Faith in Focus

The Organ and the Organist in Reformed Worship -Part III.



By now, some of you will have realised that aesthetic worship was based on the German romantic model of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total art work, in which an array of aesthetic devices are coordinated in order to produce a total aesthetic environment in which a total aesthetic experience can be induced.  Let us look briefly at two examples in New Zealand, the first being of a total aesthetic environment.  At Roslyn Presbyterian a beautiful new church was built, a progressive minister was hired in 1910, but "its ornate & artistic completeness is worthy of a better & more complete organ... one which could... suit the suggested alterations, & also to harmonize with the surroundings."  A new pipe organ was ordered and the minister spoke of their "beautiful church, with its excellent appointments, which would soon be completed by the installation of a fine organ, the very largest in keeping with the size of the building and of the best qualities and appearance, [and which] also stood for the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty."  When the organ arrived in 1913 it was reported that the "pipes are very gracefully grouped and artistically tinted, cream and gold being prominent, and the
instrument adds to the beauty and dignity of an already very beautiful church." 

Flowers and colour
The second example, of a total aesthetic experience, is Knox Presbyterian in Parnell.  The choir had a high profile in the church, and employed a fine organist, and services often included many items of religious music, a number of Catholic origin.  Their use of flowers and colour was often commented on.  Indeed, the communion services were advertised as "fully choral," an Anglican phrase which provoked much reaction.  "Loyal Presbyterian" wrote that "it was with disgust that I read in the ecclesiastical columns the programme for Knox Church on Communion Sunday.  Now, Mr Editor, I want to know are we gaining ground in the salvation of our fellow-man with elaborate music, solos, etc.?  All the attention is directed towards the musical programme... why isn't there more attention given to prayer and the sermon?"  The minister did indeed draw large crowds with his impressive sermons, but what was he actually preaching?  In an Easter Day sermon "Is there life after death?" he had this to say: 

" According to the argument of [Immanuel] Kant, the demand of    conscience is perfection; but this cannot be realised if this earth be all.  Man's nature demands immortality for its full realisation.  Then, again, life's inequalities demand future rectification, and his powers full scope for their development. Man's life spells progress and is always upwards in the evolution of things.  No one has yet achieved his best, and therefore it would not be sane to break off and prevent this advance.  If we believe in progress we must believe in immortality."

So, aesthetic devices such as colour, patterns, light, gothic design, sermons, music, choirs, organs and organists were perceived to be inherently spiritual, and so could be coordinated to guide a congregation through a collective aesthetic experience. The true nature of aesthetic worship was not at all spiritual, however, but psychological and sociological, thus utilitarian, and this was later admitted in a secular source.  The writer was asked by a financial organisation to report on the feasibility of continuing to donate pipe organs to churches, in order to promote aesthetic worship for the purpose of achieving improved social
stability; in other words, using the church as a tool of social engineering.  His own self-projected infinite is the Oversoul, a concept beloved of the American transcendentalist, Emerson, and which has its origins in early hinduistic writings.  Emerson had earlier written:

   "The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present,  and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest... that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other... By the same fire, vital, consecrating, celestial, which burns until it shall dissolve all things into    the waves and surges of an ocean of light, we see and know each other, and what spirit each is of."

The report itself, dated 1916, is clearly sympathetic to Emerson's
transcendentalism:

   "It is unquestionably true that music possesses a fusing and welding power tending to convert a mass of separate individual souls into one great oversoul having a common vision and a single purpose.  This unified expression in song of human needs and aspirations is a great uplifting force; it takes from each his burden of care and sorrow and causes him to forget self in a rebirth in a rightly directed collective emotion of his fellows.  The participants, losing the capacity for individual thought, live for the moment a fuller life because they consciously share that of a greater whole...The volume of song that rises from the congregation serves as a curtain behind which the cares, anxieties and activities of the six proceeding days are unconsciously relegated and the mind, cleared of worldly thoughts, becomes receptive of moral truths and spiritual teachings.  In the soul-soil thus prepared, the preacher can, with a power increased by this conviction, render a better service and some of the greater good can be ascribed to the music made more efficient by the organ.

