The Pride of Simplicity

Leonard R. Payton
Tuesday, August 14th 2007
Jul/Aug 1995

Egalitarian movements almost always spawn new breeds of elitism. George Orwell showed this bitter irony in Animal Farm. And Christians should find nothing surprising in such an assertion since all rebellions against any alleged elitism are tantamount to saying, "If I were Adam, I wouldn't have sinned in the first place." The Church falls prey to egalitarian ideas periodically. Ours is such a time. I will call its chief symptom "the pride of simplicity." This pride has profound implication for the aesthetics and ethics of the church.

Orwell's critique was directed toward Soviet-style socialism. However, his parable transcends that period of history, which, thankfully (perhaps), appears to be behind us. In Orwell's story, oppressed animals threw off the shackles of their human tyrants. They chanted, "Four legs good, two legs bad!," and "All animals are equal." Soon, however, the pigs began to emerge in a leadership role, gradually assuming human traits. The slogan migrated to "Some animals are more equal than others." Eventually, the pigs moved into the farm house, donned human apparel, walked on their hind legs, ate and drank like men, and exercised tyranny easily equal to that of the humans. Once again the slogan mutated: "Four legs good-two legs, better." Tragically, pigs made even worse humans than the humans themselves.

A number of swirling ideas inside and outside the church have fueled a similar egalitarianism, ideas such as, "I'm OK, you're OK," the emphasis on civil liberties, the individualism of "what Jesus means to me," multiculturalism, diversity, and the notion that doctrine divides and is therefore bad. This last point is especially ominous because it equates any earnest pursuit of the truth with elitism.

These ideas have combined to form pride of simplicity. Gone away is Reverend Williams: here to stay is Pastor Bob. The drive for "seeker sensitivity" has aimed all aspects of the church at the lowest common denominator. Instead of naming our congregations "Grace Baptist" or "Our Redeemer's Presbyterian," we name them after valleys, trees, and streams. All of this is done in the interest of church growth. There is even a congregation in California called simply "The Coastlands." Barry Liesch tells of a church in Los Angeles with a Coke machine in the back of the sanctuary. (1)

The pride of simplicity has been bubbling up in all aspects of the visible church. However, this trend has affected worship music more than any other trend in church life. We disdain our hymnals because they presumably speak to the head and not to the heart. (Notice the implicit accusation of intellectual elitism here.) We replace those hymnals with songs which can be performed while the eyes are closed. We reduce our lyric vocabulary to a bare minimum, and take special care not to touch anyone's hot buttons with language which might sound too doctrinal. Here again, we see an attack on implied doctrinal elitism. And of course, the accompaniment instrument of choice becomes the guitar with its ubiquitous eight chords in fixed inversions which, by default, cast out any sense of good voice leading. As Chuck Kraft says, "a guitar gives the impression that anyone can learn to play it." (2) Where has costly worship gone?

Once in a while we sing historic hymns with mist in our eyes, but it is little more than sentimentality. We are so glad to be a part of the family of God that we lose all sense of sacred worship space. We clap our hands on beats two and four just like we would at a Beach Boys concert. What a shock it would be if we viscerally saw that King to whom we were singing Hosanna!

We are lured into such irreverence by the apparent demands of evangelism, "becoming all things to all men." We quickly transform this principle into the practice of finding the least common denominator, which in our time is popular culture. Those embracing such a philosophy of ministry often claim, "I just want to see people come to Christ," but this philosophy implies that unless we each take the same approach we somehow do not care to see people come to Christ. Notice the emerging new elitism! Paul never said, "To the hedonist I became a hedonist."

Unfortunately, this ethos of mandatory simplicity soon begets a kind of comfort which, when violated, is characterized as un-spirit-filled. This is a catastrophe for Christian growth, since many of God's attributes are disquieting. To ignore those attributes is to worship a god not seen in the Bible, in short, to violate the first and second commandments. Many of the experiences our living Heavenly Father designs for our growth are unpleasant as well. And yet, when we insist on likable, or "seeker friendly" music, we inadvertently despise the chastening of the Lord.

