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Mark Noll

Praise the Lord

Song, culture, divine bounty, and issues of harmonization.

Many readers know Mark Noll as a historian of American religion, others first as a chronicler of transnational evangelicalism and author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a formative influence on Books & Culture. Some know him as a poet. But he is also a lover of music who has edited and contributed to several collections of essays on hymnody over the past few years. So it's altogether fitting that in responding to this year's question for the Christian Vision Project, What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?, he should frame his answer in terms of the power of singing—a power capable of building Christian community and also of dividing believers and their communities one against another. How should we think about that power today, in this in-between time? How should we make music in the light of the vision vouchsafed to John when the door of heaven was opened to him, and he heard voices praising God without ceasing?

An old German proverb runs: "Wer spricht mit mir ist mein Mitmensch; wer singt mit mir ist mein Bruder" (the one who speaks with me is my fellow human; the one who sings with me is my brother). In the world Christian community today, nothing defines "brotherhood" more obviously than singing. As it was in the beginning of the limited Christian pluralism in 16th-century Europe, so it remains in the nearly unbounded Christian pluralism of the 21st century. As soon as there were Protestants to be differentiated from Catholics, Calvinists from Lutherans, Anabaptists from Lutherans and Calvinists, Anglicans from Roman Catholics and other Protestants—so soon did singing become the powerful two-sided reality that it continues to be.

One reality was that believers who together sang the same hymns in the same way came to experience very strong ties with each other and even stronger rooting in Christianity. Psalm singing nerved Huguenots to face death and devastation during France's violent religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Palestrina gave an incalculable boost to the Counter-Reformation when he provided masses, hymns, litanies, and magnificats that for many Roman Catholics became as expressive of their faith as the congregational singing of Protestants was of theirs. In his fine book Singing the Gospel, Christopher Boyd Brown has shown that Bohemian Lutherans survived several generations of imperial Catholic pressure because families and lay groups were so much strengthened by the hymnody of Luther and his tradition.1 Anabaptism was a movement of song—non-instrumental, non-clerical, non-elitist—as well as movement of belief; when Brethren or Mennonites sang, unaccompanied and in free form, the hymns of Michael Sattler, who was martyred in 1527 for his Anabaptist beliefs, they were affirming who they were as Christian believers and who they were not.

Which brings us to the second reality. As much as hymn singing has always been one of the most effective builders of Christian community, it has also always been one of the strongest dividers of Christian communities. In the early decades of the Reformation, Calvinists broke with Lutherans over several important matters, but one was existentially apparent at every gathering for worship: the singing. Lutherans sang hymns that with considerable freedom expressed their understanding of the gospel (like Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" or "From Heaven High I Come to You"), and they often sang them with choirs, organs, and full instrumentation. Calvinists, by contrast, sang the psalms paraphrased and with minimal or no instrumental accompaniment (like the 100th Psalm, "All people that on earth do dwell," which was prepared by William Kethe for English and Scottish exiles who had taken refuge in Calvin's Geneva during the persecutions of England's Catholic Mary Tudor). However natural it may now seem for Protestant hymnals to contain both Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" and Kethe's "Old One Hundredth," in fact it took more than two centuries of contentious Protestant history to overcome the visceral antagonism to "non-scriptural" hymns that prevailed widely in the English-speaking world. It was even longer before organs, choirs, and instrumental accompaniment were accepted.

In other words, long before the contemporary "worship wars" that have become such a central feature of both church formation and church division in North America, battles over song littered the historical landscape—from full-scale encounters in the Reformation era to major skirmishes in the early 18th century over introducing the hymns of Isaac Watts (who offered loose paraphrases of Scripture), then a bit later over the hymns of Charles Wesley and other notables of the evangelical awakenings (who mostly gave up paraphrasing in favor of biblically normed accounts of Christian experience), over the use of organs and choirs (much debated throughout the 19th century), over whether and where to sing the gospel songs of Fanny Crosby and Ira B. Sankey (much derided as dangerously sentimental), over how to regard the burst of hymn-writing attending the rise of Pentecostalism (ditto), and, most recently, over what to make of the Jesus People bringing rock-n-roll into the church (the Jesus People and their heirs have triumphed, though many true lovers of rock regard the outcome as a Pyrrhic victory).

