Too Many Choices?
Aside from these factors (which will vary from church to church), however, it is important for the church musician to develop a philosophy of church music which will guide them in the selection process.
The most common viewpoints generally fall into two opposing categories: “aesthetic” and “utilitarian.” These terms themselves describe fairly well the split between the two concepts. The word “aesthetic” is derived from the Greek aisthetikos, meaning “sensitive,” and most dictionaries include as part of their definition some such phrase like “sensitive to beauty in art or nature.” To this could be added, “sensitivity to what is of extraordinary significance in art and nature.” Great art is not always beautiful, but even when it is profoundly ugly it is of more than ordinary significance. For example, Krystof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion is not a piece that one would normally call “beautiful.” However, its dramatic musical language vividly captures the story of Christ’s crucifixion in terms seldom encountered elsewhere in musical literature.
Philosophers have long argued over whether beauty is objective or subjective. Is beauty inherent in the object—Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or daVinci’s Last Supper, for example—or is it relative to the person who is experiencing it? Immanuel Kant suggested that both approaches are probably true. While beauty may, indeed, be “in the eye of the beholder,” there is also a large body of music, poetry, painting, etc., which is widely recognized in Western culture as “great art.”
For this article, then, the words “aesthetic church music” will be applied to church music that lays claim to some sort of artistic merit; that is, the music itself has attributes which are widely recognized as those of beauty and/or more than ordinary significance.
The term “utilitarianism” was coined by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham summarized his definition of utilitarianism with the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Of course, Bentham was referring to economic and political theory and not to church music, but his definition accords well with one of the chief ideas behind utilitarian church music: the music should have the greatest effect on the greatest number of people.
A corollary among many utilitarians is that church music should be “useful” in the sense that it produces a distinct and tangible result: more people join the church, the choir grows in numbers, and so on. Church music is not seen as an art form that has value in and of itself, but as a tool which will produce a measurable result. The utilitarian might argue that there are no standards for church music, save the one which is often attributed to P. T. Barnum, “find out what the people want and give it to them.”
The term “utilitarian church music” can then be used to designate church music that lays little or no claim to artistic merit, is designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and is intended to provoke a measurable response.
The dichotomy between the aesthetic and utilitarian philosophies in church music seems to be no more than about 200 years old. Before the year 1800, any differences that existed between the
aesthetic and the utilitarian in church music were mainly a matter of degree rather than of philosophical position.
For example, in the Renaissance period (1450-1600), there was basically only one musical style which served both aesthetic and utilitarian purposes. Little incongruity was seen in the fact that a
composer could turn from writing a frivolous, lighthearted canzonet to a serious contrapuntal mass. Indeed, composers frequently incorporated pans of popular secular tunes into these “serious” church works.
One also thinks of J. S. Bach, who, though a highly-trained musician and composer of some of the world’s most esoteric music, did not hesitate to incorporate elements of operatic music—which in his day would have been called “popular music”—into his church works or to base his sacred music on hymns which were easily recognizable. Furthermore, it should be remembered that most of Bach’s highly complex and artistic sacred music was not written for the concert hall, but for the ordinary Sunday services of a local church.
The current separation between the aesthetic and utilitarian approaches to church music began to form at about the turn of the nineteenth century. The composition of artistic sacred music was at a low ebb, with composers finding it more profitable (both in financial and artistic terms) to write operas and symphonies. On the other hand, the rise of the public subscription concert (which depended on attracting a paying audience) and of mass-evangelism movements made the
composition of church music in lighter styles a marketable quantity.
In America, Lowell Mason and a group of European-inspired reformers rejected the tradition of popular New England psalmody and folk hymnody of the 18th century. To Mason and his associates, this music was rough and uncouth; they much preferred the smoother, more “professional” works of Handel, Haydn, and other European or European-style composers.
