Cantate Domino…?


by Nathan Cornelius

“Sing to the LORD,” declares the opening line of Psalm 96 (and 98 and 149)—much to the relief of frustrated composers searching for a suitable text for a sacred piece. (I personally suspect this is why the choral repertoire contains such an abundance of pieces entitled Cantate Domino, Singet dem Herrn, and so on.) Having asserted that the faithful ought to worship God with singing, the text continues: Cantate Domino canticum novum (or, for Bach, …ein neues Lied). The line is generally rendered in English as “Sing to the LORD a new song” and then subsequently brandished by advocates of church music styles involving guitars, drums, synthesizers, and other shockingly new instruments. “See?” they say. “The Bible says we ought to sing new kinds of music in church, not keep using organs and hymnals just because they’ve been around for generations.”

At this, the devotees of traditional sacred music dust off their concordances and Hebrew lexicons and mumble something about the word for “new” really being an adjective, not an adverb, in the original language. According to this grammatical nuance, the verse really ought to be translated something like “Sing to the LORD a song newly.” “Of course,” they continue, “if we sing the same song we’ve sung hundreds of times before, to exactly the same music, but with new perspective and fresh passion in our heart, that counts as new to God.”

Amid the continuing debate and discussion between these two positions, how can composers interested in church music find a path that satisfies both their artistic desires and the needs of the church? Is it necessary to align with either the “traditional” or “contemporary camp”? I’m inclined to think both groups are partly right in their arguments. But they are both wrong, I think, in assuming that so-called “contemporary Christian music” is a “new song” in the sense of the psalm quoted above.  Recognizing these misconceptions may open the way to a new vision of the church’s role in the arts.

A couple years ago, I was working out in the gym when I realized I recognized the song playing on the radio. (This was notable because I am remarkably ignorant of popular music and therefore rarely recognize the ‘80s, ‘90s, or even 2000s hits which usually air on this station.) It was by a popular Christian band, and I remembered singing it in a worship service once: “For you I sing, I dance/ I rejoice in this divine romance,/ Lift my heart and my hands/ To show my love.”

As I wondered how this song made it onto a mainstream radio station, the next song began, and again it took me a minute to realize I knew this one from church too: “My soul will rest in your embrace/ For I am yours, and you are mine.” I began to wonder if the radio DJ had erroneously thought they were programming secular love songs for their morning playlist. If you didn’t catch the beginning of the lyrics, you’d have no way to know these were “Christian songs.” But such a misunderstanding was only conceivable because, in its purely musical elements, this “contemporary Christian music” was virtually indistinguishable from that of any other acoustic pop song which might be on the radio.

I recently read a thought-provoking article in which a professor who taught at the college I attended said he believes the church needs to modify its thinking “given the changes happening in the broader society. Too often,” he said, “the church is behind.” I think this statement speaks to an assumption many Christians hold: In order to be relevant, the church ought to reflect current trends in the larger culture. Applying this principle to the realm of music, they recognize that the traditional hymn is not a genre which exists in popular (or even classical) music today, and therefore may not make much sense to people uninitiated in the idiosyncrasies of church subculture. While they acknowledge the rich theology in the words of hymns, they are skeptical that this message can reach the hearts of listeners if the artistic medium which carries the words is unfamiliar. Thus, they believe churches should present their music in a popular style familiar, and therefore emotionally relatable, to someone coming from a background in purely secular culture.

It is certainly encouraging to see churches thinking about how to create an experience that engages and draws in people from the outside. But in practice, this often turns into simply copying trends in secular popular music and creating a sort of derivative style for the church (with the potential for humorous confusion between genres along the way). This does not really fulfill the spirit of the Psalmist’s injunction to sing “a new song.” It also fundamentally mistakes the church’s role vis-á-vis the secular culture. The church is not called to engage culture by mirroring its trends and adopting its styles or even its values while trying to win it over to a radically different worldview. Instead, the church must engage culture prophetically, by presenting it with something noticeably different, challenging its assumptions in light of the teachings of Scripture. As my friend Joel Clarkson writes in an insightful essay on this topic, “traditional liturgy is also radically countercultural” in this way.

What if writers of church music today took “Sing to the LORD a new song” as an invitation to create something new in an artistic sense? What if, instead of just adopting the culture’s artistic forms and trying to fill them with “Christian” content, they created new forms that express aspects of Christian belief that are distinct from the secular culture? What if, instead of merely trying to catch up to the changing culture, they aimed to lead the change in a new direction?  Just as respect for the old does not mean merely adhering to a traditional musical style, the pursuit of newness in song should run deeper than just following the most up-to-date creations of others.

Artists throughout history, whether people of faith or not, have always called out injustices in the culture and inconsistencies in its worldview. According to the philosopher John Dewey, they do so “through imaginative vision… of possibilities that contrast with actual conditions.”[1] When accepted morality supports patterns of thought and action that confine people in a life that is less than full, art can imagine a world of better possibilities. Through art and music, the church has the opportunity to identify weaknesses in the culture on the basis of Scripture, create musical forms drawing attention to them, and speak prophetically and powerfully through an artistic medium to project a vision of how the culture could be renewed under the reign of Him who said, “I am making all things new.”

[1] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Minton, Balch, and Company, 1934), 346.


3 thoughts on “Cantate Domino…?

  1. Pingback: Credo: A New (Old) Model for Church Music | deformingprisms

  2. This is really great, and I should have responded to this long ago. Really love some of the functioning concepts here, especially about how we are required to work with the mandate to sing a “new” song, regardless of our cultural preconceptions about church music.

    My initial question—and it’s driven far more by curiosity than skepticism—is, what does a “new song” look like for the church? What are the innovative constructs we build that are both attentive to our own time, and at the same time, fundamentally of of the church? Do we consider new instruments and ensembles? Should we alter how we approach harmony and melody? Do modernize chant and give it a 21st century stylization?

    Clearly some of this is at work today; Lauridsen writes extensively with tensions, Whitacre and Gjeilo favor vocal tone clusters, and Pärt has given the church mystic minimalism. Any of those small elements could be unpacked to create new modes of composition specifically for sacred settings. On the other end of the spectrum, contemporary popular songwriters like Keith and Kristen Getty write modern hymns very much in keeping with the theological and liturgical traditions of the church, and yet immensely relevant to modern ears. These all are encouraging signposts to me.

    But I think there’s a lot more to be done. I’d be curious if you had anything else specifically in mind, or if you envision other concepts arising. I’m both excited and cautious at the same time, as I would love to see the historical musical traditions of the church winsomely provide satisfying solutions for the part of the church that is cut off from any history of the church before about 1950; and yet, I’ve seen the historical church get so lost in trying to connect with those modern audiences in Christianity at large that they basically just co-opt modern styles while still trying to cling to some sense of tradition at the same time (aka band music during a high mass in a liturgical church; it just doesn’t work). I suspect that any time the church starts trying to follow on the coattails of culture, it gets seriously waylaid.

    • I didn’t have anything terribly specific in mind. A lot of the things you mentioned, like considering new instruments or turning back to some version of ancient or medieval models, could be included. (I wrote a follow-up post on how the Mass can provide a theological model for the songs’ content.) I’m also envisioning letting the content of the music generating the form, as some contemporary classical composers do (such as Gubaidulina and Penderecki–although not necessarily in so dissonant an idiom). But I agree it has to be more than just piggybacking on some secular style.

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