The songbook comes with it

A few thoughts on singing, and particularly singing in the church, prompted by a second listen to Volume 88 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal:

First, most people would agree that singing is a form of culture; but what we mean by “culture” has evolved dramatically in the last half-century, which in turn has changed the way we think about singing. In older usage, a culture was a set of traditions and forms among a particular people with a distinctive history; in more recent usage, culture is largely a conglomerate of consumable products (“pop culture” means basically stuff that is popular, i.e., what sells). Bach’s music, for example, was part of a Western culture that predated and outlived him; Bono’s performances are part of marketable culture driven by consumer demand. Celtic folk music was once an expression of a people and their history, the sort of thing one would find played and sung by the locals at a pub in a certain part of the world; Dropkick Murphys are “one of the best-known rock bands in the world, thanks in part to their ability to tap into the working-class and sports fan culture that permeates Boston and the New England area but even more so due to their reputation for phenomenal live shows” (this from their official website). The band has taken something from what was once a culture (in the older sense of the word) and gainfully commodified it for the international market (i.e., placed it in the conglomerate of pop “culture”).

Second, in the older understanding of a culture, singing was not predominately a spectator sport; it was not mostly something a crowd watched while a few performed. Rather, a culture had its songs, and the people in that culture sang them, together. This was true of the biblical Hebrews (e.g., Ps 137:3–4), it is true today in many cultures of the southern hemisphere, and it was true not long ago in the United States (one thinks of the forgotten genre of songs called Americana).

These are my observations, for which no one else is to be blamed; but now let me assume their validity and apply them to the church.

When the average North American evangelical thinks of singing in worship, he or she thinks in the idiom of popular “culture,” that is, he or she thinks as a consumer. This is true not only of worshippers who expect to watch and listen to a praise band up front (whether such a spectator event qualifies as “worship” in any biblical sense of the word is a question I will not pause to address here); it is true also of those who expect to participate in congregational singing. The driving issue is whether “I like” this or that song, whether this music suits my tastes and meets my needs/wants. But we think this way about music and song because we think this way about culture in general. What is really radical to us is the idea that we should embrace certain songs – that we should learn not only to sing them, but also to love them – because they are a part of a culture to which we are coming (or better, in which we find ourselves) as God’s people. The Psalms are the songs of “our people,” and so we should love them, and sing them. Christians in the Reformation tradition are part of a heritage, a culture, that has bequeathed to us a wonderful corpus of music, and we should be learning it (not to mention songs of Christendom predating the Reformation, and some of much later origin). If we were honest, however, this makes about as much sense to us as the idea that we should sing certain songs because they are “American.” Says who? What if I don’t like these songs? It doesn’t fit our sovereignty complex with respect to “our” music. Who has the right to tell us what we must listen to, or what we must sing?

The question might be turned around: Who asked you whether you wanted to be an American? Or a Westerner, or an Easterner? African or Irish or Bolivian? And who asked you whether you wanted to be born among God’s covenant people? Short answer: nobody. These are your people, this is your heritage, your culture, your story. And the songbook comes with it. Which means that in the church we should pick up our songbook, dust it off, and start singing. Together. With gusto. A joyful noise, and all that. Thank God He’s the only judge here; all the others are over at American Idol.

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