Contemporary worship music is often banal. No matter the content, the form by itself trivializes what takes place in the liturgy. We keep trying to put asunder what God has joined together—medium and message, form and content—but invariably the divorce does not end well.
I’ll never forget when our kids came home with a new song they had learned at school:
I say Pharaoh, Pharaoh
Oh baby let my people go!
Huh! Yeah, yeah, yeah
Don’t be too hard on the song. It at least keeps together what belongs together—form and content. The simplicity of the tune and the part-sensual, part-infantile body motions suit the song’s utter vacuity.
It would be unfair to tar all of contemporary worship with the pharaoh-pharaoh brush. Still, the form-and-content relationship requires careful theological and metaphysical reflection. When traditional Calvinist churches switch from the Genevan Psalter to worship songs, it’s not just the form that changes. Calvinism itself is doomed at that point. When Anglicans trade their organ-led anthems and chants for band-led praise and worship songs, what is lost is a catholic spirituality that foregrounds reverence and humility in adoration of God. When Catholic liturgies replace Gregorian chant with evangelical songs, a mystical and contemplative tradition comes to an ignominious end.
The arguments are invariably the same: To be missional means to adapt in form, while remaining theologically the same. The argument assumes it’s possible to put asunder what God has joined together.
But medium and message cannot be put asunder. The Genevan Psalter has the five points of Calvinism baked into its tunes; even the organ is indispensable in conveying that God is sovereign and puny creatures are not. The musical form of Gregorian chant suggests that its words are meant for meditation and contemplation. Just as monks read Scripture in lectio divina for the sake of mystical union, so they sing Scripture in musica divina as a form of contemplative prayer. “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” just doesn’t do quite the same thing.
The suitability of music for worship does not depend on lyrics alone. Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In this book, he coined the expression “the medium is the message.” McLuhan was convinced that we have to think more about the medium and less about the message. Why? It’s the medium that produces the message. When you control the medium, you control the message. We all know that Twitter is not suited to a discussion on the difference between inherent and infused righteousness.
When we put asunder medium and message, we let go of the particularity of liturgical traditions, telling ourselves that what counts is simply keeping the message intact. The new medium that results is predictable: Liturgical renewals in Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic churches end up looking nearly identical.
What is the cookie cutter that makes them all look the same? I think it’s the global market economy. It elides cultural differences and shapes our desires to conform to large companies’ marketing schemes. It is hardly the case that Christians from New York City to Lagos to Melbourne all just happen to converge in their contemporary styles of worship. For the most part, our tastes are shaped not by the authority of the medieval church, but by capitalist channels of desire. As a result, all enchantment is gone: Beauty has turned into a human construct, shorn of any link to transcendence.
It’s not uniformity of taste itself that is the problem. Medieval experiences of beauty—inasmuch as they were shaped by the Latin church—could also be quite hegemonic. The difference is that today’s notions of beauty are shaped by raw, carnal desire, channeled and exploited by Big Tech and other large companies. Earlier experiences of beauty were guided by a church whose notion of beauty lay anchored in heavenly Beauty itself.
The medieval church had it right: Just as human truth participates in divine Truth, so human expressions of beauty participate in divine Beauty. It’s just not the case that truth is objective, while beauty is purely subjective. It’s not as if the message is something we objectively teach, while we cannot possibly argue about the subjective medium of individual, aesthetic tastes.
The liturgical medium is itself the message. Why? As Alexander Schmemann explains in his 1970 book For the Life of the World, liturgical acts are means (media) that bring us into heaven. The result is enchanted worship, with the liturgy uniting heaven and earth. The medium of the liturgy is itself the message because the liturgy is effectual: It enacts what it symbolizes.
Too easily, we lapse into the view that what we do in the liturgy merely plays itself out on the horizontal level, in the here and now. Our articulations of beauty—in song, painting, or architecture—are purely expressions of human emotion. What counts as beauty depends entirely on cultural and historical circumstance. But if liturgical beauty is meant to match God’s beauty (and the beauty of his heavenly realm), then perhaps we’re supposed to ask the question each time: Is our worship a genuine enfleshment of the Beauty of God?
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He will teach a course on the theme of Enchanted Worship: Sacramental Ontology & Christian Liturgy at Nashotah House Theological Seminary from July 12–16. The registration deadline is May 25.
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