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The relentless drive to the middle

March 25, 2008

bach_shadesThere is a statistically positive correlation between education level and appreciation of the fine and performing arts. That is to say, opera is enjoyed more often by those with graduate-level education than by those who didn’t finish high school, for example. These statistics, however, don’t tell us much about causality: are opera-lovers more likely to go to grad school, or does grad school foster love of opera? Both are probably true (the uninitiated are introduced by their more worldly postgraduate peers, who find their way into PhD programs). Whatever the reasons, it demonstrates an oft-overlooked but critically-important point: acculturation is bound to learning.

Bearing this in mind, and thinking of church music (and of the culture within churches generally), I quote the first half of a short essay by William F. Buckley.

Middle-Class Values1.
March 27, 1969
I thought I had seen everything – I hoped I had – in the student world of unreason. But the all-time champion effrontery was as yet uncommitted. It was left to a seventeen-year-old Negro boy called Rickey Ivie whose Black Student Union has touched off disorders in a Los Angeles high school in a demonstration against “racist training.” An example of that training is the inclusion in the curriculum of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He is described by Master Ivie as “that old, dead punk.” “In the world of music,” he explains, “the schools keep imposing middle-class values in teaching us about Bach.”

I sat next to a middle-class French countess the other day who announced to me that she did not like Bach. I felt like asking her, did she like color, or fresh air, or trees – when suddenly I realized that she figured that her dislike of Bach was Bach’s fault – such is the egomania of democratism. If one really doesn’t like Bach, why I suppose one shouldn’t listen to him. But one should then be disturbed about oneself, not about Bach.

The remarkable thing about young Ivie isn’t, one supposes, that he doesn’t like Bach – probably he has never let himself listen to Bach. It is that as author of such a remark as he made about Bach, he hasn’t become the laughingstock of his fellow students. Eccentricity is one thing (the late publisher of the New York Times specified that no Mozart should be played at his funeral). To call the greatest genius who ever lived an “old, dead punk,” the least of whose cantatas will do more to elevate the human spirit than all the black student unions born and unborn, is not so much contemptible as pitiable: conducive of that kind of separation one feels from animals, rather than from other human beings.

George Tyrrell once observed that there is as much difference between a Christian and a pagan as there is between a pagan and a dog. The point survives the exaggeration. Those who cannot love Bach are to be pitied. Those who believe that Bach should not be admired should be despised.


Buckley was writing at the end of a period almost now impossible to recall: when aesthetics – not politics – delineated the boundaries of art, and when art existed to enrich our civilization and elevate the human spirit, as he says. In this day, all art is not for all people, and what art is made is frequently created to make a point.

This obfuscates the boundaries of art, and of one’s ability to critique it and make judgments of quality and appropriateness.

While of course we mustn’t forget that even Bach, the old man himself, was forgotten for eighty years and languished in obscurity, neither must we forget that Mendelssohn was able to revive interest in Bach solely on the merits of the composer’s opera, and not on the particulars of his life, or his skin color, or any political statement. Bach lives! and as more than a museum relic. Who will say that of any current exhibition in the Whitney’s biennial two hundred years hence?

When we deal with music in the Church, we are always confronted by strains of this same tension between quality and “relevance.” Music is seen as a tool to occupy, not to engage and elevate, and therefore only the most common, mean, and saccharine music will do: volunteer church choirs can accomplish it without difficulty, the congregation will digest it easily, and therefore all the People can enjoy themselves.

I am here to argue first that there is plenty of Bach that is within the capabilities of even the most modest church choir and organist, and, if one’s resources are too meagre even for the most elementary works of the greats, then one is best off relying on the simple beauty of the hymns and the Book of Common Prayer.

Of course this never happens. Choirs of limited size and skill frequently do not exist to make music. In this arena, as in so many others in churches without leaders and vision, we see the rise of countless small, tyrannical nations, with each tyrant looking out for his own amusement and self-interest, even as he (she) marches under the banner of “choir.” In reality, we find a group of the blindly self-serving, which usually drives away people whose commitment is to the music and worship, and which usually drives the music into oblivion.

All but extinct is the priest who would say, “Better yourselves! And better our church! You are here to sing to the greater glory of God and to enrich our worship of Him; prepare something worthy of His praise!”

This is another example of the Wal-Martization of our lands and our culture. In former days, one saved money to buy something of both personal and monetary value. Now, however, one needn’t save for something good, because a cheap knock-off can be had for $29.95 at one’s local super center. When it disintegrates, no matter; another can be had on the cheap, and another, and another. At this point, one doesn’t even know what the original looks like; good enough is acceptable, and the whole process of acquisition ceases to be about quality or aspiration or self-betterment, but about the fulfillment of selfish and petty appetites. How base.

The second, larger point concerns the too-frequent inability of the clergy to understand that several hundred years of great works of music (and two thousand years of art) are outgrowths not only of the wealth of the Church, but of its theology as well. We must remember Jesus’ response to Mary’s anointing him with oil: he deemed it a worthy gesture. We are right to offer the best of ourselves and our talents in worship.

