I hear dead people.

I wrote this trying to work out a perennial frustration with conservative Christian music. I’m not sure everything I’m writing here is correct, but this is the best I can work things out. So please, give me your comments/criticisms.

One of the great gaps between conservative Christian music and the culture at large is decontextualization. This works out in two factors:

1) Modern culture has decontextualized music to the point that music is being asked to do things that it doesn’t do gracefully.

A hundred years ago, almost everyone played music to some extent. Most people knew how to play an instrument at some level and those who didn’t at least sung, even if it wasn’t good. I remember seeing interviews with WWII vets who off-handedly talked about singing to each other from their fox holes, singing when they got back behind the lines, singing walking down the streets… These were tough, battle-hardened soldiers who sang and, when they sang, they sang romantic folk songs and clearly had some understanding of good vocal production and musical lines. They learned this because it was the culture they grew up in. But anymore, music production is reserved only for those few in an actual band. And the only one who sings is the frontman. Music as a family activity or even a communal activity is all but dead (outside of a few places like Asheville, NC). Now people entirely consume music by people they don’t know, singing about things they don’t have first hand experience of, and they’re listening in the disembodied medium of iPods, car stereos, etc. Strangely enough, along with this dislocation and depersonalization of music has gone the need for music to be more important and more potent, more a part of our lives, more intimate and personal. Whereas before, the personal and intimate and important aspects of music were at least heavily dependent on their live performance in a specific cultural context among people you knew (or you were even joining in the music yourself), now the disembodied, impersonal earbuds throw all the need for intimacy back on the performance itself. So music is more emotionally pushy, more orgasmically vocally expressive. You can sing about walking down the street or thinking about getting a hot dog so long as you sing it like you’re in the throes of the world’s best massage. That at least lets me know I’m listening to a human being who believes what he’s saying. Anymore, it’s the only known way to communicate the personal interaction and intimacy that used to be the purview of live music among people with real, known personalities.

This is why I don’t mind recorded music where a someone groans their passion about losing someone or about their devotion to Christ. But put them 5 feet from me in a live context and it’s suddenly downright uncomfortable. If it’s also someone I know, strap a turbo on my discomfort. They’re pushing all the over-the-top emotion required in a disembodied performance into a real, live, intimate context. It’s too much.

Mind you, I don’t think this way of performing is inherently wrong. That’s the categorical divide from me and most fundamentalists. Many fundamentalists will argue that this kind of emotional verisimilitude is wrong and then attend an opera where vocal sliding and rubato expression is entirely normative. They’re culturally comfortable with opera-drama whereas they’re not comfortable with hymn-drama. And they don’t notice the hypocrisy because in an opera, they’re 60 feet from the stage and they don’t understand the language. They understand that an over-the-top emotional performance is required, in that context, to get the message across. But that also proves the point that the style itself is not the issue. It’s fine to be over-the-top when it communicates without getting in the way.

Which brings me to my second point.

2) Fundamentalists create decontextualized music, but with resolute disregard for the decontextualization.

Most fundamentalists are firmly entrenched in the idea that, if the world is using this overly expressive music (they would say “sensual” music), then they will certainly not do that. (Strangely, this never carries over to the way they play, say the violin, which is always set to “maximum weep”.) So fundamentalists take nearly expressionless singing and plug it into the disembodied medium of recorded music, with the result being eerily similar to the singing of drugged cultists. They feel disembodied. They feel passionless. Their singing cannot cross the chasm from my earbuds into my heart. I don’t fellowship with anesthetized spirits. They just creep me out.

Again, I don’t think that this kind of musical performance is wrong, either. Put a person who sings like that in a room 5 feet from me and it’s actually rather meaningful. Much more so if I know the person. Once you re-introduce the aspects of live music, real contexts and real people, communication finds a thousand other subtle outlets of expression in posture, facial expression, relationship, history, acoustics, and on and on. Five feet away, direct human feel and gutsiness are much better communicated around the music than in the music itself, which would free musical lines and tone to be clear and make skill more beautiful and appreciated. The music can feel human again because the humanity is coming heavily through the contextual halo around the music and so the music is more free to BE music rather than verisimilitude. This is why I can go to sacred choral concerts when they’re live, sit in the front row and be tremendously moved, but when the group releases their music on CD it’s nearly unlistenable.

