I was in the audience this past summer in Oxford, England, when Pastor Rick Warren (Purpose-Driven new statesman of evangelicalism) made a comment in a plenary address that has stuck with me: “There is no such thing as ‘Christian’ music,” he pronounced in his seasoned style of rhetorical provocation. “There are only Christian lyrics.” Wow. Let that sink in.
The statement, though a popular one for Warren (it appears verbatim in The Purpose Driven Life), was by no means the focal point of his largely feel-good address that day, but for many in attendance who believe in the real, communicative presence of art, Warren’s comments bordered on offensive. The pastor overlooks a rich history of Christian art in which truth and meaning (“the content”) burst forth out of the forms (melodies, brushstrokes, etc) themselves. Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Vaughn Williams: their music was often lyric-less, but nothing if not Christian. “Music is brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression,” said literary/art critic George Steiner in Real Presences. “In music, form is content, content form.”
Warren’s message reinforces a sinking suspicion about the current state of evangelical worship modes. That is, that we’ve abandoned the precious notion that form and content can both be equally Christian. In a nutshell, Christians have forgotten the implications of the Incarnation: Truth comes in a package, and that package is just as important as the message it carries. When the Creator entered creation in the bodily form of Jesus Christ, it was the perfect fusion of form and content. The gospel message of God’s redeeming love was there all along, but without the visible and symbolic act of Jesus’ life, actions, and crucifixion, we would not understand. Think of it: what if the Bible spoke only abstract theology and dogma, without painting the visual and historical images of the forms Jesus represented? Content is confusing without form, and form is simply sensory without content.
Warren’s statement reflects a frustrating trend in Protestant aesthetics today: Form and content are seen as having little to do with one another. Sure, churches are busy packing their services with appealing, clap-friendly tunes, stylish videos and sleek PowerPoints, but what care is given to such forms is almost uniformly done in attempts to attract seekers and appease the found. Christians are migrating to Hollywood to make movies, Nashville to make music and New York to be cultured, but a large percentage of such pioneers are in it to win souls or (and I am not denigrating these aims) to make money—not to create transcendent art.
There is little attempt to produce artistic forms for the sake of beauty itself (without the ulterior motive that such things attract aesthetically-minded seekers). There is even less of an attempt to present form as an evangelistic content in itself. No, there are not many churches today that recruit top-notch musicians to perform services of wordless orchestration. There are few congregations that feature dance or visual art prominently, except as an overtly evangelistic tool. There are no film ministries that purpose to be anything other than entertaining, evangelistic or otherwise utilitarian. Christians simply do not seem to buy that famed 60s idiom, “The medium is the message.” Nah, we say. The message is clearest and, we assume, most effective through words.
One can see how we got to this point. The writing, as it were, was on the wall in the fifteenth century when the printing press was invented. The democratized quality of printed scriptures marked the first step in the Protestant dissolution of form and content. We saw the message in the chapters and verses of the Bible, but in the novelty and eventual commonality of the written form, we neglected to notice a correlation to medium. People forget that books—the very leather bound ones they carry to church—have a form too, and one that in its own way affects the message. The scripture itself is proof: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Word=Form. God=Content. Word=God. Form=Content. God knew that the medium was vital to the message. Why don’t we?
In recent years, the rift between form and content can be seen in the dying out of the hymnbook. That mode of worship emphasized the correlation of form and content. Words and music were together on the page, line after line, for the individual eye to follow and meditate upon. The music was just as important as the words, and the hymn writers knew it. Now, we’ve witnessed an ever-so-sneaky phasing out of the hymnbook in favor of the centralized PowerPoint screen. Voila! Only words are presented. Where’d the music go?
Recently at my church I noticed in the bulletin that our music pastor is now called the “worship pastor.” It’s probably been that way for years, but in thinking on this topic it just now struck me that this is significant. Today, evangelical music is nothing more than an excuse to worship. In fact, Christian music isn’t really music anymore; we must call it worship. But in downplaying the musicality of music, the artistry of art and the content of forms, is our concept of worship really enhanced? Or, by using forms (and usually only music) solely as a means to convey what is really important (WORDS!), are we losing the beauty of the message?
Okay, so what must be done? How can we resuscitate the dying notion that form and content are one? Indeed, that the medium of worship is the message of it? How can we better follow the best example we have of such a fusion (the Incarnation)?
How can we not? There is so much talent in Christendom; so much creativity. We are incarnational beings. All we have to do is open up to the wonder around and creativity within. The message of Truth speaks to us in the media of existence, of nature, of time. We need only observe and channel those things, and speak honestly.
Martin Buber, in his pivotal work, I and Thou, speaks wisely of art: “This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him …something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power … If [man] commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being.”
The message is out there, and we are the mediums. It wants to become a work in us, and if we fuse to it, beauty will flow out.