Saturday, June 09, 2012

What's Wrong with Praise and Worship Music

I know that this post is likely to earn me the ire of some of my non-Catholic friends (and maybe a few Catholic friends as well), so let me 'fess up right now and say that I am a fan of Christian music, particularly Christian rock, pop, and some praise and worship music as well. My playlists for daily listening and workouts have everyone from Matt Maher and Joy Williams to Decyfer Down and The Classic Crime. I'm of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with using "secular" modes of musical expression with religious themes. The distinction between secular and religious when it comes to folk art and craft is, in my opinion, a false dichotomy given that folk art in the West has always combined religious themes with very "vulgar" (meaning common) modes of expression. So the title of this post is not an indictment of what's commonly called "praise and worship" music for what it is or for its aesthetic value. Some of it is very good. Some of it is sentimental tripe. I'm also a bit of a traditionalist in my liturgical preferences and consider pop modes incompatible with reverent liturgy, but that's the way I swing, and I consider them debatable points.

That said, I believe that praise and worship music can be problematic in the context of communal worship. I say this knowing full well that many of my non-Catholic brethren cannot fathom worship without it, and that is the crux of the matter right there.

Many of the evangelical and nondenominational churches in this area have fantastic music ministries. Many of the performers I really enjoy (like Meredith Andrews) are active in music ministries in their faith communities. On Air 1, I hear testimonies of people who listen to the station and equate listening to the music with worship. Given the prominence of music in these worship services, it's only natural that people would begin making this error. So let me declare unequivocally that praise and worship music does not EQUAL worship. Can it be part of meaningful worship? Sure (although I'd have to distinguish then between "worship" and "liturgy"). But music in and of itself is not the totality of worship, nor should it be the predominant expression of communal praise to God.

Why am I getting my knickers in a twist about this? It's because I see a trend among my non-denominational brethren seeking that emotional, ecstatic experience and confusing it with faith. Music engages us in ways that go beyond the rational. Music includes that rational part of us that can hear and interpret sounds and words and find meaning in the tonal patterns, harmonies, and rhythms, but it also engages something supra-rational, instinctual, primal, and emotional. It can move us to tears, it can lift us up, it can pull the deepest grief out of our subconsciousness and give it a safe channel for catharsis.

And when we get conditioned to associate these experiences alone with worship, these experiences become idols for us and take our attention off of the God who should be the focus our adoration and redirect it internally.

Beyond the misdirection of our adoration (the very meaning of idolatry—εἰδωλολατρεία or eidolo-latreia), this overindulgence of emotional spiritual experiences can  also lead us to impaired religious belief and moral sensibility. Instead of trusting what beliefs we derive from authority (Scripture and Tradition, for Catholics and Orthodox, and varying degrees of Scripture and tradition for denominational Christians) and reason, we begin to put our trust in our feelings as the compass for our moral judgment. Something that makes us feel less like we're in a worship experience is assumed to be uncompassionate, cold, uncaring. So difficult moral decisions based on revealed truth gives way to the path of empathy. We dismiss moral dangers to avoid the danger of experiencing the Cross—the challenge of the narrow path.

Emotional responses are not antithetical to moral reason, but they cannot be a substitute for it. Yet that is precisely what is happening with so many Christians who dismiss the very clear moral teachings of the New Testament and claim that the gospel is something determined by each individual conscience rather than the Words of Christ and His Apostles.

We're on a journey to our real home beyond this life, and we have been given a map (Scripture), a compass (Tradition), and a guide (the Church). Trust in the rock and not in whims and fleeting emotions.
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