Friday, June 03, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: The Words are Immaterial

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Clint Bryan at Christianity Today has a post up about something called the Hillsong Church. I’ve heard the name and vaguely associate it with religious music and the “worship team”-style presentation, but I know very little about the Hillsong phenomenon, and I don’t think I could hum even a single one of what Mr. Bryan says are very hummable tunes. If you tell me that’s a not-very-subtle indication I’m not exactly at the nexus of mainstream evangelicalism, IC, I suppose I’ll have to take the rebuke with grace, but I thought maybe we could talk about Mr. Bryan’s article since it touches on a subject you’ve written about a fair bit.

Immanuel Can: Yep, okay. Where do you want to start, Tom?

Megachurch, Megabucks, Megamusic

Tom: Well, as a few minutes of internet research reveals, Hillsong is an Australian Pentecostal megachurch with a “global senior pastor” — whatever that means — who also turns out to be its founder, front man and leading beneficiary, Brian Houston. Brian and his wife Bobbie allegedly took home something like $55 million in 2011.

Hillsong is a major worldwide influence within evangelicalism, operates tax free, has its name on a series of rotating touring bands that perform to state-of-the-art visuals and operates an international leadership college. The name has even become a sort of shorthand for a particular Christian musical style. The Christianity Today article mentions Hillsong’s unusual influence in Hungary, but the brand has also made major inroads in Sweden, South Africa, Ukraine, France, Argentina, Brazil, the UK and the US.

And I knew next to nothing about it. Have you encountered their music?

IC: Oh yes. These days, it’s hard to find a congregation that isn’t using some Hillsong stuff. But some use a whole lot, and others use just an occasional piece. Some “Hillsongs” are really new songs, some are just new-ish, and some are old hymns, carols and such with different musical flourishes or a new bridge thrown in. So it’s a bit hard to say exactly when a congregation has crossed the Hillsong line.

Tom: According to Clint Bryan, it’s not hard to say in Hungary, where musicians in local congregations painstakingly mimic every note of the original songs, and even send their Hungarian translations of Hillsong lyrics to be checked for fidelity to the English-language originals at Hillsong’s Australian HQ. But you’re right, IC … in North America, nobody’s quite that devoted.

Sound and Substance

How would you characterize their sound and substance?

IC: Sound? Well, I’m happy to see that somebody’s trying to update our hymnology; that’s long overdue. And I admit that I’m no musician, so there are others who can judge the technical merit of what they do better than I can. But I do have some musical discernment, and I find their various arrangements and bridges are often musically dubious — awkward, unsophisticated and hard to sing.

Tom: So, better performed than sung along with?

IC: Yes. Substance? That would mean lyrics, no?

Tom: Doctrinal content, yes.

IC: With the occasional happy exception, I find their lyrics generally rather poor. Firstly, they are often repetitive, with sections and bridges that add nothing new. Secondly, they’re emotional and experiential in many cases …

Tom: As Pentecostals are wont to be.

IC: … and they seem directed to stoking feelings rather than the knowledge of God. Thirdly, they’re mostly individualistic rather than congregational.

Tom: So, fine for listening in your car or living room, but not so great in church.

IC: Fourthly, they are often theologically incorrect, and sometimes, it would seem, just plain wrong.

Hillsong’s occasionally wildly bad, but more often, not bad enough to be really bad. Just mediocre, tepid, predictable, faddish and trite, and in general, not really good. One feels that much better work could — and should — be done in terms both of music and lyrics.

A Video is Worth 1,000 Words

Tom: Okay. On your fourth point there, when you say “theologically incorrect” and “occasionally wildly bad”, do you have an example or two?

IC: Paul Nevison’s Above All exhibits several of the features I’ve pointed out, including some reasonable bits, generally awkward musicality and spurts of clichéd lyrical sentimentality. Emotion-stoking, individualism and excessive repetition? How about I Surrender. Shallowness, poppiness and theological dodginess? You’ll have a hard time beating Falling Into You.

