Friday, June 7, 2024

Sing to the Lord a new song: the place of music in worship

Texts:  Psalm 150, Colossians 3.12-17, and Mark 14.22-26

Music is such an integral part of our culture, isn’t it?  Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on that is to imagine a world without music.  Imagine, for example, watching a movie without background music, setting the emotional tone of each moment.  Can you conceive of a TV advert without music blaring in the background, trying to grab your attention?  “Go compare!”. Music is everywhere.  We sing on the football terraces.  Many of us wake up to music on the radio.  Long journeys are accompanied by the ‘choons’ we choose.  This week’s D-Day celebrations in Southsea were led by a huge cast of musicians, including some from our own Cathedral choir. 

But what exactly is music?  When you break it down to its bare bones – it’s a surprisingly simple thing.  In Western music, it is a collection of 12 tones – 12 resonating sound frequencies.  These are arranged in such a way as to be interesting, or inspiring to the human mind.  Some cultures have less than 12 tones.  Some, especially in the East, have more – quarter-tones that sit between the 12 that we have come to think of as normal.  

But why music?  What is it about these tones, these vibrating frequencies that stir our emotions, and which connect with us on such a deep level?  Why do we generally prefer the sound of musical notes to, say, the squawking noise of, say, a parrot?  Or the sound of wind in the trees, or water in a fountain.  Speaking as a musician, I’d say the answer to that question is complex.  It certainly has something to do with the way music resonates with our bodies.  Our ears, and other parts of our body, find the experience of being immersed in music genuinely pleasurable.  There is a physiological link between the sounds we prefer, and the way our bodies absorb and process them.   Nature has made us to appreciate music at a physical level.  

But nurture is also involved.  We love the music that we’ve come to know, from our earliest age.  Some of us find it hard to learn new music – because we are deeply attached, emotionally to the pattern of sounds we grew up with.  That’s why introducing new hymns in worship is always a fraught process.  And its why some of us maintain that any music produced since Mozart should be considered ‘dangerously modern’!

So far as we can tell, from archaeology and ancient literature, music has always been important to humans, practically from the moment we became humans.  In ancient caves, archaeologists have discovered animal bones with holes along the side – clearly intended to be used as a kind of flute.  We know that drums have a very long history too, in many early cultures.  We know that music played an important part in worship, throughout the Bible.  Key ideas about God were turned into music – which made those ideas easier to remember and to process. 

So, for example, we read about the Song of Miriam, the wife of Moses, who sang a song of celebration and praise when the Eqyptians were thrown into the sea.  Our gospel reading, just now, told of how Jesus and his friends sang a hymn before going out into the night.   The Bible includes an entire book of 150 song lyrics, called the Psalms.  We know from the last of those songs, number 150, what kind of instruments were being played to accompany the singing.  That last psalm – which the choir sang for us as a first reading - contains a list of all the instruments which were used to praise God – the trumpet, the psaltry (a kind of zither), the harp, stringed instruments (presumably something like violins or cellos), pipes (presumably like flutes or maybe bagpipes) and cymbals – well-tuned but loud cymbals!

Vitally, for churches (and this touches on the work of the RSCM) music is a way of helping us to absorb our theology and doctrine.  Our hymnody reflects and reinforces our theology.  Theology is, generally speaking, an intellectual exercise.  It forces us to think about the mystery of God, and our place in God’s world.  But music acts upon us at a deeper, emotional, instinctive level.  It can help us to bridge the gap between what we believe, intellectually, and what we live out in our daily lives.  That’s why the choice of what we sing is so important – and why care is needed in the choice.  Music has the power to carry truth – or lies - beyond the intellect and into the heart.  It can, in fact, be dangerous.  Here’s an example….

In a week in which we’ve all thought about D-Day, it’s worth remembering that Hitler used music to promote his pernicious nationalism.  The words of the German national anthem during his time were ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles’ – which translates as ‘Germany, Germany – over all’.  In other words – Germany is the best, the most superior nation, with a divine right to rule the world.  Sung at every Nazi rally, this message of an innate superiority of the German people went straight from Hitler’s warped brain into his people’s hearts.  Once convinced of this lie, some of them became willing to do almost any heinous crime in the name of German superiority.

That’s why it matters what music we sing.  That’s why Graham takes such care in the choice of the hymns we sing here, week by week.  If we choose hymns that push one particular theological idea, it’s important that that is balanced by an alternative view as well.  So, for example, take the modern hymn ‘In Christ Alone’.  Perhaps you’ve heard it:  “In Christ alone, my hope is found /He is my light, my strength, my song”.  It’s a smashing hymn, with a brilliant tune.  But, troublingly, it does contain this line:  “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied”.  That is a very specific and deliberate statement of one particular theological idea – called ‘penal substitution’ – which is the view that Jesus had to die to appease God’s anger about human sin.  Another way of saying that is ‘that Jesus took the punishment which should have been ours’.  But that, as I have taught many times, is only one way of understanding the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus.  If we only choose hymns that contain references to penal substitution, we’re in danger of ending up with a very myopic understanding of God.

The best and the greatest church music, in my view, is that which doesn’t get bogged down in pushing disputed theological ideas.  Such hymns are no better than football chants, which attempt to ‘big up’ the home team, while putting down the opposition.  The best church music is that which lifts our eyes and our hearts beyond the minutiae of theological debate – and which opens our inner being to the reality of God.  That’s why the psalmist says that praise should be the purpose of our song.  Praise for God, for all that God is, whether on the trumpet, or the psaltry, the harp, or even the loud cymbal!”  Amen.

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