Another factor in the aesthetic-utilitarian split was the nineteenth-century rediscovery of old music. For centuries, musicians and audiences alike had been primarily interested in performing and hearing only the latest music. During the nineteenth century, however, a fascination for earlier music developed in several quarters. This tended to pit “modem” and “popular” composers and audiences against the adherents of “classic” music that had withstood the “test of time.” It should not be inferred from this that all old music is necessarily based on aesthetic principles, nor that all modern music is utilitarian. However, the nineteenth-century reformers often tended to look to composers of the past (or to contemporary composers who followed traditional patterns) as the model for “good” church music.
According to the utilitarian philosophy, it matters little or not at all that the music of the church has value as art. The important consideration is whether or not the music “speaks” to the majority of the people present. If the main purpose of church music is to influence persons to act or feel a certain way, then only music which produces this result in the greatest number of people is valid. This is what might be called a “sociological” argument for utilitarianism.
However, there is also a theological side to this position. The primary purpose of the church and its music is not to provide an aesthetic experience, but to lead people in worship, evangelism, education, and fellowship. Jesus came to earth not to give lessons in music appreciation, but to “preach the gospel to the poor… heal the brokenhearted, preach deliverance to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, and proclaim liberty to the bruised” (Luke 4:18). When Jesus sent his disciples to bear witness of him, they went out armed not with music history texts, but with the “Spirit of the Father” (Matt. 10:20).
The utilitarian might also observe that the performance of artistic church music may even be a hindrance to devotion. Those who are of an aesthetic bent may be so busy appreciating the music as art that they ignore whatever spiritual benefits the music and its text may have for them. Those who are not artistically inclined may either be totally bewildered by the unfamiliar style or have to concentrate so hard on the music that they too miss the message.
The utilitarian solution, of course, is to use music which makes the fewest demands on the ears and minds of the people. This may be done by using either very simple music or music in a familiar and popular style.
Utilitarianism as a philosophy for the selection and presentation of church music has several strong points in its favor. However, an examination of this position also reveals a number of shortcomings. One problem with a strictly utilitarian approach to church music is found in the diversity of popular styles which are available. Which popular style is the “right” one for the church? Are all of styles equally valid? If not, a sizable proportion of any congregation may be left out in the musical cold. Perhas the bigger question is: if all these popular styles are acceptable, why is artistic church music not equally suitable?
Another problem with utilitarian church music is that it tends to degenerate into “spiritual entertainment.” The congregation becomes the “audience” and the sanctuary or worship center the “auditorium.” The focus is on the performer and visceral enjoyment of the music, not the message of the text or music. If this sounds familiar, it is because practically the same argument is used by utilitarians against the purveyors of aesthetic church music.
Utilitarianism in church music also tends to place too much emphasis on how the music makes one feel. Emotion is—and should be—a significant part of religious experience. However, when the religious experience is based primarily on emotional exhilaration, no depth of faith is developed to see the believer through future storms and difficulties.
But perhaps the most devastating argument against utilitarianism is that it in essence denies the creative and aesthetic nature of God himself. Franky Schaeffer pointedly noted this shortcoming in his book Addicted to Mediocrity:
We could live in a flat uninteresting world, one that had the bare minimum of gray ingredients to support life, one whose diversity was only enough to provide the minimum of existence. Instead, we live in a riotous explosion of diversity and beauty. We live in a world of “useless” beauty, millions of species, and individuals of infinite variety, talents, and abilities. And this is only on our own planet. When one looks heavenward and sees the complexity of the reaches of space above us, the mind boggles at the creativity of our God.
When God created the stars, the sun, moon, and earth, he did not exclaim, “there, that ought to be useful for something,” he said that it was “good”—it was beautiful and pleasing in its own right.
Why did God rest on the seventh day of creation? Certainly not because he was tired! He simply wanted to enjoy the beauty and glory of what he had done. Of course. God’s creations have a functional purpose (as does church music), but they fulfill it in a way which is aesthetically pleasing not only to us, but—dare we say—to God himself.
God, who created the universe in all its beauty and extraordinary significance, also gave those who were made in his image the ability to create and recognize beauty and extraordinary significance in art and nature. The ability to create great works of art and to discern between the artistic and the non-artistic is a God-given talent which he expects us to use in our selection and performance of church music, just as in all other areas of life.