Bach didn’t compose the St. Matthew Passion with primary consideration for the common man, but with the passion of his faith, using the best of his ample gifts in the service of worship. The common man is better for what Bach has bequeathed to posterity. If the common man cannot appreciate it, then, as Buckley says, he is to be be pitied. If he believes Bach to be deplorable, then the common man is to be despised, whether he wears blue jeans or a clerical collar.

I have heard a priest suggest, when discussing the music for a family service, that while a steady diet of proper hymns was good to elevate the children’s understanding, it would be useful to “go down to their level” with some “Jesus loves me, this I know,” or some such nonsense. This conception has a series of flaws, the most important of which is that children, in fact, have a level. Children have no level apart from what we give them. The existence of cathedral choirs of men and boys – or girls – demonstrates that indeed the level is wherever we adults set it. We show a paltry and unworthy faith in our children and a poor investment in the future of our Church when, in their name, we set the bar of worship upon the lowest peg.

A further misconception is that cheap music is a gateway drug, making the user crave something harder. Cheap music is rather a Snickers bar, which makes one crave only more Snickers bars, and destroys the taste for the vegetables and protein that make us vital, healthy adults. Cheap music is empty calories for the brain and no nutrition for the soul.

But indeed our greatest problem as churchmen, which destroys our best efforts from within, is that our vision of the Church is several sizes too small. We are many of us ecclesiastical Grinches, mean in belief. Rather than envision a church of power and determination and great faith, we shackle ourselves to our small ideas and petty concerns, believing that intellectual and moral comfort is ultimately more important than a powerful righteousness. Our clergy need to brush up on their Revelation. John’s vision of the heavenly city at the end of all time is not one of pot luck and kumbaya, but of improbable splendor and majesty. It is this vision that even we Protestants must attempt to convey in our weekly (or daily) worship. One forgets that even the smallest, simplest gathering for Morning Prayer in a rural chapel can be moving and inspiring, when we keep our focus where it ought to be. We Anglicans are the fortunate heirs of Cranmer’s incomparable gift and facility with formal English prose. To sully his cadence with music intended not as a worthy offering but as a pandering cry for attention is as despicable and sad as bewailing Bach’s complexity as wretched. In worship, scale is irrelevant. It is unqualified that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests. We need only gather together, and so to offer anything less than the best as adornment is to placate the vanity of those without ability.

Believing in a church that is defined merely by its open-mindedness, welcome, and outreach programs is misplaced faith. With due deference to good works, they are beside the point of a church. The Church exists to fall in worship, and especially for us Protestants, this must be an impregnable position. Everything else – the mission trips, the soup kitchen work, the clothing drives – is noble, and nice, but irrelevant to the Church. The rest can just as ably be carried out by the Junior League. In all fairness, the Junior League can probably do it all better, being able – absent the cryptic religiosity – to attract more people to serve.

When one understands that worship is the sole necessary function of the Church, one cannot ignore the Psalmist: O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness : let the whole earth stand in awe of him. (Ps. 96:9) One can spread the gospel around the campfire and one can welcome the heathen into the lecture or soup kitchen, but worship is about the awesome.

On this point, I quote from Andrew Mead’s short homily at Evensong this past Easter Day:

“Easter is a glorious day. It’s great because so many people love to come to church for all the various things about Easter: the music, the hymns, the flowers, the great drama of the spectacle. That’s all good; it attracts lots of people. But remember what’s at the heart of it, because without Jesus, Easter is just an empty vessel.”

Absent the holy God, the various accoutrements of the Church (yes, even the music of Bach) are empty. But when the core of the Church’s mission is the Almighty and not the whims of the People, then it follows that only the noblest efforts are good enough. The seventh Bishop of New York was quoted as saying “the best deserves the best,” and he was right.

Especially in a time when the parishioners of even the most isolated churches have access to urban sophistication, it is critical that the seeker, or the heathen, or the lost find within the walls of the local Episcopal church worship of dignity and power, at whatever level. Great passion is the best form of outreach to the nonbeliever. Throughout the country, we are blessed with a diverse and moving architectural heritage and, of course, with the Book of Common Prayer. Let us use those things to greatest effect, and when it comes to our arts, let us foster talent and skill and discern what we offer corporately. Let us make something worthy of the Almighty’s praise.

And let the common man be educated.

To not perform Bach (or any of the other greats) because one’s church does not have the talent, this is understandable. But to turn up one’s nose and insist that the Masters are out-of-date or inaccessible reveals a manner of thought that is worthy neither of the pulpit nor the organ bench, but is found increasingly in both places, as well as beneath the mitre. We forget that Christianity itself demands study as well as prayer. Paul’s letters to the various early churches are our first and best example of the learned correcting the ways of the foolish and distracted and trying to set them on the right path. Paul admonishes them freely and corrects them, but does not condemn them (for example, see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). In these days of waning American intellectualism and the Internet-driven rise of the idiot savant and the pride of place accorded one’s gut instinct, the Church should look to the Fathers, and to the Apostles, to rediscover how to proceed against the tide of cheap ignorance and cheaper art, which threaten our Church and the faith upon which it is built.

1. William F. Buckley, Jr., The Governor Listeth: A Book of Inspired Political Revelations (New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970), 347.


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