In the summer of 1999 when I was in the middle of writing With One Voice, the following summary article appeared in The Reformed Quarterly. For many of my friends the article served as an entrée into my thinking about the many voices through which our Singing Savior sings in his church. For a long time, the article was available online via rts.edu, but no longer is so.
Occasionally, someone (thanks, Mom) asks where to find it. So, here it is …
BACH, BUBBA, AND THE BLUES BROTHERS: THE SINGING SAVIOR’S MANY VOICES
Spend a few years leading music in a church or seminary setting, and you will eventually hear all of the following. I have.
“We’re going to do happening music in the 8:30 service, and if the geriatrics don’t like it, they can go to the 11:00 service.”
“To put it bluntly: Bach is simply better music, and if people can’t handle a superior aesthetic in worship, well, there are plenty of other churches in town.”
“I’m so glad this church doesn’t do all that boring music from the past. We’re singing ‘a new song.’ As for the old stuff, Jesus said: ‘Let the dead bury their own dead.’ End of discussion.”
“No way will we use so-called contemporary worship music in my church. Its roots are in rock ‘n roll, so it’s inevitably associated with the wrong kind of people. Using that music in church would suggest we approve of immoral lifestyles.”
“I guess I can stomach my church’s worship OK, but it’s really too tame for me. The ‘worldly’ music I listen to on the radio at least has intensity. It gets to your gut and fires your imagination. What we do in my church — you know — the hymns and stuff, is just too safe musically. It puts my spirit to sleep.”
“Well, everybody knows that music with the beat on 2 and 4 comes from Africa, which, unfortunately, is still steeped in primitive tribalism — the music carries overtones of Satan-worship and the occult. So, Christians have no business going near that stuff.”
“Thanks for the suggestion, Reg, but sorry, that song sounds too much like the 70s, and we’re a new millennium kind of church. Know what I mean?”
Call me Rodney King, but I continually ask myself, “Why can’t we all just get along?” In the Spring 1998 Reformed Quarterly, RTS/Orlando Professor Mike Glodo wrote eloquently of the beauty of the Singing Savior of Psalm 22, of the fact that Jesus sang once and for all Israel’s lament of abandonment (the first half of Psalm 22), so we could sing the victory chant of redemption (the second half of Psalm 22).
I, too, am captivated by the vision of Christ now leading worship in the church, fulfilling the promise of Psalm 22:22: “I will declare Your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly I will sing a hymn to you” (see Hebrews 2:12). Maybe it is simply because I know how hard it is for certain kinds of people to consider singing alongside certain other kinds of people, but I am especially taken with the fact that it is specifically “in the assembly” that the psalmist locates the Savior’s singing.
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WHOSE SONG SHOULD WE SING?
What stands out about the exaltation of the Singing Savior in the second half of Psalm 22 is the description of the “great assembly” (v. 25) in which the Former Sufferer sings His hymn to the God who answers His cry for help. Having once been surrounded in His agony by a band of evildoers, now the Singer is surrounded by both Jew (v. 23) and Gentile (v. 27), by both poor (v. 26) and rich (v. 29a), and by both generations past (v. 29b) and generations to come (vv. 30-31). In place of God’s abandonment is His renewed gaze and listening ear (v. 24), and in place of the scoffers and torturers is a vast and variegated assembly.
Isn’t it remarkable that this is the answer to Messiah’s loneliness on the cross? The promise of the Singing Savior’s reveling in the company of a naturally disparate but now gathered people is a large part of “the joy set before Him” and which enabled Him to endure the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2). “Descendants of Jacob glorify Him … All the families of the earth worship you” (Psalm 22:23b, 27b). “The afflicted poor eat and are satisfied…The rich ones of the earth will eat and worship” (vv. 26a, 29a). Because His death and resurrection, as William Billings penned, “burst the bonds of death,” Jesus’ community does not recognize the boundary of death itself. Jesus leads even the dead and the unborn in their worship of the Father:
All those who go down to the dust bow before Him,
Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.
A seed will serve Him;
It will be told to a coming generation.
They will come and declare His righteousness
To a people who will be born, that He has done this (vv. 29b-31).
