meaningful to the composer and capable of evoking meaning for the audience. And music is to be celebrated.
We do not all appreciate the same style (or volume) of music. Why would anyone think that any community that gathers on Sunday morning would always fully appreciate all of the music all of the time? Charles Wesley wanted to put theology to music, expressions of devotion to Jesus in song, so people might carry them through the difficult week and be encouraged.
But I suspect the deeper issue is not that I think this music is unholy or that song not appropriate for church. The weightier concern is that change is uncomfortable, and listening to each other is work. It isn’t the music. It’s that I am more concerned about my well being than those in the community. And then I miss out on hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit in a new way. And sometimes, there is music even in the silence. Because it is not until I have ears ready to listen that we can grow together—in worship, in community, in Love.
Practice with me mindful listening: sound a chime or bell (the one on your phone is fine).
Listen for that space where the sound ends and the silence begins.
Listen some more.
What do you hear?
Rustling in the kitchen? A bird chirping outside the window? Water running on the other side of the wall?