Dear Church Family,
We have discussed congregational singing previously in this series on the corporate worship of our church. We have discussed the importance of understanding the complementary relationship between words and musical setting in corporate singing. And, we have discussed the importance of thinking about corporate singing in terms of discipleship rather than simply its pleasure inducing qualities.
In our order of worship at Hill Country Church (PCA), we typically sing another hymn immediately following the reading and preaching of the Word and the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. The selection of this hymn is usually based upon – or at least connected in some way to – the sermon. Thus, this final hymn will oftentimes be a congregational song that emphasizes that which was proclaimed in the sermon, or some specific application which is derived from it.
High, Folk, and Pop Art
Since we are once again talking about congregational singing, this might be a good time to discuss the various types of musical aesthetics and how we might employ wisdom in thinking about these aesthetics in the context of the corporate worship of the church. Musicologists, sociologists, and students of aesthetics (particular those who think about worship music) generally distinguish between high, folk, and pop art (see All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers or Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon or With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship by Reggie Kidd).
One helpful way to think about and define these categories is as follows: High art is ‘art for art’s sake’ and tends to be produced by those who have been trained and made the study of art their life’s work. Folk art is ‘art for the community’s sake’ and tends to be more colloquial and accessible without great study. Pop art is ‘art for the consumer’s sake,’ the production of which is often based solely on whether or not it is marketable or will appeal to the masses.
These three different types of art are typically described as relating to one another in a hierarchical fashion – hierarchical with regard to their development and not necessarily their value or goodness. What that means is simply that historically, high art has been developed within the realm of a tradition – musicians and artists study and learn from those who have come before them. Folk art (e.g. the music that families and communities sing together) has developed as an offshoot which is dependent upon high art. Similarly, pop art has historically depended upon the traditions of high and folk art.
However, in the 20th century these relationships changed. This is one of the major points in Ken Myers’ book All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes. Writing in 1989, Myers put it this way:
“Every form of cultural expression builds on something else. In high culture, artists (at least those worth paying attention to) work within a tradition…Folk culture has a more direct and organic tie to tradition. Popular culture, too, must build on something, if for no other reason than that it needs some raw materials. Up until the last decade or two, popular culture has tended to rely on high culture and folk culture for its raw material.” (p 70)
Myers illustrates pop culture’s use of the raw materials of high and folk culture by pointing to how Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse conducted Moussorgsky’s “Night of the Bald Mountain” in Fantasia and how these early pop culture cartoons also drew on arias from Puccini and Verdi. In my own experience, I remember watching Bugs Bunny give Elmer Fudd a shave and a haircut in the operatic tradition of “The Barber of Seville.” Yet, according to Myers, the relationship of pop art to high and folk art has changed:
“Since the 1960s, the aesthetics of popular culture have effectively displaced those of high culture…Popular culture doesn’t ‘look up’ to anything today; it simply looks back at its own past. Once popular culture paid homage to high culture (e.g., the classical music used in Fantasia); today it is fascinated with the popular culture of the past. In fact, the roles have become reversed: while popular culture ignores high culture, the institutions once committed to the preservation of high culture are obsessed with popular culture.” (p 72)
In other words, we might put it this way: at one time popular culture fed off of high and folk culture, but today, popular culture feeds off of itself. As a result, popular culture becomes anemic. Of course, this is a generalization – not all expressions of popular culture have become un-rooted from high and folk art; nonetheless, it is the norm in the vast majority of the pop culture expressions of our day.
High, Folk, and Pop Music in the Church
So, how does this relate to corporate worship? Well, throughout the history of the worship of the church, the musical aesthetics of corporate worship were typically drawn from high and folk art. In fact, it is easy to see how these two are interrelated. Typically, the music of corporate singing in worship has drawn from high art (professional, studied musicians) and folk art (musical forms that developed within the community of the church or family). In our church, most of the musical settings that we use in corporate worship are drawn from high and folk art, as well. The vast majority of music of the hymns in our hymnal and Psalter are what would be considered ‘folk art’ music, and several of them might be considered ‘high art’ music; however, ‘pop art’ will typically not be found.
There are many problems that come with incorporating ‘pop art’ in the worship of the church. Here are just three. First, because pop art (in this case, popular music) has an aesthetic that is defined by consumerism (what sells), it encourages individualism and sentimentalism – if it feels good to me, it must be true. Second, pop music is derivative in nature (at least once removed) from the traditions of high and folk music; thus, it encourages passivity rather than active engagement in the musical forms. Third, if Ken Myers is correct, in the second half of the 20th century, pop art has become dislodged from its roots of high and folk art; thus, the forms of pop music themselves usually encourage a mind-set that is opposed to tradition and authority.
Perhaps some of these categories and ways of thinking about music are new to some, and I recognize that some of the statements that I’ve made deserve fuller development. But, I’ve attempted to introduce these concepts and categories simply to engender some proper ways of thinking about the appropriateness of certain forms of music in corporate worship. I may not have done justice to the definition of these categories, their histories, and how they relate to one another, but my hope is that I’ve at least sparked your interest such that you might pursue further reading and study of these matters.
My argument for the appropriateness of high and folk music in corporate worship, and the exclusion of pop music in corporate worship, may not sit well with everyone. But hopefully, it helps us to think in categories that are different than “I like it” or “I don’t like it” with regard to the appropriateness of the music that we employ in corporate worship. [In addition to the books linked above, I recommend this short article by Ken Myers in which he describes the dangers when the Church embraces the aesthetics and idioms of the pop culture around them: “Is Popular Culture Either?”]
Don’t get me wrong, I personally enjoy many forms of popular music. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I personally don’t enjoy certain forms of high and folk music. But, by using these categories and thinking about ‘appropriateness’ rather than ‘likes and dislikes,’ my hope is that we will be better equipped in thinking about those musical forms and settings that are fitting for the corporate worship service – forms and settings that can actually sustain the weighty matters of the gospel and the truths of God’s Word.
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch