Art, worship, music and the church
Mennonites have long debated what constitutes appropriate worship music. Many people like singing hymns because of their sentimental value. (“I don’t know why I like to hear this music in church; I just do.”) Yet sentimentality should not be the reason we sing. On the one hand, it obscures the reality and difficulties of the past, covering everything in a nostalgic glow. On the other, it leads to apathy and inaction, since anything different will never be as good as what is familiar.
This sentimentality fosters passivity in our worship because we are going through the motions in order to achieve a planned emotional outcome. Ultimately, if we are praising God passively, then we are not really praising him at all. We are merely praising a past we are trying to hold on to.
It is important to note that sentimentality has more to do with the singer than with any particular genre of music. One can be sentimental about rock, rap, folk ballads or hymns. This may lead some to believe that creating the right mix of genres will lead to a happy outcome in our worship services. Yet when we combine sentimentality with egalitarianism, we open the door to any musical expression so long as someone feels good about it. Instead, sentimentality should be neither encouraged nor balanced. Instead, we should actively engage our music, singing songs that challenge us, inspire us and lose us in their beauty.
Yet active participation requires discernment. To do this we must understand how our music relates to art. Conventional wisdom holds that art is entirely subjective. According to this logic, no one has the right to say what is good or bad art or what is good or bad worship music. Ultimately, all that matters is whether everyone feels good about singing something and is somehow led to Christ. But this is an individualistic and utilitarian way of engaging the problem. It is individualistic because it requires us to adopt endless variations in the hope that we will somehow appeal to everyone’s tastes. This may lead to “alternative services” and declining attendance. The community is sacrificed at the expense of the individual. It is utilitarian because it emphasizes the “ends” (personal salvation) over the “means” (unity of worship). While the former breaks down the community to countless individual preferences, the latter requires us to play a numbers game, bent on winning souls by any means necessary.
One of the Mennonite church’s greatest traditions—and perhaps its greatest theological asset—is that we recognize the value of the local, gathered community over the individualism and pragmatism that pervades our consumerist and democratic society. This emphasis compels us to recognize that the “ends”—be they community-building, peacemaking or praising God—must yield to the “means” of achieving them. Our challenge is not to find the right balance between individualism and pragmatism but to transcend both of these with music that allows for multiple entry points, regardless of age or ethnicity.
Our traditions leave us ill equipped to understand how this relates to how the church uses art in its worship services. Traditionally, Mennonites were suspicious of art because it was commissioned and cultivated by those in power. But if we refuse to consider the implications of how the church uses art, then we will either shun it (as we used to) or stumble down the purely democratic path of “I’m OK, you’re OK” spiritual expressions and sentimental lethargy. After all, high artistic standards are the reason we borrowed most of the songs in our hymnals from other Christian denominations.
The church needs to think more about how our art influences our spirituality. In doing so, we will learn that spiritual expression follows directly from artistic expression. This will allow us to appreciate the spiritual and artistic traditions of other faith communities. Good art—good music—is not the exclusive domain of dead white men. It welcomes all, either in its interpretation or expression, and may be found in every culture. Granted, the history of the Mennonite church makes our musical heritage lean heavily on the white, male demographic, but we cannot change our past. We can only guide our future.
Therefore, we should celebrate any music that emphasizes community and encourages a diversity of interpretations and entry points. There are many new songs that meet this criterion, and we should be singing them. But the burden of proof always lies on what is new and not on what has been tested. The three examples below—two old, one new—each demonstrate a different aspect of the type of music we should be singing. The first is thematically complex, the second emphasizes unity through diversity, and the third allows for spontaneity. Each of these elements is a component of good art and promotes strong community.
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” contains two interwoven themes. The first is about wandering and returning (“Let thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to thee”), and the second is about the inability of humans to adequately praise God (“Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above”). These themes come together in the last verse with the lyrics:
“O that day when freed from sinning
I shall see thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing thy sovereign grace.”
This song is also about humility (“I cannot proclaim it well”), or it could be read in light of its biblical references: “the mount,” “flaming tongues,” “here I raise my Ebenezer.” It does not have a single interpretation but can be returned to again and again according to the changing needs of the community. This thematic complexity is a reflection of the infinite complexity of God. Although our best attempts at capturing God’s infinite wonder will always fall short of the mark—as the author of “Come Thou Fount” realized—we should never stop trying. Concerns over “diversity” along political or social lines (such as race, sex, age, economic class or sexual orientation) fall away in the face of music that unifies through its complexity. We only need to remain curious, attentive and thoughtful and learn to recognize it when we see it.
A second example—and perhaps the most compelling argument for singing four-part harmonies—can be found in the quintessential Mennonite song, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Although the lyrics are simple and repetitive, its value is affirmed by the distinct place given to each voice in the community, whether bass, tenor, alto or soprano. Like “Come Thou Fount,” it is a song that unifies through its complexity. “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” achieves this unity through diversity in its composition and not its lyrics. It neither reduces everyone to the same melody nor focuses attention on a small group of people with amplified instruments. This song allows everyone to participate, projecting its strength through its multiple, overlapping harmonies.
Looking to the new, “Rivers of Babylon” is a song with communal implications that are more implied than structured. This song is about exile and wandering, two themes familiar to the Mennonite story. The first verse asks the question, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The answer does not come in the form of explicit instructions or the incantation of a creed but through a humble petition that our words and meditations will be acceptable in the sight of the Lord. The most relevant thing about this song is that it encourages spontaneity from those who are gathered to sing it. Recorded versions of this song include interjections and alternate lyrics such as “the dark tears of Babylon,” “they need their God” and “sing it brothers, sing it sisters, a song of freedom.”
This song encourages spontaneity and playfulness even as it uses the plural pronoun we. “Rivers of Babylon” allows for diversity within community and eschews the individualism and me-focused lyrics that are a part of many contemporary pop songs. It is true that Mennonites generally take a structured approach to worship, but this should not be maintained simply because it is familiar. Rather, we should recognize that the spontaneity outlined above is fully in line with many of our longest-held beliefs. As time moves forward, perhaps these songs will enter our canon alongside the previous two examples.
If the purpose of church music is to be sentimental or cater to individual preferences, then a conversation about appropriate church music is in vain. The songs we sing are more than just vehicles to help us feel comfortable or nostalgic. They should provoke, surprise, strengthen and humble us. Good art is timeless and does not have cultural boundaries. We shouldn’t feel guilty about singing the hymns that are part of our cultural tradition. However, we should feel guilty about reducing these hymns to mere sentimentality or closing our canon off from the artistic contributions of other committed Christians.