This long history of both solidification and division raises an important question: What explains the power of song so powerfully to shape, anchor, encourage, disturb, unite, divide, and distract Christian communities?

It is a much better question than can be answered in a brief essay on what the churches must learn and unlearn in order to be agents of God in the world. Yet at least part of the answer is that singing is a deeply rooted expression of culture. Becoming self-conscious about culture and why, as illustrated by Christian experience of song, reactions to cultural expressions are so powerful has become imperative. With people, goods, and communications both electronic and print now flying around the globe at unprecedented speeds, and—more important—with almost all Christian communities daily confronting ever-expanding instances of cross-cultural commingling, the church's effectiveness as the herald of salvation and the hands of Christ for service in the world depends, now more than ever, on self-conscious attention to cultural differences.

Culture is defined in various ways, but I am using it to mean the frameworks of understanding, in the broadest sense, under which people carry out their lives. One classic definition came from the recently deceased anthropologist Clifford Geertz: culture, in his depiction, is "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, and systems of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [people] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." Thus, song as a cultural expression is made up of verbal and aural symbols that express, or heighten, meaning because of how people have experienced music throughout the life course.

In these terms, culture is substantially assumed, given, unquestioned, and instinctive—though it can also become self-conscious over the passage of years or when alternative expressions intrude into daily life. For example, you can become aware that your instinctive emotional reaction to an old hymn, a school fight song, or a snatch of elevator muzak is not a universal human reaction but something resulting from your own singular biography and the associations you have experienced in connection with those particular songs.

Likewise, culture exerts a very strong pre-cognitive hold over how people experience the world, but it is also possible for cultural attitudes and reactions to change over time, and for people to learn and unlearn what strikes them instinctively as right. For example, even late in life you can self-consciously learn to appreciate, and even be moved by, Dave Brubeck, J. S. Bach, and probably Twila Paris. 

Moviegoers who are conscious of connections between the scores they hear and what they are watching on the screen know that Martin Luther once caught it exactly: "For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate … , what more effective means than music could you find?" We are what we sing, the music we listen to regularly, the music we instinctively like, the music that brings tears to our eyes or a charge of energy to our spirits, the music that expresses our deepest longings and strongest loyalties.

Scripture recognizes the cultural depth of music by simply accepting and recording its fundamental importance—from Genesis 4:21 (with the throwaway reference to Jubal, "the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe") to Revelation, where the living creatures surround the throne of God and sing "day and night without ceasing … 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come'" (4:8) while every creature, "myriads of myriads and thousands and thousands" sing "with full voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!'" (5:11-12). Yet in the book of Revelation it is noteworthy that when the great gathering of the redeemed is described—"from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages"—this gathering is said to "cry out" its praise ("Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" [7:9-10]), while in the same scene the angels around the throne are said to "sing" ("Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen" [7:11-12]).

Imagine a fully harmonious and spiritually edifying service of Christian worship where new Christian believers played Palestrina on the indigenous musical instruments of Burkina Faso.

Too much should not be made of the difference between "crying out" praise and "singing" praise. But it does point to the fact that singing is a special challenge when Christian believers gather from every land and tongue or, we might say, from every culture or even subculture. The new Christian music of Andean, Thai, Tanzanian, or Mongolian congregations can be jarring to most believers from the West, even as Western hymnody can be as alien to those congregations as Western individualism, Western economics, or Western clothing (culture vs. culture). Likewise the contemporary praise of Hillsong can sound like an unintelligible musical tongue to believers whose roots are deep in Charles Wesley or John Newton, and vice versa (subculture vs. subculture). In these and many other occasions of musical disharmony, we see again the countervailing realities that have long marked Christian song: music is an exceedingly powerful medium for securing Christianity in a community; different forms of music are one of the most obvious manifestations keeping worshiping communities apart. Explaining why both realities exist requires attention to several theological truths.