I had a surprise collision with that comfort a few years ago as I contemplated a praise chorus much loved by my congregation. The text focused on the cuddly attributes of God. It portrayed God as the one who meets my needs. One can find such texts under every bush. They sell well. The texts dealing with those other less savory attributes of God are strapped together in that perfunctory, omnibus song, "Our God is an Awesome God," in which "awesome" covers all those leftover, unnamed (and probably unwanted) attributes.

The musician in me winced at the cuddly praise chorus. It was truly banal music, especially because it arrogated to itself some of the surface features of high art music, yet with no understanding of high art form. It employed Brahmsian contrapuntal voice leading in a torturously predictable sixteen measure form comprised of eight-measure antecedent and consequent phrases. The obligatory seventeenth century decoration hauling us into the half cadence in measure eight was especially painful since one could feel it coming already in measure five.

Previous generations in the church have produced equally unimaginative music. One need only think of the gratuitous use of secondary dominant chords predictably and copiously placed throughout much church music composed from the late nineteenth century right up to our '60's, when, sensing the triteness of our society both inside and outside the church, we desired transcendence and authenticity. We swept away those vapid tunes so often called "good old hymns" and replaced them with equally vapid contemporary Christian music sprinkled with the holy water of surface features commandeered from high art music. But a Volkswagen with a Rolls Royce grill is still a Volkswagen. Moreover, it is better without the grill because it is not pretentious. Is the Beatles' "Yesterday" high art because it is accompanied by a string quartet? Is contemporary Christian music orchestrated with woodwinds in pairs, harp and four horns transcendent?

Still, an appetite for such music was the starting point for my congregation. In it I was faced with what I believed to be two inadequacies, one being theological, the other, aesthetic. As a church musician, I concluded that the former inadequacy presented the more pressing problem. For that reason, I superimposed a different set of words over the well-loved melody, those words being, "God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." (3) This seems to be a mild text, as it does not mention God's jealousy or His wrath. Nevertheless, the move was a gross miscalculation on my part. The new words "didn't feel right" to many in my congregation. And since I did not experience the same feelings toward the tune, I had wandered into a mine field.

On a couple of other occasions, I unwittingly replicated my mistake. They were different tunes and different texts, but I nevertheless received the same vehement reaction. Finally, I began to see the portentous implications of my little experiments. Each time I altered the text, I was improving on a piece of popular culture. What I discovered was that the musical style was unable to carry the text. It was like replacing an Edsel's engine with a nuclear reactor.

This brings me to my main point: All styles are not equal. This is obvious to anyone who has given any serious thought to aesthetics. However, the problem before me was an ethical one. All styles are not ethically equal. And since style is an issue of aesthetics, it therefore appears that there is no clear dividing line between ethics and aesthetics in worship music. From this truth we can derive the following principle: Any style not able to carry a text rightfully belonging in Christian worship is a style unsuited for Christian worship. And since the forms are, the more disastrous the marriage. Since ours is a time in which musically illiterate people produce most of the music we hear, the musical forms have all the imagination of Hallmark card poetry or pulp novels. These are very simple forms with very little flexibility. And as mounting Christian egalitarianism has succumbed to the pride of simplicity, these forms have been accepted into the heady realm of the "anointed." Indeed, I have even read straight-faced advertisements for "anointed guitar solos!"

As Christians we must put more pressure on musical form. Congratulating "diversity" or "multi-culturalism" may seem peaceable, but truthfully, it is a tired capitulation to sloth and ease. And in the end, such a stance will only serve further to enervate Christian worship. "I'm OK, you're OK" must be replaced with, "I'm a sinner, you're a sinner; let's grow in the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength."

1 [ Back ] Barry Leisch, People in the Presence of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), p. 27.
2 [ Back ] Chuck Kraft, "Organ/Guitar preference reflects view of God" Worship Leader (April/May 1993), p. 7.
3 [ Back ] Westminster Shorter Catechism, question #4.
Tuesday, August 14th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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