Wednesday, December 9, 2009

There is no joy without noise

About a month or two ago, I spoke with one of my pastors about the figureheads of the Protestant Reformation, and we got into a brief but enlightening discussion about Martin Luther vs. John Calvin (I'm biased toward the former, in case I haven't made that obvious enough). But in that same breath my pastor mentioned someone who I'd never heard of before -- an odd, very Germanic-sounding name that started with an "s" or a "z." After doing a little research for my systematic theology class, I successfully pinpointed this seeming dark horse of the 16th-century revolt against Roman Catholicism's more corrupt, non-Biblical tendencies: Huldrych Zwingli.

A distinctively humanist Swiss pastor whose fight against the Catholic Church led to an untimely death, Zwingli is to Reformed churches what Calvin is to Presbyterians and what Luther is to ... well, Lutherans. In the literal handful of weeks that I've studied the guy at all, I've discovered that he stirred quite a bit of controversy over attacking the act of fasting during Lent (which, by the way, isn't anywhere in the Bible as a religious ritual). And though I've heard people give Luther the credit for originating this "heresy," it was actually Zwingli who first proposed that we do not eat and drink Jesus Christ's literal body and blood through the Eucharist -- rather, it is a weekly memorial of sorts for our Lord's death and resurrection until his final return. But for the sake of this post, I will focus on something Zwingli pioneered which I consider a quite abominable offense: Diminishing the role of music in worship.

A friend of mine told me Zwingli completely silenced all possibilities for joyful noise within his church services, but after doing some research I've come to discover that's not quite true. Zwingli himself was a musician but preferred to play in private (much like another one of my pastors, who once said playing any number of the stringed instruments he owns is how he copes with bad days), and he did allow for singing in his services. But even then, when it comes to Zwingli's version of liturgy, saying he hated music isn't too great of a stretch. His congregants sang rather infrequently within any given service, and when they did sing it was strictly based on the Psalms or other Biblical incantations, and completely a cappella. That's right -- no instruments whatsoever, because Zwingli considered timeless worship staples like the pipe organ nothing but self-perpetuating obstructions between churchgoers and Awesome God Himself. Zwingli's ideal version of "The Word" was a stripped-down choral rendition, to be sung exactly as it was recorded on The Holy Bible. Any variation whatsoever was deemed instant blasphemy. To really drive the point home, Zwingli also removed all visual art from the church, because he considered it a violation of the Second Commandment's warning against idolatry. And this whole time I thought Luther was a reductionist.

In my sweetest dream, I would like to think Zwingli's kick in worship music's knees wasn't felt by many outside the Reformed churches, but alas, this dream did not come true. Calvin considered Zwingli's opinions on music a little too extreme, but upon reading the Swiss Reformer's treatises, the French Reformer did diminish the role of instrumentalists within his own services, and even went so far as to dismiss musical instruments as mere toys which must be set aside as adulthood sets in; there you have it -- John Calvin was Christianity's first curmudgeon telling musicians to get "real jobs." Nowadays, the self-described Churches of Christ typically follow Zwingli's model, completely forgoing instrumentalists for the sake of communal, a cappella singing. And for consummately different reasons, the Quakers are very well-known (some would say notorious) for conducting some of their services in silence, only breaking it for the extremely infrequent hymn, sermon or moment of the Holy Spirit moving congregants to stand up and perform their own spontaneous version of "The Word."

I think Zwingli meant well, and as much as I hate to say it, I can understand where he was coming from. Much like pastoral ministry, there are too many people who play worship music for the wrong reasons, whether it's for a single church or a broader CCM market. They pick up their instruments and start playing "The Word" because they want to wow this newfound, tragically uncritical audience with their "mad skills" at whatever instrument they chose (and sometimes because they failed at impressing the secular music world and are now making a desperate bid for niche acceptance). In worst-but-very-real-case scenarios, these musical opportunists break the Seventh Commandment and take physical advantage of those people they wowed, but more often their listeners start to worship the performer rather than the Composer. At a house show I attended a few months ago and wrote about earlier in this here blog, my atheist friend and I watched a noise-punk band play in the middle of the living room; I thought they were amazing, but I knew my friend's fandom went a step too far when he leaned over and whispered, "I just found a new god." Similarly, Bob Dylan recently said that after veering from Judaism to Christianity and supposedly back to Judaism, he now adheres to no religion besides the classic hymns themselves. That's nice, Mr. Zimmerman, but I don't care how good the music is -- idolatry is still idolatry.

