How the order in music mirrors the order in creation.
For years, my husband and I hated Sunday church. Though we were dedicated to the Church — seminarians and worship band musicians — we found weekly excuses to be nursery volunteers and avoid the service, especially the music. We felt constant guilt over our angst. Were we being elitist or unspiritual? Was it sinful to be uncomfortable with the way churches used pop culture forms? We were desperate to learn how to love church, but we were at a loss.
In 2011, we providentially attended a lecture called “Music and Discipleship” from a cultural journalist named Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. This evening made history for us, beginning a relationship that changed our lives. In the lecture, Ken insisted that music itself (the form) has meaning, apart from the words (the content). And, he said, we become musical relativists when we insist that any genre or form is acceptable for worship, ignoring ancient wisdom on music’s possibilities. The early church agonized about whether to include the organ in worship, because of the theological richness they saw in voices singing together in unison (and then, later, in parts). We only agonize about content, forgetting that, as Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.”
Ken believes that music can shape our souls to love the order of the world; and this embrace of order, or givenness, is a vital antidote to the disorders of modernity. Ken frequently gives Renaissance polyphony (e.g. the music of Tallis and Palestrina) as an example of a neglected form that manifests this order. Each voice is distinct, but is woven into a unity that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It teaches through harmonic drama about a humanity bearing the image of the Trinity. It instructs us through beauty that the way of love can make unity from diversity, without compromising the glory of the individual or the community. It shows us the order of love, the order of a world that lives and moves and has its being in Love Himself.
Previously, when I thought of “order,” I felt an oppressive sense of sterility. It connoted the same sense I receive from fluorescent lights in windowless rooms, inflexible regimens, and ugly uniformity. Order seemed to oppose the realm of art. But, after attending the lecture and subscribing to Ken’s work in the Mars Hill Audio journals, I began to realize that my response to order required repentance.
In 2012, through a seminary mentorship program, we became Ken’s summer interns. Ken arranged our summer to be very contrapuntal. In books, conversations, and work, we experienced the same reechoing subject: the goodness of Creation’s order and our duty to find our place within it. But perhaps our most memorable assignment was to sing in his choir — joining a five person ensemble tackling Renaissance polyphony. Here, singing Palestrina, Byrd, and Tallis, our summer learning came together and made sense in our souls. Here we were receiving the order of love, the givenness of Creation. Here was, in the words of Ken’s original lecture title, “music and discipleship.”
Five years later and several states away, our conversations with Ken are intermittent, but I am constantly grateful that his discipleship enabled us to love church (and for me to even become the music director at our small Anglican church). That summer, especially as we sang, I learned that the order framing all creation is not a matter of rigidity or sterility. I grew to know that it was under everything that I love and that is too wonderful for me: the passage of seasons, the growth of my children, the flight of birds, starry constellations, Fibonacci numbers in flower petals, the rhythm of my pulse and breath. It is the counterpoint of marriage and the fugal complexity of community. And it means it is a fine thing to be one’s self and in one’s space and to have one’s voice to add to the great song of creation. If we don’t ignore our angst, this is what the great music of the Church can teach us : that order is good – if we only have ears to hear, and, perhaps, voices to sing.
Amanda McGill is a freelance writer, the music director at Christ the King Anglican Church in Dayton, Ohio, and an editor for The Homely Hours (a liturgical living resource). She seeks a simple, well-read life with her young family and likes to make bread so her husband doesn’t have to win it.