Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Music in worship: consumption or conversation?

From the May 2011 edition of Third Way magazine:

"...I went on going to church and I think I had the same values, only no longer quite with belief behind them. I went on with church music, which I liked a lot. Religious music still moves me, in a way that I suppose it shouldn't, if you like. It's not something that a Christian would think of as religion, but it's a substitute." (Professor John Carey)

I think Professor Carey articulates something very important to understand: that it is possible to appreciate religious music (or art or whatever) in such a way as to gain some benefit from it, even spiritual benefit - but this is not the same as worship. I think I would want to describe the difference as being between a consumer of religiously flavoured produce and being engaged in a conversation with something other than our own desires and perspectives. It is the latter that counts as worship, not the former.


  1. I think that is reductive, and unfair to Carey. There certainly *is* a category of "consumer of religiously flavoured produce" -- witness the many millions who have bought the Chant CD as a background to dinner or whatever. But Carey seems to be at a place *between* that and actual worship. He is moved, perhaps even *religiously* moved by sacred music, to an awareness of the transcendent, the Good and Beautiful. But he can no longer connect that profound intimation with the *religion* found in church.

    I think there is a real, more general pastoral problem here. You say that he "articulates something very important to understand," yet you proceed, I think, to misunderstand it. I have the same experience in the (tiny Anglican) church that I attend, when earnest fellow congregants, and even the priest, talk fearfully about the "unchurched" around us and the daunting task of reaching them, while ignoring the fact that (1) there are a several dozen other churches in our city (this in the Southern USA), some of them 10 times our size, so that most of these people are not "unchurched," just not at *our* church; and (2) the remaining people are not all living empty, materialistic lives (as the conversation always seems to go on to suggest) -- they may be living rich, spirit-filled lives that no longer seem to intersect with the institutional church. It might be malicious to add that, from my jaded perspective, it seems that it is mainly the church-goers, the "religious," who are the mindless consumers of religious produce, and are themselves living the emptiest, most materialistic and self-satisfied existences.

  2. Actually I have no doubt that religious-flavoured consumption happens in every church. The difference is that (normally) there is leavening of the bread. Have you read the whole interview? I'm pretty sure I didn't misunderstand the good professor!

  3. Yes, I suppose the interview as a whole *does* suggest that Carey is not moved in the way I suggested (though he takes religion a lot more *seriously* than the average consumer of religious things). In any case, I'm sorry if I sounded a bit snippy -- too many recent, frustrating conversations in which I've had to bite my tongue!

  4. Interesting post sam. I thought I might offer my two penneth worth... it seems completely absurd to me that music in church like a lot of other stuff is almost entirely catering for the white, middle class palate. If we are to recognise, praise, worship even the higher power through our music then it's about time we stated to use a lot more music of black origin... soul, gospel, R&B and boogie woogie in church.
    It just doesn't have to be hymns by long dead white composers, although it has to be said some are really beautiful. The irony of the situation for me is that secular music feels more 'spiritually fuelled' than what's dished up in church. 'Cause that's what it's all about isn't it?... 'religiously flavoured produce' vs.'being engaged in a conversation with something larger than ourselves'. Then surely we have to get our boogie muscles twitching.



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