The hymnody of the church has historically been a repository for doctrine and prophetic reflection. Music in the church has trained both our heads and our hearts in faith and courage throughout the ages. In the most classic sense of Christian liturgy the assembly sings to (and about) God knowing that in the assembly God is truly present gathering God’s people together in the unity of the faith. If the need of the moment calls for lament or rejoicing it has been in song the Church has come into one voice. Sacred music has been prophetic in that it publically critiqued the oppressive and exploitive behavior of the ruling class in their respective settings in life (Hendricks 2011). The hymn writer has been our prophet in that they have threatened cultures power structure by holding up a mirror to its folly and showing where such folly leads (Pearce 2002).
What troubles me as of late with the entrance of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) and Contemporary Gospel music into the sales market is that the song can be so easily misinformed. Its words may not be the true faith of the church; and its modes may too often be the powerful performance of a few experts, thereby barring participation of the assembly (Lathrup 1993). Music produced for consumption and with the motivation of commodification, in that its purpose is radio play and record sales, seems to lack the deep reflection and doctrinal substance that has been the hallmark of sacred music throughout history. The problem with the commodification of sacred music is not that it is profitable, rather that it is profit driven and in our current cultural reality many times lacks any serious prophetic critique of cultural realities that stand against the true message of the Gospel. There is no good news where there is a failure to acknowledge the realities that produce the need for good news. It seems that the Christian music of post modernity is forgetting the disreputable sunbaked Hebrew founder of Christianity and the lived realities of his station in life completely.
What we need is a resurgence of prophetic critique in the modern music of the church because it would seem our music has an overall unwillingness to critique or even acknowledge systemic injustice and unrighteousness. A prophetic critique can be defined as principled public criticism of and opposition to systemic injustice (Hendricks 2011). Singing together to and about God means also having at the center of our music what is the heart and mind of God. Without a prophetic critique our modern writers fall guilty of the sin of Sir John Newton the famed author of ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’, who made his money from the sale of slaves to the New World (Thurman 1976). Our modern writers sell us into slavery when they fail to give us the prophetic lyrics of liberation.
Every generation has its own sound and if you fail to capture and value that sound they will find other venues to host it. As a constructive theologian with a liberative lens I am listening for the soundtrack of my work, and I must admit I am hard-pressed to find it in the church. Where are the hymnist who will dare to challenge the status quo – move beyond capitalism conflated as Christianity and write music that will push us to do the same? Who will offer a critique of separation and division caused by racism and the sin of xenophobia? Where are the writers who love Gospel grounded in resistance discourse; those terms, phrases, figures of speech that are common to subjugated people and calling them in some way to resist the oppression to which they have been subjected (Hendricks 2011)? Does anyone love us enough to provide the church with music written for the people by the people toward the end of deliverance of the people? What are we singing?
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Hendricks, Obrey M. 2011. The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible , the Church, and the Body Politic. MaryKnoll: Obris Books.
Lathrup, Gordon W. 1993. Holy Things. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Pearce, Joseph Clinton. 2002. The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit. Rochester: Park Street press.
Thurman, Howard. 1976. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press.