Why Does the Culture Need Our Music So Much?

Dr. Marva Dawn

There was a great art exhibit in London a couple years ago. This was reported in The Economist, and this art exhibit was called “A Hundred Artists See God,” and they were all contemporary artists. The Economist, which is a secular journal – now that’s why I think this is so amazing — reported that people should remember Renaissance art. Now those of you who might be art historians or art majors, what was the main topic of art in Renaissance art? The Bible. And what would people paint? Yes, scenes from the Bible, and you said Christ. We always saw the baby Christ, the little boy Christ, Christ and John the Baptizer. (He’s not a Baptist; the Presbyterians can claim him, too.) We saw Christ in the temple; we saw Christ doing miracles; we saw Christ at the well, yah? Story after story after story visually represented, but you always saw the face of God.

Now in this contemporary art exhibit, which then went to Virginia Beach so it was in the United States, not one single painting showed God. The exhibit was called “A Hundred Artists See God,” and not one of the paintings ever showed God. The one that came the closest was a painting of light. You know that God is called light, and in Him there is no darkness. That was it.

Why the change? I want you to ponder this deeply, because that says a whole lot about what is going on in our culture, as opposed to African art, for example, or Korean art. Why the change? Yes, please. They didn’t want to offend anybody. Right. Since when does my expression of my artistic vision depend on not offending someone? It’s a major change, isn’t it? What else? Exactly. They are painting out of their own character that has not been formed by any imagination of what God is like. What else? Not knowing God personally. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

It reminds me that last weekend at the funeral of my husband’s aunt we were sitting around, and all the cousins were telling stories about Aunt Lou. One of the cousins’ husbands is a pastor, and he said that one time he was talking to Aunt Lou about why people get into all these fights in churches. And Glen, being a pastor, was giving all these sociological reasons, such and such going on in the culture, and such and such going on in the culture, and such and such going on in the culture. And, finally, Aunt Lou just said, “I think it’s because they just don’t really love Jesus with all their heart.” I think these artists just don’t really love Jesus with all their heart, or wouldn’t they want to paint Him?

Now the fact that that vision was missing is why the culture needs your music so much to see God. And there are all kinds of ways your music paints it. I’m thinking back again to Dan Bubeck’s concert, or we could take the flute concert this morning. This is so wonderful, having these yummy concerts, don’t you think? Thank you so much, Vince, for putting that all together.

Just call out some ways you saw God in Dan’s concert. Beauty, you saw God’s beauty. When? Give an example. So not only in the words but in the way his craftsmanship brought the beauty of God. Amen? How else did you see God? Give an example of something you saw about God. OK, so in his face, in his personal expression that comes out of his character. You could tell it was of integrity. You could tell it was not phony; it was not put on. You all know when you watch a performer if it’s just put on. Right? Yeah! Amen. How else did you see God? In Dan’s voice, and his voice also had that kind of timbre of honesty, didn’t it? You knew that he was expressing his faith. What else? And the shading and the energy, all the things you are talking about brought out the nuances of the text, didn’t it, so that you heard the text, not only textually, but you heard the text musically. Could you all hear what Stu Sacks was saying? Let me underscore his emphasis that it pulls you out of the cerebral into a more mystical, a more full experience.

There’s a new book coming out; I just blurbed it for Alban Institute. Do you all know about Alban Institute? It primarily does books for pastors, and musical leadership, and whatever. Anyway, this new book is called With All My Mind, and the author is Robert Glick, a seminary professor. Now, Stu said something earlier that I had planned to pick up on, and for our last ten minutes we will think about three words. When people are hungry for God, they are hungry for the unity of their whole bodily engagement.

Throughout the history of philosophy, the ancient philosophers tried to figure out what is the core of humanity. What’s the classical trio of the core of humanity? Anybody know? Let me get at it by telling you about one of my publishers. I have this editor who belonged in an evangelical church. He said it was a really good church; the people were so good to each other; and he had learned goodness there. But there was absolutely no beauty. So then he joined an Episcopal church, and he said, “I got all the beauty that I could imagine, but there was no goodness there.” He said it was an extremely liberal church so there was no truth there either. So finally he joined a charismatic, conservative Episcopal church, and he said, “I finally found truth, beauty, and goodness all in one place.”

You don’t have to like the illustration, but the point is that every person in existence craves truth, beauty, and goodness. If you look at all the philosophers throughout history, you find that is the big triumvirate. When I was in high school, we had a choice between taking physics or great books of the Western world, and the physics teacher was the same as the chemistry teacher, so I chose great books of the Western world. One of the things I remember of all those guys – Aristophanes, Aristides, and all those “A” guys (we hardly ever got past “A”) – is that they all talked about truth, beauty, and goodness.

