Monday, July 17, 2006

Outwitted by Grace? or just Catherine Winkworth

In his seminal textbook, Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction, H. Wiley Hitchcock makes a musical distinction that we as church musicians (and those who aspire to be theologians or worship leaders) might do well to think about.

Hitchcock says that music should not be divided into categories of classical and popular. For starters, those words don't mean much. CLASSICAL refers to one particular period in music history (and a very short one, at that—essentially Mozart and Haydn), and we all know lots of so-called classical music that is immensely POPULAR (where would July 4th fireworks be without the 1812 Overture).

A much more fruitful way of dividing music is between “vernacular” and “cultivated,” that is, between music that any old Joe or Josephine can “get” simply by hearing it, and music that requires preparation and tending in order to be understood.

These distinctions apply as well to the LANGUAGE the church uses in worship, it seems to me. For example, most of the words of our liturgy come either from the Bible or from texts so ancient that we don’t really know where they originated. These words have been translated from Aramaic, from Hebrew, and from Greek, time and time again. For centuries, they had an “official” form in the Latin of the Roman church, and then along came Brother Martin who translated them into German. Then came the English “reformation” (a mostly political, not a theological occurrence) with its translations into English. Then came removal of various Christian bodies to America with their myriad translations, and finally came Vatican II, with its translations of the “official” Roman rite that spawned new translations of all sorts and conditions in the “free” churches.

Two threads all of these translations have in common are: a desire to remain faithful to the original (however they define “original”) texts, and a desire to be understandable to the members of their own congregations.

The church’s desire for its language to be understandable is fraught with difficulties. In the first place, the spiritual traditions of the church universal are NOT self-evident. Take one central word in the theological tradition of all “main-line” churches: GRACE. The concept of being made whole and acceptable to God and neighbor by the free gift of God, that is, GRACE, (my definition is probably inadequate, but it is, I hope, on the right track) is completely COUNTER-INTUITIVE.

In order to understand GRACE, one has to do more than sing the amazing song about it. In the King James Bible, the first use of the word applies to Noah: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). The RSV translates that, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” And The Message reads, “But God liked what he saw in Noah.” So what are “unchurched” and “dechurched” people supposed to make of that? Stop singing “Amazing Grace?”

Or maybe the church has to stop talking about GRACE.

We could sing the hymn, “Amazing favor with God, how sweet the sound.” Well, that doesn’t quite fit. Maybe, “Amazing being liked, how sweet the sound.” Or “Amazing pardon, how sweet the sound.” And just how would we be sure the “unchurched” and “dechurched” would understand that any better? I doubt that all the people weeping at police funerals with choruses of bagpipes droning out the hymn understand Ephesians 1:7, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” And I doubt that many of the people singing the hymn in our churches could give a very cogent explanation of that verse, either.

So what’s the church to do? Give up its basic concepts, water them down (some might say “dumb” them down) so that any old Joe or Josephine can understand them? Well, I hope MY church doesn’t. Is our liturgy, our worship, our preaching meant for me with my almost-two PhDs or for someone who wanders in looking for solace, for someone who yearns for some kind of spiritual sustenance that they’ve realized the Dallas Cowboys and shopping at North Park can’t give them? Or for someone who spends weeks at a monastery in New Mexico? Who is “worship” for, GOD or the unchurched, or the old-timers?

If someone cannot understand the “churchy” language of public prayer, perhaps the problem isn’t the language, but the understanding of prayer itself. Why do we pray? When I pray on my own, it’s for much different reasons than when I pray in church. My prayers on my own tend to be pretty basic stuff, such as “Help me, God! And thanks, God.” When I join my prayers with others in worship it is “for all sorts and conditions of mankind.” I don’t really have the capacity, mental or spiritual, to do that on my own.

So I have to learn to do it. My prayers on my own are embarrassingly “vernacular.” My prayers with the community of faith are “cultivated.”

Perhaps those churches that do not allow the “non-confirmed” to participate in the Holy Communion have it right. There are some things—“Amazing Grace,” for example—that are not in the vernacular. Society does not operate by “grace.” Society operates by currying favor with people one wants something from. If one is to understand GRACE, one must be educated in a COUNTER-INTUITIVE way of thinking. So if “grace” is an important part of our understanding of what’s happening in worship, then people who have not been instructed in “the words that [we have] chosen to wrap around the worship experience” should not be allowed to participate. The earliest church actually threw such folks out when it came time to celebrate the “holy mysteries.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t believe we should rush to throw people out, or take any other bizarre steps to make our worship acceptable. However, I do believe that “worship” is for God, that “worship” is the expression of those who already believe, that one cannot proclaim what one does not understand. So throwing out the theology, even the “sacred” and “mysterious” language, or—hold onto your theological hats—throwing the “sacred” music out because the “uninitiated” don’t understand it is probably as counter-intuitive as the language and music itself.

Using only the “vernacular” in worship would leave us without the ability to “cultivate” the rich spiritual life of both individuals and communities. And none of us would ever understand the “amazing grace” that has saved wretches like you and me.