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Volume 17, Issue 1: Disputatio

Contemporary Worship Music

Debated by Douglas Wilson and Jeffrey Ventrella

DW: As postmillennialists, we should look forward to the continued maturing of Christ's church on earth over time. This should mean, among other things, an application of semper reformanda to the congregational music of the Church. In my view, the coming musical reformation will need to have at least three significant characteristics. First, it will comprehend and love the already-established musical heritage of the Church. Secondly, it will build on that heritage so that we in due time might contribute something valuable to the musical patrimony of our spiritual descendants. And third, a significant part of this contribution will need to include a turning away from the contemporary musical cul-de-sac we have gotten ourselves into. The prevailing musical culture of the contemporary church is trite and superficial. Since God must be worshipped with reverence and godly fear (Heb. 12:28), the soundtrack that goes with this worship should match.

JV: The seeming plausibility of Mr. Wilson's thesis is illusory. If a musical reformation were to occur, how would one know? By what objective biblical standard does one evaluate musicality? Please identify (the apparently monolithic) "established musical heritage of the Church" referenced. Which church: Western, Eastern, Coptic, Black? Identify the "established" musical components: even-tempered tuning, plain song, counterpoint, polyphony, amplification, hymnody? Just where is the developmental "cut-off": Donatus, Novatian, Gregory, 1517, Bach, Wesley, Miles Davis? And, what is it about contemporary musicality that is "trite and superficial" and irreverent: the lyrics, the tempi, the tessitura, the harmony, the instrumentation? More problematic is Mr. Wilson's implied standard, the "back to the future" hermeneutic, which assumes that the apex of musical development is static and has already passed. Better that the scripture provide guidance than a personal preference masquerading as a precept: "Say not, `Why were the former days better than these?'" (Eccel. 7:10, ESV).
DW: I cannot have assumed the apex of musical development is past since my second point was that we should build on our musical inheritance. We agree that Scripture must provide the guidance here. Where I presume we differ is that I believe we can learn a great deal more about this subject than we have done so far. But before we start filling in the details, we first have to establish scripturally the basic point. The Scriptures teach that a certain demeanor, mood, and attitude are required in worship (Heb. 12:28; Is. 6:5; Rev. 4:10; 1 Cor. 14:25; and many more), and Scripture also teaches that there is a clear correlation between demeanor and types of music (Mt. 11:17; Num. 10:10; 2 Sam. 6:12-15; and many more). Put these two things together, and we see that our selection of a military march by Sousa at the offertory is not fitting.
JV: Ignoring that Reformed worship historically fails to recognize an "offertory" as a proper worship "part," (WCF 21.4 & 5; but cf., 1 Cor. 16), it does not follow that a Sousa march is necessarily inappropriate. But arguendo, if it were inappropriate, what musical factor would biblically make it so? The melody? The harmony? The form, that is, modulating to the subdominant at the trio? The instrumentation? I suspect that it is not the march's musicality per se that spawns impropriety, but rather, the cultural referent triggered by playing a military march during Americana worship. (Cf., 1 Cor. 14: 23-25). A march may be appropriate in a different covenantal and cultural context: e.g., 2 Chron. 29, or better, during David's praise for offertory generosity, 1 Chron. 29. The "reverence and awe" mantra does not axiomatically curtail using contemporary musicality any more than it necessitates using "Genevan Jigs"—unless one begs the question.
DW: When the Bible says that Abigail was a beautiful and intelligent woman, it does so assuming that there is such a thing as beauty and intelligence in women. It does this without showing us her picture, and without giving us her SAT scores. What we gather from this passing comment is that the Bible assumes that women can be beautiful or plain, smart or dumb. And before we know what the scriptural standards for feminine beauty are, we at least know that egalitarianism here is out. It is the same with music. Before we discuss what particular factors would make a Sousa march unfitting, I would want to establish that Scripture does in fact assume standards of musical quality (Ps. 33:3; 1 Chron. 25:7) and musical propriety (Mt. 11:17). Once we have agreed on this important principle, we can begin the careful work needed for a biblical theology in aesthetics.
JV: Mr. Wilson's response mixes modalities [pun intended]. He equivocates when appealing to "standards of musical quality." The scripture he cites pertains—not to intrinsic compositional aesthetic standards as he intimates—but rather, to performance and cultural contextual standards: "Sousa must be well-played and contextually appropriate"—nothing radical here. Mr. Wilson's analytic prestidigitation, however, subtlety but fallaciously begs the question. He in effect argues: "Contemporary musicality is always inappropriate because it can never be well-performed [!] (Ps. 33:3), nor can any cultural context ever warrant its appropriate use [whether past, present or future, apparently] (Mt. 11:17)." But this approach rather obviously lacks analytic merit. And, if the analogy to feminine beauty were even pertinent, he should prove (not merely assert) something like: "The B-flat dominant 7th chord is by definition of the Devil because it contains the tri-tone, a counterfeit Trinity." Either way, his bare assertions fail. Remaining unanswered questions: 11.
