Monday, April 24, 2006

Musical Snobbery

I'm guilty. I admit it. It was 1987 and all I knew about country music were the words, "Yee Haw!" I believed the stereotype, and so I had managed to look down upon the country music folks, if indeed I would ever meet one.

I met one.

That person ended up becoming my wife. She opened up a whole new kind of music to me. Before that I had experimented with various music -- jazz, acoustic, big band, electronic -- but mostly I was a rock guy. It had been tough growing up a rock guy in the late 70's in an ocean of Donna Summer and the BeeGees, but I had managed just fine. Ironically after learning the basics of country music, the next job I took was as a disc jockey on a country music station! Ya gotta love God's sense of humor sometimes.

I learned all about country music, from Haggard and Jones to Garth and Reba. More than just learning, I began to appreciate it... even like it. All it had really taken was a period of time to learn the language. By that I mean learning who the important artists were and which were the landmark songs. Once I had the framework of the country community, it was really pretty easy to understand. I could appreciate the sly humor of a George Strait song, the bitterness in a Tanya Tucker lyric, or the outright outrageousness of ol' Bocephus. It once had been beneath me. I wouldn't give it the benefit of my time. What had once been seen as strangely foreign became fresh and familiar. I was a musical snob no longer.

There are still plenty of snobs across the world. Usually if a person can't understand a type of music, it must be because its not worth his time. I've met all types. I've met the classical music afficianado who will listen to nothing besides orchestral recordings and the occasional chamber music piece. I've seen plenty of people with bumper stickers on the pickup reading, "If it ain't country, it ain't music!" also. Snobbery knows no strangers. We all think our favorite style is superior than that other stuff. But truth be told, it's just a matter of different ways to express the feelings of the heart.

Like all art, music is something which is very expressive. I attended a seminar with Pastor Gene Wood last week, and he said something similar to what I've always tried to express. He said that music is a language of expression. Those who speak Spanish are not comfortable with Mandarin. So too, those who speak Gregorian Chant have a tough time with 50's Rockabilly. It only makes sense.

A couple of weeks ago, the Christian Blogosphere got a start from a renewal of the whole "worship wars" dispute. In his Christianity Today column, Chuck Colson had a fit about his congregation singing "Draw Me Close To You" and used it as a springboard for a rant about contemporary Christian music sung in worship service. Then Sam Storms wrote a beautiful rebuttal, pointing out that the lyrics Colson was railing against were quite similar to some of the Psalms. From there, the debate spread like a runny nose at a daycare center. Dan at Cerulean Sanctum even tied it to Myers-Briggs personality types. I don't think it's all that complicated. Colson is simply speaking a different language than his worship leader.

I'm happy to be multi-lingual. I speak Fanny Crosby. I also speak Chris Tomlin. That may make me unique, I don't know. But I'm tired of the musical snobbery displayed by both sides in the "worship wars" debate. I'm sick of the claims of hymn-singers that there is no theological content in praise choruses. I'd like to sentence these folks to a year of doing nothing but reading and studying the Psalter. Sure there is a lot of great theology in some of the great old hymns, but I've got to be honest -- very few people these days learn anything from the third verse of anything in the hymnal. I wish that wasn't true, but it is. The concern is avoiding the unintentional solo during the service, not learning about Ebenezers or fetters.

I'm also tired of those who run hymnals through the shredder, claiming those songs have no value. There is still a sizable generation who worships God better through singing "The Matchless Grace of Jesus" in 5-part harmony. It's been a blessing to see some current choruses integrate hymns into the arrangements. Todd Agnew gave a refreshing breath to Amazing Grace when he recorded Grace Like Rain. Chris Tomlin incorporated When I Survey the Wondrous Cross into The Wonderful Cross and the result was a song which enabled people to worship in two languages. Why is it so hard for the two sides to exist without the obligitory casting of stones?

It's true that songs are sometimes misused. Choruses have taken on the moniker "7-11 songs" because critics will tell you the arrangements consist of seven words sung eleven times. I won't deny that some choruses are repeated to the point of manipulation in some congregations, but that's hardly reason to claim they have no theological value. In truth we have people speaking different worship languages and saying the same things. Yet, using our typical unchristian reflexes, we tend to not only divide but to look down our noses at the folks at that other church or those attending that other service. What a bunch of idiots we are.

Just as Dr. Storms related in his piece, I also have the utmost respect for Chuck Colson. I respect many who have similar but opposing viewpoints within the Christian community. But instead of criticizing the other side, why can't we brush up on our own language skills? How about putting away our snobbish attitudes and putting that same effort into becoming more fluent in our own language of worship? I'm not one of those Rodney King "Can't we all just get along" kind of guys if there is a legitimate reason for debate. In this case, there isn't one.

The thing is, those people who worship with that "other kind" of music aren't just yelling, "Yee Haw!" They're worshiping too. So let's get over it and represent Christ as servants, not as snobs.


Douglas said...

We're going to be spending eternity with each other, we might as well get to know each other better.

BTW, thanks for the comment on Cain vs. Abel's offering. Matthew Henry noticed that as well in his commentary.

Kim said...

Great post, Ed. I was thinking about something similar to this last night when my son and daughter and their "worship band" played in the evening service. There were clearly individuals there who did not appreciate the distortion that my son used with his guitar. But there were younger people who did, and sometimes, making a little concession to the younger crowd helps make them feel like they're part of the worship. They sand "Shout to the Lord." I don't if that's considered a "7-11" song or not, but it sounded great.

julie said...

Great post. Personal taste is just that.

HeyJules said...

Very well said!

Chad said...

I admit to being a bit of a music snob and it is hard for me to imagine ever listening to much country music. Nonetheless, I agree with your sentiments here about the "worship wars". I guess worship lyricists now need to seek the approval of the worship police prior to service.

A Human Bean said...

I really want to disagree with you only because I can't stand country music. I actually went through a short phase as a country music fan. One day I just asked myself what I was doing and I never listened to it again.

However, you are right. I actually love it when old Hyms are jazzed up and modernized.

rev-ed said...

Doug, when I listen to country I'm reminded of real people with earthly problems. While some singers revel in the drinkin' and cheatin' aspects, others are really wrestling with life's problems. I see a lot more of the people I talk with every week in a country song than I do in any other genre.

Jennifer said...

I grew up in a house where Bluegrass ruled. To this day, the first twangy note of a guitar makes me want to gag. I had very few self-imposed dating limits as a young girl, but one that I adhered to religiously was "never date anyone who listens to country".

But I agree - to each his own! Let everyone worship in their own favorite sound.

GiBee said...

This reminds me of something Beth Moore always says ... "I love the body of Christ ... the WHOLE body."

Chris said...

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Chris