America … is largely a listening world rather than a singing world. Just as most of America can’t dance. In terms of culture – compared to most native cultures – America has largely been stripped of all natural culture, replaced by marketable and consumable products. There’s something wrong with a nation where people don’t sing and dance.
– Father Stephen Freeman
Father Stephen is an Orthodox priest from Tennessee. The above quote is from a comment he made on a post on Mission and Worship in America. While I don’t agree with everything he says on the subject of musical styles (he is from Tennessee, after all), he does make some valid points. As I’ve thought about the quote above, I have realized just how true this is – there is very little folk music in America, at least at present.
We had a big folk movement in the 60’s – and by folk, I will include anything from Woody Guthrie to Louis Armstrong to the Grateful Dead. This was back when people still played music simply because they enjoyed it, whether it be blues, jazz, bluegrass or rock. That was before everyone who thought they could sing put out a CD hoping to become a star. Music today seems to have become a device to achieve stardom. If you have no chance of being American Idol, why bother?
This, unfortunately, seems to apply to the church as well. How many people write worship songs simply to worship? And, how many worship bands consist of the instruments that people in the church happen to play? How many worship teams play musical styles that reflect the members on the team? I’ve seen my share of worship teams, and I have to say that most consist of the same general instrumentation, playing the same general styles, as that found on whatever “hot” worship CDs are out there.
I think I agree with Father Stephen, that American has lost its ability to truly sing and dance. We have become listeners, and performers (to please other listeners). I have to ask, is this type of music fitting for worship? Now, I think the Orthodox Churches err in the other extreme, using musical styles from another culture, another time period, and ruling that as more appropriate. Why? What makes music from somewhere else or some other time any better?
I used to say that style is merely cultural; but if the good Father is correct, then America’s only style is that which is being sold to it. And, he may be right. Americans don’t sing and dance. Our culture is bought, borrowed, downloaded and promoted. We have no heart – that’s really what Father Stephens is saying. Or, perhaps it’s just been hijacked; maybe we only need to find it.
But, I’m not recommending at this point that we start old Greek hymns. But, perhaps we should start learning how to sing, and maybe even dance.
I would like to consider myself a very intelligent person. America is going through a time of great change. Its either Americans accept that Oliver Cromwellesque ruling style was a big mistake, or there will be more of what the Dark Ages were famous for. The Dark Ages were very reliogiously motivated, and I know christians like to use the line ” its not a religion….its a relationship,” reguardless, the christian religion or relationship or way of life, or whatever cop out excuse that apologists can come up with – is responsible for a lot of cultural damage. people need to learn to stop looking to Jesus for answers, and start looking to themselves for answers.
Pingback: On the nature of classic rock « kroc: Alden’s Classic Rock Blog
Thanks so much for your comments. I understand what you’re saying, and see that this is probably true (that they exist in part to preserve Eastern culture) for the Orthodox churches that I’ve visited. One of my first contacts with the Orthodox church was a Priest who was himself born & raised in Greece. I did actually attend an Orthodox storefront mission church a couple of times in southern California; it was a very interesting experience, but even there, it was heavily populated by “transplants.”
An “Americanized” Orthodox church would indeed be interesting, but as a Coptic friend of mine once pointed out, being Westernized tends to mean a loss of spirituality. She said that the difference between Churches in Egypt and America is considerable, due to the draw of the materialism of the West. I am sure she has a valid point.
By the way, I really enjoy the Greek Liturgy, although it’s been many years since I’ve been to an Orthodox church.
I will also point out that your “Existentialist theology vs. community” post discusses some very good reasons why these things are seen as important. The problem you discuss of many of the songs being so personal not everybody you can sing them is right on. Orthodox liturgy is all about corporate worship, all about universal truth expressed in and experienced through community, and “the medium is the message” is another way of expressing a key guiding principle: Lex orandi, lex credendi–the law of prayer is the law of belief. You’re not just singing your own song, but that of centuries’ worth of Christians who have come before you.
I think the Orthodox Churches err in the other extreme, using musical styles from another culture, another time period, and ruling that as more appropriate. Why? What makes music from somewhere else or some other time any better?
Well, the point is that the hymns of the Orthodox Church are every bit as much a part of Orthodox practice and belief as anything else. Ideally, what happens is that when the Orthodox Church evangelizes a given region, the texts are translated into the local language and over time, as part of a gradual, organic process, the music is adapted to match the language and the way people sing in a way that is still in keeping with the received tradition. This is what happened when the Byzantines converted Russia, and it’s what the Russians attempted to do with the native tribes in Alaska. For various reasons, the situation in the United States has been far more complex; there have been a lot more Orthodox people here either fleeing Communism or trying to make money to send home than there have been trying to spread the faith, and as a result, the Orthodox here have been largely interested in preserving the culture they know from home.
Over the last few decades, however, there have been a growing number of American converts, and there is at present more of an intent to actually grow an indigenous American Orthodox Church. Until that solidifies (which will take time; impatience is not a good virtue for anybody interested in Orthodox evangelism), and certainly in the absence of a genuine folk singing tradition which can be adapted for the needs of Orthodox hymnody, parishes are probably going to mostly use adaptations of Byzantine or Russian chant to fit the English translations which are used. Maybe the closest thing we have to this would be Appalachian folk music or even shapenote/Sacred Harp singing; even then, though, these have still managed to become mostly recorded-and-heard traditions rather than sung traditions for a lot of people.
Hope this helps to clarify things.