Thursday, October 8, 2009

Any instrument can be of His peace

Several years ago, upon the request of a friend, I played a single service at one particular church in the Phoenix Valley area and decided never to play there again -- not that I disliked the music, but I was busy as a community college freshman who was already committed to another church, and frankly a little disgusted by the music director's diva-worthy attitude. But I did not leave without an unforgettable and appalling nugget of information. As I overheard the other musicians talk amongst themselves, I heard one of them mention that one of the singers temporarily quit the band because she simply couldn't worship God in a group with a drummer.

OH MY GOSH. I seriously couldn't believe what I was hearing, and I still don't. I understand people are picky about the music they want to hear in church (including yours truly, in case you couldn't tell), but drums!? That's what determines whether or not a band is worshipping God the "right" way? Is any percussionist that plays anything more than a shaker or tambourine indisputably hell-bound? Does God really want us to stick exclusively to ancient hymns that lack any sort of beat or syncopation? I mean, this was an ELECTRONIC drum kit, too -- good for volume control in the face of occasionally novice musicians (and people like the aforementioned Righteous Rhythm-Hater), but bad for any purist who realizes there ain't nothin' like the real thing. Apparently, even this lame alternative to acoustic drums was way too radical for this lady.

To say I was a little biased would be an understatement. I basically learned to play my primary instrument, guitar, by playing in Esperanza Lutheran Church's contemporary worship band on and off since I was about 17, if not younger. Rocking out for God (electronic drum kit and all) was never a big deal to me -- in fact, it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with it until I heard about this vocalist's brief, rhythmaphobic exodus. Naively, I reacted by adopting the polar opposite viewpoint, insisting that the Rock Band version of church was the only "real" way to praise God. I was convinced the Jesus Jam's frontman was an electric guitar shredder, not some tortured pipe organist. Larry Norman put it quite eloquently in his song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?": "I don't like none of those funeral marches/I ain't dead yet!" (Kind of cruel considering the aforementioned Righteous Rhythm-Hater was rather elderly.)

Then, once I transferred from Chandler-Gilbert Community College to Arizona State University, I started attending University Lutheran Church because it was closer to my new house and many of my friends had extolled its virtues to me. It was culture shock from the beginning -- the very first song at the very first service I attended there was a completely unfamiliar hymn played on piano. I was expecting the band to show up and kick in at any moment, but that moment never came. Every song was on piano or organ -- that was it. I could feel my face going as white as most of either instrument's keys. How on earth could people worship to such minimal dreariness as this? In the most traditional of settings, I felt like a participant in the utmost heresy.

I was comforted to discover there were contemporary services held there on Wednesday nights, but this comfort was largely shattered upon attending my first such service. The music was still guided by just a piano and no drums; if we were lucky, there would also be a guitar (often played by myself), and even then usually just an un-amplified acoustic. As far as I was concerned, the only thing more contemporary about this service was the fact they played more songs I and other people my age were familiar with. Since then, University Lutheran Church's Wednesday night services has added bongos, electric bass and a microphone system to the equation, but it's still quite a reserved affair compared to my halcyon days of rockin' for Awesome God.

But though I considered my transition into ULC somewhat of a curse initially (in terms of music alone -- I have never considered their staff or attendees anything but angels), I now realize it was an absolute blessing in disguise. For one thing, the sanctuary is much smaller than the one at Esperanza, so even an electronic drum kit would sound a bit overwhelming. But even if they had a sanctuary the size of the Tower of Babel, drums wouldn't be an absolute necessity. I did not abandon my electrified past for the sake of a more somber, canonized future; rather, I realized worship music's instrumentation does and should not matter. The God I experienced moaning my way through an organ-led anthem like Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" was the same God I experienced half-dancing to a percussion-driven tune like Charlie Peacock's "In the Light." In the end, they're all just variations on "The Word."

When it comes to being biased toward particular instrumentation in a worship setting, I think it's a lot easier for old-school liturgists to criticize the relatively new phenomenon of "Christian rock." Larry Norman may have released "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" 37 years ago, but as evidenced by my experience with the Righteous Rhythm-Hater, there are still people who don't think church is a place for drums, electric guitars or even synthesizers. I think this attitude is epitomized by an incident I read about regarding the Resurrection Band (also known as Rez Band or just REZ). Between 1972 and 2000, the Resurrection Band offered Christianity-filtered social commentary in the context of raw, balls-to-the-wall hard rock -- think less Stryper and more AC/DC, Van Halen or Guns N' Roses. One of their vocalists, Glenn Kaiser, had a raspy, bluesy bellow that would have gotten him kicked out of the choir but sounds right at home with the Bob Segers and Rod Stewarts of the world. But their grit and volume were way too much for one church they played at, which basically kicked them out after about three songs because their music was inspiring everyone to dance. According to this church, no one should have fun while performing or even listening to "The Word." The notion of the Jesus Jam's frontman as a tortured pipe organist must be preserved at all costs.

But throughout the development of contemporary Christian music over the past several decades, the opposite approach has suddenly become a problem. People like my former self and far too many other people I know adamantly refuse to worship God in any setting where the only instrumentation is a piano, organ or vocal or bell choir. They want a beat. They want electricity. They want to leave their worship experience with ears ringing and souls singing. Several newer churches -- particularly the Acts 29 Network, which I criticized in a previous post -- seem to pander to this mentality with their exclusively full-band version of "The Word." The tortured pipe organist has now been recast (resurrected?) as an electric guitar shredder.