The presence of so many different kinds of worshipers in the Singing Savior’s great assembly cannot help but raise pressing questions about what — or better, whose — aesthetic governs their worship.
When the descendants of Jacob/Israel join the Savior’s song and “glorify” God and express their “awe” of Him (v. 23), what musical language do they use? When “all the ends of the earth” and “all the families of the earth” hear in the Savior’s song a remembrance of the image they were made to bear (v. 27), and thus turn to the Lord, with what musical tongue do they worship?
When the poor who seek the Lord eat alongside the rich at the Lord’s table (vv. 26,29), with whose tongue do they offer their common praise and worship? And when those who have already gone to the dust bow before the One whose death has secured their resurrection (v. 29), do they sing the same song in the same way as the people who are yet to be born but who will nonetheless themselves hear of the accomplishment of the same righteousness for them (vv. 30-31)?
Let me suggest that every group brings its own voice, but no group brings the official voice. One Voice sings above them all, and this Voice sings in all their voices, excluding none. His singular voice is distributed among a plurality of people. Just because there are so many dimensions to His own being, the multiplicity of their voices amplifies His song.
WHAT SONGS DOES JESUS SING?
Jesus sings the Hebrew songs of covenant faithfulness, giving “the Israel of God” the right, at long last, to name the name latent in the old covenant’s psalms of anticipation. Jesus is the True Vine — that is to say, He is True Israel. It is His death for sin that Israel’s and Judah’s exiles had pictured.
It is His resurrection and ascension that their homecomings had forecast. The theme “from shame to glory” is not just the story of Psalm 22. It is the story of the Psalter itself, moving as it does from Book 1’s plaintive songs of David in the wilderness (Psalms 1-41) to Book 5’s songs celebrating in advance an ultimate and final Davidic rule, that of Messiah (Psalms 107-150). “From shame to glory” is Israel’s and Judah’s career because it is Jesus’ career.
That is why on a number of occasions New Testament writers can summarize the whole of the Old Testament story as a foreshadowing of the sufferings and resurrection of Messiah (Luke 24:27,44-47; Acts 26:22-23; 1 Peter 1:10-12). In the church, Jesus sings the sweet song of salvation, the song of God’s faithfulness to His promises to bring His people home by way of His own suffering for them.
Jesus also sings folk idioms from “all the families of the earth,” purging the idolatrous and focusing the yearning for redemption that shows up wherever the imago Dei bears the kiss of common grace. From the very start, Jesus’ ministry displayed an outwardboundness that was scandalous to His own kin. He had the nations in view from start to finish — that is who He is: God’s heart for all the families of the earth.
What I believe we have seen in twenty centuries of church music is Christ calling forth His song from every culture His gospel has touched. Even when believers attempt distinctly “Christian” music, their music invariably bears the marks of their social world, and indeed would be incomprehensible without those marks. Elizabeth I could mock “Geneva jigs” precisely because many of the psalm settings emanating from Calvin’s church sounded like the dance songs for which Continental European troubadours were famous. Jesus sings God’s covenantal faithfulness and the width of His mercy in as many musical dialects as there are peoples who embrace Him.
Jesus sings with the voice of the refined, the illuminati, the cultured — “the rich,” who tend to be the sponsors of any society’s “high art.” The very Logos of God and agent of creation, Jesus Himself vastly outstrips the most elegant, the most intellectually rigorous and challenging — and the most passionately romantic — aesthetic expressions of worship imaginable.
Jesus loves Bach’s music, of this I am certain. I am equally sure, however, that he finds Bach’s (and all his aesthetic kin’s) most elevated and demanding stuff to be but nursery tunes. I even suspect that he Himself prompts the children of Jubal (see Genesis 4:21), the mad geniuses outside the believing community — the Beethovens, the Wagners, the Mahlers, the Bernsteins — to push the musical frontiers further out so the church can follow and learn new textures, tone colors, rhythms, harmonic combinations, and melodic possibilities.