DW: The approach outlined above would indeed have lacked analytic merit had I taken that approach. In my opening paragraph I referred to our prevailing musical culture as constituting a cul-de-sac, which is not the same as saying that every last contemporary song is "always inappropriate." I have said that contemporary worship music tends to the superficial and trite, and is generally inappropriate for worship. But my second point in that same paragraph argued that we should build on our musical heritage. Such a building would be contemporary and it would be musical. Talent in performance is just one objective scriptural criterion—and I nowhere said that lack of proficiency is always present in every contemporary song. I am simply arguing that we should agree that Scripture gives us direction here—no neutrality anywhere. Our debate about propriety and aesthetic standards would be more fruitful and appear less relativistic.
JV:Of course standards exist, but by assuming the affirmative, Mr. Wilson has thereby also assumed the burden of demonstrating and justifying—not simply asserting, and now reasserting—his position; repetition is not argument. Mr. Wilson asserts: Contemporary music "tends to be trite and superficial" and thus "generally inappropriate for worship." Again, why is that necessarily the case musically—as probed, in my initial response—no cogent answer has yet been proffered. More problematic for Mr. Wilson, of course, is the fact that non-contemporary music also can be—and often is—likewise trite and superficial. Indeed, even the best Welsh Psalter tune is trite and superficial when compared musically with Beethoven's 7th Symphony or Bach's Contrapuntus IX. Whether the musicality of worship music is contemporary vel non is irrelevant—unless one is simply parading preferences as purported precepts. Interestingly, Scripture commands the use of contemporary pagan tunes and instrumentation (Psalm 8).
DW: Since we have agreed that "of course standards exist," we can make better progress. Saying much of contemporary music is trite and superficial does call for an explanation once it is determined that the question is neither relativistic nor obscurantist. My qualifications on this issue are the same as that fellow in "Sultans of Swing"—"he knows all the chords." I play the guitar, and spent a number of years playing the kind of music I have called "trite and superficial," by which I mean "non-challenging and non-rewarding." Readers of this exchange can see that Mr. Ventrella is musically educated, and I certainly am not. But even with all my limitations, I venture to say I can competently lead virtually any contemporary worship song if given ten minutes to learn it. But to lead the kind of music I now believe is worthy of God would require years of preparation.
JV: Mr. Wilson again resorts to fallaciously mixing modalities: beginning with purportedly objective criteria ("trite and superficial"), he then actually applies subjective-existential criteria: defining this standard to mean "non-challenging and non-rewarding." Put differently: Music that is relatively (that is, personally) less difficult to perform cannot, in the nature of the case, be edifying (that is, rewarding). Cf., Revelation 5. Under this "standard," a musical reformation will (apparently) only occur if Mr. Wilson lacks the musical acumen to lead the proposed song. Once unmasked, Mr. Wilson's articulated "standard" is abysmally arbitrary: "Music is inappropriate if I can lead it; if I cannot lead it without `years of preparation', then it is appropriate." Preference has indeed become precept. Another possibility exists: Mr. Wilson is ignorant of contemporary worship music that passes his "10 minute" acid test—as if this bogus, incipiently Gnostic criterion possesses any merit—it does not, and rather obviously so.
DW: We have agreed that there are standards. The Scriptures teach that one of the necessary standards is musical cunning (1 Chron. 25:7). Why is my assertion that well-trained musical giftedness is one necessary component thought to be "subjective-existential," when the same charge is not brought against Heman, or the writer of Chronicles? Why are they not mixing their modalities? What I have asserted here is that I know I could not pass Heman's auditions, but that I could play (and have played) quite a number of contemporary worship songs. This is a biblical argument, not a statement of personal preference. Nor is this an absolute statement that every simple song is to be rejected. Part of our problem is that Mr. Ventrella is taking every term in an absolute, distributed sense. The claim that "men are taller than women" is not refuted by one tall woman and short man.
