Aesthetics Rule


I was thinking on my lunch break briefly about worship songs and I think I figured out an answer to guide every worship leader’s song selection methodology (seriously).

The mainline evangelical movement borrows all their music from the popular Christian music labels and does so on an emotive basis (i.e., aesthetics rule). Some of the questions they ask are:

  1. Does the tune emotionally stir me?
  2. Does it talk about my pain and hurt?
  3. Is the “deity” mentioned (or at least alluded to)?
  4. Is there some generalized reference to nature?

That’s the sum total of the litmus test for a worship song passing through for a mainline worship service. Granted, they will pass through older, (which are often) more theologically grounded songs – but this wouldn’t be done primarily on the basis of it being theologically grounded but more on the basis that it is “old” and is consistent with the “new-vintage” asthetic appeal that is roaring through the fashion industry. This would be consistent with their ‘toleration’ ethic (which does not tolerate those who do not tolerate them… ironic).

Then we have the mild-traditionalists who have a measure of doctrinal fidelity and want to include the old songs on the basis that they contain scriptural truths. But this again can ultimately boil down to an aesthetic appeal because singing these songs makes them feel good – not based primarily on the content of the truths being declared but because it so neatly aligns with their theological convictions. Everyone likes to agree with themselves.

But what is strange is a new breed of song-singers who are even a bit more “traditionalistic” that the mild-traditionalists. They have achieved a new level of insight into the matter – they are even less discriminatory than their neighboring counterparts. They include modern popular Christian songs that they have found to contain within them consistent theological basis along with their traditional songs as well. They achieve a true equalibrium of peace between all parties because now that have satisfied everyone – the mainline gets their pop-songs, the mild-traditionalist gets their theology, and the more-traditionalistic pleases everybody. Yet this still maintains the appeal of the aesthetic. Though the songs sung contain a theological center, which is commendable, what hinders their song selection is their commitment to making sure everyone gets “Represented”. But when you fall into this trap you’re gonna make someone angry, no matter how hard you try – when you start trying to please the whole crowd, you will please no one. They base their song choices on an aesthetic appeal that will appease their audience, not their Creator (primarily).
Instead of picking and choosing songs that

  1. Musically and emotionally fit our tastes
  2. Agree with us and make us feel better since they agree theologically with our system (which ironically can be when we sing about Christ’s crucifixion. Singing about Christ being crucified should never make us cozy because of its theological consistency with our own beliefs – it should terrify us and humble us)
  3. Make our audience happy because we’ve achieved  whole-crowd-pleasing

We should choose songs based upon their orientation to what is being said and taught that day and to pick the best possible songs that represent that truth (or truths) being communicated to the believer. What’s crazy about doing this is that you may end up picking a song that you might never think of – one that may very well be modern but not sung because its modern, or one that may very well be old but not sung because its old. You sing it because its true.

Some may dissent here that music is intended to engage and excite the emotions. Being a musician myself I wouldn’t disagree entirely with this yet it must be understood properly. Us modern people (or are we post-modern? I forget…) are so attached to our music and its ability to excite the emotions that we forget what is actually exciting our emotions. I have a fantastic example of this:

One of my favorite songs that really gets me emotionally fired up (stirred, etc.) is a song that is a vulgar depiction of the folly of trying to find warmth in casual sex. I have had stop playing this song for the very reason of what I am trying to demonstrate right now. The emotional excitation that I would find in musical aspect of this song was very strong. It’s melody and the guitars and crescendos and diminuendos are fantastic – until I realized what I was listening to. My emotions were being raised completely independent of the lyrical content of the music. I felt very strongly (what I felt I do not know, which is a strange thing) yet at the same time my mind was at odds with the emotions I felt in response to such a vulgar song. There, in that moment, my emotions were totally engaged, and yet, I had no connection to rational thought whatsoever.

The point of this is to show that simply because you emotionally connect with a musical score shows very little of the value of the song being sung. There is value in the music – I am a fan of Beethoven – but such things are to be enjoyed in their own right, as a man would praise his creator for the mountains, but not build a mountain in the middle of the sanctuary in order to elicit a specific emotion.

This is even more poignant in a Christian worship service where we are singing songs directly to the Creator of the Universe and to our Savior Jesus who spent his life for our sake. To focus and elicit the emotions hijacks the nature of what a worship song is supposed to be. The emotional response must come first from the truth (i.e. the substance) not the emotional catalyst (the aesthetic). Aesthetics have their place, but an aesthetic not grounded in substance is vain (hence why most modern art is pure rubbish). Emotional response is no guarantee of what is true.

A far better way is to find good solid truth that grounds and cements your soul to what is enduring and substantial. The Lord’s Supper is not an aesthetic appeal to the eyes to delight in their savior but a harsh representation of the cost of our sin and our utter dependence upon our savior’s life and death to nourish our souls. That’s what the Roman Catholic church did with the Lord’s Supper and so were able to strip it of any value whatsoever. Don’t do the same thing with the songs you sing in your worship serve, but let them be a reflection of the truth of who God is and what God has done for you. When you do that, then you may very well never want to return to the emotional services of your days past. As C.S. Lewis says, the mind expanded never returns to its original form.

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