Does anyone go to the St. Olaf Christmas Festival to hear the gospel read? For some reason, I doubt it. If you hear people speaking about Fest in referential, religious tones, it will probably have little explicit connection to the birth of Christ. You’re more likely to hear the audience praising the St. Olaf Choir than praising God. Martin Luther said “music is second only to theology”. Yet for at least the duration of Christmas Festival, music is second to none.
The first order of business in assessing Christmas Festival by the standards of the reformation is figuring out what precisely Christmas Festival is. Is it a concert? If so, then why the gospel readings? Is it a religious service? Then why are people paying for tickets? In truth, it is neither here nor there. For the purposes of this short blog I will consider Fest as a religious service.
Considered as worship, Fest is in line with Lutheran musical standards. It uses music to convey theological messages and to enhance spiritual experiences. It draws heavily on vernacular music. This use of vernacular music is where Fest most obviously goes into muddy waters. We must ask whose vernacular music Fest uses. There are often performances of spirituals or songs in African or Latin styles. All from the mouths of overwhelmingly white choirs. For Luther, the point of the text and music being in the vernacular is to make them more accessible to the laypeople. Put familiar language to a familiar tune, and suddenly theological messages are much more accessible than Latin texts set with complex counterpoint. Why then, the spirituals? Why the African choral pieces? Why the Chinese Christmas carols?
These cultural excursions reveal that, at least in part, the music is not about accessibility. It is not about sharing valuable theological messages. It is about music, for the sake of music. One might argue that the plurality of styles and cultures present at Christmas Festival do suggest a theological message. A message of happy, cooperative, global Christianity. This is naive. That message may be there, but it is sullied by willful ignorance of history. Watching nearly all white Ole Choir performs spirituals about black oppression is cringe-worthy. Though perhaps this is a Lutheran thing to do. It bears a passing resemblance to Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.
Though Martin Luther would be baffled by contemporary identity politics, I suspect he’d be horrified by how easily theology is relegated to the sidelines at Christmas Festival. For many of the attendees, music is elevated above all else. The music itself becomes the object of worship. Beautiful Savior is worshiped as opposed to the beautiful savior Himself.