August 5, 2015

On Form vs. Content: Musical Style and the Overemphasis on Texts

I've been to a couple of WELS Worship Conferences, and one School of Worship Enrichment. One theme that has consistently bothered me has been the (over)emphasis of texts, to the possible exclusion of music. Now, they don't say it like that, nor will they probably admit that this is happening, but in the context of our synod as a whole, I've seen even the conservatives quickly change the subject when the issue of musical style is raised.

The oft-repeated WELS worship principle is this: The texts must dominate, the music is subordinate, and we should set standards of excellence.

In principle, I have nothing against this. But it only addresses half of the issue. When we refuse to address matters of style, it leaves a hole in our worship principles large enough to drive a tour bus through. We typically call this hole "Christian freedom," but I'm not convinced that's the case.

In little more than a decade, Koiné has become a household name in the WELS, and their music is a good case study in regard to the WELS worship principles. One of my favorite hymns is Jesu meine Freude, and it is also one of my favorite Koiné arrangements. It takes the text, tune, and even the traditional harmonies of the Johann Franck hymn and gives them an upbeat tempo and contemporary instrumentation. The result is a fresh look at a centuries-old Lutheran hymn. The reason Koiné is an ideal case study here is because they allow us to isolate a single, key variable—style. The text, melody, and harmonies are undeniably excellent and therefore fit the WELS worship principles. But there is a palpable difference between the Koiné recording and a Bach setting of the hymn, and it's a difference of style.

The common wisdom WELS offers in regard to style is, "If it offends someone, don't do it." In my opinion, this is too simplistic to be of any use, and easily ignored or misapplied. For instance, it seems to imply that congregational (or worse, individual) tastes should set our worship standards. So the question needs to be asked: In worship, can we make judgments on matters of style without restricting our sacred Christian freedom? I think we can, and we must.

Aesthetics in Art and Music

Credit for this revelation goes to Dr. Gene. E. Veith, who gave a series of lectures at CCLE XV that I was privileged to attend a few weeks ago. His lectures centered on the matter of aesthetics, and after having read State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mappelthorpe and heard his lectures, I would guess that there are probably few Lutherans alive who have as much insight into aesthetics as Dr. Veith.

One of the major premises of his lecture was that in a great work of art, content and form relate to, and compliment, one another. He used a negative example of a beaming smiley-face emoji with the word "Awesome" written underneath it. The cartoon smiley is so antithetical to the actual meaning of the word (i.e., inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear) as to be ridiculous. Another example Veith cited was "praise" music. How often do they talk about how "awesome" and "holy" God is, but with banal, repetitive, trite music? The form doesn't reflect the content, so the work of art is a failure. Contrast with "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty" by Reginald Heber and its tune by John Dykes, which builds a sense of awe as the notes "ascend" to God. The aesthetic form of a work has as much to do with its success or failure as does the message or content.

Note: Just to clarify, I am not fully equating style with aesthetics, even if I seem to use them interchangeably. Style is one part of the whole aesthetic experience. Sometimes there is an almost total overlap, and sometimes the stylistic impact is minimal. For instance, a contemporary praise song's melodic and harmonic patterns are determined in large part by the style of the genre. Whereas, in the Koiné arrangement of Jesus, Priceless Treasure, the new stylistic contribution is relatively small and related mostly to instrumentation; whereas its meaning, poetry, melody, and harmonies were still retained in spite of the stylistic facelift.

The point is that it isn't totally honest to separate the text (content) from the music itself (form) and evaluate each separately. The style and performance of music is where much of the art exists. It can make the difference between a holy and reverent hymn, and an ironic one.

Flickr: by TinkerTailor
Let's pull this discussion into the realm of the visual arts to look at it from a different angle. An artist could render a crucifixion using a fractured cubist style that relates in no way to the content. Few Christians of any stripe would be convinced to hang it above their altar simply because the subject matter (content) is ostensibly Christian. And if they did consider hanging it, it would probably be because they personally like the style (form) and think it will make a statement about how non-traditional their church is. But a bad work of art isn't redeemed by good intentions or even a good message. The success of a work of art rests on the harmonious interaction of content and form.

We regularly make major qualitative judgments based on aesthetics. As we should. Why then, does our synod refuse to enter into discussions of aesthetics and style when it comes to worship?

Concerns About Christian Freedom

2014 Ntl. Youth Rally, courtesy WELS Facebook page.
The short answer, I suspect, is that we are oversensitive towards legalism. I readily grant that this is a legitimate concern, given that WELS still struggles to overcome its pietist roots, and because progressives use the label as a weapon against their conservative brothers. But if we're too afraid of the right ditch, we've over-corrected and landed in the left. We've watched our National Youth Rallies become increasingly like rock concerts, so we can only suppose that the synod must be endorsing it. Even the WELS Worship Conference last summer, which was mostly wonderful and awe-inspiring, featured a scene straight from "Sister Act." The result was that raucous and offensive worship was offered up beside excellent and reverent worship as acceptable alternatives for WELS congregations.

On some level, we've convinced ourselves that this is okay. If the texts are good (which isn't always the case), and if there is some liturgical structure, and as long as everything is of excellent quality, it still fits those guidelines, right? The style can be tossed in with Christian freedom. The biggest pitfall before us is that this cafeteria approach to worship ("As long as the texts are good, choose whichever style you feel comfortable with") will inevitably lead to a cafeteria approach to doctrine. You don't have to take my word for it; ask our brothers in the LC-MS trenches. They've been fighting this battle longer than we have.