JV: The discerning reader will note that Mr. Wilson's inquiries have been previously asked and answered. To reiterate: Standards applicable to compositional aesthetics are categorically different from standards relating to performance. Thus, an unskilled performance of a particular song does not infallibly dictate that the song is inappropriate (or appropriate for that matter); skillful performance is necessary—irrespective of the tune's musicality, but it is not sufficient. Mr. Wilson has indeed engaged in subjectivism because he limits musical acceptability to his personal musical acumen—not the skilled sons of Heman. Under Mr. Wilson's reasoning, if one cannot skillfully play "The Silent Dove in Distant Lands," then Psalm 56 would be unsuitable for worship—hardly a biblical conclusion. And, if he could skillfully play it, it would be disqualified. Mr. Wilson's approach is plainly arbitrary. This debate is about musicality, not whether Mr. Wilson could "make the band."
DW: We should understand that compositional aesthetics are not categorically different from performance, but rather the two are inter-related. My argument is not that unskilled performance of a challenging musical piece negates that piece. I agree that skillful performance is biblically necessary, but not sufficient—other standards must be brought to bear. But if the compositional standards are so consistently low that the presence or absence of skill on the part of the accompanist is optional, then the composer has an aesthetic problem. Mr. Ventrella represents me as arguing that if one could not play Psalm 56, then the psalm is disqualified, and if one can play it, then it is also disqualified. But my argument actually was that if a piece of music has been written in such a way that a hacker such as I could do as well as Heman, then why did Heman go to grad school?
JV: Mr. Wilson now refines his subjectivist standard by contending that music for worship is apparently appropriate only when the accompanist's skill is (somehow) maximized—(to what degree and in what way[s] he never says).  Worship music must be "hard"—for professionals only, not hackers.  (Note: Hart and Meuther contend that contemporary musicality is disqualified precisely because it is too difficult to play—unlike hymnody). Consider this:  if an accompanist happens to be a virtuoso, it is likely that he would never be sufficiently challenged by traditional four-part hymnody.  According to Mr. Wilson, this circumstance would necessarily render the proposed music "aesthetically problematic"—all because the players were bored and/or because a person
of lesser musical skill could still edify the congregation. Mr. Wilson's entire assertion is obviously fallacious, however, because he assumes that worship musicality either involves "skill" or "no skill." In reality, even the least complex anthem requires skill.
DW: The music of worship involves the whole congregation; the accompanist is just part of the equation. The congregation is being taught by musical leaders so those leaders will be ahead of those whom they lead. But there is joy in leading and teaching ordinary congregants to grow and develop in their ability to offer increasingly reverent music to God. A pastor speaks differently to a congregation than he does if speaking at a conference of theologians. The point I have been seeking to make is that if someone with a modicum of musical ability could be pressed into this service without any adequate musical training at all, then the standards of the contemporary church are not up to the standards of Heman. I can lead contemporary music competently, and the fact that I am not a trained musician is not my subjective personal reality; it is objective and quite audible.
JV: Heman's going to grad school proves too much:  if musical leadership requires formal training, then what about the pastorate?  "I can preach competently in all pulpits, and therefore, the church's standards for preachers are sub-biblical; seminary should be required!"  Huh??!! Leading certainly includes, but is not limited to, musical acumen, but acknowledging this point in no way categorically disqualifies a particular genre of musicality from corporate worship.   In reality, Mr. Wilson's response again confuses the performer with the music's substantive qualities—two very different things.  This discussion focuses on musicality—not who is qualified to accompany.  Besides this, however, his premise that no congregation can offer "increasingly reverent music" so long as contemporary musicality exists is absurd and simply begs the question. Moreover, to suggest that the Lord requires something more than competent musical leadership again sojourns well beyond precept and docks in the harbor of subjective preference. 
DW: If men without training and ability can preach just as well as men who are trained, then at some point, someone really is going to question whether or not the training is worth it. In a similar way, if lack of musical competence and training is just as good as having it, then why bother with anything? Every church that uses music in worship has some form of "auditions," and all of them are applying a set of standards. My argument is that we should turn to the Scriptures (self-consciously) in order to establish such musical standards, and not simply turn to our surrounding culture. In this exchange, I do not claim to have set forth a full-orbed biblical aesthetic of music. Rather, I have shown the need for one, and have pointed to some of the places where we might make a start—skill, training, propriety, balance, etc.

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