By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
Earlier this year, I saw a quote from Pope Francis in which he decried the banality and simplistic nature of today’s sacred music and hoped it would improve.
There is much that the Pontiff says that I very much like, but this quote (and it is not the first time I have read something like this about sacred music) very much rubs me the wrong way. It will take a few paragraphs, but let me try to give voice to why this concerns me.
In general terms, I think what is sacred and spiritual is based on personal preference. There are moments in my life in which I have found profound meaning, from a faith perspective, that you may have walked by without even noticing. Music is an individual taste and to claim one specific genre as the be all and end all, to me, sells God short.
I may well ruffle feathers with what I am about to say, but say it I will. Much, in fact most, of what is in our hymn books leaves me cold. I simply don’t feel the music and thus the deep and spiritual words may well pass me by.
To dismiss some kinds of music as banal and simplistic is to miss the creative point of all music.
Those who know me, won’t be surprised when I say that organs of any make or description do not appear anywhere in my top 50 list of beloved musical instruments.
For me, the words of the song/hymn/chorus are the important spiritual element, so I need music that draws me in to be able to savour those words and dwell with the meaning in my soul. I don’t think it fair to try and claim one musical style as sacred. Scripture tells us of a variety of instruments used to praise God.
Now let me walk down another branch of the same path that may be fraught with thorns.
I find deep spiritual meaning in all different kinds of music. Rebel country musician Jamey Johnson spurs the spirit in me with his Lord Lead Me Home and In Colour. George Strait’s Love Without End and I Saw God Today bring me to contemplate God’s gift of family. In my advancing years, I have found much in the ’70s music that I listened to that allows me to ask deep questions. (In the ’70s all I cared about was how loud it was).
This took me to an interesting experiment in my first ever foray into youth ministry more than 30 years ago. Having just returned to church and sadly lacking in any educational foundation to know how to do youth ministry, I asked the group to bring in a song, any song, in which they could find spirituality. I remember that one young man, who was only there because his parents made him and used to sit and glare at me, was wildly enthusiastic about playing and talking about Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi. Furthermore, it prompted him to talk openly about what is meant to pray!
Shortly thereafter I went on a Cursillo weekend and was amazed that the music team did a passable (and loud) version of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky. Next I was asked to work a TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) weekend on which we sang the Youngblood’s Get Together at increasing decibel levels. Many would call the songs I’ve mentioned above, banal and simplistic. I would disagree based on the spirituality they awakened.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with people about whether Led Zepplin’s Stairway To Heaven is a song of faith or a rock and roll money maker. (It is a wonderful entry point for a conversation with someone who doesn’t attend church!) For the record, Robert Plant, in a short introduction of a live version of the song says it is a song of hope. Isn’t hope a significant part of what we are about?
There is a song by the Five Man Electrical Band called I’m A Stranger Here which has taken me to deep thought and much prayer about who we are, what we are doing and just what God might think about our way of life. Is that not deeply spiritual? Is that not where we want music to take us, straight to the Cross and into a discussion with Jesus. To be honest, it’s not what the musicians intended, but rather where God draws us that is the significant factor.
Just recently I ran across, for the first time in many years, a song called Pilot by Canadian artist Ian Thomas. Do I think the words of the song are written about God in the way I understand God? Not likely. But do the words make me pause and think long and hard? Absolutely! The music is haunting, inviting and very moving for me, drawing me into a conversation with the Almighty.
I’m not advocating for a complete change in our music. What I am saying is that to dismiss some kinds of music as banal and simplistic is to miss the creative point of all music. Music tugs at our soul, soothes our spirit and takes us to a place of deep contemplation.
We all like different music. Rather than exclude, I’d rather include and invite people to find what works for them! And yes, I’ll say it! I think we could all use a greater variety of music in our lives and in our worship!
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is Rector at Holy Trinity St. Stephen’s Memorial, London.