On the wall in my study I have three portraits. All three are portraits of theologians who were also heavily involved with music. They are Martin Luther, J.S. Bach, and Isaac Watts. All three men fought their battles in defense of high standards for worship music. All three had their share of controversy.
And all three are commonly compared to modern worship controversies, usually in defense of contemporary worship. “See,” the argument goes, “people in their day were afraid of new music, too.” “Luther used bar tunes, Bach borrowed from secular music, and Watts broke the mold by writing new songs.” I’ve also heard similar arguments like these:
“The Israelites used the same music as the cultures around them.”
“The organ was once just as controversial as the electric guitar is today.”
“Mozart was a terrible man; how can we say that his music is good?”
“Handel’s Messiah was popular in his day, just like pop music is in our day.”
“Didn’t Wesley say, ‘Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?’”
Usually such assertions are based on ignorance or misunderstanding of the actual facts and just serve to cloud and confuse the discussion even further. It is for this reason that I think it is important that we take some time to survey the development of church music through history.
The Cultivation of Form
In this series we have discussed the importance of form in our hymnody; form shapes content. But the second important truth about form to realize is that forms are cultivated over long spans of time. No one gets up one morning and says, “I think I’m going to create a new musical form today.”
Art forms are part of what we call “culture,” and the very term “culture” illustrates the long-term, progressive cultivation of something over time, influenced and nurtured by the environment in which it grows. A cultural form is the natural product of the environment in which it was nurtured.
All cultural forms, then, are expressions of value systems. This means that whatever we create in our time and our culture is always built upon something that has come before. There is no such thing as inventing a new cultural form ex nihilo. Such a prospect is impossible. We create using materials that have already been developed and nurtured by people who have come before us. This does not mean that cultures cannot or should not progress and change over time. They do and they should. But everything we create starts somewhere, within already existing value systems. We call this “tradition.”
This is why it is absolutely essential that we understand how form has been cultivated throughout history, and specifically, how the forms of our hymns have been nurtured within the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have at our fingertips a rich heritage of cultural forms that have grown within the biblical value systems of Judaism and the historic Christian Church—forms that were cultivated with the goal of expressing transcendent values.
What I am going to suggest in future essays is that if we want to conserve biblical worship, we must continue in that Judeo-Christian tradition when we choose our hymnody. We must repudiate novelty for its own sake or cultural forms nurtured within paganism for the purpose of expressing pagan values to pagans. We need to choose forms that have been cultivated within the community of faith for the purpose of expressing transcendent values of truth, goodness, and beauty.
But before I can insist that we need to preserve and cultivate such a tradition, I must first prove to you that such a tradition exists.