(Note: An earlier version of this article was posted in 2009)
I've been inspired, through a curious conflux of circumstances, to write about music--an area in which I have very little technical skill or knowledge, but which I enjoy tremendously. But this article isn't so much about the technical attributes of music as it is about the meaning of music--and, particularly, the meaning of group singing in our culture and in the life of the church.
Along with it being a wonderful day for a little bit of impromptu song-and-dance in one's slippers, I was driven to this line of thinking by my dear old friend, Mr. G. K. Chesterton. One of the essays in his book Tremendous Trifles (a collection both hilarious and profound) dealt with his examination of a 13th-century picture which depicted a number of different workmen at work, and all singing as they worked. This led him to ask why those old and venerable occupations (fishing, seamanship, ditch-digging, etc.) all had a tradition of singing during work, while modern occupations don't seem to have the same impulse. He then began writing some songs which he felt could be put to use by bankers and postal workers, but they weren't very well received by the workers themselves.
But his point is well taken: where, indeed, do people sing together nowadays? It's not a common facet of our culture anymore--and I say "anymore" because so many premodern societies give group singing (and often dancing, too) a place of central focus in local culture. My favorite memories of my time in Africa come from times when I witnessed the joy of group singing. One such time was when a missionary supervisor arrived on site at our camp in Angola, and the local children assembled into an impromptu choir under the night stars and welcomed him with song. It struck me as a moment of mystical wonder, as if something of the spirit of heaven had broken in, for just a moment, to kiss the realms of men. Perhaps my reaction was just one of charm and delight in seeing an unfamiliar ritual, and no doubt that was part of it; but I also believe that there was something of the grace of God in that moment. Another such time came after I had preached at the service of an Angolan church, and in response, the young people of the church enacted an elaborate song and dance to thank us and send their love along with us as we left. How infrequent it is in our culture to even express in words our appreciation for someone else!--and this--this was a breathtaking leap beyond that, a gift of joy given in action and delight.
Those are, perhaps, uncommon examples, but I think they're only uncommon to us Westerners. For much of the world, singing together is a way of expressing unity and the simple joy of community, and it ought to give us pause that our culture has lost that most ancient of communal rituals. The old traditions of communal singing are still around in a few forms, but just a few--in a certain breed of pubs, in Christmas caroling, and, most prominently, in churches.
We'll come back to the church connection in a moment, but at this juncture I'd like to give a tip of my hat to that finest form of music in the world: folk music. What is folk music? It is (to steal a line completely out of context from Mr. Lincoln) "of the people, by the people, for the people." Folk music is the creation of a particular local culture in a particular place, usually designed so that all the people in that place can sing it together. Since there are all kinds of places, there are, of course, all kinds of folk music. My own tastes gravitate toward Celtic and Anglo-maritime folk music, but there are as many varieties of folk music as there are varieties of folk in the world. This is the great virtue of folk music--it is the music of real humans in community with one another. More artistic forms of music--classical, jazz, and so on--obviously have their place, but they lack the raw power and thrill of communal participation. If I took my trombone to a classical concert and began to play along as I sat in the audience, my contribution wouldn't be appreciated (and not only because I'm a very poor trombone player). But if I went to a folk-music singalong in a local pub and began to sing at the top of my lungs from my place in the audience, I would be accepted as part of the celebration, part of the music. Likewise, much of the popular music put out nowadays lacks the communal element. It's the creation of individual artists written for a vast and varied audience, and even if I try to sing at a rock concert, it doesn't matter, because no one can hear me--and it's not really about me anyway, just the performer. Folk music is the music of the whole gathered group, and that's what makes it special.
Folk music is also a genre that carries with it the love of a particular place, a particular culture, and that too makes it special. But folk music is dying in America, mostly because we don't have any such thing as a "particular place" or a "local culture" anymore. Thanks largely to mass media, our local cultures are dying out, crushed by the gigantic weight of "pop culture." You can visit a town in California and a town in New Jersey and find the same stores, the same music, the same TV shows, the same spread of political opinions, the same sports and pasttimes. But it wasn't always that way. I've often heard people lament the fact that houses aren't built with big front porches anymore, and neighbors don't come visiting. Sometimes I wonder if we've lost a great deal more than we've gained since the advent of modern communication technologies.
Learning to love our own places and the people around us is important--tremendously important--and the fact that my own place is indistinguishable from a hundred thousand other places in this country makes it a little bit harder to love. But local culture isn't just a reason to love a place--it's actually an expression of that love. Building culture takes time and intentional investment in the people around us; and those places with rich local culture tend to be places that are also rich in neighborly love. Why am I putting so much stress on this? Because I think it's telling that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors, rather than simply telling us to love mankind. There is a strong temptation for all of us to pass ourselves off as lovers of humanity, deeply concerned about the human rights violations in Darfur and Congo and China and North Korea, while never actually stooping to love our own neighbors. The truth is, it isn't possible to love "humanity" in the abstract. It isn't possible to love people that we don't know. We can be concerned about them; we can, through prayer, seek to share some of God's heart for them; but we can't love them. Love is only love when it is active and particular. We can't love people we don't know simply because we don't know them. Claiming that we love "humanity" is too often an unconscious excuse, releasing us from the obligations of active love, because the fact of the matter is that love requires something of us. Love requires us to meet another person, to get to know them, to put up with them even when they annoy us, and to pour ourselves into their lives. If we can't love those immediately around us, then we can't pass ourselves off as lovers of mankind. The beauty of local culture, then, (and the beauty of folk music) lies in its roots as an expression of obedience to the command of Jesus: "Love thy neighbor." To want to sing with our neighbors, we need to learn to love them.