Tom: [After a brief listening interlude] Well, that was an … er … experience. I do see what you mean, though. Okay, so Above All is performance music. You’d never get an entire congregation through that chorus. It’s not Take On Me by A-ha, but he almost goes into falsetto there. And I Surrender goes on forever. Ten minutes at least. Falling Into You is a perky little love song with the word “Jesus” replacing some guy’s name, basically, and a whole lot of “I wanna love you like you love me” here, there and everywhere. It’s essentially frivolous nonsense.

But the big takeaway for me is that there is no place for a congregation anywhere, other than to adoringly clap along, wave their hands in the air and mouth their favorite clichés now and then. Does Hillsong have any actual hymns people can sing together?

IC: Yes. At the very least, they’ve poached a few older hymns and jazzed them up. But they have some tendency to throw in weird instrumental bridges, and that can make parts of any song unsingable. You’ve caught the main point, I think: much of this is performance music, not congregational singing music.

The Meaning Goes Missing

Tom: Okay, well, it’s not the sort of thing I like at all, and it cannot really be made to work outside of big auditoriums with psychologically savvy light shows, huge sound systems and skilled musicians. But I do sort of get the appeal. It’s not traditional worship; it’s really more of a manipulated musical event, with all the heartstring-tugging and emotional resonance that big, rich chords and passionate singing turned up loud are capable of producing in the human soul.

IC: Yep, you’ve got it: it’s theater.

Tom: So the Hillsong experience is making inroads in places like Seattle, Budapest, Paris and Oslo. That would be cause for celebration — at least if we were confident the sociological movement connected to Hillsong is primarily spiritual in nature. But it seems to me this is not the case at all. The draw is almost entirely emotional. In fact, one of the quotes that jumped out at me from Clint Bryan’s article was this, from writer Christopher James:

“One Hungarian interview subject, Botond Rozgonyi, reported to Povedák that the words are immaterial, as the majority of worshipers pay little attention to the text being sung, preferring the state the soothing music creates for a ‘mystic experience [as well as] the presence of God’ that transcends the cognitive level.”

The words are immaterial? That’s cause for concern, don’t you think?

IC: Oh yes, absolutely. Anytime you get a bunch of people together and whip up their emotions without reference to specific content, you’ve lost control of what’s really going on. It’s not a good idea, and it’s not biblical behavior for congregations.

But in a way, Tom, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. We set the stage for Hillsong, and for whatever comes next. In the last century or so, our churches generally have not been investing much in creating or discerning good new music. What did we think was going to happen?

Emotionalism in the New Testament

Tom: Well, we didn’t. Think, I mean. But we ought to have. This is not a new problem. Paul addressed emotionalism in Corinth in the first century, long before darkened auditoriums, Sensurround® sound, electric guitars and giant amps:

“I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.”

It’s abundantly clear from that passage that worship is not just about good feelz. We have to think correctly; and to think correctly, we have to describe truths accurately and express them to one another in the language of song, not just in sermons. Generating pleasing emotions is not the prime object of gathering to the name of Jesus Christ, although it’s nice if that happens once in a while.

IC: Yes. In the church, everything is to be done not as a private enthusiasm, but rather to the “building up” of the whole group. That means there has to be understanding, intelligence, truth, communication and communion involved, not just big bursts of personal, mystical emotion on the part of individual believers. Music, like everything else, is to edify.

Tom: Christopher James comments that the danger in doing church as a series of weekly, multisensory, soul-stirring “worship” gatherings is that these have the effect of “reducing the Spirit to a supernatural reality whose primary function is to provide satisfying spiritual consumer experiences”.

And I would add this: when what is going on is primarily geared to the satisfaction of the worshiper, it is not really worship at all. Real spiritual satisfaction and edification are synonymous for all intents and purposes. They are by-products of knowing God with both head and heart according to his revelation of himself. It’s not about us and our feelings, and it’s certainly not about seeking a particular “spiritual high” or “consumer experience”.

Letting Standards Go

IC: I’m afraid that the theological level of Hillsong may reflect something of the depth of our present spiritual lives. If it does, then I confess I’m a bit concerned for us all.

I think we have to decide whether in congregational singing, theology really matters or not. If singing together is a trivial activity, an entertaining option for the people of God, but not a pillar of our fellowship, unity and doctrine, then maybe we’re okay. But if it’s as important as we often insist it is, then is it possible we’ve let standards go lately?

Just asking.

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