Monday, January 23, 2006

Catholic or Charismatic: Is Music (a)Moral?

For those of you who visit this blog because you are an aesthete and enjoy discussions of architecture and its subtexts, you may wonder why, on occasion, there are discussions on preaching or music in Christian worship. I hope to tie the two together, to express that aesthetic choices in worship and/or architecture assume a subtext that says, “form matters,” or to take it a step further, “form has moral ramifications.”

Many of my thoughts are supported if not guided by a new book from Evangelical Press, “Why I left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement” by Dan Lucarini. A former Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) leader in several churches, he refutes many of the arguments Contemporaries make in defending their rock ‘n roll style of music in worship. In doing so, he speaks to the core of the divergence in Mainline Protestantism I see defining MP churches for the next generation: will MPs become more catholic or charismatic?

Before reading the book, I knew that I didn’t take to CCM for several reasons. Now, I am even more aware that CCM is becoming the mainstream, the majority in many MP churches in America. No longer is it a movement, really, or the new minority, but the standard by which “Traditionals” must judge their “old-fashioned” music. It has become a powerful financial player as secular (and religious) companies make huge profits from the sale of CCM sheet music, CDs, concerts, etc. Even worse, CCM is the leader in distributing Charismatic theology, a theology that I find has serious and dangerous limitations, even if it has some good points. Some of its most popular proponents (Joel Osteen, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels) attract Christians that have more devotion to them than their home churches, promoting a false gospel that compromises its values with the world’s aesthetic tastes. This is a tantalizing compromise to many “seekers,” and its popular promotion through CCM begs us to ask if music is amoral after all.

In order to perform and sell their music, Contemporaries claim that music inherently is amoral, ridding of centuries-old hymnody and psalm settings as they do. Would readers of this blog make the same claim about other aesthetic endeavors, such as architecture, urban development or even public transit strategy? Are any of these amoral? Does it not seem obvious that to claim music (and I mean the form as well as the lyrics) is separate from morality is nonsense? When this blog writes of the tragic dilution of good songwriting, aren’t we really lamenting the dilution of the morality the songwriting represents?

Are we to say that the form of even secular classical music like Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s or even Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” are not more moral than 50 Cent’s demonic “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” ethic or the violent sounds found in heavy metal? Of course they are! When was the last time an orgy was performed to Lutheran pipe organ music, or ravers took Ecstasy to 9th century Gregorian chant? When has a news story reported acid binges for listeners of Beethoven’s “Eroica” or Mozart’s “Requiem”? The form of music has inherent moral consequences and assumptions, just as the form of urban housing assumes a morality, even if it is never stated. The political associations many architects and urban planners had reflected the close relationship their morality and aesthetic shared.

And yet, knowing the moral associations rock, pop, or rap music have, a majority of MP churches may by now have those forms of music leading their worship. Music, like everything else, has been relativized to the point where its form has come to hold different truths for different people. Yet, aesthetic common sense tells us that Gangsta’ rap (I feel awkward even writing those words) carries with it an understanding of violence and anger, not peace and worship. And aesthetic common sense also tells us that rock music hints more of sex and rebellion than chastity and humility.

It seems obvious that the easiest way to see division between charismatic and catholic MP churches is their choice of music. A small number of pastors willing to resist the CCM bandwagon will ignore requests to change to CCM in their worship. More, however, seem determined to become “purpose driven”®, to use what I would describe as a worldly method to promote an other-worldly message. This, to me, is not possible. Form and message, or form and morality are siblings, not strangers.

I do not want to condemn the piety of those who only want to worship and serve God, and I do not want to sound prude. I enjoy The Police, The Pixies, even The Killers, bands perhaps I should repent of! But I do not bring this music into sacred worship. I want to challenge Contemporaries not to be a part of something whose moral associations may cause someone to stumble, and not to ignore the close relationship aesthetic choice has with a moral understanding.