The Sum of -Praise And Worship" Is Neither . . .

Robert Getz

        Hymnody within Christendom has degenerated to the point that there may be no hope. There is no semblance of theological or literary consistency within hymnody in the English language and the music varies widely in quality from sublime to silly. However, the uninhibited superficiality of so-called - "Praise and Worship" has brought us to the abyss of the absurd.

        There are three elementary aspects of valid worship-music, each dependent on the others: 1. theological focus, 2. syntactic lucidity, 3. musical veracity. Pick your own adjectives, the point remains clear. - "Praise and Worship" offers none of these; worse, it seeks to destroy all of them.

        Some ask, - "Then why is it so popular!?" Pornography is even more popular – a poor justification for either venue. This tyranny of prevailing opinion is, more often than not, generated by ignorance, insecurity, laziness and self-absorption. It is intellectually vapid and amounts to nothing more substantive than watching the Late Show – it is nothing but entertainment. Hymnody should inspire, elucidate and challenge, with entertainment being but an ancillary byproduct.  In - "Praise and Worship" self-centered entertainment is the raison d'etre.

        Herein we will illustrate that so-called - "Praise and Worship" abuses spirituality, music and language. It abuses spirituality by gravitating toward shallow and amorphous language and abuses music via schizoid metric meanderings and incomprehensible harmonic and melodic inferences. That it abuses the natural laws of musical sense would seem to need no defense. However, we will offer but a few of the points that make this case. A miniature musical primer is needed to illustrate.

        Music is, to a significant extent, governed by a set of laws of nature that begin with the harmonic series. Every note is made up of a hidden ladder of other tones that grow increasingly closer together and fainter as they ascend. From these various note relationships our entire harmonic system is derived. Further, but unrelated to the topic of this writing, the prominence of the various tones determines the color of the sound, giving each different instrument it's distinct character. When the relational aspects built into this tone ladder are observed, chords can be formed to take on various levels of strength or weakness. When a chord is a strong one it assumes a rhythmic stress which the late Walter Piston of Harvard adroitly dubbed -"harmonic rhythm". That is to say these chords lend a sense of natural weight to a given note. These natural stresses are what distinguish a waltz from a chorale and give marching soldiers a natural notion of when to place the left or right foot down.

        Music must, for the sake of performance implementation, have divisible meters that arrange the whole into manageable bits generally called measures or bars. Each of these is divided into strong and weak beats. For example, in common time there are four beats per bar, the first being the strongest, the third being second strongest, the second being weaker and the fourth being the weakest of all in anticipation of the next measure's first or "down"  beat – STRONG, weak, strong, weakest. It is a quite natural and understandable organization of resources.

        Harmony is most generally applied to reinforce these natural laws. When it is not organized accordingly we encounter musical chaos. In the right hands this can have artistic results that bring satisfaction. Leonard Bernstein, for example, wrote a piece wherein all the beats in a measure amounted to weakest beats like the fourth beat in a bar. The result is a momentary, intentional disorientation for the listener. In fact, it gives the illusion of being far more complex than it actually is. However, it is a very sophisticated technique which bears wonderful fruit when rhythmic/harmonic order is eventually restored.

        Competent composers understand this and manipulate these natural resources to their own artistic ends. Incompetent ditty writers demonstrate that they are ignorant of these natural laws. Many of the Gospel songs of the last third of the twentieth century, and almost all of what has grown to be-called - "Praise and Worship" fall into this category of disregard for music. It is not a new aesthetic but rather an anti-aesthetic. I could write volumes with scientific and aesthetic certainty demonstrating that this latter day aberration is so reckless in its indifference for anything resembling a musical aesthetic or tonal logic that it cannot be referred to in any way as music. Exactly what it is I cannot say.

        At this point it is appropriate to note that the very naming of the genre (as well as the attitudes of its pugnacious proponents) imply that it alone represents manifest praise and worship. This abuse of the terms is similar to Blacks commandeering the words -soul", -brother" and -sister", and homosexuals the now-abused word -gay". None but Blacks can apparently have -soul" and there is no -brotherhood" but the black one. Both concepts are patently absurd. Likewise, there is little if anything that could authentically be dubbed - "gay" about homosexuality. One might ask if - "Praise, My Soul, The King Of Heaven" and/or - "Just As I Am" just might not involve praising and worshipping God. Authentic praise and worship should involve genuine reverence before a God of boundless love, not maudlin theatrics and sloppy sentimentality. If ever the phrase -uninhibited superficiality" applied to anything, so-called - "Praise and Worship" is it.

