My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Role of Music in Worship

(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this paper, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)

As a musician, and a minister-in-training, the subject of the ‘role of music in worship’ is near to my heart. This paper will be a reflection on three things: 1. A reflection on the chapter entitled ‘Music in Worship’ in the Liturgics Notes compiled in the 1970s by Martin Pryke, for the Academy of the New Church Theological School. 2. A reflection on the current role of music in some of the various worship services around the General Church of the New Jerusalem today, and 3. My own reflections on what I think the role of music in worship is or should be based on my understanding of the Word. Past, present and future.

Music is first mentioned in the Bible in reference to Jubal, “He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Genesis 4:21). The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg tell us that at least as far back as the Ancient Church, there was music involved in worship (see AC 8261). And we know from many places in the Old Testament that music and musical instruments were involved in worship. These facts have led to the continuation of music being used in Christian worship and in Swedenborgian worship.

It’s interesting to note that dancing is also referred to as being used in worship in both the Ancient Church (AC 8339) and in the Bible; for example: David dancing before the ark, (2 Samuel 6), and also: “Let them praise His name in the dance, let them sing psalms to Him with timbrel and harp” (Ps. 149:3; 150:4). And yet these days--and especially not long ago--dance tends to be a much more controversial aspect of worship than music. Maybe it’s because of its visual and sensual nature, or maybe it’s because it is an art that focuses more necessarily on the performer than music does.

But with dance, as well as with music, and with any of the arts, we should examine what the Word says about them, and that should ultimately trump any traditions that we have. “'Dancing' is mentioned in the Word, [because it means] the glad feelings that belong to affections for truth, or to faith grounded in good or charity” (AC 8339) Raymond Pitcairn said in a 1920 article in New Church Life that, “Power resides in ultimates, and through correspondence the two are one. The forms of art are ultimates, and they are powerful. ... The truth is that all the arts are gifts of God, intended primarily to be the hand-maidens of religion” (Christian Art and Architecture for the New Church, p. 612).

In the past, it has been thought that one of the only styles of music appropriate for worship was classical music. Maybe this was due to the fact that Bach devoted all of his music to God. But there is plenty of classical music which was not created for a religious purpose, such as Mozart’s music. When it comes to instrumental music that is used for worship we can take one of two approaches: We could say that the only instrumental music appropriate for worship is that which has been created for religious purposes, or we could say that all music is a tool, which can be used for various purposes including worship. My belief is in the the second approach. But that still leaves us with the problem of association. If a piece of music is used for both secular and sacred purposes, then many people find that hearing that music used in worship can bring up secular associations for them. This is a valid concern, and one that needs to be dealt with carefully and with compassion.

“Heavenly songs are nothing else but voiced affections, or affections expressed and varied in musical tones. For as thoughts are expressed in spoken words, so affections are expressed in the singing of songs. Angels perceive the subject of the affection from the balance and flow of the musical variations” (CL 55). Music is a wonderful part of worship because it so wonderfully arouses our affections. And it’s almost indescribable as to how it works. Why does one particular progression of notes arouse feelings of praise, while another progress inspires feelings of humility? Why does one particular rhythm or tempo arouse feelings of joy, while another inspires feelings of peace? The Writings of Swedenborg say that angels can perceive the specific subject of a song simply from the melody, even without the words. We can do this too, to a lesser extent, when we perceive that a song is either sad or happy from the music and not the words. But all of this simply points out that music is effective at arousing our affections and emotions. So why is that important in worship? In our church it is said that the three main elements of worship are humility, praise and instruction. Humility and praise are attitudes, affections, and feelings. Music has the ability to arouse these. And the arousal of affection is even needed for instruction: “Every implantation of truth or good in a person, as well as every joining of them to him, is effected by means of affection. The truths and goods which a person has learned but for which he has no affection do indeed enter the memory, but they are lodged there as insecurely as a feather on top of a wall which is blown off by the slightest puff of wind” (AC 4018) Music is something which can help to inspire the affections that help those 'feathers' of truth stick to the 'wall' of our mind.

But we need to remember that the external forms, rituals and traditions of worship are not identical to--or necessarily conducive of--true internal worship. External worship by itself is not the same as internal worship and therefore it is not what saves us or regenerates us. So it’s far less important what those external forms look like. The only thing we really need to be concerned about is how effective they are at expressing true internal worship, namely: love to the Lord and the neighbor (See page Liturgics Notes; External worship page 3). This is why we need to continually examine, and be prepared to change our worship rituals and customs. I recently heard someone say that Sunday morning worship should really just be a celebration of the internal worship that (hopefully) went on all week in people’s hearts, minds, and useful lives. “Songs were for the sake of exalting the life of love and the joy derived from it” (AR 279) Does our worship music help us celebrate that life? Is it effective in arousing an affection and joy for spiritual things? Both clergy and laity need to ask themselves this question, and be ready to change if the answer is no.