Huxley's brave new world
For an even more extreme view of the utilitarianism of aesthetic worship one may turn to chapter five of Huxley's Brave New World.
With the great cataclysms of the twentieth century, the impetus and widespread acceptance of aesthetic worship was lost.  It was  transformed somewhat as Barthian neo-orthodoxy became widely accepted, in that, as theology became further reduced to a system of existential symbolism, protestantism took on aspects of catholicism for their connotative value: one might have a real chancel, stone altar, icons and statues so long as one did not actually use them for their obvious purposes.
The basic concepts of aesthetic worship, however, still live on today in our cultural memory.  We may still harbour a fondness for gothic architecture as being devotional, hold organists in high esteem, implicitly believe that worship should primarily be an emotional experience, or convince ourselves that unless certain aesthetic devices (such as organs) or processes are brought into our worship then we simply cannot worship.  More significantly, with the development of more sophisticated psychological techniques and the introduction of electronic media, church leaders and musicians no longer need gothic architecture, colour, choirs, organs, and so on to induce the sort of mass feelings of devotion which the finance company's report talked about.  The new (and cheaper) gesamtkunstwerk of the electronic music group, the electronic sound system, the electric lighting system, and the electric overhead projector enable the minister and worship leader to have a far more direct access to people's subconscious minds than the most expensive array of nineteenth-century aesthetic devices ever could.  In fact, the old-fashioned aesthetic and symbolic worship, which is still practised in some larger city churches (though they have no idea why) is no different from the new-fashioned "charismatic" "pentecostal" or "contemporary"  worship which has replaced it, in that music and other devices are still used to manipulate people into feeling that they are worshipping when they really aren't.
When we come to church to have an emotional or subjective experience, we do not worship God, we worship our own feelings.  When we come to church to go through a psychological or sociological process, in order to attain a higher level of psychological or sociological integration, we do not worship God, we worship our selves and the selves of others.  When we worship the way we want to, we do not worship God, we worship our own wills, and that is exactly want our wills want us to do.

Worship on God's terms
God cannot be worshipped, except on His terms.  We are in fact in and of ourselves incapable of worshipping God.  That we are able to worship God at all is entirely out of our hands.  Neither does God need our worship.  Because of our sinful natures nothing we bring to Him is acceptable, except that which He gives and commands us to bring.  Worship is entirely by means of the unmerited Grace of God.  Without the Grace of God no one would want to worship Him, and without the Grace of God no one would know how to, either.  The only way we are able to worship Him is because He has by His unmerited Grace given us the means to, and has shown us in His Revelation what those means are.  Without that Revelation, we would not know what to do.  The remnant of the image of God in us might give us some vague feeling that we ought to do something, but without God's Grace and Revelation we would be totally blind.  We ought not to come to church to feel devotional; if we ought to feel anything, it would be fear and awe.
The intentions which pave the road to Hell are not only good, they are also nice, and "nice" is one of the worst four-letter words I know of.  As a friend of mine, a Reformed minister, once told me, "there are two kinds of people on this planet, and nice isn't one of them."  There is a popular belief that Hell is presided over by the Devil.  Well, it isn't: it is presided over by God.  And it certainly isn't a nice place.  It can't be: it has to be worse than being aborted.  God is not nice. And Jesus is not nice.  As part of our aesthetic worship heritage, we may have memories of Sunday School pictures of a tall, tanned, athletic, blue-eyed guy who looked as if he had just stepped out of the hair salon.  But our reading from Isaiah tells us that "He has no form or comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him."  God had declared His absolute being to Moses from the burning bush when He said "I am I am."  The essence of existentialism, the logical conclusion of aestheticism, whether it be found in the writings of Satre, or the American "beat" culture, or the latest rock video (another form of gesamtkunstwerk), is simply the individual deifying his own self- will, in effect declaring "I am I am."  Jesus said, "before Abraham, I am."  He also said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," and since the rending of the veil of the temple, we are to worship God in spirit and in truth.
But the truth is not nice, either.  The truth is not attractive, it is not compatible with either aesthetics or entertainment.  And the Truth is not obvious to our human minds: if Pilate could ask "what is Truth?" when He was standing right in front of him, what right have we to disguise revelation and true worship with aesthetic devices?  We still believe that by making worship attractive or desirable, it will be easier for people to accept the truth.  The very notion that we can hold to the truth with one hand and with the other repackage it so that it is made attractive to those who hate God is absurd.  Did God add a postscript to the Bible "P.S. By the way, culturally reformat as you will"?  Then why do we persist in trying to make worship nice?  If we are not to add to or subtract from anything in the Bible, then why do we add to or subtract from God's revealed commands as to how we are to worship Him?  How often do we catch ourselves thinking, "wouldn't it be nice if... we had more music before the service, but pretend it's not meant to be worship/we got Sally to play a little something on the flute during the offertory, she does play so nicely/we got a music group together for the odd evening service, it will encourage the young folk to come along/etc, etc"? 

