Art, Music and falling short on Godpod

"There's got to be a better song to sing than this?"

So goes the quote from Rita's mother in the wonderful film 'Educating Rita' which formed part of the discussion on the latest 'GodPod #53' which I stumbled across the other day. The main topic was principally on the subject of art by guest artist Charlie Mackesy. The quotation above, which Charlie drew attention to, was actually directed to church music, particularly so called modern worship music. Interestingly the conversation did not draw conclusions other than the rather easy cop-out about personal taste and preference despite promptings by host theologian Graham Tomlin asking whether their should be 'rules' to govern scope.

The consensus was very much that there shouldn't be such rules yet this is where I think things fail bigtime although I would prefer to use the term 'Absolutes' , I do have sympathy with the negative sense of rules! I certainly think this issue is worth a good listen as Charlie's contributions are excellent and, despite, generally, clergy being weak on the subject of music, Graham, as clearly a man of good taste (liking one of my fave bands 'Mumford and Sons'!) and author of the excellent book 'Provocative Church', would, if pushed, have had more to contribute on this subject.

However, the notion that something should be 'better' is profound, particularly concerning music played in churches. For many this seems a simple issue of old versus new and therefore it is just a matter of preference to 'enjoy' worship in your own comfort zone. Whilst there are clearly issues of old v new which has warranted a good few discussions the situation is much more interwoven than that. I would suggest that a lot of the time it is exactly one of how it could be better, so let's have a quick look at a couple of areas to consider:

Interestingly David Byrne has recently delivered a TED talk on the environment that creates music (styles) and refers directly to how certain church music developed because of the building space it was set in. In fact, BBC4's series Sacred Music highlighted how much of the early chants were an effective sound reinforcement system to project the liturgy to the corners of large churches and cathedrals. David Byrne also stated how music becomes 'auditory mush' when a style is played in a space that simply does not match.

One of the big problems with modern church music in the worship music genre is that it is generally 'not very good' to quote Martyn Joseph. The reasons for this are varied and include the church selling out to singer - songwriters, the development of a revenue earning business model and the fact that most so-called worship leaders (and record companies) lead conferences to train more leaders, thereby perpetuating the same mediocrity. Sadly Holy Trinity Brompton, on which even the edgy GodPods reside, is deeply guilty of this!

As far as more traditional music is concerned many of the same issues apply, however, it is more glaringly obvious when there are errors in tuning and choice of music. Church choirs and organs represent an earlier sell-out by the church when the West gallery musicians, usually blokey blokes who were still a bit tipsy from playing at a Saturday night party, were ousted out to make way for the more solemn and staid sucessors. Many say this was a contributing factor to there being a much lower percentage of men in the church.

To expand the 'not very good' aspect we have to realise so many of the singer/songwriters are not naturally gifted musicans (and/or authors). There are many instrumentalists that are pretty good but often they are playing in a style that is not appropriate and encourage the narcisstic issues surrounding the worship leader. Most great songwriters (in the real world) are teams, usually a double act where one focusses on music whilst the other concentrates on creating lyrics that at least rhyme, have a regular metre and are poetic :-) The latter point, hymn or song lyrics, was certainly discussed on GodPod #53 and, thankfully, on this the contributors were more decisive in their critique.

So I strongly feel we have to consider that there are 'Absolutes' as far as church music is concerned. It seems there is no common sense guidance to get people to think that what they do is to enable congregations to worship rather than be the worship, to serve rather than perform, to be special with a committment to excellence (yet ideally not necessarily perfect!) and try to be distinct rather than presenting a poor copy of world culture. The 'Absolutes' approach helps form strategies so that appropriate styles would be considered, standards of music and lyrics adhered to and that the musicians and singers have a greater understanding of music, basic theology and even why they are there in the first place.

Oh, yes, I have so much more to say on this...!