Last fall, I posted something from one of my readings for my Hymnology class, from a book called Praying Twice by Brian Wren that I’d highly recommend to anyone looking to more deeply understand the meaning of music in worship. This particular quote talks about how the human mind actively listens to music:
So this picture flew across my facebook feed the other day.
The picture underneath the text, in case you don’t know, is from the movie Anchorman, and this character is talking about what he does to pick up women. Like most of the characters, he’s slightly stupid, and the dialogue reflects that, and the movie mines their stupidity for its humor. So if you’re looking for shallow jokes, this movie’s a great time-waster.
Now, I love the current trend of appropriating secular culture for Christian purposes, especially when it’s used for humor. Jokes are one of the most powerful ways our culture decides what’s cool and what’s not, and Christians who keep an attitude of reverence for what matters and irreverence for the silly things we tend to do that don’t matter, those are the Christians that folks are going to connect with, identify with, and respect. Laughing at your faults and not taking yourself too seriously is a sign of humility and graciousness, and those are qualities we should encourage.
When we appropriate pop culture memes, we need to be clear that what we’re laughing at is telling the right story. Pop culture doesn’t need to worry about this– anything funny is fair game, so long as it’s not racist or specific kinds of sexist (other kinds of sexism are totally fine… but that’s a post for another day). But Christians need to be deliberate about what their humor is saying, just like we need to be deliberate about what our other words and actions are saying. We have higher standards, and rightly so, so we need to carefully evaluate that we are sending the right messages to live up to those standards.
This particular image is not sending the right message. It’s had nearly 6,500 “likes” and over 700 “shares” so far, which means that over 6,000 people identify with the message of this picture, and what is that message saying? It’s saying that music is chosen for worship on the basis of whether or not it moves people enough to get them to raise their hands. Worse, it’s approving of this role for music in worship… and that’s deeply concerning.
Is the point of the music solely to feel some kind of emotion strongly enough to raise our hands in the air? Or, is the point for the music to help prepare us for worship and to illuminate God’s message to us that day/night? Music for the sake of getting people to have an emotional response can quickly turn manipulative, and it directs the attention of worshippers toward the glory of the music’s power, and away from God, from whom the gift of music comes.
This error is easy to spot in so-called “praise music”, partly because a lot of it is theologically weak, but also because it’s generally a more emotive style than traditional hymnody for the unchurched or nonmusical. To many musicians or longtime church members, hymns are deeply expressive of complex faith concepts and emotions, and can be incredibly powerful, but for non-musicians, they can be musically daunting, and they lose the meaning of the text while they’re trying to keep up with the music- and for the unchurched, the concepts they express can be difficult to comprehend or apply to their personal lives. The simplicity and superficiality of the music and the text of “praise music” can thus be an important tool for drawing people into the church who might otherwise balk at the prospect of understanding these somewhat advanced ideas when they’re not even sure Christianity is for them.
Realizing this, we can see the merits of each kind of music in a worship setting, but we have to use the styles judiciously, and recognize the downfalls of each. The pitfalls of traditional hymnody are many, and have been better explained by professionals with far more experience than I. The pitfalls of “praise music” is that, considering its bent toward simplicity and superficiality, the emotive power of the music can easily be abused, making the “feelings” that you get from the music more important than what the music is actually saying, or its liturgical purpose in worship.
Above all, it’s critical for all Christians to take it upon themselves to be aware of why they’re singing- and to be sure that they agree with it, and with what they’re singing. Be active participants in all parts of the worship service, so you know that it serves God and edifies your faith. It’s even more important for church musicians to understand why they’re doing the music they’re doing. Music meant only to manipulate the emotions of the congregants, to get them to raise their hands, is music that glorifies the worship experience and the musicians, and not God.