I remember when doing stage acting in a 1,500-seat theater that my gestures, bearing, speech, and volume had to be blown way out of proportion. I’d strut around with over-the-top gestures and slow, horribly loud line deliveries where EV-er-EE SYL-la-BLE WAZ SLOOOWED DOOOWN and YELLLLED because otherwise the people in row 48F would absolutely not be caught up in the performance. But when I did small, theater-in-the-round acting (or television acting) almost all of the affectation was gone because of the intimacy of the setting. You could talk faster and more quietly, have smaller gestures, even subtle facial indicators. The physical distance between the performer and the audience alters the way the performance is received. A bombastic delivery on stage is the only thing that grabs people. The same performance on TV would be unwatchable. Or a joke.

Musical delivery is the same. Increased physical space, space of time, space of culture, space of medium, and space of relationship all break down those halo avenues of communication and the music is left alone with the tremendous burden of authentic communication. Modern culture has risen to that challenge by musically wearing all emotion on the sleeve and even pushing into a kind of hyper-emotional state. The question is, will conservative Christian musicians follow suit? How far down that road do they go? Or are there other options? One thing’s for sure, if fundamentalists keep recording music as though they were intimately live and are known to all the people in the audience, then their music will be less and less interesting or relevant.* For those of us listening to you while driving in traffic or running or working on our computers, you sound desperately lifeless. We’re in the third balcony and you’re whispering.

*There’s also a tangential issue that this same music is usually asked to live in a very one-dimensional emotional world. It’s as though the test for all conservative Christian music is: would this work being played in a southern lady’s parlor in the 1890s? The emotional tone must be Resolutely Pleasant. A steady diet of that, coupled with emotionless delivery, is… freaky.

6 Thoughts.

  1. I’ve never thought about about applying the “distant/personal” spectrum to music but that makes a lot of sense.

    Another context that is ignored to their peril is weather the music is supposed to be participatory or not. Some of the fancy stuff (note my grasp of technical musical terminology!) can add a lot of emotion and power — with practiced performers, but if you add that stuff to a familiar tune, or worse an unfamiliar tune and try to get a congregation to sing to it, whatever message or emotion the music had can be snuffed out by confusion.

    So similarly, when you are singing– instead of listening– simpler music can carry a much more genuine emotion than the same arrangement performed by someone else live or recorded.

  2. this is nice.

    sentimentality is the coffin nail and (regrettably) the mode of so much christian music (and novels and movies and plays and art work . . . ). oh how we love to be lied to all for the cause of keeping us emotionally high aesthetic Spirit or no.

  3. I’ve never thought of Christian music in this way, but your analysis is very helpful. I have felt the same way when listening to conservative Christian music–the recordings are lifeless, boring, and generic, but (sometimes) the live performances are engaging and uplifting. (Some performances are just as emotionless as the recordings.) I’ve all but stopped listening to recorded conservative Christian music because they sing every song, whether reflecting on the death of Christ or the joy of the Christian life, in the exact same tone and with the same passion. I like your phrase “resolutely pleasant.” After a while, you start to question if they really mean what they’re singing or if they’ve given the words any thought at all, because surely that would affect the way they sing the songs.

  4. Interesting post, Jeff. I see your point and I’m with you on the near lifeless cd performances from certain conservative groups. They are not emotionally involving. I will often prefer to listen to less-musically-excellent groups with more life simply because they have the ability to get the emotions across. But I would kill for a musically-excellent group that also managed to communicate the meaning of the text in their performance.:)
    On the other side, there are people/groups that I don’t enjoy listening to because they sound like they are making love instead of singing and glorifying the King of Love. All the groaning and ssssslllllllloooooooowwwwwing down of the music to make it more meaningful: it’s fake and somehow, a little gross.
    All this doesn’t even get into the poor music-writing and poetry of today’s hymns/spiritual songs. Theologically-rich (some of it) but poorly done musically. Another issue.:)

  5. Hi Jeff. I forwarded this to a friend of mine who is schooled in the issues surrounding the topic you’ve written about. He wishes to remain off the web on this, but here is his response.

    To the author of RootsRain,

    Thanks to my friend, John Ball, I have read your recent frustration with what you would call “conservative Christian music” and fundamentalism’s adoption of such music. Perhaps we should begin by rightly defining “conservative Christian music.” Some fundamentalists would state that any sacred music that is not influenced by rock or jazz is “conservative.” These people would enjoy and sing the songs of Fanny Crosby, Philip Bliss, and Charles Gabriel (“O That Will Be, Glory for Me”), and later music of Ron Hamilton, Frank Garlock, and John W. Peterson. My wife comments appropriately about this music “it sounds like the old musicals.” She speaks correctly, because there is little difference between the music of the late 1800s (and early 1900s) through the 1950s with the vaudeville theaters of the same time. These are not only irrelevant, but unfashionable.

