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  • Writer's pictureWesley Snedeker

Thursday Afternoon

I'm sitting in the sanctuary at my church on a Thursday afternoon. I'm listening to our organist practice this Sunday's prelude.

And I let myself get swept up in the triumphant old hymns rattling the pews. I love old church music. When my sister and I were little, we didn't really attend church because of loyalty or community or politics, all factors that are deeply important to me now. My parents were (and are) musicians, and since church gigs are a great way to supplement a young musician's income—especially in Naples—we attended whatever church could afford to hire professional singers, chamber orchestras, and soloists. And so, somewhere deep inside me, the music that resonates through me on a Sunday morning can often be as meaningful to me as the theology proclaimed from the pulpit.

I'm a Protestant minister now in a denomination that wears its pilgrim heritage on its sleeve, so the above admission is kind of embarrassing (and, to my ancestors, heretical). Music is one piece of a whole experience for the worshiping body, an experience that should be guided by certain understandings and expressions of God-encounter and directed toward the transformation and restoration of the community. Music has a role in that (affectively, some would argue, as it is efficient at providing catharsis and fostering solidarity through shared emotional experience and identity), but it is certainly not the main attraction, as it was for me and my sister when we went to hear my parents play. Especially not the organ, an instrument at which an activist mentor of mine rolled her eyes as she called it "rich churches' golden calf." It pains my musician's heart to agree with her, as the lavish spending that many privileged institutions pour into their big, shiny appendages far outpaces the resources they commit to making a difference outside their own walls. Still, however, I hum along with the tunes on this Thursday afternoon.

The floor rumbles with "I Heard The Voice of Jesus Say," and I think back to the early Reformers, only one of which was really into music, at all (Luther, who was so enthusiastic about it that he published a vernacular hymnal in 1524). Calvin, in large part the theological Godfather of Protestantism, tolerated music, but wanted to make sure it knew its (significantly diminished) place, so his churches could pretty much only sing if their words were taken right out of the Bible (White, James F. A Brief History of Christian Worship. 137). Zwingli outlawed it entirely. This is ironic given that, unlike Luther and Calvin, Zwingli was a multi-instrumentalist and gifted composer (ibid.). He justified his prohibition with the claim that the gospel should be followed at all costs and saw music as a distraction. Perhaps his intimate relationship with sound impressed upon him the power of its art. Perhaps his own intoxication with it could tempt him away from the things he believed to be more fundamentally meaningful.

But here I am now, listening to "Be Thou My Vision," so Zwingli apparently didn't win. My forebears came to non-scriptural hymnody first through Isaac Watts and then (quite ultimately) through Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. Around the same time, Bach was developing his sacred music in Leipzig (ibid. 172). Music would inevitably and permanently pervade Protestant Christianity, and the deeper participation and ownership it brought worshiping folk in the context of the service cannot be overstated. And I am grateful for this. I am the product of church musicians, after all. But along with the beauty and continuity that the hymns have given our tradition, the struggle remains of place, of theology, of the yearning for continuity across generations becoming distorted into the enforcement of sour thinking on fresh minds.

My denomination has changed the words to many of the old familiar hymns. Sometimes it's a little clunky, but I don't think it's particularly problematic. Many of the most treasured American hymns are riddled with outdated or simply lousy theology. Many call back to a time in American pietism when the only relationship that mattered was the one between the solitary individual and their lightning patriarch in the sky (which is, needless to say, completely irrelevant to the gospel of Jesus Christ). Many are harshly heterosexist or loaded down with theories of atonement that see the aforementioned father God torturing his son to make the sinner feel bad and give a little more money. The church can do fine without them. Besides hymns, one can worry, too, about the imperial heritage of most Western classical music (which I also adore) and whether it is appropriate to Christian worship. To what extent does its colonialist lineage make it antithetical to the gospel for the oppressed, the ministry of reconciliation, and the God of love? Is this tradition of sound just an extension of that golden calf? Is reclamation possible?

I don't have an answer yet, but I know it matters. And as I let another mighty organ melody wash over me, I am reminded of how much I believe in the worshiping community and its decision to meet each week (perhaps despite the theological thinker in me). Melody is, after all, interactive. Its arrangement, performance, and reception are impossibly varied across contexts, and a melody will speak to each of us differently each time we encounter it. Religion is, of course, this way, too. And so I try to open myself to the practice of meeting it where it is and letting it meet me, remaining aware of its problematic past, but also committing myself to its transfiguring potential.

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