Music and Religion: What I learned and What I’ll take away

This was a very good class for me to take. It forced me to look at religion from a very different perspective than what I’m accustomed to doing. I was seeking more of an experience where I could learn more about how religion and music intersected and how each fed off the other. I certainly got that from this class in more ways than one. Through the process of reading the class readings and podcast topics thinking of how to incorporate these two topics together, I was forced again to see how complex this intersection is.

Like I said in my first paper, as an evangelical Christian, I wish that life was much more simple and black and white. I wish that religion wasn’t so complicated and that music wasn’t so complicated too. Ten people (even evangelicals) can look at the Bible and come up with completely different interpretations of the same text. There’s too much subjective opinion, and that is one thing that will always frustrate me about life in academia. You can never find an objective truth, and you’ll spend your whole life writing your educated opinion. I want something more practical for my life.

But that being said, the process of research and writing has also been very invigorating. Through my work in this class, I’ve been forced to face some challenges to my pre-conceived notions and have needed to defend my views logically and succinctly. Through thinking through my faith, it has made it stronger. This process of thinking and questioning used to terrify me, but now I realize that it’s OK to read other views and consider them (this has been a process my whole college career). Through thinking about music’s connection to faith, I’ve come to love music even more as I start to understand that God created all music to glorify Himself.

I wish we had dug more into practical theology and how music and religion helps us live our lives, but I know this isn’t Bible college. I’m very happy though I went to a college of the Church where I could ask these questions, and this class has just made me want to learn more about music and my faith. As a future seminary student who intends to keep on teaching music, I want to know how my two loves can be combined to live out my fullest vocation. This class got me started for sure, and I’m very grateful it was an option for upper level history (nothing else would have been nearly as interesting and fulfilling as this course).

Bach’s Mass in B minor (and why finding research is so hard)

I decided to take on the Kyrie from Bach’s mass in B minor. I haven’t actually heard the mass before, so I’m really excited to listen to it and find good information about it.

To my surprise though, it’s REALLY hard to find articles about the Mass (at least on Academic Search Premier and JSTOR)!! I found many little 2-3 pages articles (some written in 1888, a little too dated for my purposes…) and some promising articles (only to discover they’re in German. I guess I shouldn’t have taken French…). So as of right now, I have no idea what direction my paper will take.

But, the nice thing is that there do seem to be quite a few good books written about the mass (now whether they’re in our library is the question now…). So, I suspect there will be good information somewhere. But, I’m struggling at the moment to see how i’m going to write a paper that is all that different from the Bach paper I just wrote (basically making Bach a fully sacred composer). The mass is the epitome of sacred music, and Bach certainly composed it that way. So, I’m not sure at this point how I’m going to make a compelling and unique argument about this mass (given what seems to be a lack of good sources).

i know with the tools we’ve been given in this class and St. Olaf, I’ll come up with something good. It just seems quite daunting at the moment! But, all the best arguments were a little unconventional and off the beaten path, so I guess that’s my job to explore that brush as I continue researching.

Research is Hard: And Other Thoughts about the Research Process

I’m going to be honest, I have a potential topic (Christian hip hop and trying to apply some of the lenses I talked about in my first paper), but I have not done sufficient research as of yet to justify it. Life gets very busy on the Hill, and thus time is very limited for the vast amount of things I have to do on a daily basis. I’m barely sleeping as a result, and I’m still behind in virtually everything.

But, I can talk about the process of research and writing because I have done it numerous times and will do it for this paper ASAP. As my title states, research is hard work. You have to find good quality academic sources (something that’s hard with my topic being such a personally felt one, not much academic research has been done on CCM music. I was lucky to find the excellent book I found that is the basis of my interpretation of my second paper), and sift out the good information from the bad. With our class as well, we are asked not to just spit out information and conclusions that other people have already come up with, but to synthesize and evaluate all the information to come up with a new and interesting thesis that no one has ever thought of before. While this is a very exciting prospect, it’s really tough to do. It requires you to pick and choose sometimes what scholars have said to make your own point, forgetting some things they said that actively contradict you (if you’re really doing a great paper, you have to answer those challenges within your argument). You have to spend a ton of time synthesizing very complex and dry articles into a compelling and persuasive paper. On top of all of this, you have to credit your sources and be super paranoid about plagiarism.

It’s a really tough but fun process. I wish that I had had time thus far this semester to really fully invest in this course and give it my all, because this is scholarly work that I actually finally care about. These next two months will be better, and I can’t wait to finish off this course with products that I’m really proud of individually and collectively as a class.

Christmas Fest: Worship or Performance

First off, a quick apology for the tardiness of this post. Orchestra tour has kept me busy!

But now on to the fun topic of talking about Christmas Fest. Some of my most powerful musical experiences have come from being a part of Christmas Festival at St. Olaf. No matter how stressful it always is to memorize those hymn verses at the last minute or preparing all the rep we have to do memorized, in the end I’m always satisfied musically and spiritually through this process. But our discussion last Thursday brought up a very important and interesting question that I’ve thought about often: Is Christmas Fest a worship service or a performance? More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, what would Luther think of Christmas Fest?

First off, I would argue that just because something is a performance doesn’t mean that it can’t be worship. For me (and I believe also for Luther), what really counts is the motive behind what you are doing, in other words, are you doing this Festival for God or for man? With this festival admittently this isn’t an easy question to answer. Christmas Festival is a huge money maker for the college and one of the main events that has put St. Olaf in the national radar. Every day is sold out and packed with very wealthy alumni, who all have expectations of what happens during Christmas Fest (like Beautiful Saviour at the end of every night, there would be literal riots if we didn’t sing that song). So in that sense, we are undoubtedly putting on a performance based on consumer expectations and tradition.