    Fewer still fundamentalists argue that such music is not conservative at all. One of the events during the Second Great Awakening was that of Charles Finney’s “New Measures” in which he argued that it is necessary for the church to be consistently updating, changing, and adapting their methods to the culture at large – including the music. These fundamentalists who argue against such things would state that it is necessary to conserve the tradition (including that of music) handed down to us by the early church. Now by conserve, they mean “improve.” That is to say, that they take the hymnic tradition, and they write new hymns, with the occasional new melody and harmony – and they take the best of the tradition, they attempt to add their best, and they hand it down to the next generation. They would argue that leaving the tradition is never permitted in Scripture, and thus it is forbidden (regulative principle). These would argue that a pipe organ, played well in a church, would carry a person to far greater heights of glory than a guitar, bass, and drum, along with 5-6 high school level singers. These would be considered irrelevant. If you were to walk into their service, you would feel strange. But they see this “strangeness” as separation from the world – that the church is different and distinct from a rock concert.

    However, many fundamentalists that I know today have accepted and shifted to an acceptance, embrace, and use of some form of Contemporary Christian Music, alongside of their (what you would call) “conservative Christian music.” These will need to constantly change and update and accept the new musics, lest they too be considered irrelevant and unfashionable.

    Your view of music is on a different paradigm. I appreciate some of the psychological insights that you offer to the conversation. However, please be clear with how you use language – there are some, who are still real conservatives, instead of those who are stuck in the 1950s.

  6. To John’s friend:

    My definition of conservative Christian music would fall generally into the first section you mentioned: music about explicitly Christian theology not played in a rock or jazz idiom. This is generally the music I grew up with and the tradition I come from. I’d agree that this music is frequently irrelevant. It has a faux-classical patina to it, but it’s usually just badly done, warmed over parlor music.

    The second definition you provided, “conservative” based on preserving tradition, would be (if I’m understanding you correctly) a misinterpretation of the Regulative Principle bordering on heresy. The Regulative Principle is that only those elements prescribed in Scripture may be the elements of a church service (i.e., prayer, reading of the Bible, preaching, and singing). Making the Regulative Principle include church tradition is the error of the RCC: elevating tradition to the authority of Scripture. Especially in the area of music, that’s massively problematic. We simply don’t have any record of what the church was singing beyond 1,000 years ago. And even that record is massively sketchy and relegated to European monastic tradition. It’s also a massively ethnocentric view of what global church music should be.

    While I would agree that a church should be distinct from a rock concert, I don’t believe that the separation is along the lines of musical style. The Father seeks worshippers who will worship in spirit and truth. He’s not seeking worshippers who will worship in contradistinction to their culture. That’s a subtle difference, but I’m convinced it’s very important. If we are to not be conformed to the world, then the way to not be conformed is NOT to pour your Jello all around the mold. In doing that, the mold is still your mold. It’s just the anti-mold. Your Jello blob has conformed to the mold, just its inverse. What’s needed is to throw out the mold entirely and allow the Spirit to shape us into His mold. I don’t do things to specifically set myself apart from the world unless those things are issues of justice, mercy, and faith. I don’t walk backwards or wear pink tights or play the pipe organ to advertise that I am distinct from everyone else. I strive to love God and repay my debt of love to everyone around me. When I have love for other people, THAT’S how they know I’m Jesus’ disciple. If I do things to purposely create a rift between “us and them,” then they only know I’m weird at best, and arrogant at worst. I think fundamentally that kind of do-things-to-purposely-be-distinct is a misreading of Old Testament picture laws. (God said “I am making you a people distinct from around you, so you shall not wear linen and cotton together or shave your beards or eat shellfish. In these ways people will know you are distinct.” But since those laws ended at the cross, Christians simply institute a New Law that addresses musical instruments, cut of clothing, and hair styles instead. Rather than living in the freedom for which Christ set us free, we tend to set up new laws to prop up our own righteousness.) For more on this issue, see this post: http://www.rootsrain.com/?p=121

    It wasn’t clear to me, though, which of the definitions of conservative you were fitting yourself into…

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