That being said, I think Zwingli was totally wrong in thinking any form of artistic expression whatsoever is not a valid means of experiencing our Awesome God. One thing I disagree with Luther on was his reactionist motto of "sola Scriptura" -- i.e. any explicit or implicit rendition of "The Word" you listen to cannot be legitimate unless it's already on The Holy Bible box set. I actually prefer Calvin's view that there's nothing wrong with listening to more obscure, esoteric, personally meaningful versions of said symphony, as long as we never listen to those non-canonical renditions INSTEAD of any on the aforementioned box set. Through all of our musical explorations, as performers and listeners, The Holy Bible must remain our frame of reference. And frankly, it's all fine and good to continually acknowledge The Holy Bible as the greatest album of all time (which it is), but it's nothing but another golden calf in comparison to "The Word" itself.

As far as I'm concerned, our triune God manifests Himself on this Earth in no form more beautiful than music. When I attend church, nothing else feels more Spiritual to me than that joyful noise -- not communion, not responsive readings, not even sermons. I experience God the most vividly when singing a hymn, or at least listening in humble bliss when I don't quite know the words or melody. I feel like I'm the most successful at uniting people with Christ when I'm leading or assisting with worship. Outside church, I've gone to fairly secular (or at least spiritually neutral) shows where the sounds battering or caressing my eardrums resonated with a transforming joy I don't think any Earthly source could have ever claimed responsibility for. There have been times when my triune God literally saved my life through music; if it wasn't for particular lyrics hitting me at particular times in the past, I'm pretty sure my bouts with depression would have declared victory and I wouldn't be writing to you right now. I don't care what anyone says about potential "misinterpretations" of what is and isn't divine -- "The Word" IS a symphony in which we all are musicians, whether or not we realize it, and Awesome God is the Great Composer to whom all music belongs.

With this in mind, we must also remember that music is not only a completely legitimate form of ministry, but an absolutely vital one. It's not just about giving experienced musicians room to show off their chops (in fact, it shouldn't be about that at all), nor is it just about giving novice musicians an avenue to improve their vocal or instrumental skills. It's above all about being co-Creators of our Awesome God's divine magnificence on this Earth, which is what we were called to do from the very beginning. I am well aware that musicians can and will not change the world with the same degree as, say, Christian activists, but even for them music is often a huge part of the equation. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, wouldn't have been what it was if a certain Methodist minister hadn't written "We Shall Overcome" (which we shall, someday). And therefore, we will be blessed for literally picking up an instrument and playing, arranging or even co-writing whatever version of "The Word" we deem appropriate for the world to hear.

Of course, since entering seminary, I've encountered more Zwinglis and Calvins than I ever really bargained for. When I told my former roommate I applied to study worship music and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, he simply shrugged and sarcastically wished me good luck on finding a full-time position where I'd be working with "real" musicians. Another friend of mine basically criticized me for going from one profession (journalism) into another that "doesn't pay anything," then proceeded to tell me I should have chosen a more lucrative discipline for my master's degree. One of my pastors expressed a subtle but noticeable hint of disappointment upon discovering I'm working toward a master's in arts and theology instead of a master of divinity. And quite hysterically, one classmate of mine -- in a moment of unabashed denouncement that would rival Karl Barth's most ornery moments -- indirectly told me Christianity is not about a bunch of self-centered hippies sitting in a circle and strumming guitars.

I see where that classmate is coming from, and I cringe at the "Kumbaya" notion of Christianity as much as ... well, anyone who knows anything about Christian stereotypes. But if any of the aforementioned offenders were ever seeking proof that music can be just as important to church as preaching, they should have been in my situation for the past five months. The music minister at the church I am presently, regularly serving was laid off in July, and with all due respect to the pastors who had to make that hard but necessary decision, the church has been suffering ever since. Myself and a few other volunteers are gladly stepping in to pick up the slack, but our combined experience just isn't up to par with what this guy brought to our congregation. Several musical veterans have ceased participation in various programs, and still others have either left the church completely or are threatening to. Still, by trying the best we can to fill his shoes, I've seen firsthand just how much the musical element of worship helps people along on their faith walk, and I thank the Great Composer for every single kind word I've ever received in this particular director's absence. Seeing that kind of impact is much more rewarding than any kind of fat paycheck could ever be.

Not to toot my own denomination's horn, but I equate these angels who experience God through music with the grandaddy of the Protestant Reformation himself: Martin Luther. Though the German Reformer admittedly questioned the use of pipe organ in church services (for very anti-Semitic reasons, since apparently the organ's use as a worship instrument has its roots in ancient synagogues), he inadvertently declared a mission statement for Christian music nerds like me in his foreword to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae iucundae: "I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy and costly treasure given to mankind by God ... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits ... we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."

Only our Awesome God can say how the afterlife is panning out for Zwingli, but I'd be lying if I said my inner vindictiveness doesn't hope it's rife with donkeys and pigs making their own, um, joyful noises (which he might actually prefer over church music). As for the rest of us, we will continue singing "Alleluia!" for this marvelous aural gift and the opportunity to share it with others. Thanks, Awesome God, for giving us Your amazing grace as a sound, and a sweet one at that.

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