Disappearing (Musical) Languages?

Anthropologists and linguists have been decrying for years the disappearance of spoken languages around the world as globalization proceeds apace. Today, however, I mourn the disappearing of some Christian musical languages.

I’m speaking at Mount Hermon Conference Center this week, in the hills above Santa Cruz, California. Mount Hermon serves a diverse constituency, and one of the ways its diversity is manifest is in its music program.

During the week, most of its music is Christian contemporary rock. I’ve been here a few times before, and I’ve always been impressed by the high quality of the musicians here. The program director I’m working with, Dave Burns, is a particularly talented keyboard player and song leader with whom I have enjoyed jamming a little at previous conferences—which amounted to me borrowing a guitar and playing the six good licks I know before handing it back.

Anyhow, Christian contemporary rock is the main music language of “happening” churches all over North America, Britain, Australia, and beyond. As simplistic as it certainly can be, both lyrically and musically, it has considerable range of expression when used by talented composers, singers, and instrumentalists.

What it can’t do, however, is say everything that needs to be said. I remember enjoying a selection of a Górecki symphony at a colleague’s home and thinking, “There is no rock song in the world that could prompt me to think and feel quite the way this is making me think and feel.”

Today I felt the same way when a beautiful new organ was played here at Mount Hermon by one of its designers. A great hymn played on a great organ speaks a musical language that no rock anthem can duplicate.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to rock as much as the next person, and have been known to crank up my Godin electric guitar or Fender bass upon occasion. There are sentiments and ideas that rock can express that organ music can’t.

But “rock and roll is here to stay,” it seems, and great organ music, I fear, is fading from the scene. It’s amazing, actually, that Mount Hermon has invested in this wonderful instrument, so perhaps I’m wrong and organ is making a comeback. But I’m afraid that this is the exception to a general rule. How many organs have you seen played lately—even in churches that still have functioning instruments?

Pianos, for their part, still get played. But today I enjoyed singing some nineteenth- and twentieth-century gospel songs accompanied by skilled pianist in what I call “white gospel” style. Less syncopated and funky than (black) gospel, white gospel is characterized by lots of scale runs, hammered octaves in one or both hands, and melodies occasionally dropping to the left hand for contrast. It’s hard to play well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

I heard it all the time while I was growing up: my mother was pretty good at it and played a lot at our church. I learned it, too, and I remember the renowned historian of American evangelicalism George Marsden teasing me about that style when I accompanied some Wheaton College faculty members singing before a lecture of his twenty years ago. Even then, George remarked, that style was clearly dying out.

Who plays it anymore—who, that is, who is less than 40 years old? I’m 48, and I have never heard anyone younger playing that style.

Furthermore, the songs it suits best are themselves heading fast for the archives. So, again, a whole musical language is disappearing, with its particular brand of honesty, seriousness, and delight.

Is there anything to be done? Well, the Welsh, among others, would tell us to keep alive the languages we love. Those who still speak them must take them up as sacred causes, maintaining these vital ways of perceiving and articulating the world without which humanity is diminished.

Keeping alive old languages does seem immensely impractical. The universal imperatives of Mammon (that last great deity to emerge in the history of religions) militate against this diversity as they seek to repair the scattering of Babel by insisting quite rationally on just a few major languages—the better to foster the global economy, of course.

I’m all for international communication via this or that lingua franca. But there remains a unique beauty and power in French, or German, or Hebrew, or Arabic, or Chinese, or Korean, or Swedish, or Swahili without which we human beings experience the world and express ourselves a little (or a lot) less well.

How much more is that true for us in worship, as many, many of us now confine ourselves musically to what can be felt and said in contemporary rock—and usually pretty mainstream versions of it at that?

I’d better sign off now, and go practice some holy arpeggios.