But at the same time, is there anything wrong with that? Can’t we still worship even if part of the motive is commercial? This is a dichotomy that I talk about extensively in my paper about CCM, but I’ll summarize my point by saying that inward motive is more important then outside factors. While I can’t judge the motivations of every participant, for me I am actively worshiping as I participate in Christmas Fest. I’m aware of it being a performance, but that’s not at the forefront of my mind when I sing and play. When I perform, I am doing it for Jesus and His glory. Now as I’ve mentioned before, I have a very conservative evangelical outlook on life, where everything I am is based on Him who gave me life. I am always very aware of being too much a performance and not worship (much of my concern with CCM is this), but I don’t think Christmas Fest is struggling with this in nearly the same way. As Luther said “Why should the devil have all the good music”, and in general I would agree. Thus, Christmas Fest can be worship and performance in my mind, because preparing performance well only contributes to worshipping God in my mind.

The Wonders of Academic Research

I will honestly say that I have not done quite enough research yet to justify my topic fully. There’s still more that I can do for sure to have the fullest sense of my topic, but with the limited resources I have, I think I have a fair sense of where my paper could go (I actually now need to read the sources and figure out for sure).

I’m hoping to make the nuanced argument that the CCM movement was overall a positive development in the history of Christian music, but that there are numerous theological and praxial (this word meaning how people live their lives/perform CCM music) problems that are troubling for someone who cares deeply about the mission of spreading the Christian Gospel. The sources I have I think will help me make this argument, but I don’t know exactly yet how the argument will be shaped out. I may very well need to do more research to solidify things.

Firstly, I found a couple solid articles examining the theological content of CCM music, which I’m positive will be very helpful as I aim to talk about the theology of CCM (not comparing it to Luther yet, that will hopefully be my final paper). I also found an excellent paper talking about the conservative anti-rock discourse and its connection to culture wars that I hope will help me talk about the very interesting dichotomy between on one hand condemning rock and on the other hand appropriating much of secular music into the CCM movement. There’s also great sources about the history of the CCM movement and how it’s been seen as entertainment and worship, another dichotomy I would explore.

Again, I don’t know yet exactly how this paper will take shape, and the difficulty with this topic in particular for me will be maintaining my scholarly objectivity. I’ve grown up listening to and loving CCM music and never really having a problem with it (except recently for reasons I’d outline in the paper), so it would be difficult for me to fully understand other Christian traditions who don’t have that as part of their experience. I hope that I can take the evidence where it leads and write an objective paper (which is why I specifically propose a nuanced view of the movement instead of an overly positive one). I have a lot of work to do yet on this paper (I’m behind the A-ball for sure), but I’m excited to do the work and see where it leads because this topic (and class) means so much to me personally and academically.

Music: The Power to Change Lives and Develop the Whole Person

I honestly say that the reason that I am a future music educator/conductor is because of my deep faith in God and the influence He has had in my life, and my desire to share that experience/truth with others (full disclosure, I write from a conservative evangelical perspective, very different from the Lutheran tradition we have at St. Olaf, although we have much in common).

Without God, I see no purpose for the music we do and more broadly for the lives we live as human beings. I am uncomfortable with the notion that music is purely a human construct or an environmental evolutionary event, because I am well aware of the intense power of sacred music to move people emotionally and lift people up to experience a little taste of the Divine (in a manner that no purely humanistic/naturalistic invention can truly accomplish) in the midst of the evil and ugly world we live in. Music shapes us as individuals and religious people, showing us the best way to live and inspiring us to allow God to change our hearts and walk with Him, thus changing our lives for the better in the process.

I agree fully with St. Basil and Augustine who claimed that music has the power to bring the Divine down to Earth in ways beyond words (like Augustine explaining the Jubilee in Weiss-Taruskin 10), and as Basil puts it “while we were singing we should learn something useful… the teachings are in a certain way impressed more deeply on our minds” (Weiss-Taruskin 9) . As we sing, we learn more and more about God and His incredible love for us as expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (who I don’t believe was just a great teacher, no musical tradition so beautiful could have developed from as C.S. Lewis would put it “a lunatic or a lier”). Music provides hope for the hopeless, healing for the broken-hearted, and a reminder of the amazing love that God has for us, and thus the love we should have for each other.

There’s a reason beyond the musical elements why I wept profusely every time I heard “It is Well With My Soul” paired with “Beautiful Savior” last year at Christmas Festival. It is Well was written after the lyricist Horatio Spafford (the tune was written by Philip Bliss) lost the majority of his family in a shipwreck (all four of his daughters died, but his wife survived), and the words he writes with such deep faith in the midst of unbelievable tragedy comfort me every time I hear them that “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say. It is well with my soul”. Beautiful Savior reminds me of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and how awesome He is. Combining the loving tenderness shown in “It is Well” with the majesty of “Beautiful Savior”, I am reminded of God as a loving and majestic God at the same time, without needing to hear a sermon about it (as a potential future pastor, I love sermons. I think music does an even better job of conveying truth).

I fully understand the power music has in other faith traditions, and I acknowledge that the reasoning is probably very similar. But for me, my most meaningful moments as a musician have been in choir after we have sung a beautiful anthem to God when everyone is just silent and standing in awe of the aesthetic beauty that just occurred (I get the same feelings in orchestra, but text makes it even more powerful). For me, I just tasted the love of God on Earth, and that is why music is a universal part of worship because I believe others have tasted this as well whatever tradition they call their own.