When I was a child, Saturday mornings meant cartoons, generally of the Bugs Bunny variety. Since our television received only two channels, the duopoly of Looney Toons and Hanna-Barbera was fairly iron-fisted, but I never complained. I was happy to watch gleefully.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed that his entire understanding of high culture / classical music was derived from Bugs Bunny cartoons. That observation resonated with me somewhat, though my parents gave me the “Peter and the Wolf” introduction to instruments as well, and while our house did not echo with the sounds of classical music (in fact, my mother is a country gospel singer-songwriter and radio personality), I did grow up with a moderate understanding of and appreciation for classical music. When I got my first speeding ticket as a teenager, I was listening to a public radio station and had lost myself in a particularly rousing stretch of a symphony. I tried to use it, to no avail, as an exonerating excuse to the attending officer. Perhaps the best testament to the diverse nature of my musical consumption is my continued ownership and playing of a cassette tape of punk impresario Malcolm McLaren’s “Fans,” a hip-hop reworking of opera arias. [I should note, either ironically or postmodernly, that I am typing this post while listening to the post-punk cynics “Cake” on my Pandora feed, which hardly qualifies as classical fare, despite their use of occasional mixolydian and other modes.]
My daughter is a ballet dancer and advanced pianist, so she consumes a steady of diet of stout pieces for instruments other than guitar and synthesizer. At dinner the other evening, I made a comment about how few of my students know anything about classical music and my kids remarked that most students now have no way to hear it. Classical radio has gone by the wayside, fewer kids take instrumental lessons, cartoons no longer use classical music, and churches no longer play songs older than a few decades old. Critics are wondering aloud just how far things will slide before they reach a plateau. Apart from some film and video game scores, these masterpieces and more complicated styles of music have just about disappeared. Weddings still contain the appearance of some of these forms, as do some church services that are sprinkled with violin accents that are lamented by strings players as “football scores,” reflecting the shape of the whole notes that they must play repeatedly as a form of musical gingerbread to elevate the tone of the event.
As a scholar, I cannot help but lament the loss of this portion of the Christian Intellectual Tradition, which seems to be vanishing in our generation. In other parts of the world which still embrace classical forms, the Gospel still speaks quite loudly through the works of Handel, Bach, and so many other composers (some of whom have, admittedly, complicated personal lives). I am uncertain about the remedy of this loss for Americans in particular. Churches can and should play a role, of course, as should Christian institutions such as colleges. Perhaps we need to do some music (and art!) appreciation programming for our communities? I wonder, in fact, if music appreciation could become an evangelistic tool in some areas? I am sure that some churches are doing this; perhaps our readers can provide some links to such programs. I know many churches have cultural outreaches, but I am speaking specifically of Gospel-centered, evangelistic opportunities.
The transcendence of the art form is laden with questions of eternity, beauty, and truth. I can imagine such an apologist saying, “Therefore, what you listen to in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (riffing on Acts 17: 23, transformed into St. Paul’s address at Carnegie Hall). It’s an opportunity the church currently is missing.
NOTA BENE: As I was about to post this, David Mills posted this note about an upcoming course at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers. Something must be in the air!