Classical theology, as augmented by the rich insights of contemporary missiologists, is clear about a great deal that goes into a Christian understanding of culture. First, God is the originator of everything that constitutes culture. The accounts of early Genesis are peppered with culture-making creations, including the naming capacity of language (2:19), the internalization of standards defining right and wrong (2:16-17, 3:1-14), the use of tools for human purposes (4:22), and, again, the capacity for music (4:21).

Second, without denying that humans abuse the creation for sinful purposes, Scripture is also clear that, because all humans are redeemable, so also can the structures of all cultures be used to honor God. Thus, at Pentecost many languages conveyed the gospel message (Acts 2:4-11), even though at least some speakers of the various languages must have held others in contempt as deficient, barbaric, or uncivilized. The Apostle Paul, when addressing the Athenians (Acts 17:26-28), recognized the worth of innate religious longings and also of artistic works arising from cultures that had not yet received the gospel. And in Revelation we read that into the City of the Lamb at the end of time will come "the kings of the earth" with "their glory," as well as the people who "bring into it the glory and honor of the nations" (21:24-26). This text is plausibly referring to the ornaments of civilization disbursed throughout the world's various cultures. The pointers toward a potentially positive evaluation of culture, wherever it is found, have been spelled out by the missiologist Andrew Walls: "Christ took flesh and was made man in a particular time and place, family, nationality, tradition and customs and sanctified them, while still being for all men in every time and place. Wherever he is taken by the people of any day, time and place, he sanctifies that culture—he is living in it."

In such a Christian view, cultural diversity is a good thing because it manifests the bountiful fullness of God's creating and redeeming work. Drum sets and pipe organs and the kora (a 21-string harp used by the Mande in Senegal) may all, therefore, be employed with great effect to praise God as the author of salvation—at least for those to whom drum sets or pipe organs or the kora are culturally appropriate. To make this affirmation would seem only to flesh out the joyful proclamation of 1 Timothy 4:4, "Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God's word and by prayer."

But what then of Christian life together? If you are a believer who worries about throwing up when you find yourself too close to the drummers during an extended praise set—or a believer who falls asleep before a Bach prelude gets to the fugue—or a believer who doesn't really feel the gospel until it is accompanied on the kora—then the divine sanctification of cultural diversity would seem to cancel out the divine mandate for Christian unity.

The solution may lie in a third theological affirmation—that we are living in "the time between the times," the "already but not yet," where the gospel is really and truly active in the world but not yet manifest in its completeness. In this suspended age, signs of the fully realized Kingdom do abound. It is said that William Wade Harris, who early in the 20th century was so important for indigenizing Christianity in several West African locales, loved to sing "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending," a great, but also complex, Wesleyan hymn from the 18th-century evangelical revivals. Later in the 20th century, a North American, Robert Savage, who worked at radio station HCJB in Quito, published popular gospel songs for Latin America's nascent Protestant churches that skillfully used local instrumentation and tempos.

The increasing number of such examples makes it possible to imagine a fully harmonious and spiritually edifying service of Christian worship where new Christian believers played Palestrina on the indigenous musical instruments of Burkina Faso, where an African American gospel choir led in a chorale of Heinrich Schutz, where white middle-class Presbyterians surged with Christian ecstasy to the beat of a drum, where teenaged believers filled up their iPods with the Robert Shaw Chorale, and where learned Western theologians delighted in a nearly infinite repetition of "God is so good, he's so good to me."

That it is possible in these last days—in days of increased cultural self-awareness, cross-cultural contact, intra-cultural antagonism and appreciation—to imagine (if not yet to realize) such a vision means that the miraculous day draws nearer as described by the psalmist millennia ago:

Praise the Lord! … Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Or, we might say today, "Praise him with syncopation and on the beat. Praise him with 5-tones (the Thai xylophone), 12-tones (most Western music), 24-tones (Arab music), and all scales in between. Praise him a cappella, with orchestra, and with drum set. Praise him with works of supernal intelligence and greatest simplification. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Together."

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

1. Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005). A review is forthcoming in Books & Culture.

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