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Volume 14, Issue 2: Musica

Liturgical Culture

Duck Schuler

Much has been written on the different kinds of existing culture: folk, high, and popular. An especially fine work on this subject is Ken Myers' All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes in which Myers compares these three cultures from a Christian viewpoint and draws some insightful and deeply profound conclusions about the value of each of these cultures. As I have thought about music and culture from the perspective of a church musician, I have contemplated these categories of folk, high, and popular culture, with regard to music performed in worship, and have come to the conclusion that there is perhaps another category of culture_liturgical.

The difficulty with categorizing liturgical culture is figuring out how it relates to the other three. The Bible begins its discussion of culture in Genesis 1:26 and continues it fully in chapter 2. Genesis 2:5 tells us that "there was no man to cultivate the ground." One of man's purposes was to cultivate ground. As in the English, the Hebrew root for the word "cultivate" carries a variety of connotations in its meaning, including such ideas as plowing, working, fatiguing, working as a slave, serving, being honored, and worshiping. When man was made, God placed him in the Edenic garden-sanctuary in order that he might "cultivate (dress_AV) it and keep it" (2:15). This verse is preceded by a discussion of the rivers which flow out of Eden through the garden and into the world where Adam will be able to find gold, bdellium, and onyx as raw materials to dress the garden.
The garden was the place where Adam was to meet with God; it was a place where Adam found food; it was a place of worship and communion. Adam was charged to make the garden-sanctuary more glorious than it already was and at the same time keep (guard) it. He was to guard it from the wiles of Satan and keep it for the glory, worship, and service of God. Notice that God places Adam first in the garden and not in the land of Eden. As he cultivates and keeps the garden, he is taught the skills necessary for taking dominion of the land and eventually the whole world (1:26). The lessons are learned in the sanctuary before dominion of the world takes place. God's plan for cultivating man is to have him in His presence in worship, to bring glory to God, and to learn what it means to made in God's image. Only as a true image bearer will man be able to take dominion properly. How we worship, then, determines how we live our lives.
Watch a child who has a good relationship with his parents and you will see that the child imitates the parent. You'll find a young boy mowing the lawn with his toy mower when Dad is mowing the lawn, or shaving with his toy razor while Dad is shaving. He wants to be like Dad. In the same way we learn to be image bearers by observing and imitating our heavenly Father. This is best done in the presence of God. When He calls us into the throne room, He teaches us how to be kings by His own perfect rule. When we hear His Word, He teaches us how to live our lives according to that Word and how to share the Word with others. When He shows us how He sacrificed His own beloved Son, we learn how to give our lives in thanksgiving and spiritual sacrifice. Image bearers want to be like their Father, and this is learned most keenly in worship.
In a biblical model, folk, high, and popular culture flow out of and are formed by our liturgical culture. If our liturgical culture is glorious, we would expect to see the standard of culture in the world becoming more glorious; and likewise, if the liturgical culture is full of stench, culture at large will come to have the same stench.
An unbiblical model of liturgical culture works in the opposite way. Instead of learning from God by imitation and then teaching the world by taking dominion, the culture would imitate the world and attempt to dominate God through manipulation. In general, that is the way culture is working today. The Church has abdicated its responsibilities as salt and light in the culture. It borrows all the worst of our stinking culture, brings it into the sanctuary, and attempts to manipulate God through the saccharine sentimentalism of a narcissistic culture.
Liturgical culture therefore is the fountain and source for the other kinds of culture, whether it follows a biblical model or an unbiblical model. An example of the musical outworking of this in culture is the oft-used paradigm of using love songs and bar tunes as a source and model for music in worship. Those who want to look to the world for their imitation of music will cite the Reformers and in particular Martin Luther as an example of one who borrowed the best love tunes of his age for singing in the Church. This technique of adding liturgical texts to secular songs was called making a contrafactum and, although practiced by the Reformers, it was rarely done. But even though it was done, the musical borrowing was still different than the contrafacta techniques today. Because the Church had a strong influence on the culture, secular love songs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance often had the character and influence of the Church. So when a contrafactum was made, the musicians were not borrowing but taking back what already belonged to them.
Today, the Church no longer has a strong influence on culture. When it borrows, it no longer borrows in imitation of God but imitation of the world. Who we imitate makes all the difference.

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