(A humble, open response to church music legend Austin Lovelace)
I did not have the chance to attend a valuable piece of church music history. The American Guild of Organists honored the life and legacy of Austin Lovelace on Sunday, October 4 at a wonderful church right in my own Denver back yard. Anyone who has labored intensely in their field for 70 years deserves appreciation, and Lovelace deserves double, because he embodies the finest representation of the “old stock” of church musicians—theologically thoughtful, musically brilliant, intensely creative, and unwaveringly devoted. The Denver Post’s 10/3 article said, “Walk into any mainstream Protestant church, and most Catholic churches, and the hymnal will have at least one of his hymns.” This alone is no small feat, but couple this with everything else he’s done, and you realize that you truly stand in the presence of one of the greats. My colleague, Douglas Macomber (organist and choirmaster), speaks highly of Lovelace from personal experience. Thank God for Austin Lovelace. My respect for him should color what follows.
I’m responding to a particular comment made, which, because quoted in brief, could be taken out of context. However, I’ve heard it enough from pure traditionalists like Lovelace that I feel compelled yet again to speak, admitting that I’m making some assumptions about what is behind his statements. First, the Post reported:
As for the contemporary Christian sound that rocks megachurch auditoriums these days, “I prefer music,” Lovelace said.
The obvious assumption here is that the pop music often found in megachurches is not music. If this truly was Lovelace’s statement (and not an edited version of a longer sentence, which it could have been), I have to take it as purposefully demeaning. Though as a classical musician I resonate with the sentiment (so much out there is musically trite), I have to respond that the spirit of delivery was not at all what I had hoped from a man who has spent 70 years laboring for and loving the bride of Christ. Perhaps it’s not good music. But it’s still music. Instead of an elitist comment, I’d prefer at least a few bullet points of argumentation, such as, “I find the music trite, unimaginative, and shallow.” At least that offers some content behind the complaint. To be fair, having recently spent 45 minutes behind an interview camera, I know how reporters can proffer loaded questions intended to elicit those kinds of juicy responses.
Secondly, the Post went on to quote Lovelace:
I do not think that entertainment music is appropriate for church. The music should be the servant of the text. And the text has to be of spiritual value.
The first sentence needs several responses. First, how do you define what is “entertainment music?” There is a degree of entertainment in all kinds of music, including classical. If by “entertainment music” Lovelace means “the music of popular culture,” then I have to challenge Lovelace’s view as short-sighted. There are not a small amount of instances throughout the music of church history in which the tunes, styles, and instrumentation of the popular culture of the day made its way into the church. Of the many genres that comprised Luther’s early hymn-collections, it’s well-known that the bards common in the local taverns found a place among the reformer’s hymn-tunes. “Ein’ Feste Burg” (A Mighty Fortress) seems to have been initially composed for the common instrument often used in entertainment-settings—the lute. Two centuries later, D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey took their portable organ to Scotland to “bless” the Scots with this new, passionate church music. The old-time Scots were outraged, claiming Sankey’s organ to be “the devil’s chest of whistles.” There is at least some parallel between their sentiment and Lovelace’s claim, exposing an enormous irony in the long-time organist’s statement. It is simply the case, again and again in church music history, that one generation’s “entertainment” music becomes codified into the next generation’s “sacred, traditional” music. I try to think of church music as redeeming all kinds of music for holy use, without making sharp distinctions between music which is for “entertainment” and music which is “sacred.” There are too many nuances which make a sharp line impossible to draw. As is often the case throughout Scripture, it appears more an issue of the heart (of the leader/planner and of the worshiper).
The second thing I’d like to point out is a tad peripheral. People who lodge complaints against “rock music” forget that at least part of its origins are in the church. Rock’s grandfather is the blues, and at least part of the origin of the blues involves the African-American Christian experience. The African American spirituals, especially the laments, are “proto-blues” expressions, both musically and emotionally. So there’s one “church music” origin. Second, many point to Elvis or the Elvis-era as the beginning point of modern rock and roll. Analysis of Elvis’s “newness” was in his joining the rhythm and blues style of that era with the white gospel style he grew up in. The latter is a descendent of the musical tradition especially out of the Second Great awakening. In the light of this, the music of Sankey and his cohorts was “proto-rock-and-roll!” I point all this out not to make some flashy rock-is-rooted-in-the-church argument. It’s not that simple. But I do point these things out to reveal that there’s always been a cross-pollenization between the “entertainment music” and “church music” in any given era. This reveals at least enough gray area to show that there are holes in Lovelace’s claim.
Lovelace’s second set of statements was, “The music should be the servant of the text. And the text has to be of spiritual value.” The assumption behind this is that so-called “entertainment music” cannot possibly serve the text, and its text cannot possibly have spiritual value. Firstly, I wonder if Lovelace has ever analyzed rock music from a more technical level (I’m reading through a book right now that is doing that: Rock & Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development, by Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb). I believe that if he would, it might open him up to both a healthy appreciation (even if he didn’t like it) of the art form and a sense that the art form is malleable enough to be a good host to carry and accompany text. There is so much proof of this in modern worship music out there that I don’t feel I need to say more. Secondly, I question how well Lovelace has explored the textual repertory of modern worship music. There are some absolutely brilliant text-writers out there (admittedly amidst a sea of bad writers). I’d point Lovelace to Matt Redman, Keith Getty, Vicky Beeching, and Brooke Fraser, to name a few. In addition, I hope it’s encouraging to Lovelace that there is a growing movement of people setting old hymns to new music, attempting to reshape the modern worship scene.
My compulsion to respond to Lovelace was not based on a reactionary defensiveness, but on a hopefully sincere desire to bring the church of Christ to greater wholeness. I believe, when viewed in fairness, that the church music divisions so often drawn don’t have to be so disparate and polarized. I further believe that Christ calls us to labor intensely to keep the oneness which, when divided, speaks negatively in our mission to the watching world.