Now I want us to think together, because we will think better as the body than merely alone. How do you portray truth in your organ playing? I am talking here not so much about text as where truth is to be found in the way you play organ or the way you play other instruments — flute, handbells, whatever. I don’t know what you all play. What makes it truthful? Yes, please. Precision. That’s an excellent word. That keeps it truthful.

Have you all had an experience in which somebody who is not very experienced plays a piece and hesitates too long, and you just hang there and then fall on your nose? Because the precision is missing, you actually miss the truth of the melody. Are there any other words that help you hear truth in music, that help people hear God in new ways? Yes, the truth of your own character as you play and the words she [the respondent] stressed: humble and repentant and Holy Spirit. What else makes truth in our music?

Let’s move to texts. If you pick the hymns or songs or spiritual songs, whichever is being appropriately used at this place, what about text? How do you judge texts? Is it faithful to the Word of God? Any other criteria by which you judge texts? Is it God-centered? Yah! So there’s not so much emphasis on me. Even emphasis on “we” is better than “me.” I have noticed how much change there is in the last 100 years between hymns that were all about us and hymns that are all about me. Now it’s not that you can’t, once in a while, say “me,” but it ought not to predominate. So there’s an emphasis on the truth of the body of Christ.

You know, people say, “But I want to sing ‘I Come to the Garden Alone.’” I advise them to sing that at home, because it’s a really good personal devotional song, but it doesn’t include the other believers in the body. You don’t need public worship for that. I’m not opposed to that song; it’s just better for private devotions than for public worship. Yes? Occasionally, I might use it in a public worship but not very often.

Anything about truth in a text? Is it clear? That’s really important. And if it’s not clear, maybe there needs to be a word of explanation. When we sing “Here I raise my Ebeneezer,” everybody goes huh? What’s an Ebeneezer? You have to take them back to the account where in Hebrew “eben” means “servant” and “etzer” means “help.” So we’re actually singing, “Here’s my help servant” and that God has led us this far, and so we plant this stone to remember that God has led us this far, and we can go on the rest of the way. Well, maybe once every other year that ought to be explained so that there can be truth and clarity in the text.

Other words that you might call up for truth? Is it good poetry? Yes! Schlock poetry is not harmless. If people sing schlock, they live schlockily. I don’t even know if “schlock” and “schlockily” are words, but pretend they are because they sound exactly like what I mean.

Yes? Anything else? Yes, please. Not forced rhyme; that the rhythm doesn’t get sprung so often that the rhythm gets lost; that the rhythm matches the melody. That’s just a good start.

That the images are of integrity; “coherent” is the word I wanted there. Let me give you an example. I sang a song once that said, “As I float down the stream of life, you are the anchor of my soul.” Why are you laughing? What’s so funny about it? Yeah. Are you floating, or are you at anchor? Do you see what I mean? It is incoherent, and so it makes you go, wait a minute.

Or let me give you an example from liturgy, although this is in one of my books. I usually don’t repeat what is in my books, but this one was so good. I was preaching at a church, and it was the only time I almost walked out of a church before I preached. We were doing a liturgy of how we thank God for the big and small things, and the congregation was actually supposed to say, “And I thank you, God, for the many guises of the lowly egg.” You know, poached, scrambled, the many guises. I call that the lowly egg liturgy. There is a real problem with the images there. You know, that didn’t just bring us into gratitude for small things, that trivialized God. So non-good poetry would trivialize God, would use images that just make you laugh instead of help you see God better.

One of the small practices that helps me not be subjective about whether something is good poetry is to try singing it 15 times and see if I can still sing it again. The hymns that
we have in the hymn book are there because they are the ones that have lasted. The schlock was thrown out 100 years ago. And there was lots of schlock 100 years ago, 500 years ago. There has been a lot of garbage throughout history, but if it hasn’t got something that calls me to sing it again, enables me to hear new things when I sing it again and again and again, or calls me deeper and deeper into the heart of God when I sing it again and again, then it will not last.

I remember one time when I was working at a camp, and one young woman gave me some songs that she had done. She said, “I would like you to look over these and see if they are any good.” They were just awful, and I had to find a couple of specific things that were very objective so I could help her see what was the problem. I showed her one and said, “Well now, have you played around with this image a little bit so that it’s a little more biblical in the way you use it?” She replied, “That’s the way God gave me the song. I never change anything.” I’m sorry, but poetry just doesn’t usually come in one flash! Sometimes it does, but that’s not craftsmanship.