According to the aesthetic approach, church music is not just a vehicle for the message, but is itself part of the message. When, for example, the organist plays Bach for the offertory, it is not necessarily intended to produce an emotional response and thus a larger collection in the plate. Rather, the music is an offering back to God of the creativity God inspired in organist and composer alike—and, by extension, in the congregation as well. As the highest expression of human capabilities, then, aesthetic church music is most worthy of being offered to a perfect and holy God.
The aesthete would also note that the entirety of the Christian life is—or should be—a pilgrimage to ever higher planes of living. The goal of most Christian teaching is to take people where they are and lead them to where they should be—morally, spiritually, emotionally, and (the aesthete would argue) artistically as well. Babies grow and thrive on milk, but in order to fully mature they need to move on to solid foods. By the same token, Christians need to be weaned from the musical milk of popular culture to the meat of artistic merit.
As with utilitarianism, however, there are also problems with a strictly aesthetic approach to church music. Some of these have already been expressed, but a few more must be mentioned.
In the first place, aestheticism can easily slip into a sense of elitism. This can be seen in statements such as “I only use good music in my church,” the implication being that utilitarian church music is bad music. Church musicians who hold to an aesthetic philosophy sometimes tend to see themselves not primarily as worship leaders, but as music appreciation teachers. To satisfy well-meaning desires to “raise the standards of church music” they are often guilty of pastoral neglect, impure motives, and appeal to secular canons of artistic taste.
Another problem with aestheticism is that it frequently places more emphasis on the composer than on the spiritual qualities of the music or text. The mere mention of the name George Frederick Handel does not call up a religious experience in most of us, unless by association with some previous performance of his music or a story about his life. Yet church musicians may choose to perform a piece by this composer, not because it has spiritual qualities and a message the choir and congregation need to hear, but because it was composed by Handel, undoubtedly a great composer. Of course, this may also work in reverse: the church musician may avoid performing a piece simply because its composer was not one of the “greats.”
A Third Alternative
But surely, strictly aesthetic or utilitarian approaches are not the only options available to church musicians. Indeed, there is a third approach, one which has as its key words “balance” and “moderation.” We have seen that both aestheticism and utilitarianism have strong points in their favor. Can we not choose the best of both worlds?
In this context, the word “balance” can be applied in more than one way. One method of achieving balance would be to find pieces of music in which aesthetic and utilitarian qualities co-exist. Another is to alternate musical styles on a regular basis.
For such a balanced program to be successful, pastors, church musicians, and congregations must be taught to exercise great patience and Christian charity with each other. Those who subscribe consciously or unconsciously to a utilitarian philosophy need to be made aware that music is not just an attractive appendage which is important only because of the text it carries, the emotional response it produces, or because it is a “preparation” for something else.
Rather, the very process of composing, performing, or listening to an artistic piece of church music is itself an act of worship. If a piece of music fails to immediately tickle our ears, it does not mean that we cannot worship God through it, give thanks to God for it, and learn from it.
By the same token, aesthetes need to remember that besides being beautiful, the Christian religion is “useful”: it leads people into faith in Jesus Christ, helps them solve moral and ethical problems, and provides them with strength for living a godly life. The aesthete must realize that artistic value is not necessarily synonymous with spiritual quality, and that utilitarian church music often reaches a part of the church which needs to be nurtured and developed.
In either case, a well-balanced program should enable the aesthete or utilitarian to say “this piece of music may not speak strongly to me, but it does to my brother or sister down the pew; and, since I love them, I can accept this music in the spirit in which it is being offered. Besides, wait until next Sunday (or next Christmas, or the next hymn) when we will get to hear/perform ___” (you fill in the blank).
“Moderation” usually denotes an approach that avoids the extremes of musical styles. There are many “useful” pieces of aesthetic church music and many “artistic” pieces of utilitarian church music from which one may choose without having to resort to extreme styles in either category on a regular basis. God has given church musicians a vast and fruitful garden from which to choose. Let us always make a well-rounded selection, choose the best of the crop, and do all to the glory of God!
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