Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Living as "we" in an "I" world

Art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another.

--Leo Tolstoy
Hmmm. Yes.

So, what's the appropriate application of this idea to church music?
  • Music can serve as "testimony"--I can tell you my own hard-won faith story through music, and I can hear yours in the same way. This is, I think, why we have so much "I" music that's done in the middle of an essentially "we" experience. It's immediate emotional connection.
  • Music is able to place us in another time/place in much the same way our sense of smell does; the scent of lefse on the griddle transports me directly to my maternal grandmother's house every time I make it. And there are a million songs that can take me directly back to high school, for better and worse. Because of this, there's an inherent sentimental attachment to any number of hymns and spiritual songs; they recall our beloved dead for a moment, and remind us where we've come from. Again, immediate emotional connection.
  • For many of us, it's difficult not to get caught up in a well-executed song of praise or lament...consider the power of the "Hallelujah Chorus," for example...or the way that we can BE "lost in wonder, love and praise" if the music leaders and congregation do "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" well. [Reader, insert your own example here.]
Here's the thing, though. Because of music's emotional power, it's easy for it to become a tool of manipulation. As soon as we worship planners forget that, the music rings false to the thinkers in the crowd. It's one of the true challenges of worship planning...not to put words into people's mouths that weren't there to begin with. Let's face it: we all come to the worship planning process with biases. It's easy and fun to plan worship that expresses my own belief and feelings. It's much harder to try to place myself in someone else's Cole Haans or Adidas or Manolo Blahniks or steel-toed boots. And so, when I'm not a little bit uncomfortable, it's time to be concerned that my own preference is holding too much sway over a community's shared worship experience.

But I suspect that many--even most pew-sitters are not approaching worship that way. They come wanting to be moved, even transported. For many people, that means that if we don't use something in their preferred style or lexicon, they don't connect with worship...which is a rather consumer-oriented approach to a community experience.

It's sort of a conundrum for me, really. It seems to me too little to hope for to just get off on worship; it should work on me a bit. On the one hand, worship should be a kairos moment, and I should be able to forget myself and my location in time/space; that's both a relief and a communion. On the other hand, how will my faith grow if I don't learn to figure out where to discover the gift in music that doesn't immediately speak to me personally? Because that also builds communion over the long term; it teaches me connection in the way that synapses connect axons to dendrites: they learn to connect by needing to connect.

If we don't experience the gap, how do we learn to cross it? And if worship includes all that we are in the presence of God and one another, isn't the willingness to weave those connections an essential part of that experience?

So, yes--music transfers emotion from one person to another. But not always without our willingness to make it happen--to be full agents of the musical experience for ourselves and for one another, to the greater glory of God. That's what makes church music a bit different: the minute we act like an affinity group, we veer off course from our deepest purpose. In the end, it's not about the music itself. It's about learning to live as "we" in an "I" world.


Fran said...

Oh my gosh- this is good, really good.

Thank you - you write this from your heart so beautifully.

Living as we is a challenge in the middle of the I I I I I.... of it all.

And when it is done it is grace and gift. And what greater grace and gift than music?

Diane said...

boy did this resonate with me, both the good and the bad, the we and the i of it, and the manipulation,even.

(I did some time in the charismatic movement in the late 70s)

How are you, by the way?

Mompriest said...

I whole-heartedly concur, yes.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

This is really so brilliant. Coming from the other end, it serves as a reminder to me not to be too impatient with church music that might be more meaningful to others than it is to me at the moment. Because of having grown up fundamentalist, so much music is forever tainted by the manipulation you write about. Your post makes me rethink my resistance and wonder if I could be more graciously tolerant.

Cecilia said...

This is why (this tension between being transported and the potential for manipulation) I'm very careful about singing in church (as part of a sermon, for example). I do it, I've done it, but i have to be careful not to let it stand in for the (sometimes) more demanding work of crafting a sermon that will have the same (or approximate) effect.

Love your voice.

Anonymous said...

Great article. There is a blog out there that gets to the heart of this too.

Have you seen it. I bet they would be interested in music too.