I think adopting either attitude is silly, elitist and totally detrimental to the Awesome God-given purpose of "The Word." Any church who hopes to meet the needs of believers over 60 and under 40 (to quote the title of an Edward H. Hammett book) must be able to find a middle ground between both approaches. Of course, that's all assuming that only the elderly like traditional hymns and only the youthful like contemporary Christian music, which is a stereotype that's long overdue for a swift, completely deserved death. I know many people in their 20s that absolutely love centuries-old hymns like "All Creatures of Our God and King," "Amazing Grace" and "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and many in their 40s and 50s who go nuts for CCM standards like "Awesome God" (the song, not the band/composer I made up to represent the Lord our Creator), "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever" and "Heart of Worship." Assuming that hymns and CCM are generationally exclusive totally goes against the nature of "The Word" -- it was written to be a symphony for all generations to perform in perfect harmony, despite the fact our favorite parts within its score may differ.

Another thing people must realize about "The Word" is that it was written to be played on any instrument. Awesome God doesn't care if "The Word" is relayed via piano, organ, synthesizer, guitar, choir, drum kit or even kazoo -- as long as the notes are correct and played with unbridled passion, He's mainly just happy to hear people are still playing it after all these years. (Heck, a kazoo choir might actually bring out the best of memorably obnoxious hymns like "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.") But if Awesome God does have an ideal version of "The Word," it probably sounds less like one of Joseph Haydn's string quartets or Glenn Branca's experimental guitar compositions and more like the climactic performance during the final scene of Mr. Holland's Opus, in which 20th century instruments coexist peacefully and beautifully with older, traditionally orchestral ones.

Funk-rockers Audio Adrenaline, one of the more popular contemporary Christian groups of the 1990s, resolve this issue quite nicely in "The Houseplant Song." Over a ramshackle, 1960s-style acoustic garage rock tune, vocalist Mark Stuart sings about how a book told him that any song with a syncopated beat guarantees a one-way trip to a fiery afterlife. But in that same book, he discovers a revelatory experiment: "Take two houseplants and put them to the test/Set them both in front of speakers and let the music do the rest/The first one you play Mozart or something lovely like that/The second one you play that Petra or that Megadeth/Doesn't really matter what kind of rock it is." After trying the experiment -- evidently late at night -- his neighbor angrily knocks on the door. Stuart explains the experiment to his neighbor, who then points out that Stuart is playing Richard Wagner for one of the plants, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ultimately, his neighbor suggests they start hanging out, and they head out on a drive where they talk about life, love, happiness and the Holy Spirit. What starts out as a near-fight over implied musical differences becomes "a meaningful relationship that's headed straight to heaven."

Tortured pipe organist or electric guitar shredder, why can't we all just get along? Any instrument can be of His peace.


  1. First of all, 1,000+ points for referencing The Houseplant Song.

    If you want some serious "drums are evil" dogma, just hang around people of the Bill Gothard persuasion (he has been the most visible proponent of the theory for at least the last 30 years). (I've even heard it taken so far as any music that has accents on beats 1 and 3 cannot be Christian, because apparently only rock music has accented beats.)
    The fallacious reasoning behind this is that drums are primarily associated with primitive pagan cultures and therefore forever associated in pagan rituals. Also, as you mentioned, too much rhythm might lead to dancing, which is one of the 83 unforgivable sins (number 15, I believe...right after the one about clapping and just before the one about using the 'guest' card to draw stick figure war scenes).
    Usually when confronted with the "drums are pagan" argument I like to take the person who proposed the statement on a quick tour of every instrument ever made highlighting their uses in "pagan," or at least debauched, settings. It's quite least for me.
    While negative association is admittedly a factor for some people it cuts both ways. I heard a story about a reformed Satan worshipper who visited a church and had to leave when they started playing a Bach cantata. Apparently they used Bach compositions to worship Satan in his former cult and he couldn't reconcile Bach and Christianity (how's that for ironic).

    I've run across the whole "generational music divide" in churches, but I actually grew up in a church where the 50+ crowd were the ones dancing down the aisles to contemporary music. The teenagers really didn't care about the style of music because they either just muttered the words or were talking amongst themselves.
    I've also been to churches where they play both hymns and praise choruses and it's always interesting to watch the youth. Often during the hymns they're standing around looking bored, but the second (and I mean the instant) a praise chorus starts they have their hands lifted, eyes closed, and appear to be in the throes of passionate praise. Makes you wonder how much of their action is genuine and how much is Pavlovian reflex generated from watching their parents.

    I think the ultimate in irony will come when the new "thing" in Christian music is electric guitars using Midi to produce a pipe organ sound. Trust me, in 20 years that will be "the way it has always been."

  2. ONLY these things can be acceptable as true and pleasing praise music for the Lord. All elements MUST be present:

    1. Drums. Acoustic only. Tune 'em tight and make 'em LOUD! Mic them and make sure there's a cowbell in there, too.
    2. A bass thundering through nothing less than an Ampeg 8x10 cab. Also, send the signal through a D/I box into subs.
    3. Electric guitar(s). If one only, must shred some hair-raising solos. If two, one must shred and the other may play rhythm. Additional guitars must harmonize on 1st guitarist's shredfest. All guitars must be played through 100-watt tube heads and 4x12 cabs, "full stacks" preferred for extra points ("crowns") in heaven.
    4. Effects. Guitar effects (delays, modulations, etc.) mandatory, vocal effects (reverb, vocoder) optional but strongly recommended.
    5. No age, race, sex, weight, or height restrictions on vocalist. Only level of sheer volume from vocal chords, the minimum level being set at 87 db.
    6. Synthesizers. SYNTHESIZERS!
    7. Complex time signatures and/or key changes in every song. If neither of these are happening, the song will not please the Lord.

    Don't you know these rules? You should let that lady know about them, for sure. :P
    --Nick Greenwood