Dispensing with the cork…and the Champagne!
Truth be told… “I love a good red!” For that matter, I enjoy a quality white, but I’ve never really been into bubbles. That is, I’ve never really enjoyed Champagne. Until recently, my experience of sparkling whites always left me thinking I had been drinking sweet lolly water – yuck! That was until a good friend, Tyson Stelzer, introduced me to quality champagne. It seems that I had been drinking cheap (in price and taste) imitations; imitations that bore no resemblance to the ‘real deal’. I should reveal that Tyson is an internationally awarded wine critic who specialises in reviewing Champagne and regularly travels to Champagne (the French village) to source and review the best sparkling wines available. Simply, I needed an expert to change my view. I needed someone who knew exactly how to compliment the wine with the meal. Tyson’s expertise flushed my ignorance away with the first quality glass. Admittedly, I have not become a regular Champagne drinker (quality Champagne can hurt the back pocket somewhat), but I am no longer unfamiliar with excellent bubbles.
My developing palate for quality wine seems to also resonate with my interaction with modern worship repertoire. Now there’s a segue! Stay with me…it gets better…
A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me to review an article by T. David Gordon, “The Problem with Praise Teams: We should hear congregational praise when it is sung”. Dr Gordon is an exceptionally learned man and is professor of religion at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. I note Dr Gordon’s credentials because in this short précises of his work I do not wish to be disrespectful to his stance; all the while being critical of his conclusions. Interestingly, when I received the email from my friend requesting my thoughts on the afore mentioned article I had only just (within a week) finished reading Dr Gordon’s (2010) book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal”. Gordon makes many excellent points throughout his writings. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with his notion of Contemporaneity as a Value (Gordon, 2010, pp. 103–128). I agree with Gordon when he writes, “The effect of contemporaneity is this: anything not contemporary seems odd, quaint, antiquated, outdated, or foreign. Its effect is to regard the past with a kind of benign contempt–benign because we don’t seriously think that we could bring the values, traditions, or practices of the past into our moment” (p. 119). The level to which I resonate with Gordon’s stance does however have a limit. The limit is observed in how far I am willing to enforce these observations on my (our) current experience.
Gordon, it would seem from my reading, is prepared to expel any notion of contemporary presentation of congregational song in order to preserve what he calls, “the thing that is commanded” (Gordon, 2013, p. 1); that is, audibly discernible congregational praise. I agree that we should be able to hear our congregations sing. But I stop short of suggesting that the only way to achieve this end is to silence (remove) any accompaniment; whether modern praise band, organ or choir). To recommend such a position seems to be untenable. One should not dispense with the Champagne when ejecting the cork! Furthermore, I am left wondering whether Dr Gordon has ever tasted quality Champagne. Some of my most memorable worship moments were experienced with a full throttle rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar & keys) leading tumultuous congregational voice. The band didn’t dominate the moment; moreover they gave rise to a congregation that was eager to lift their voices in one accord to the glory of God.
Perhaps it is a generational thing. Many of my readers know that I am keen to allow for many grades of grey between the extremes of black and white. Perhaps this permits me (some would say, ‘in a postmodern way’) to accept that it doesn’t have to be a right/wrong positioning. Dr Gordon, and I say this with all due respect to my acknowledged senior, is approaching this as a ‘take no prisoners’ battle. I am unable to join him in this quest. I must allow for the myriad of expressions that God’s people engage in. Expressions that I believe God receives as a pleasing aroma. Is all our worship acceptable? Of course not. But any worship offered through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest is presentable. God’s word does not place a stipulation on that which should or should not accompany the voice when it is lifted in praise.
In conclusion, I believe that Dr Gordon’s writings continue to fuel the fires of debate that rage around ‘contemporary worship versus traditional worship’. Debate is good. Debate is healthy, and I admire Gordon for the robust defence of his argument. Jeremy Begbie (2008) notes however, “One group will use music to assert itself over against another – there is ‘our’ music and ‘theirs’, choir music and worship-band music, and, of course, each group claims God’s approval of its preferences” (p. 45). The point to be made here is, while Gordon can support his stance from scripture, so can many others with opposing views; with equal scholarship. One of the reasons these debates exist is because of the distinct lack of unequivocal instruction on the rites of Christian worship. If one is ready to acknowledge this fact, one must then be prepared to allow for a multitude of worship expressions. Again, I believe Dr Gordon has many excellent points and I unreservedly draw the interested reader’s attention to his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns”, but I do so with the caveat that it should be read with an open mind (and heart) that is keen to dispense with the cork, but still drink the Champagne.
Begbie, J. (2008). Resounding truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music. London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Gordon, T. D. (2010). Why Johnny can’t sing hymns: How pop culture rewrote the hymnal. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
Gordon, T. D. (2013). The problem with praise teams: We shoulld hear congregational praise when it is sung. The Aquila Report. Retrieved 20th June 2013 from http://theaquilareport.com/the-problem-with-praise-teams/