Unfortunately, because music is so closely tied to our affections, it is often the part of worship service that people feel the most strongly about, especially when there is a suggestion of change. The Writings of Swedenborg talk about how natural harmony is representative of spiritual harmony. In a musical choir, the music only sounds good when people work together, don’t do their own thing, and follow the conductor as one (see AC 3350). Spiritual harmony is the beauty of when people work together, submit their own selfish wishes to a greater cause, and follow the Lord as one. It’s sadly ironic that the subject of ‘music in worship’ is something which can cause spiritual discord in societies, rather than spiritual harmony. It’s important, both in internal and external worship, that we submit our own wishes to a love for our fellow congregants and their wishes, and of course to the Lord as a group. It’s a tall order, but if we can do this, I think arguments about music in church societies would begin to fade away. But just like it takes practice and effort to sing a difficult piece of choral music, it also takes practice and effort to ‘sing’ a difficult piece of spiritual harmony such as: exercising charity in regards to other people’s musical taste. And just like not everyone sings the same note in a natural choir, in a spiritual choir not everyone needs to have the same musical taste for there to be spiritual harmony in a church society.

So in general we know that there can be variety in the music of worship. But what are some of the specific things we can examine in the role of music in worship? Making music match with concepts is a challenge, but an important thing in worship. How do we make a melody inspire humility or praise or curiosity? It’s the challenge of every songwriter. I think in the past there has been a worry that some styles of music have the power to manipulate our emotions too much, and that if a song was too upbeat and joyful it would be inspiring only a natural or secular kind of joy, and not a spiritual joy. This points out the curious nature of our spiritual journey. To some extent, we need to ‘fake it, until we make it.’ We need to go through the motions of love to the neighbor before the Lord can fill us with the true feeling of love to the neighbor. I think this is true for external worship as well. I think songs that inspire even just a natural sense of joy, can be used by the Lord to fill us with spiritual joy. And when we have songs that inspire joy, with lyrics from the Word, used in a worship service, then those songs can hopefully leave us with a good and spiritual association. The Lord wants us to eventually have our externals be conjoined to and express our internals, but He also knows that the journey there can be a little awkward sometimes. So I think that it’s not a bad thing that we use songs in worship which express joy that we may not currently be feeling. When we “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100:1), that is a form that can eventually hold a truly spiritual joy, which then matches those externals. “Gladness of heart and joy of mind produce singing and joyful shouting” (AC 4215).

This paper is primarily about the role of music in external worship. But I want to briefly discuss the concept of the role of music in internal worship. If we think about the uses of our daily life as an expression of religious charity, which is internal worship, then what does that say about the role of music in internal worship? How can music help us to live a life of love and charity throughout the week? AE 376:13 talks about how in Ancient times it was a custom to sing in the vineyards and the winepresses. People today also often listen to music while they’re working. This is why I like the concept of religious music being created and used in non-church settings as well. The Christian world as a whole has done a good job of developing it’s own styles and genres of music for use in everyday life as well as worship (Christian rock, Christian rap, etc.). I hope that we can continue to do the same thing in our Swedenborgian cultures and organized religions for the sake of our internal worship. And I also think that--when the lyrics are not contrary to our doctrines--it is appropriate and even useful for us to use music from other denominations, religions and spiritual practices in our daily lives, as a way of inspiring internal worship. Not to mention the unity and charity it can help us feel towards other Christian denominations, when we value their music.

Musical instruments are mentioned frequently in the Bible. Among the instruments mentioned are the harp, horn, flute, lyre, pipe, trigon, kithara, bagpipes, psaltery, coronet, dulcimer, organ, trumpet, oboe, shofar, bells, cymbals, sistrum, tabret, drums, and tambourines. And these vary depending on the translation. And of course a biblical harp, horn, flute, organ, trumpet, oboe, and cymbals would have looked almost nothing like the ones you would see in a modern orchestra. If our worship is drawn from the Bible, then all of these instruments should be appropriate for worship. And yet not everyone would necessarily agree. I think the subject of instruments points out how we should be using the Word in worship. Namely that in the New Church we believe that the spirit of the Word gives life to the letter of the Word. Not many would argue that we should only use biblical instruments such as the kithara in worship. But on the other hand some would argue that an electric guitar is not keeping with the spirit of a biblical stringed instrument. I think someone who truly understands the Writings would acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with using an electric guitar in worship, because worship is not about external things. However a minister should be sensitive to the internal things of worship, namely: affections that could be negatively or positively stirred by the use of an electric guitar in worship. The Writings of Swedenborg talk about what various instruments represent, but like with many things, these are not meant to be taken as prescriptive of how we should form our external worship, but rather they are prescriptive of how we should form our internal worship.

It was interesting to note that in Bishop W. F. Pendleton’s time, by common consent, the pipe organ was considered the most appropriate instrument for worship (see page 132 of the Liturgics Notes). This is not common consent anymore. And--as it should--what is considered appropriate music for worship has changed and developed from generation to generation.

