(A reflection on the use of contemporary rock-based music in corporate worship. I welcome peer-review)
John Piper and D.A. Carson, two of the most respected figures in the evangelical church, recently did a joint series of lectures titled, “The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor”. Piper lectured on the former title and Carson did the latter. In the last portion of the night there was a Q&A session with the two theologians and one of the questions asked was:
“What are some of the biggest issues that you think the church and evangelical scholars will need to deal with in the next 20 years?”
A lot of prominent things were brought up, including Islam and the exclusivity of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, a cluster of contemporary issues relating to family life (e.g. homosexuality, spanking, submission of wives to husbands), epistemology, justification and substitutionary atonement in biblical thought, and redefining 'tolerance'. But one of the last things that was brought up was by John Piper. This is what he said:
“I think that the explosion of... I don't want to just say contemporary worship music and contemporary worship forms, a very rock-oriented...whether or not the ethos generally associated with that on a Sunday morning can sustain the gravitas of the glory of God over the long haul... whether it can hold it. It is possible, there are contemporary worship songs that draw out my heart into the bigness of God in a most marvelous way. But there is a kind of low-brow, hip, cool, ya'll come, family, chatty, way of doing worship today. The question is, if it becomes more and more prevalent, what becomes of the majesty of God in this world? I is very hard to maintain the sense of bigness and the majesty of God if everything in the service is calculated to be chummy, and close and warm and touchy and feely...something's got to break there.”
As a Christian musician, my first reaction to Piper was defensive. “We're doing a plenty good job, and there are plenty of good songs that we sing on Sundays!” After I had a few minutes to knock down my pride, I realized that Piper spoke validly but from a unique and very narrow perspective. If you listen to the rest of his response (and you can hear the entire night's lectures here) he makes it clear that he is hopeful about the future yet skeptical. The implication is that contemporary rock music lacks the musical tools to adequately represent the weightier portions of doctrine and Christian themes. Some examples he gives of those things are the doctrine of God, the significance of hell and the glory of the cross; Piper doesn't believe that those things can truly fit into what he called the “talk show” atmosphere of contemporary worship liturgy.
I believe there are two issues here that need to be separately addressed. One is the long-term adequacy of rock music in replacing classical music for contemporary corporate worship. And the other is the tragic loss of the weightiness and primacy of God's glory in American Christianity. Though I have many thoughts on the latter, right now I am more interested in re-visiting the relationship of rock music to worship.
I think there are two reasons why Piper might not have distinguished these two issues in his statement. One is that the nature of a Q&A doesn't allow the speaker a lot of time to think through his response. In addition, it was one of the last questions of the night and they were running really short on time. I think the other reason is that Piper might not have as deep an insight into the nature of rock music as an average person. Bear in mind this is the guy who reads Scripture and prays four times a day, is involved in a multitude of Christian organizations, preaches almost every week at his church, regularly blogs and adds resources to an entire website devoted to his preaching and teaching, and when he actually does have time to read a novel, reads something as educational and soul-feeding as Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Human beings who do all that don't have time to listen to and reflect on rock music.
This is why I believe that John Piper's skepticism concerning the emotional range and depth of rock music is completely unfounded. I can understand where he's coming from and sympathize with him; he probably doesn't encounter that much rock music beyond the precious little Christian musicians offer. And I've gone over this time and again in my head and in my personal writings. I've tried to understand “where is rock-based contemporary Christian music in the scope of musical history?” and I waffle back and forth between, “dying and on its last legs” and “undergoing birth pains but ready for a glorious revolution.”
There are gems today. Keith and Kristen Getty consistently write lyrically-excellent, musically-accessible, cross-centered worship music. Chris Tomlin will usually have one or two keepers in every album. The wheat and the chaff are being separate as we near the midpoint of an entire century of rock-based worship music and good stuff is emerging as time is allowed to test them. But the bottom line is, still today, good worship songs are tiny oases lost in the desert of dry, base, cheap, crude, and stiflingly one-dimensional worship songs.
