In my last post, I linked to a number of recordings of one of the great hymns of the faith; I offered a handful of links of each traditional and contemporary recordings. That exercise leaves us with some questions.
The first is this: can anyone legitimately say that all four of the “conservative” recordings express no diversity? I am inclined to believe that anyone who would say that they “all sound the same” would be outraged if I offered the same evaluation of, say, U2 and the Beatles on the one hand and Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus on the other. And they would be right; the music represented by those names is not the same; there is a diversity there. But I would suggest that a strong argument could be made that the conservative tradition allows for at least as much diversity within itself as does the pop/rock/whatever genres.
If I’m right, the idea that we need progressive music styles to express the manifold glories of God seems strained. The onus would be on the advocates of progressive music to demonstrate that the newer styles highlight elements of God’s character that we would otherwise likely overlook. I, for one, do not see how the modern settings of “A Mighty Fortress” drew my attention to some new aspect of God’s character; it seems to me (and I’m open to correction) that the primary appeal of the modern settings is to make the weighty, sublime poetry of that great hymn more immediately accessible to a new generation. We can have the conversation as to whether that is a good thing; note, however, that that argument now moves away from the contention that the musical diversity helps us see something about God’s nature.
Let me offer what I believe to be the conclusion of the whole matter: the argument for worship diversity is correct in form. That is to say, everything that Kauflin says, I could agree with. Just as a certain kind of diversity is very helpful when we’re doing the work of theology, so that we can see God better and appreciate the unique giftings of our brothers more readily, musical diversity in worship allows the same thing. But the parallel with doing theology offers us this further insight: after a certain point, diversity in theology is no longer profitable.
I should expand on that: for individual study, especially for the student of theology, exposure to a very broad range of theological opinions is very helpful, both to allow the student to incorporate what is true in a false system, and to prepare the student to confront what is evil. But the wise pastor does not bring all his liberal studies into the pulpit, into the corporate worship, with him. To do so would be foolish; it is ecclesiastical suicide. The very nature of the gathered body places additional strictures on the value of the diversity expressed.
This holds true, I think, for music as well. It may well be that some piece of music may enable me to see some element of God’s character that I would not have seen before, but the piece of music (taken as a whole) is as mistaken affectionally as, for instance, liberation theology is theologically. So while it may be interesting for me to read a liberation theologian and gain “eyes” to see God’s works of deliverance in Scripture (and in our lives), I will not bring it into the pulpit.
Ultimately, then, the difference that I would maintain with Kauflin, and with all others who would use his argumentation to introduce contemporary worship styles into the church, is that a given musical style can communicate something mistaken about God. That issue, of course, is enormous. Perhaps I will pursue that topic at some point; I conclude for now, however, with the thought that the scope of the diversity that we allow in worship will be so intrinsically related to our understanding of the nature of communication in worship that, while we may agree about the principle of diversity, our application will always be determined by another principle.