To be fair, WELS hasn't been completely silent on the topic of style. Jonathan Hein's plenary address at the 2014 WELS Worship Conference, Compelling Worship, at least addressed that music can have "stylistic baggage." But I think he worded his argument poorly when he said that we have the Christian freedom to "set the Nunc Dimittis to 'gangsta' rap or the Kyrie to heavy metal," only that it's unwise to do so (p. 17). But if it is unwise (read: unloving), do we really have freedom to do it? St. Paul says, "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13).

Hopefully I'm incorrectly characterizing the synod leadership's views. This is one of the many cases where I would be happy to be proved wrong. There is absolutely a place for Christian freedom in worship. But an uncritical stance toward musical style has allowed a steady migration of unworthy music into our worship. Excellence is a worthy enough goal, but it makes no explicit comment on style. What aspects must be excellent? Do they mean only excellence of craftsmanship, or of performance value, or of artistic merit? Who defines excellence? Judged by its own standards, surely a rock song can be excellent. So can an abstract painting or a minimalist sculpture. It's good to say that we want to achieve excellence in all things, but then we have to follow through. We have to be willing to define our terms, and then make judgments accordingly; "This is good and excellent; this needs improvement; this is deplorable."

In the case of Koiné, I preface my analysis by saying that I like their music. More than a matter of taste, it's excellent, because a talented group of Lutherans taking good Lutheran hymns and giving them a modern arrangement could result in nothing less. Even their original music is quite good. But I have to qualify that by saying that these are excellent for a certain purpose, and that purpose is not the divine service. I would like to believe that there's nothing inherently inappropriate about guitars and amps in worship. However, they've consistently pushed the limits of what is fitting for corporate worship, until their worship events look and sound no different from their concerts, and that should cause concern. The cubist crucifixion may be a perfectly valid art form and a deeply felt expression of someone's faith, but the aesthetic distorts the content and subverts the order and beauty of the liturgy—and worse, clouds the clear proclamation of the gospel. It thus may be fine in a public arts venue or in your home, but the things we use for worship in God's house are different, holy, and set apart.

As difficult and sometimes painful as discussions of aesthetics and style can be, I think it's good medicine. We need a more nuanced and responsible approach to worship than, "Just worry about the texts," or "If it offends someone, don't do it." We need an approach that addresses Christian freedom, but is also true to the historical Christian faith and the rule of love. The Book of Concord describes such an approach, and I encourage everyone to become familiar with it.


  1. Re: trying to fix WELS worship - hmmmm, I think those deck chairs would look better on the port side of the Titanic, don't you?

    1. I'm concerned about our worship, but I don't share your "sinking ship" view. Even if it was sinking, shouldn't that serve as a call to action?

  2. Here's a trouble with such discussions, though. Music is the voice of the emotions as much as words are the voice of the mind. If someone of a less effusive nature is setting the criteria for acceptable music, less music will be acceptable. If someone of a more effusive nature. . . . Do you see where this goes? Eventually it can lead to a cookie cutter approach to Christian music, and to liturgical music in particular, and the shape of the cookie depends on the preferences of the person who is holding the cutter.
    Since the Scriptures give us practically no guidance as to which style of music is pleasing to God's ears and which is not, I hate to see churchmen take it upon themselves to be the judges. In some areas common sense easily makes the right call; rap and hip hop and gangsta music with their whiny criminality have no place in church (or in the concert hall or radio or whatever, if you ask me!). But not every musical genre is that cut and dried a proposition.
    Eventually, someone will say, "Well, looks like it's all a matter of taste, then." Precisely how will the liturgical censor be able to prove that it isn't? For that matter, how can he be certain that he is prompted by purely to spiritual concerns, and not merely and unconsciously apotheosizing his own ideas of the kind of music he likes to hear and thinks others ought to like to hear, too?
    (Wow! I've never had a chance to use the term "apotheosizing" in a sentence before.)

    1. I agree with your assessment of the difficulties involved, but I disagree with the implied solution that we only make aesthetic judgements on works that are so far past the line as to be equally worthless and offensive to everyone. I don't think that making judgment calls is easy, or that we should do it lightly. It will take instruction, prayer, and a unified leadership. We'll sometimes make the wrong calls, as sinful human beings do with all kinds of other things, including doctrine. The same God who instructed us to use the Law to convict hearts knew that we'd sometimes misapply it—we'd try to crush someone who is already repentant, or apply the gospel to someone who is only feigning repentance. But He doesn't give the impression that we ought to abstain from using the Law at all, for fear of making mistakes. I think there's a parallel there to other churchly matters.

      So I would argue that a church that really loves—and that believes that aesthetics really matter—cannot afford to be apathetic about their application. I think, like the Reformers, we must strive to find that illusive "middle way" —the worship that is not mindless, bloodless, performance of ritual, nor a formless, egocentric model of "anything goes"—but a beautiful, Christ-centered worship whose form is shaped by the wisdom of the saints (including those from our own time). That kind of steering requires thoughtful discussion and, eventually, making judgment calls. No one ever said the right way was also the easiest.