The Decline of Church Music Pt.I

It’s fairly common knowledge that mainstream Christianity is in decline, at least in western civilisation. Now, by mainstream I mean churches that aren’t the simplistic, backward, literalistic, entertainment oriented, fundamentalist churches which engage in a heavy handed proselytising form of evangelism; rather, mainstream churches take the lessons from the Old & New Testaments and try to have them make sense in our world: that the precepts in the Bible are metaphorically applicable (as opposed to literally) to today’s exigencies, is one of the distinguishing features from its more gratuitously superficial, excessively emotional, reptilian, counterpart.  It’s not unlike comparing the literary talents of Snooki (remember her?) to Iris Murdoch.

Similarly, the more cerebral, spiritual and metaphysically challenging mainstream church can’t compete with the superfluous emotionalism of the  fundamentalists.  Those institutions/enterprises which appeal to the baser aspects of human beings will always have a certain cache among the largely ignorant and emotionally governed masses.  Moreover, as times become more and more complicated and stressful the ardour for quick and easy answers becomes more and more intense — a common trait among the emotionally arrested, intellectually and spiritually vacuous.  Recent political history gives us a very clear example of such behaviour.


Americans (I will stick pretty much exclusively to the USA since that’s the  society I know best) have been politically bouncing around in a desperate quest to find the “Good Congress.”  But, not unlike the inhabitants of Plato’s “The Cave” they only know about the two political “shadows” they see, and are either unaware of any alternatives, or (more likely) are afraid to find out —  denying that such alternatives do, in fact, exist; so, they keep repeating the cycle becoming more and more frustrated each time when they see that nothing has actually changed, much less improved.  The more desperate the situation the more ardent the pursuit for simplistic and instant answers; or, conversely, the greater the inclination to just simply resign to the situation, assuming that the idea of electing politicians who honestly have the public good in mind is at best quixotic.


So it is with the Church, and church music.  The clergy have always begrudged music her part in the liturgy.  Church musicians are in direct competition for the hearts and minds of the congregation.  And usually when it comes to the having the consistently more inspirational message it’s the musician.  Clergy don’t particularly appreciate this fact and are often threatened by it.  This can be, and often is, a source for stifling creativity on the part of the organist.  My experience is the more powerful the clergy person the more easily threatened they are.


Ever since the birth of polyphony in the 12th Century there has been constant tension between the church fathers and the church musician, especially composers.  A large part of this resentment by the clergy stems from the postulation that the level of musical sophistication is directly proportional a person’s level of spiritual consciousness.  And if there is anything the clergy fears, it’s a laity that has a grasp of metaphysics equal to or superior to theirs.  Great music does exactly that.  It transcends any spoken words, whether they be uttered in admonishment or approbation, no matter how emphatic or passive the delivery.  You don’t have to know the text to the Allegri Miserere to experience its profundity.  It is precisely this otherworldly, non-verbal, aspect that unnerves those mostly (not all — mostly) musically callow church leaders.  Great music threatens their claim to spiritual dominion.


Spoken or written language has its roots, and is still primarily based upon, the corporeal, the tangible, the somatic.  Ever since the concept of an invisible, intangible imperceptible “Great Creator” (God, if you will) entered into the psyche of humankind, we have tried to manipulate and engineer language to reflect our nonmaterial thoughts and feelings; even to the point of completely inverting the original meaning, or perception of the meaning, of those words.  A classic example would be Mary Baker Eddy.  Her abuse of the language distorts and subverts words like “science” and “reality”  to such an extent that the meanings become quite literally the opposite of their otherwise universally accepted usage. Those are just two of the more extreme examples of her misguided attempt to permute language with definitions or explanations with concepts beyond the parameters of its function.  Although Mrs. Eddy presents a glaring example, she is by no means alone.  Such great names in metaphysics as Tillich, Augustine, Hegel, Barth, and a host of others are all guilty of endeavouring to squeeze lime juice from an eggplant.