You’ve all heard the joke about the preacher who was preparing to preach when the bishop was going to be there, but a whole bunch of things came up in his congregation during the week, and so he only got halfway done with the sermon. He preached the half of the sermon that was prepared and then preached the other half of the sermon by the gift of the Holy Spirit. He told that to the bishop, and the bishop came to him afterwards and said, “You know, I noticed that there were two distinct styles in your sermon. There was one style, and then about halfway through, there was a whole different style.” And the young man said, “Well, that was because the first half I prepared, and the second half was by the Holy Spirit.” The bishop looked at him and said, “Young man, congratulations.” The guy responded, “Well, thank you. Why?” The bishop retorted, “You’re better than the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit depends on foundation. Let’s think about that, those of you who were in Sophie Veronique’s master class. Why can she do what she does with improv? Number one, remember she always stressed, “I have a form.” There’s a form, and out of that form she taught us her three main kinds of forms.

If you play a lot of Bach,then you are more able to improvise using Bach’s kind of figures. Yah? If you play a lot of modern stuff, you are more able to improvise. A lot of people simply can’t improvise because they don’t have enough repertoire in their background to know the kind of figures that you can use. It’s simply a matter of bringing this entire character of the formation of all the tunes you’ve ever done. Those give you a backlog of things that help you improvise. True? I mean, I never could play by ear on the piano until I learned to play guitar and learned chordal structure better. Various fingerings came lots easier because I had learned to play clarinet when I was a kid.

Let me stress something for the poets among us. I can tell instantly whether a poet is immersed in the Scriptures or just picking something out of the Scriptures and going with it. Immersion in the Scriptures will give us how those images are fleshed out, and then we can use them more truthfully.

Well, we’ve spent a lot of time on truth. What about beauty? What kinds of words, what kinds of skills do you associate with showing the beauty of God in your music? Excellent. Does the text enhance or detract? I would guess that almost every phrase in every hymn can be played differently according to the text.

Have you ever heard of David Cherwien? He’s an organ name that you need to know. He’s one of the best improvisers I know in the U.S., and he has written out some of his stuff and it’s great organ music. He is the cantor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church where Paul Manz used to play. Anyway, David Cherwien was demonstrating organ at a worship conference in Eugene, Oregon, where they have the Oregon Bach Festival. He played a hymn where every single phrase matched in sound what was going on in the text. And this hymn had a very repetitive second verse. All of a sudden, he switched to very different pipes and played it very somberly. Then, in the third verse, it was about the King of Glory. He pulled on the trumpet stops and did fanfares between the phrases of the hymn.

Now some of us don’t have that skill. I don’t. I can’t pull it off that fast, but usually you can do it by verses. But then the music much more enhances the text and lends to its beauty. We heard that in the way Dan sang that last hymn. Every verse accentuated the theme of that verse. Thank you.

Let’s just look briefly at the word “goodness”. How does the music that you play grow the people into the goodness of the Lord? Or how is your music goodness? Now this one is a little more of a stretch, but let me give you one example. We were with one of Myron’s cousins once removed, a young man who plays in a rock band. At the funeral he was telling us how all the musicians playing in his rock band have certain kinds of ear plugs. He told us that the lead singer has a special kind of ear plugs costing $350! They are particularly crafted. What does it say if the musicians need ear plugs, and they are on the other side of the speakers?

You all know that medical research has shown that kids in our culture are increasingly becoming deaf. Are we good if in our churches our music is so loud that it’s causing people to become deaf? I raise that question here, but you would be astonished to know how many churches have never asked it. I’m partially deaf already, so I’m extremely sensitive about my ears. I have been in, I bet you, 300 churches in the last 26 years where I actually had to leave the sanctuary because the volume was a danger to my ears.

Snare drums were designed for the battlefield. I’m serious. This is something that you all need to know. Snare drums are not too loud; they are too percussive. The very design of the snare drum head was so that it could be heard over gunfire and rally the troops. Its sound is so sharp to your ear that what it does to you medically is shut down the ear drum. How well can you sing when your ears are shut down? I say that to people again and again.

There is nothing wrong with percussion of various sorts, but let’s make sure that we are using padded mallets, or why not use all kinds of African instruments? There’s a bazillion kinds of percussion you can use. But you don’t need snare drums. You can use rainsticks, congas,and other kinds of heads that are not designed to be heard on a battlefield.

I’m not opposed to snare drums. I know people that are very good snare drum players, but they are in marching bands. At a Mennonite conference, I heard a snare drummer play exquisitely. He used padded mallets so the percussion did not shut down your ear. He used just the right amount of percussion so that it actually aided the beauty of the song and was, at the same time, good. So there are all kinds of ways we could talk about goodness, but I had to mention that one because its is a big problem in a lot of churches.