Sunday, May 15, 2005

A Pentecost reflection: Worship Music Art and Faith, Part I

It seems appropriate on Pentecost to reflect on unity and diversity in the church. Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles is in part used by Luke to summarize the spread of the Gospel and the church by the power of the Holy Spirit from Jerusalem to the end of the world, symbolized by Paul's coming to Rome as a prisoner. My Reflection here will be on what I believe is a failure of good theological thinking in Protestantism and of Christianity in the West in general: our understanding of worship and the arts. This failure is an inability to recognize that the Spirit works with and in form and that the Gospel and Christian theology demand not only a particular content but also that such content will demand form.
generally in my experience music and visual art in worship are treated (even by those who are proponents of the arts) as if form and style are secondary questions when it comes to the arts in worship. It is generally argued that Christian worship has no form and can take on numerous trappings (perhaps infinite) or a particular style and form are asserted as preferable either based on explicitly ethnic and cultural grounds (say in African American or Hispanic congregations) or as in many "high church" communities, white middle class and upper middle class, a particular taste is simply asserted as the standard for "good" music or "good" art. However, the standard for "good" or "professional" or the standard of cultural and ethnic relevance both fail as theological standards for art in worship. In the US, Protestants tend to either argue for some form of cultural relevance or, usually unwittingly, cultural superiority of white middle class and upper middle class taste. Cultural relevance and taste I wish to argue has it's end in some form of atomism: either expressed in ways that keep the church segregated based in taste or relevance or an eclectic atomism that fails to allow for unity in worship, that is the failure of a distinctively Christian worship. Neither the "high church" option of old hymns and classical taste nor multicultural worship or its various hip manifestations (Rock churches, hip hop worship, or "praise and worship" bands) offer any sort of theological questioning of style and form. These approaches assume that all forms and artistic styles are containers into which the content of the Gospel can be placed without affecting the church's theology or the message of the Gospel.
Although proponents of multiculturalism will appeal to the Acts 2 passage and to incarnational theology as the theological basis for their theological warrant, this begs the question of the nature of the incarnation. Given the ways in which incarnational thinking is used the meaning of the incarnation is simply this: that God became in general human. That is Jesus as the incarnation of God means that the Gospel will be incarnated in every culture taking on absolutely and without question the same diversity of the human cultural landscape. The question aside of the role of sin in creating some of the cultural diversity and that not all cultural expressions (including upper middle class white "Christian" expressions) are necessarily compatible with the worship of the triune God, there is the issue of the actual meaning of the particularity of Jesus and the time place and culture in which Jesus existed. By the logic of most forms of multiculturalism the various particularities of Jesus of Nazareth, that he was a Jew, born in Bethlehem, went to the temple, worshiped in synagogs, was male, was born in the time of Augustus Ceasar, etc. are mere accidents of history and do not touch on the meaning of the incarnation. Yet, it is precisely these particularities that structure both the understanding of the incarnation for the New Testament and for the tradition of the Church. To put it bluntly, the incarnation could not have happened in India, or Europe, or Africa. The Messiah of the world could be nothing other than a Jew and a descendant of David (a male descendant). The incarnation rather than being some abstraction of God becoming human is rather God becoming a particular human with a particular genetic make up and a particular cultural background. Why because God had chosen and formed one particular small ethnic group by which to communicate with the whole of Creation. God also chose a particular time when a particular cultural reality had gained dominance over a large part of the world, known as Helenism of the Greco/Roman world. Paul says that this arrangement was the right time for the Messiah to come it was not accidental, but purposeful. All these particularities give meaning and content to the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation is about God using the cultural and ethnic particularity of the time, place and culture of Jesus of Nazareth to achieve God's saving work and found the Church. I conclude from this that form is not accidental to the message of the Gospel but is essential. Not that the form of the Gospel and the form of the Church is then immediately or fully understood or known, but that the message of the church is particular even as it is universal, just as Jesus the saviour of the entire cosmos is a male Jew in a helenized Greco/Roman Culture.
So what does this have to do with visual art and music in worship? I contend it means that art forms must be theologically formed. It means that a note and tune are as theological as the words of a song. It means color and shape and brush strokes are as much theological expression as the words of Scripture and the creeds. It means that not all forms of artistic expression are appropriate for Christian worship. It means that we can not assume that Classical music, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Folk music etc. are compatible with Christian theology and the message of the Gospel. The message of the Gospel will dictate its form. The Gospel is not a chameleon, nor is it a liquid. The Gospel and the Spirit form things, rather than taking on the form of things. We have lost the concept that culture will be transformed and formed by the Gospel and by the Spirit of Christ. We have forgotten that there is a from and image into which we are being formed as Christians. This means that our visual art and our music will have certain particular forms. The doctrine of the incarnation means that we are not left alone even when it comes to our cultures, and their artistic treasures. It means that we can not assume that merely because we believe a certain art from can be used in worship or because we like Rock and Roll, or Classical music or the old hymns, or Hip Hop, that it is compatible with the Gospel. It means that just because we have been singing such and such a hymn forever does not mean that we should continue to use it. It means that relevance and taste have no place in questions of visual art and music in worship. My personal likes and dislikes, my taste have nothing to do with what is appropriate for worship. We need then a theology of art not dominated by Kantian, modernist post-modern understandings of art and culture, ie. taste and relevance are idols that can not be tolerated by a truly theological reflection on art in Christians worship.
Part of our problem with thinking along the lines I am presenting has to do with a particular decision Rome and the Papacy made in the early middle ages about Latin and Roman liturgical tradition. Seeking to solve the problem of truly theological forms of worship, it demanded that all worship conform to Roman tradition and liturgical language. Something different occurred in those areas whose missionaries came from eastern Christianity and Constantinople. For example in Russia we have not Greek being imposed on the Russians for their liturgical language but what has come to be known as "Old Church Slavonic". Also, Russian icons are lettered in Russian and not in Greek. Russian Iconography develops along differing lines than Byzantine. Yet, one does not mistake the tradition of which the Russian church is a part, Eastern Orthodoxy. The Russian culture was transformed by, as it took on and formed, Christianity, and this was expressed in its art. These are two very different approaches to the same problem, retaining theological integrity and unity of the faith while transmitting that faith to a new culture and particularity. One imposes uniformity of language and liturgy, the other transmits (transplants maybe?) a formed faith to a culture and language demanding unity of faith and its expression but not absolute conformity. In a sense we in the West in our multiculturalism and our continuing refusal to think art as theology simply react either with or against that Roman mistake of imposing Latin and the Latin rite on all of Europe, rather than transmit a formed Christianity into differing cultures and languages thereby transforming the cultures and languages, and their artistic production. As long as we simply continue to react rather than take up the theological meaning of the incarnation and of the scandal of Christian particularity we will continue to fail to find art that is Christian and appropriate for the worship of the triune God. We will fail to distinguish art that proclaims Christian truth from that art which is the enemy of that truth, and that art which is compatible with that truth but does not itself in its forms proclaim Christian truth. We need theological discernment when it comes to art not around relevance but around form and its meaning.
(authors note: these are heavy assertions, which I have attempted to argue for very briefly here. I hope to expand on this argument in further posts. Yet, I believe theology is largely a conversation. I hope that those of you who read this will take time to give a responce, whether you agree or disagree and let me know why you do so. I hope to use responces to this argument as I write and reflect further on this very important topic for the church. I especially need the voices of those who would disagree with the argument presented here.)