Great music by virtue of its abstract nature surpasses the limitations of spoken or written language. Unlike the representational nature of language, music is nonrepresentational; therefore, what it communicates cannot be coherently or concretely defined or described via the medium of words.  Conversely, one really cannot expect music to describe or define anything specific, such as a sunset, the sea, love, hate or any other specific emotion.  That is why the tone-poem is a bogus concept.  Unless one is told in advance what the subject is a person simply cannot know what the the music is meant to represent.  Really now, could you honestly tell what Debussy’s La Mer is supposed to represent if you didn’t know what the title meant?  What if you discovered  the piece was called La Merde instead?  You really don’t have to know what the piece “is about” in order to enjoy its beauty.  In fact, I contend that knowing the work by its descriptive title compels the listener to limit his listening experience by putting it into some prefabricated box conforming exclusively to images of the sea.  This does the music a disservice by restricting it to the confines of verbal language.


Such is the dilemma of the clergy; most of whom are either musically illiterate or (perhaps worse) marginally knowledgeable of the art form.  Perhaps he plays the guitar or thinks himself a singer.  Nevertheless, in most circumstances (due primarily to the nature of our “culture”) his or her musical “knowledge” is popular music based.  Moreover, as a reflection of the mindset of the general public there’s a growing tendency among clergy to think of traditional — classical if you will — sacred music as stodgy, highbrow, not upbeat enough, too serious.  It’s, like —you know —  it’s like — too hard. Y’know?

Unfortunately, clergy today are in the business of pandering.  They look at their monthly and yearly expenses and the only thing can see is the need for more money.  As a parish’s expenses have grown so has the desperation to attract warm bodies with disposable income.  With a public whose attention span has devolved to the level of a gnat, whose primary function in life has become the endless pursuit of mindless entertainment (the reasons for which can be discussed in another paper), clergy feel that they have to go the expedient route by taking their lessons from the mass market evangelists.  We can see mainstream clergy salivating at these big mega-churches, with their pews brimming with people and their coffers brimming with cash, thinking “I want some of that.” Of course, the cost of pandering is the loss of substance.  But, clergy, being the totally compromised individuals that they are, somehow manage to find a way to rationalise the sacrifice of legitimate spiritual growth for the dream of increased numbers of supposedly saved souls.  And what better way than to advertise to all those “church shoppers” that: Hey, we’re the fun church.  Everybody here has a great time.  No thinking necessary; and that goes for the music.  None of that serious old pipe organ and classical type music.  We have a BAND!


4 thoughts on “The Decline of Church Music Pt.I

  1. The argument would have been strengthened by leaving out the gratuitous sneer at the ‘largely ignorant and emotionally governed masses’. If the ‘masses’ are ignorant, it is the fault of the ‘educated’ classes who have betrayed them by ceasing to believe in and teach what is good and valuable in our heritage. As for ’emotionally governed’, we are all emotionally governed. The question is, by WHICH emotions? If you think, say, academics or wealthy cognoscenti are less prone to being governed by base emotions you can’t have met many of them. They are better at wrapping it up and fooling themselves, that is all. A pity this will put many readers off accepting the very pertinent points about why the clergy will always tend to be suspicious of great music …


  2. You’re welcome Jim. As for your little story about sixth grade, let me be polite and say that, well, it’s at best disingenuous, if not outright bullcrap. Yeah, you’re going tell me that out of a classroom full of eleven year old kids who probably never heard a symphonic tone poem before, without any reference before hand, only two did not guess that it was supposed depict the sea? Somehow, I get the feeling the whole story is not being told. Memories have a tendency to become selective when wishing to make a point, and when we age. After all, I’m sure it’s only been “few” years since sixth grade. God knows what the hell happened to your brain when you were still doing head banging rock. Moreover, if what I saw/heard on you church’s website is any indication of the “music” that you do, you are the quintessential definition of the type of claptrap to which church music has deteriorated. I may be annoyed. but you are annoying. As for not reading the second part… I shed crocodile tears.
    Oh, and by the way, I ain’t your “Bud,” Bud.


  3. Agree, except your comments about clergy. Many are committed, sincere, well-educated, and desirous of a profound musical experience as part of the Worship service. They (like yourself) see music as the vehicle it is – the means to convey trsnscendent ideas/experience to the people in the pews. Not all Clergy are the enemy. Not even close.


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