Why “Traditional” Music is Actually Contemporary

In 2007, I was studying to become an intern for the campus ministry of the PCA (didn’t work out, it was terrible, ask me about it sometime). Only small pieces of the lectures I sat through have stuck with me, but there’s one snippet that’s been bouncing around in my head ever since: “You’re going to a new town,” he said. “You’ll be attending a new church. And you’ll be extremely disappointed with your new church because it won’t be like your old church. And you’ll be disappointed because you’ve grown up with this.”

Having said that, he drew the McDonald’s arches on the whiteboard, and all the hipsters in the room laughed derisively at the mass-produced plastic pop culture. And the point he made was driven home quite adequately: our entire economy is built on making sure that people get the exact same thing — the thing they expect — regardless of where they go. McDonald’s pioneered this. The Gap made millions convincing everyone to wear the same ugly khakis. Levittown gave it a lawn and called it suburbia. Nickelback applied this principle to “rock” music, recorded the same bland song a few dozen times, and became the most popular band on earth. We North Americans (qualified with “North” to give me an excuse to rag on Nickelback) like boring predictability, and we’ll pay through the nose for it.

The Church, of course, isn’t like that. The Church isn’t a product or a service, a business or a company. The Church is a body of people, a group of sinners called to live in unity with each other and with Christ, and if you know what a “sinner” is, or what “unity” is, or who “Christ” is, you should be able to see the problem already. (There are, of course, personalities like Joel Osteen, who jettison all three of those things from their theology, then homogenize and prepackage what’s left for mindless mass consumption, and make a killing doing so — but you can hardly consider them part of the Church. Just sayin’.) It doesn’t matter where you go, or how closely you stick to your favorite tiny little sect, no local church will be exactly like another. These are different people, with different sins, and (more importantly) different needs.

In my life, I’ve been to dozens of local churches, and not a single one of them has used the exact same liturgy as any of the others. Even within the PCA, I’ve been to churches that do nothing but sing 500-year-old hymns and listen to hour-long sermons, and I’ve been to churches that combine guitar rock with the Latin Rite. This should be expected; there’s no order of worship prescribed by Scripture, and the needs and preferences of each congregation are going to be different. Even the Catholic Church, so often viewed as an homogenous juggernaut, is actually a union of 23 different communions, each with its own traditional liturgy.

Which is why I died little inside when I saw this cartoon of unknown origin circulating around Facebook:

I’m not bothered by this because it expresses an opinion I disagree with (I like organs and traditional hymns as much as anyone); I’m just bothered by the myopic understanding here of what “contemporary” music is, and the rejection of music on those grounds. Yes, guitars are fairly new to worship — but so are pipe organs. The church has existed for 2,000 years. The organ has existed for less than half that time, and they’ve only been commonly installed in churches since roughly the Renaissance (which, not coincidentally, was about the time that Europe started invading and exploiting the rest of the world, leading to the sort of untold wealth that can pay for extravagances like huge pipe organs in churches). Don’t get me wrong. Like all good Lutherans, I love me some Bach, but trying to connect to a first-century Jewish carpenter by playing 17th-century German music makes about as much sense as trying to dial up Alexander Graham Bell with your iPhone.

On the scale of a millennia-old Church, you simply can’t call centuries-old music “traditional.” The reality is that Church music has been changing and evolving since the moment Christ ascended — both as new instruments and styles were invented, and as new cultures were folded into the global Church. Looking at classical organ music and saying “That’s traditional church music” isn’t just short-sighted, it’s culturally condescending. We don’t live in an all-white world anymore; to expect Church music to remain as lily-white as it once was is unrealistic and offensive. That’s the division, after all, between European styles of music and American styles of music: the diversity of influence. Classical music admittedly has bits of Middle and Far Eastern styles in it, but American popular music gets all of its rhythm and chord structure directly from Africa. I can understand people who object to certain top-40 songs on the basis of lyrical content, but how can you justify condemnation of all contemporary music on any grounds other than pure racism?

If all the cartoon is doing is expressing a personal preference for classical over contemporary music, fine, I guess (but — and you heard it here first, folks — it’s not a very funny cartoon). But in doing so it expresses untold ignorance about Church history, music history, cultural history, and the nature of God. The Holy Spirit simply isn’t limited to one style of music from one continent during one time period. God can and does act in all cultures and through all sorts of art. And if you think the style itself somehow limits or boxes in the message (“The medium is the message,” or some such nonsense), I ask you to consider the following video:

Everyone’s favorite Presbyterian minister, Rev. Fred “Mister” Rogers got into TV because, in his words, “I hated it so.” For his entire life, he despised MTV’s quick-cut, dumbed-down style that was apparently designed to turn kids into zombies. And while he may have had a point, he was missing the larger one: a given style can be used in service of any message, if the artist is skilled and intelligent enough. There’s no doubt he would have hated the video above, just because he wasn’t a fan of the style — and yet, it’s impossible to deny that it accomplishes everything his television program did. It inspires. It uplifts. It makes you want to improve your mind and become a better person. And it doesn’t do it despite its chopped-and-screwed style; it uses the style expertly to accomplish exactly that. And so it is with worship. We can sing contemporary songs to the glory of God, and we can sing classical songs to the glory of man (and I’ve been to plenty of church services where the latter happened). But this sort of cultural condescension gets us nothing but bitterness and division — which is the last thing the Church needs.

Augustine once famously wrote, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” We would all do well to remember that.

3 thoughts on “Why “Traditional” Music is Actually Contemporary

  1. Pingback: What Christians Can Learn from the “Atheist Megachurch” | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  2. Pingback: Prebylutheranism 2nd Anniversary Spectacular! (My Top 10 Posts Ever) | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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