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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Secular music in church worship

I ran across a recent article on a U2 Eucharist. It brought to my mind a question that has been bouncing around in my cranium of late: Should churches use secular music in their praise and worship time?

On the one hand you would have those who would be so appalled by the idea that they wouldn’t even be able to give it serious thought.  For these folks it is typical that only traditional hymns and other sacred songs should be used and the music should be simple and traditional so as not to detract from the heart of worship.  On the other end of the spectrum are those who would welcome any and all forms of music into worship, even music written by non-believers.

A couple of points here:

First, I wonder if it is truly possible to have a non-believer write music that truly glorifies God or Christ.  How can someone who, as a general rule, does not desire to glorify God compose a lyric that is truly worshipful. I would think it would be particularly difficult to write lyrics that praise Jesus as the Savior of the world. Of course, having said that, I think it is certainly possible to write about Jesus as Lord, but not actually believe it. Furthermore, it is also possible to write love songs that are vague enough so that they may be used in worship service, but recontextualized in such a way that rather than singing about love for a person the church turns the lyrics of love upward in an expression of worship to God.  So, although I express doubts, at the outset, that any secular songs could be used in a meaningful way, I certainly see it as a possibility.

My second thought here is one I owe to my friend Stephanie MacMillan bringing to my attention. In today’s view of writing and art, the work of art is not seen as synonymous with the author or the author’s intentions. A text is seen on its own terms, or a painting stands on its own, or a musical piece is its own composition. In the postmodern world the intentions of the author matter, but the intentions of the author no longer define or limit the potential of the work. I recently experienced this in a very vivid way as I was going back over some things I had written many years ago. There are some things that I have written so long ago that I don’t even hardly remember writing it, or the state of mind I was in, or even my purpose for writing. It struck me as I was reading that I felt a very real detachment from the writing – and I had written it! How much more detached is a piece of music, poetry or other forms of art.  Again, the author created it, but there is certainly a sense in which the work stands alone and brings different experiences and interpretations to others who come in contact with it. So, can we bring a sacred meaning to a secular song? It certainly seems possible.

My third and last point is simply to encourage thought on the issue of sacred versus secular. In previous generations we have seen churches erect massive but artificial barriers between the sacred and the secular. This seems to have been born out of fear of being contaminated by the world. Hence there was a desire to isolate oneself from any secular influence. Some would even go so far as to call playing cards wrong because they were used for vices such as gambling. I also remember those who would say that rock and roll music was immoral because secular artists played this type of music. Such examples are extremes to avoid, but is there still not some sense in which we must clarify what is sacred and what is secular? Myself and many in my generation tend not to see any distinction, at all. Is this a fault?

We do not want to hide from the world – this is clearly wrong. We wish to engage it in a real and relevant way, and this can be risky.  We risk being corrupted and we risk immoral influence. But we must engage. We cannot hide. And yet we are still, in a very real way, strangers in the world. We are different. And if we sell out the key things that make us followers of Christ, then we will forfeit the power that drew us to Christ in the first place.


Stephanie said...

Perhaps I will be more careful in the future when you ask me a question. I am just thankful you didn't mention the EMINEM bit- maybe not the best of ideas I have come up with.

Jonathan Erdman said...

You made such a good point that I couldn't take all the credit myself. Besides, your comments about using Eminem music in church to illustrate the brokeness of this world are going to strictly stay between you and me!


Stephanie said...

They might stay between you and I, but you have to admit it was a point to at least ponder. I think we love to hide from sinful people because it makes us feel we are better than them- that is so pharisaical of us!

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