Sensitive Cosmic Judgment

This isn’t quite a promise, but I at least intend to blog more in the months ahead than I have in the months behind. The blog is in its fifteenth season, with the sixteenth coming at the spring equinox. Seasons thirteen and fourteen were indefensibly short on content, and it’d be a shame if that’s the way it all ended. I’ll do my best to keep it from ending that way.

Since school only resumed full-time today, I’ll need a bit to get acquainted with the semester before I start writing about it. I thought it might be a good time, then, to air some of my uninformed opinions about church music. It’s a tried and true method of provoking controversy – airing one’s opinions about church music. But I hope it’s pretty clear from this post that controversy isn’t my intention. Also, I’m neither an aesthetic philosopher nor a musicologist, nor anything at all fancy like that. So take what follows for what it’s worth.

The seminary hosted its annual conference last weekend, “Preaching the Whole Gospel to the Whole Person.” On Friday afternoon you could pick one of two workshops. Rev. Jack Moesker hosted one in which he discussed how elders should go about evaluating a minister’s sermons; Rev. John Van Popta hosted the other, in which he, Rita Faber, and two of her children, Joel and Sarah, walked us through a liturgy from Burlington Fellowship, the focus being on the music. Rita played the piano, Joel the guitar, and Sarah the flute.

For those of us who had the privilege of being there, it was just plain lovely. It was first of all a refreshing break from listening to speeches all day. And secondly, the musicians showed us that the Genevan melodies, although well-suited to the organ, do have lives beyond the organ. Like going fishing with someone you’ve only known at work.

But if blogging about church music invites controversy, actually changing it can cause outright conflict. Younger and more “change-minded” people may roll their eyes at the level of fuss kicked up at changing familiar features of the liturgy, but there’s good reason for that fuss. My grandmother passed away a few years ago from Alzheimer’s disease. And long after she’d forgotten everyone who once mattered to her, she’d sit rocking in her chair whistling Genevan melodies. They were the last piece of her identity to go. All those years of striving after God through those musical forms had etched them deeply within her heart, providing a refuge during her winter that was unassailable until the very last. You can understand, then, the strong response of people who feel that something so comfortable and intimate is being threatened.

These kinds of conflicts, though, have the benefit of prompting us to probe deeper, and to think about the ways in which we judge music. After all, as the apostle Paul argues, if we will one day find ourselves judging angels, and even the world, “how much more, then, matters pertaining to this life?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). If we are going to be placed in positions of cosmic judgment, how much more ought we be able to judge music that is suitable for worship?

I think even non-musical people are capable of making these judgments. For example, most men of my generation grew up listening to, or at least familiar with, Metallica. You could have been the most tone-deaf, stone-hearted rebel, but you wouldn’t have claimed that Metallica was suitable for church, lyrics aside. It takes no special training in music to make that judgment. And that shows us that we can separate music into two categories: the category of “what I like,” and the category of “what is appropriate.”

Food is probably a good analogy. In fact, we even use the word “taste” for things like art and music for that very reason. When it comes to food, we understand that certain foods are not appropriate for certain situations. Just because McDonald’s cheeseburgers are delicious doesn’t mean you eat them at Christmas dinner. I may even love cheeseburgers and hate turkey (not the case), but I know that turkey is much more fitting for a feast than cheeseburgers are. When it comes to Christmas dinner, the cheeseburger belongs to “what I like” and the turkey to “what is appropriate,” and that latter category is not determined by my own tastes.

Also, we know that some food is healthy and other food unhealthy, and that the nutritional value of the food has nothing to do with my taste for it. All too often the opposite, unfortunately. But the nutritional content of food is rather easy to judge – we can see and feel its effects on our bodies pretty quickly. Music, on the other hand, is not so easy to judge. It affects us in our souls, and we cannot see or feel our souls like we can our bodies. But just like you can damage your body by what you feed it, you can damage your soul by what you feed it. And just like my nutritional life can’t be governed only by the “what I like” category, neither can what goes into my soul.

But just because it isn’t easy to judge the effect music has on your soul, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For example, maybe you’ve noticed that Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face,” Toto’s “Africa,” Heart’s “Alone” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow,” all use the same chord progression in the chorus. It’s the VI-IV-I-V chord progression (Em-C-G-D in the key of G). Maybe you haven’t noticed. Regardless, the reason those songs use that chord progression is the same reason McDonald’s uses fat and sugar. There’s something easy and addictive about it. And you’ll find that there is something easy and addictive about all the songs that use it, even if you’re completely unaware of what’s going on musically. Like in “Africa.” Who cares about the verses – just give me that chorus.

In fact, while writing this post I googled “VI-IV-I-V chord progression” and found, to my utter delight, a blog in which the author has done the tedious work of cataloguing all the songs that use, what he calls, the “Sensitive Female Chord Progression.” I’d been aware of it ever since a much more musical friend of mine introduced me to what he called “that” chord progression, but I had no idea until seeing that blog that it was so ubiquitous.

My point here is that you can listen to these songs and you can observe the effect that they have on you. Never mind whether or not you find the songs appealing – you probably do. There’s a reason the chord progression is being used everywhere these days, and that’s because it has an emotional pull. But you can ask yourself questions like, “Does this song make me want to listen to it 75 times straight, and then leave me disgusted with it? Like binging on a jumbo bag of kettle chips? And if so, is this the sort of thing that ought to fill the diet for my soul?”

Anyways, all this is just a beginning. Just pieces of thoughts that may or may not prompt some reflections on music, and more profoundly, on worship.

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One thought on “Sensitive Cosmic Judgment

  1. Thank you for coming back! I am so looking forward to the next posts! We are struggling with this very issue, and others.

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