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On the flexibility of form in worship

 I defend a conservative philosophy of worship not because I want to protect old in the rejection of new, but because I believe “traditional” forms (both old and new) are more flexible and elastic in what they can express in worship, are better suited to carry rich truth about God, and are more appropriate than most contemporary forms in how they shape their content.

wineskins-old-newDebates over worship usually center on the issue of form. “Don’t elevate form over content,” the progressives cry. “We must have elasticity of form because they gospel is dynamic!” “Don’t put new wine in old wine skins ”1

In order to correctly understand the issue here, and avoid common straw men arguments, I’d like to comment just briefly about form and flexibility in worship.

First, we need to make a distinction between content and form (I’ll narrow the discussion to worship songs here). Content is simply the basic idea communicated in the song, often summarized in propositions. So, for example, the content of a hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” would be the holiness of God, the Trinity, praise, God’s mercy, etc.

However, unless you just list God’s attributes in that way, form is always involved. In fact, it inaccurate, as some would imply, to suggest that content is the text of a song and form is the music. Even the way words are put together to form sentences and stanzas involves form.

In other words, it impossible to be free of form.

Form is the way in which something is shaped or presented. A form takes the basic content and shapes it in a certain way.

Redcorn VasesPerhaps the easiest way to understand this is to consider various vessels. When you pour a liquid into a vessel, the liquid takes the shape of the vessel. The essence of the content does not change, but its shape changes.

With any art, form always shapes the content in such a way that it communicates something about that content. Form doesn’t communicate in the same way as the content itself; form communicates to the imagination and the affections. Form changes the “feel” or perception of the content.

Sometimes these ideas are difficult to grasp with something more abstract like poetry or music, so let me use a more concrete example to illustrate the significance of form.

Graphic designers use font faces to communicate different things beyond mere words. For instance, let’s use the word, “cool.” “Cool” can mean a couple of different things. It can mean the opposite of hot, or it can mean calm, or it can mean hip. I can use form to communicate which definition I mean:

Now let’s take it a step further and consider the word, “God.” Form communicates our imagination of what God is like:

Each of these font faces–these forms–both expresses and shapes an imagination of what God is like.

I use the example of type-face only because it’s visual, and it is easier to grasp how form shapes content with these examples than with poetry or music. But let’s move now to content and form within songs.

There are several different ways that content can be shaped within a song. The first is simply with what words are chosen to communicate the message. Words are important. How we put them together into phrases is important. Words are important because different words have different connotations–different “feelings” attached to them.

For example, in describing my grandfather to you, I might say that he is ancient. Or I may say that he is elderly. Or frail. Or rickety. Or seasoned. Each of these words has basically the same meaning of old, but each word conjures up different kinds of images in your mind about my grandfather.

Poetic meter and rhyme scheme also affect the “feel” of a song text. My favorite example of this is to compare the different “feelings” between the original way “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” was penned and a slightly altered way. Read both of these aloud, paying close attention to the natural syllabic stress, and see if you anticipate different content to these poems:

‘Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas and ALL through the HOUSE
Not a CREAture was STIRring, not Even MOUSE.

‘Twas CHRISTmas EVE, the HOUSE was STILL,

The original version uses a triplet pattern that gives a feeling of “skippiness” and fun. The second, however, uses a duple meter, which naturally slows down the rhythm and comes across far more serious. Combining a serious mater with such content about a quiet Christmas Eve, we might expect the Grinch to show up at the house rather than Jolly Old St. Nick!

Musical form shapes content in very similar was to poetic form. Music communicates by mimicking natural human expression, and therefore whether or not someone understands the science of music, musical form shapes their perception of the content. Melody, harmony, and rhythm combine to shape basic content by intensifying human emotion, physical movement, and naturally-occurring acoustical principles in ways that are naturally, and often subconsciously, discerned by any member of the human race (and sometimes even animals!).

Finally, how a song is performed also contributes to form. The tempo (the speed at which the song is performed), dynamics (loudness or softness), density (amount of voices or instruments played at once), and timbre (the tone color of various voices or instruments) all contribute to the feel of the song and shape the song’s content.

Even the way in which an individual sings can shape the content of that song in drastic ways. Just with how a person uses his voice, he can shape a song of love for God to sound reverent, casual, romantic, or flippant.

Consider, as an illustration, the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal. Notice how even Wikipedia describes the event:

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” was a song sung by actress/singer Marilyn Monroe on Saturday, May 19, 1962, for then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, at a celebration for his forty-fifth birthday, ten days before the actual day of his 45th birthday, Tuesday, May 29. Sung in a sultry voice, Monroe sang the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics, with “Mr. President” inserted as Kennedy’s name. . . . Afterwards, President Kennedy came on stage and joked about the song, saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way,” alluding to Monroe’s delivery, her racy dress, and her general image as a sex symbol.

In this case, the textual content and even the musical form itself were far from offensive. Yet Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image communicated subtextual messages that were missed by nobody. I raise this point only to illustrate that performance style shapes content.

The point here is that form matters because there is no such thing as content without form, and since form shapes the perception, imagination, and “feel” of content, the forms used in worship are very important. Not all forms are appropriate for expressing God’s truth since not all imaginations of God’s truth are accurate.

So are forms in worship flexible, then? Of course. There are many different ways truths about God may be accurately expressed. The various literary forms used in Scripture testify to this.

But this leaves me to make a few final points that address the straw men often erected by progressives on this issue and actually contradict their primary emphases:

First, flexibility in form and “freedom” are not the same thing. In other words, allowing for a variety in worship forms does not imply that all forms are equally valid in worship. Form in worship is flexible, but with limits.

Second, progressives often paint conservatives as those who are against contemporary music in worship because conservatives are against flexibility in form. This is simply a straw man, no matter how loud a progressive yells. Conservatives are against many contemporary forms not because they are inflexible, but because they believe such forms to be outside the limits of appropriateness for worship.

And this leads to my final, and perhaps most significant point. I would suggest that what is often called “traditional” worship music actually contains much more flexibility of form than most contemporary music.2

“Traditional” worship music contains forms that span hundreds of years and that includes a wide variety of cultures including those from Africa, Spain, Israel, Greece, Italy, German, France, Britain, and America. “Traditional” worship music has the textual, poetic, and musical capacity to express a significant range of nuanced affections.

Most “contemporary” worship music contains forms that span a few recent years and that include only American pop culture. Most “contemporary” worship music has a significantly limited range of nuance in its ability to express.

In other words, I defend a conservative philosophy of worship not because I want to protect old in the rejection of new, but because I believe “traditional” forms (both old and new) are more flexible and elastic in what they can express in worship, are better suited to carry rich truth about God, and are more appropriate than most contemporary forms in how they shape their content.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. This is not the point of the current blog post, but I should note here that to equate form in worship with Jesus’ parable about wine skins, which in context was about in inability of the Mosaic Law to contain the gospel, is horrendous eisegesis. []
  2. By “contemporary,” I do not mean “new”; I am using the term to describe particular styles of music rooted in pop culture and often containing elements of rock music. []