        One has, at this point in the argument, heard it said that - "this is not about music, it is about praising God!" To this I offer that if we are setting about to praise and worship an omnipotent and loving God, then it is humanly impossible to set the bar too high for the quality of our strivings. Bach, arguably the greatest of all composers, believed this and, even with his seemingly boundless gift, felt unworthy and strove for better right up to his dying breath . . . as did Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and other greats. This - "Praise and Worship" stuff not only doesn't strive for beauty and excellence in its utterances, it flouts them. - "Anything for Jesus" has more than one connotation and they elect to interpret it to mean - "anything will suffice". This applies to far more than just musical aesthetics.

       Drop Thy still dews of quietness
            ‘Till all our strivings cease;
              Take from our souls the strain and stress,
                  And let our ordered lives confess
  The beauty of Thy peace.


        Whittier apparently felt deeply enough to pen some of his most glorious poetry in reverent worship and praise of God. Perhaps he foresaw this latter-day drift away from beauty and depth when he penned this verse.  The words - "foolish ways" in fact reflect Whittier's Quaker belief that raucous behavior had no place in worship. The great American composer, Charles Ives (no stranger to raucous music!) understood this when he set Whittier's words to music in one of his most transcendently beautiful and tranquil songs, appropriately entitled - "Serenity".

                Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
                    Forgive our foolish ways;
                Reclothe us in our rightful mind;
                    In purer lives Thy service find,
                In deeper reverence, praise.

        Where in - "Praise and Worship" is there anything remotely to resemble such spiritual depth and linguistic beauty? Nowhere, of course. However, citing Whittier may be seen as unfair. So let me become more banal, but no less deep. A little chorus whose author is unknown to me, but which words are supported by a lovely little melody also of unknown origin, is spiritually salient, syntactically sound and musically rewarding.

                Teach me how to love Thee,
                    Teach me how to pray,
                Teach me how to serve Thee,
                    Better day by day;
                Teach me how to serve Thee,
                    Better day by day.

        Both composer and lyricist took the time to say something worth pondering and repeating. One could hardly find more challenging and inspiring words, and the melody can be learnt in the time it takes to hear it once . . . upon which it is impossible to forget. There are hundreds; at least, if not thousands of such gems that have been thrown aside in favor of the mindless ramblings of incoherent words accompanied by aural impossibilities.

        The entire - "Praise and Worship" movement seems to equate shallow emotionality with spirituality, which is of course a fiction. The theatrics that accompany this genre boggle the mind. One has seen the gyrations and tears turn on and off as though by a mechanical switch. Then, driven by insecurity, the sycophants in the crowd fall into lockstep and the howling grows louder. I have often been moved to tears by spiritual experiences, emotional encounters, nature, and sublime musical or poetic utterances. I am not a cold man, far from it! However, to suddenly start flailing my hands at the ceiling and weeping just as the wailing of some - "Praise and Worship" doggerel breaks the silence is at the best theatrical and at worst disingenuous and idolatrous blasphemy. Jesus warned against praying just to be heard, and there is little doubt that the - "Praise and Worship" devotees do this thing precisely to be seen and heard . . . but none others wish to witness it. Therefore I would recommend that they follow another admonition of The Master and take it all back into their closets . . . wherein I would find no offense in it! Non-music wedded to clumsy lyrics about superficial theology expressed via maudlin emotionality hardly seems the stuff of worship or praise of anything but itself . . . the golden calf of the twenty-first century!

        "When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride . . . Cha-cha-cha!" This rude transmogrification of Watts' words is actually more reverential and aesthetically satisfying than all but a few -"Praise and Worship" expressions.

        I must revisit a question cited earlier in this tome: - "then why is it so popular!?" Precious little in this life that is - "popular" is - "good". However, the real culprits in this madness are the clergy. With rare exception they regurgitate the over-chewed cud of generations of intellectual and spiritual laziness and follow the trends of secular society rather than challenging society to a higher plain. - "Praise and Worship" provides them with yet another dodge and something with which to feign a ministry. They have fanned the flames of this movement with their slothfulness and cowardice. Musical ministers are, more often than not, cut form the same cloth. - "Praise and Worship" is very seldom requested by the masses, but it is demanded by a noisy few that are never content until it eclipses most of the rest of the liturgy and all of the music.

        If I had a penny for every time I heard - "I HATE the stuff, but we've gotta give them their time", I'd be wealthy. COWARDICE. We are NOT "giving them their time", but OUR time! Clearly there is less courage of conviction within Christendom than without. Divinity schools teach Greek and Hebrew and, apparently, domineering-dogmatism . . . but not cognition, leadership or courage.

        Even a suckling has the good sense to spew back the stuff it doesn't like. If we are content to be force-fed the watery slop brewed by the alchemists of decline, then we deserve to starve to death . . . and will.

               Were the whole realm of nature mine,
                   That were a present far too small;
                Love so amazing, so divine,
                   Demands my soul, my life, my all.
 

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