For the reasons and feelings stated in the last two paragraphs, I can sympathize with John Piper's sentiments. However, Christian rock music is such a pathetically narrow slice of what rock music has to offer that how can Piper think to simply write off such a magnificently deep and diverse genre? It's like saying, “starch-based products like bread are no longer adequate to eat in church because communion wafers taste bad.” It's laughably poor reasoning!
Before I go on, I must clarify what I mean by “rock music”. I am using the term in as broad a sense as possible; as any music that utilizes or has its roots in a traditional rock-instrument band. I am using the term in broad comparison with Western classical music”, which has historically been the medium of music in corporate worship.
Why is my definition of rock music important? Because I think the strength and salvation of its contribution to church is found in its diversity. Chris Tomlin's rock music, in mood, has never come close to “majestic” or “epic”. Hillsong has never confronted the weightiness of glory. I can't think of a worship songwriter that has even attempted, never mind succeeded at making me feel the pain of sin or the day of judgment. Contrast that with Bach's arrangement of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” or the Dies Irae in Mozart's famous Requiem Mass or Lotti's Crucifixus.
Oh, but in rock music, there's epic. There's majestic. There's deeply sorrowful as well as unfathomable rage and anger and wrath. When I think of epic, my mind immediately goes to Muse's “Knights of Cydonia”. How much more majestic can one get besides the slow-down towards the end of Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody”? The emo movement (of which I am the worst) has given us the full range of sorrowful musical tools, ready to be adapted into Christian themes.
An electric guitar with distortion and delay on and in the right hands can be more epic than a legion of violinists. Five men or women holding five different rock instruments with the right amps will make the NY Philharmonic urinate their San Pellegrino. Has the London Symphonic Orchestra melted anyone's faces lately?
When I think of glorious tunes, two works that come to mind so simultaneously that they both get stuck at the doorway into my consciousness are the powerful finale to Dvorak's New World Symphony and U2's “Beautiful Day”. Someone with more musical experience than I can probably name more adequate representations in both the classical and rock genre for every mood and emotion required in church music.
The difference between classical and rock, when you look at the masters of each, is no longer that of depth or complexity or virtuosity. It's a matter of high-brow verse low-brow. It's a matter of conceitedness, arrogance, and snobbishness. How was it ever a fair comparison, pitting Beethoven and Brahms against Kings of Leon and Blink 182? Why didn't anyone ever compare Franz Xaver Sussmayrr with Led Zeppelin or Coldplay?
Let me conclude with this. As a future pastor and lover of music, I am constantly thinking through in my head issues pertaining to the role of music in worship. When I ponder the state of contemporary Christian music, I experience equal parts nausea and faint, but real hope. Ultimately, I truly believe that we are at the cusp of what could be a beautiful revolution in corporate worship. All revolutions start with death. But when I listen to Third Day's powerful arrangement of Agnus Dei, or when I explore the ever-increasing number of non-mainstream artists who are writing genuinely Christian music* (cf. Downhere, David Crowder, and Chapel Band '08's Redemption Portrait), I feel hope. I feel hope that we will emerge from our shackles of the same old stuff and begin to tap into the vast wealth of musical richness the new era is offering us.
Pastor Piper, you think Jonathan Edwards is the only one who can convey the bigness of God? Listen to some rock music!
*One caveat I feel I must make. A warning to distinguish the sheep from the goats. The Christian music industry is large enough so that there are actually artists who will, in a clever public image move, pretend that they are Christians writing on Christian themes in order to garner the popularity and use Christian consumers as a springboard to get them started. A few examples that come to mind: Evanescence and to a lesser degree, the Blackeye Peas (Where is the love) and Kanye West (Jesus Walks). I also caution against Christians who are musicians who lack the desire to use their music for the good of the church. But that's a post for another day.