Traditionally there have been four types of song used in General Church worship; the hymn, the chant, the anthem, and the Psalm. A hymn is a religious song in which the lyrics have been composed by a songwriter. The writing of hymns is a great opportunity for the laity to get involved in religious expression in worship. Hymns are usually easy to learn because they are fairly repetitive; but this is also one of their negative sides. Another downside is that older hymns which are still used because of tradition and affection, can sometimes contain lyrics which are hard to understand such as the beloved: “O Precious Sign” (#915 in 2005 liturgy) which contains the lyrics “a perfect union, all the dross consuming,” which the average person will probably not understand unless it is explained to them. My wife and I have actually re-written the lyrics to this hymn to make it clearer and more understandable. But there are some who would be horrified at the thought of changing such a beloved hymn in any way. Perhaps a middle ground is to have the minister explain the meaning of certain hymns prior to having them sung. Modern contemporary hymns are much easier to understand, however some people don’t like their style or the fact that they are often sung in unison as opposed to harmony. But songs sung in unison are still a kind of harmony (see page 124 of the Liturgics Notes).

Another kind of song used in worship is the chant. Chants are songs which take their lyrics directly from the letter of the Word, but are fit to music in a loose sort of way so that they emphasize the words more than the music. The music itself is often very simple and some would say boring. Some people like this style of music, however it is a much older style, and often doesn’t appeal to (arouse the affections of) younger generations. So for that reason the use of chants should be considered carefully. One kind of chant called the antiphon (meaning ‘opposite voice’) has developed into some more modern styles of worship music which involve call and response singing and can be sometimes found in African or Gospel music. The Liturgics notes encourage the use of this style of music in worship because it can represent the ‘call and response’ that takes place between the Lord and us. If this style of singing requires a minister who can sing, it can be problematic, and so it should never be required, but when it’s possible I like the idea of the minister getting involved in the leadership of the music in worship.

Another kind of song used in worship is the anthem. Anthems are like a combination of hymns and chants in the fact that anthems are usually direct quotes from the Bible, but they are carefully fit to melodies. Anthems used to be very complex and somewhat hard to sing. These days (especially thanks to songwriters such as John and Lori Odhner) we have many anthems which are easier to sing and also very catchy. A prime example of a modern anthem in the Church today is Heather Childs’ “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Some anthems were written in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Personally I dislike this, because I don’t like the idea of singing something I don’t understand. It seems like a step backward into a time when the ritual of worship was considered to have magical or supernatural powers beyond human understanding. I understand that Hebrew is a language that is close to the language of angels, but I still think that internal worship is better inspired by a person truly understanding the words of what they are singing.

Another kind of song used in worship is the Psalm. In the General Church we were fortunate enough to have a member of the church put many of the Psalm to music, with careful thought put into their internal sense meaning. However, these Psalms are very long and complex pieces of music. While the older generations of the church think fondly of them, the younger generations tend to not like them. I would love to see a modern composer put some of the Psalms to modern music.

On page 133 of the Liturgics Notes it describes two functions that an organized choir can fill in worship. One function of a choir is to lead the singing during the worship service. Another function is to provide special music for preludes, interludes, and postludes. I would suggest a third function which is to introduce new worship songs to the congregation which could be learned and incorporated into the worship service.

Many things have changed with the role of music in New Church worship over the years. Many societies use guitars where once it was only organ or piano. Many societies use multiples styles of music, where once it was only classical. Many societies have visible vocal soloists where once that was considered inadvisable (see page 134 of the Liturgics Notes). Many societies use upbeat music where once it was only soft and peaceful. The introduction of new types of music used in church camps like Laurel, which spilled over to contemporary services, have led to ground-breaking and controversial changes in the role of music in worship as evident in things like New Church Live and the Jazz Vespers at the Ivyland New Church. People are beginning to use more modern and upbeat music in their wedding services. Who knows, maybe we will start using dixieland jazz bands in our funeral services? Personally I think all of this is wonderful, but many people don’t. So how do we maintain spiritual harmony and charity in all of this? Can we have unity in internal worship while having variety in external worship? I believe we can.

So what is the role of a minister in regards to the role of music in worship? I think the role of a minister involves maintaining the soundness of doctrine in the lyrics of songs chosen for worship. (Contrary to what was said on page 133 of the Liturgics Notes, it don’t think this has to mean that the minister is always the one who selects the hymns and incidental music.) I think it involves the minister reminding the congregation what spiritual harmony is. I think it involves the minister explaining older musical traditions to younger generations, and modern musical traditions to older generations. I think it involves the minister reminding people that the externals of worship are less important than the internals, and to encourage charity in the discussion and practice of the variety of external worship rituals. I think it involves the minister being sensitive to the often conflicting affections people have about music in worship. I think (if the minister has an interest in it) it can involve the minister getting involved in leading the music in worship when possible. And I think it involves the minister encouraging the congregation to participate in the music in whatever way they feel they can, and (if they have an interest) to get involved in the leadership and production of music for the society’s worship services.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very comprehensive over view on the sensitive matter of music in the worship service .The challenge today is to get as much of the musically inclined, to seek after some sort of training so that they can better help their congregations to use truly appropriate music styles and, manner of playing the instruments in worship.