Jesus sings with all the grit and earthiness, with all the directness and rhythms of the “working poor” (this is how the Greek Old Testament translates Psalm 22:26). Though His lineage was royal, Jesus’ upbringing was anything but that. He grew up in Galilee, a region with, at least by the standards of the refined Jerusalem elite, an embarrassingly high “Bubba-factor.” He was raised in an artisan’s home, and His parables depicted God’s kingdom in terms that debtors, day laborers, fishermen, and prostitutes could follow. When His disciples became leaders of the Jerusalem church, they were treated as country bumpkins (Acts 4:13). Paul, though himself a man of some upbringing (Acts 21:39; 22:3,27,28), despised the social snobbery of the relatively affluent Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
The hints the New Testament gives us of early Christians’ worship are not pretentious or ostentatious, or even artistically demanding. Musical historians, such as John S. Andrews in an article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, suggest that early Christian music developed not from classical Greek music, but from more popular forms. It was poetic koine: “He was manifest in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, beheld by the angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).
Most Christians that I know would probably think of themselves as musical “Bubbas,” of neither rarified tastes nor extraordinary ability. Know what? Jesus sings the simple songs — some of His best music is functional rather than pretty. It is enjoyed more from the inside than the outside, that is, in being done rather than in being listened to. And it points to God’s transcendence via simplicity rather than via complexity.
Jesus sings among the saints who have gone before, “the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven … and the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). His community is not limited by death, and neither is His song. The book of Revelation tells us that heaven’s current worship uses the same dynamic that we now know on earth. On the one hand, the martyrs cry out “How long, O Lord?” (Revelation 6:9-11), and on the other, they already (in my understanding) participate in “the first resurrection,” and rule and serve as priests alongside Christ during the present era of gospel victory (Revelation 20:4-6).
Some liturgies preserve the ancient prayer, “And so we join our voices … with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn: Holy, holy, holy, God of power and might …” This expression of the living connection between the church in heaven and the church on earth is entirely correct. As G.K. Chesterton acutely observes, honoring tradition is how we give the dead their voice in our community. And that is important, because their voice is a part of Jesus’ voice.
Jesus sings among the yet-to-be born, those who will receive the word themselves, make it their own, give it their own voice, and then faithfully pass it to the generation following in their wake. In the 2nd century, an anonymous Roman Christian commended Jesus to a pagan friend named Diognetus. He told Diognetus that Jesus was “from of old,” but because He is alive now and is born in our hearts, He is also “forever young.”
In point of fact, Jesus came as the harbinger of a whole new creation. In His coming as the Second Adam — as the founder of a new human race — the future has invaded the present. Accordingly, Christ’s ongoing, eschatological presence in the church is necessarily fresh, intense, and unsettlingly forward-thrusting.
Every musical groove we establish is a potential rut. Every way of worshiping is a potential object of worship. And so every generation is like the Blues Brothers. Remember the movie? Jake and Elwood’s music was rooted in a heritage (soul music), but they were on a “mission from God” to save the orphanage in which they had been raised, that is, to take care of the next generation. In the process, they broke a lot of rules. Like them, we are called to do the best we can with the musical idioms we have inherited to help the next generation hear the Savior’s song and take up their own voice in response.
IT’S ABOUT HIS SONG, NOT OURS
When seen in the light of the person of Jesus, the church’s Lead Worshiper, our squabbles over how to do it right — which group’s aesthetic will be honored, and which group’s dishonored — take on their true measure: they are pathetically small-minded.
While we try to pare His song down to a manageable repertoire, He is expanding it. While we are doing market research to decide whom we want to reach and, therefore, to whose aesthetic tastes we want to pander, the Singing Savior is distributing His magnificent voice across an increasingly wide spectrum of musical idioms. While we are dividing congregations along age lines, He is blending the songs of generations and nations and families and tribes and tongues to make sweet harmony, precisely through the differences, to the Father.
The day has come for us to mute our provincial songs, and start listening for His voice, for it is “like the sound of many waters” (Revelation 1:15), as rich and complex as the constitution of His people.
Jesus’ voice is what counts, not ours. And His is the voice of the Jew and the Gentile, the poor and the rich, those who have already had their say and those who have not yet even come into being. There is a unity and diversity in the voices of His assembly which we may not be able to hold together on our own, but which the Risen Christ, because He is literally and vibrantly present among us, can.
This article originally appeared in the RTS Reformed Quarterly, Summer 1999