The Worship Quote of the Week for (06/28/2005):

High Brow and Low Brow Music in Church
Sometimes we must think that ours is the first generation to struggle with style issues in Christian worship. Not so. Today’s WORSHIP QUOTE is from the pen of C. S. Lewis. Here the Oxford don and Christian apologist reflects on the divide between those who appreciate and prefer church music from the high art tradition and those who know only the music of the masses and popular culture. The parallels to our current situations are not exact, but the important lesson of Christian deference is clear—deference over preference in the body of Christ.

AUTHOR’S DISCLAIMER: Lewis identifies himself as a layman and one who can boast no musical education. He says, “I cannot even speak from the experience of a lifelong churchgoer. It follows that Church Music is a subject on which I cannot, even in the lowest degree, appear as a teacher. My place is in the witness box. If it concerns the court to know how the whole matter appears to such as I, I am prepared to give my evidence.”

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense. But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

These highly general reflections will not, I fear, be of much practical use to any priest or organist in devising a working compromise for a particular church. The most they can hope to do is to suggest that the problem is never a merely musical one. Where both the choir and the congregation are spiritually on the right road no insurmountable difficulties will occur. Discrepancies of taste and capacity will, indeed, provide matter for mutual charity and humility.

— C. S. Lewis, “On Church Music” (1949) from CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS, edited by Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971 reprint, pp. 96-97.

[I am sure that there are many saints in our churches who would agree with another statement in this same essay. Lewis writes, “What I, like many other laymen, chiefly desire in church are fewer, better, and shorter hymns; especially fewer.”]

Have a great week,

Chip Stam
Director, Institute for Christian Worship
School of Church Music and Worship
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky

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