Bad Church Music: A Survival Guide (by Dan McGregor)

As a member of that somewhat rare species known as the Campbellite Visual Artist, one of the tensions I’ve had to navigate is bad aesthetics in worship. At some point a few years ago, churches of Christ decided that visual things in worship services weren’t all that bad and jumped seemingly overnight from “nothing” to “bad stock photos behind song lyrics” as a visual style.

I guess it could be worse—very few churches or denominations of any stripe do visual things with great excellence these days. (Even Roman Catholicism, with its storied visual history, has cheesy saint candles). Thus I sort of expect bad visuals as a matter of course. And I don’t want to be a snob—one can’t expect worship ministers or preachers to practice their craft and also be well-versed in architecture and art history.

But what’s been really hard for me over the years is the decay of good hymnody in our tradition. This is something we’ve always done well! I mean, as a kid, Great Songs of the Church is what started my love affair with poetry (thank you, “On Zion’s Glorious Summit” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns”). And singing great poetry a cappella was good for building an instinct for societal non-conformity that, to my mind, can be a useful tool for Christians. In its own little way, a cappella always felt a little culturally rebellious, like underage smoking (which I’m not endorsing, if only for the sake of your singing voice).

Alas, no more. At some point, we seem to have decided that Christian radio was less embarrassing than our retro repertoire. So we started doing a cappella versions of radio songs. This move, in addition to introducing awkward pauses and goofy repetition into our songs, tended to gut the stately wordcraft and layered imagery of the great hymns in favor of baby food theology and greeting card sentiments. The introduction of instruments into the song services of some churches did little to make the radio songs artistically sophisticated. To me, it all smelled of a scramble to conformity, of the insecure imitation of a Christian pop culture that was often itself an imitation of a secular pop culture.

In the midst of a big rush towards a generic community church liturgy, I must confess that it’s tempting to hold a funeral for good poetry (not to mention four-part harmony) in our tradition. It certainly seems undeniable that English majors haven’t been getting much love on Sunday mornings.

That said, for the rest of this brief article I’d like to posit the theory that bad aesthetics in church—whether the visual or musical kind—could actually be a very good thing. In fact, my not getting my way musically could be one of the best things to happen to me in corporate worship. As someone who loves great art and poetry, this is pretty hard to say. But I think it’s true. Here’s why.

  1. It’s a good opportunity for putting the interests of others first. There are plenty of my brothers and sisters—including dear friends—who more easily worship God through Matt Redman’s or Chris Tomlin’s words than Charles Wesley’s. Thus, every Sunday morning becomes an excellent opportunity to go to the “love gym” and work out “love muscles” of forbearance and sacrifice of my own preferences. It’s a gift-wrapped opportunity from God to put into practice Philippians 2:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Do I really, really agree with this scripture? If so, maybe I should see a “bad song” as an opportunity to sort of invisibly wash the feet of my spiritual siblings who love these songs. It also provides the bonus challenge of trying to make this move without condescension, of resisting the urge to harbor thoughts like, At least I still know I have better taste, or of patting myself on the back for being so magnanimous. None of that stuff is good for one’s soul.

  1. Singing hard-to-love songs is good practice for loving hard-to-love people. Since church seems to be constructed by God as a petri dish into which we’re tossed with irritating people who have all the wrong opinions (unlike ourselves!), maybe bad hymnody is useful as an image of Christ’s body. If I can practice throwing myself behind an irritating song, assenting to the best of the song’s content that I can—that is, trying to see the good in it—maybe I can do the same for people who annoy me. I can have thoughts like, Even though you have crazy opinions / a grating personality / a bad smell, God really has mystically set up shop in you as His dwelling place. You are His child, whom He loves as much as He loves me. C.S. Lewis expressed a similar idea about the lovers of bad music in an interview:

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.[1]

 

  1. God seems to have poor aesthetic taste. Please understand the sense in which I mean this. Of course God has better taste than all of us (and, for all I know, He might think Isaac Watts’s stuff is super-amateurish). What I mean is that I think that God joyfully, joyfully accepts our worship via badly written songs like I accept my toddler’s clunky pictures that end up being proudly displayed on our refrigerator. God traditionally chooses losers—the humblest, most bumbling, most awkward people—to do His best work. Christ Himself exchanged the incomparable beauty of the Father’s presence for the rural, dusty aesthetic of a straw feedbox. If God had good taste, all of us would be passed over. So if a cheesy worship song offered by sincere hearts is good enough for Him, who am I to argue?

Of course, my dream is still that we’ll ultimately end up (aesthetically speaking) like Reformed Presbyterians and mostly sing songs written by dead people, or at least legit poets. I would love for us to be theologically okay with banjos or cellos yet say, “Our gift to the world is a cappella,” and really double-down on that as our tradition’s charism. And, of course, we should critique or call out untrue theology in our songs. But a goofy or irritating song service is a great reminder that church isn’t about me. And I’m pretty sure that it’s always better to offer up a tacky liturgy with a sincere heart than a poetic one with a haughty spirit.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God in the Dock. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1970), 62.

 

Dan McGregor is an illustrator, painter, and professor in the Art and Design Department at ACU, as well as an inveterate hymn-lover and old soul. His artwork has been featured in national and international juried exhibitions, and his illustrations have appeared in various national print publications. His academic interests include the history of Christian art, British sequential art (graphic novels and comics), and American Golden Age illustration. He lives in Abilene with his lovely wife Laura and their hilarious son Gabriel.

We believe that learning is a lifelong process and that those of us who teach make a commitment to continue our learning throughout our lives. The Adams Center exists to promote the lifelong learning of Abilene Christian University’s faculty as they strive to integrate their faith and their discipline.

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Author:  Publish Date: February 17, 2016

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