Worship subjective?
We still believe, deep down, that worship is subjective.  But feelings are dangerous and are not to be trusted; they are easily led, and lead, astray.  If the German transcendentalists believed that music was the way to get in touch with one's deepest subconscious, or as they put it, to get in touch with the Infinite, then it ought not to have been embraced by Christian churches as the way to get in touch with God.  Instead, it ought to have been avoided or, at the least, minimised.  The human heart is deceitful above all else, and desires to be worshipped above all else.  To introduce aesthetic elements with the purpose of appealing to the subconscious, is asking for trouble.  We need revealed, objective means of worship in order to worship God in spirit and in truth, otherwise we use subjective means to worship ourselves.
As reformed folk we tend to be proud of the purity of our theology, the excellencies of our preachers, our high regard for the Word, but are we as concerned for the purity of our worship?  When any individual or group wants their own subjective ideas of how worship should be added to or subtracted from enforced, they offend their brother's conscience.  Would we tolerate such a state in our theology?  Of course not.  But in worship, the fact that churches do have dissensions over matters of worship only shows that we have very vague notions as to what reformed worship is all about.  We do not all have our own ideas and preferences as to what ought to be included or excluded from the canon of Scripture or the Heidelberg Catechism, but when it comes to worship it sometimes seems that anything goes. 
The issue of music in worship is difficult; there are no easy answers.  The silence of New Testament Scripture encourages some in one direction, some in others.  Pragmatism would suggest that, as we are commanded to meet together to worship we need buildings, therefore as we are commanded to sing praises we need hymns and organs: neither buildings nor organs are commanded in Scripture, but all things are to be done decently and in order.  Others rely on tradition, but traditions are constantly changing: one group says "we have always had hymns and organs" and another says "we are used to songs and music groups" but neither look beyond cultural relevance to ask the question "what is the scriptural basis for either preference?"  Others, observing the regulative principle, are happy in their own consciences to worship without hymns and organs, but join in anyway, recognising that where Scripture is silent, so should they be, wishing also to avoid dissension where none is needed.  Others apply the regulative principle more overtly.
Organists are no different from anyone, and the skills of a church musician are no more or less valuable to God than those of anyone else.  Whenever we seek to set apart church musicians or other "artists" by basing their roles on Old Testament or even historical models, we are taking a worldly view.  Indeed, as there is no New Testament precedent for church musicians, their role is lower than that of any other servant.   If a church insists on having organists or musicians, their role is to support the ministry of that congregation and its pastor as that church sees fit, and as such they are no more significant than the person who
cleans the toilets or mows the lawn. But a musician must have something to play.  If a congregation decides to sing hymns, and also decides on purchasing an instrument to accompany them, then an organ is the most logical choice.  If songs are preferred, then a music group is necessary: at least hymns may be sung unaccompanied.
In all such discussion it must be remembered that the New Testament is silent on the place of music in public worship.  This should be reflected both in the use of instruments and instrumentalists in the church (do they take a dominating position and role in worship?  Do we need them at all?) and in the attitude we take towards music and instruments (do we seek to dominate others with our own opinions when there is no mandate either way?).  A gracious and forbearing spirit should be the mark of such discussion; above all, we must remember what it is we are about.
True worship is not subjective, it is objective.  We meet together to come before the God who is there, to offer Him the true worship He enables and commands us to.  Anything else is not the worship of God, it is the worship of ourselves.  We need to re-evaluate our concepts of what worship really is; we need to return to the classicism of reformed worship; and we need to reclaim that  worship from the junk heap of romanticism, to free it from the yoke of subjectivity, and to liberate it from the mill stone of psycho- aestheticism.  I believe that purity of worship should be just as much a distinctive of the reformed churches as purity of doctrine.  Just as liberal theology and aesthetic worship go hand in hand, so should reformed theology and reformed worship.  If they do not, then we must ask ourselves the question, "does the Reformation mean nothing?"

Ron Newton

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised July 1998 / Copyright 1998