There is something peculiarly human about singing together. On the most basic level, we can observe that of all the animal life on the planet, only humans show such a vast and varied appreciation for the beauty of sound. Other animals sing, to be sure, but largely as a means of communication. It is only in mankind that there is a spark of something deeper, something that can recognize and savor the presence of beauty in a pattern of sound, and then re-create it in a thousand new forms.
On a deeper level than mere comparative zoology, though, singing together is an iconic act of humanity. We were created in the image and likeness of the Triune God, the unity-and-plurality, who speaks the Word to us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, communal singing is one of the few mediums we have in which we can proclaim together, in one voice, the mystery of the Word, and in so doing we reflect the original and ultimate Word-Speaker. The Trinity itself is rather like the harmony lines of a song--distinct, yet inseparable; all one thing, and yet in complementary roles; creating together a unity of breathtaking beauty. Singing together is an act of conscious unity that proclaims our likeness to our Triune Maker. It also demonstrates a theological principle which we are too often wont to forget--that human nature is, in some way, all one thing; that we are bound in a mystical (but very real) way to one another. So it is that the sin of one man has affected us all, and so it is that the redemption bought through one man may also affect us all--we are all connected. In our hyper-individualized society, singing together is that much more important, because it reminds us that we are all united to one another.
Let me give a more basic example of this principle that singing is an illustration of our humanity. As I've been writing, I've been thinking about musicals--those plays and movies in which much of the drama is told in song and dance. Musicals have a particular sort of charm because they are so unrealistic--random groups of strangers don't usually break into perfectly-choreographed routines together--but at the same time, they possess a deeper sort of reality. Through the symbol of song and dance, they illustrate our connectedness in a beautiful and winsome way. I think that many people find that compelling, because it speaks to a deep desire and joy at the heart of our humanness--the desire to be united with one another in beauty and celebration. Musicals are usually relegated to comedies or light dramas (although sometimes, as in the case of Les Miserables, rather more sober and heroic dramas), and one could even imagine, if we were more versed in the art of lament, a musical tragedy. But I cannot imagine a musical horror film. It would quickly descend into a farce. The reason, I think, is because horror films focus on beastly and twisted things--in short, on inhumanity. Horror films focus on the fear of the individual in the face of an inhuman force. And for that reason, one cannot have a musical horror film, because the act of singing together is entirely human, in the best possible sense. It is a heroic stand against the brutal inhumanity that so often tries to tear us apart from one another. In one of the many insightful passages in The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis paints demons as creatures that simply can't understand music. They can't comprehend the pattern, the beauty, the wonder of music--they only hear noise. Music--and particularly the practice of making music together--is a peculiarly human delight, and it shows us for what we were meant to be.
Happily, church is one of the few places left in American culture where people still enjoy and practice communal singing. I think it has survived the larger death of communal singing in our culture because we understand, at least at an unconscious level, that it's important. Most Christians nowadays would probably consider congregational singing as important because of its value in worship, but I think that if it were taken away and other forms of worship put in its place, they would quickly realize that communal singing was also important and beloved because of its expression of unity. It is a powerful representation, in flesh and blood and Word, of the theological principle that we are all one Body. As Bonhoeffer puts it: "It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song."
Communal singing has been a part of the Church for as long as the Church has been around. The Hebrew psalms shaped the worship of the early Christians. Paul teaches us to speak to one another "in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs." Some of the most poetic passages in the New Testament are thought to have been hymns (such as the poem in Phil. 2). When John describes the scene in heaven in Revelation, it is almost always filled with song--the songs of the elders, of the angels, of the great crowd of the redeemed. Some of the earliest Christian literature we possess is in the form of songs (the Odes of Solomon). At least one of the early church fathers, Ephrem the Syrian, is known entirely through the collection of hymns he left behind. From those earliest beginnings up to the present day, churches have proclaimed together in song the truth of the Gospel. That's no accident or coincidence of cultural influences--it's because singing together makes a symbolic statement of our unity, allows us to reflect our Maker by creating something of beauty together, and pours the practice of mystic joy into what might otherwise be simple recitations.
For me at least, I never feel so connected with others as when I sing with them. The mere act of singing together, if entered into with the right spirit, I think enables and empowers us to love one another better. And the practice of loving one another is at the heart of the Church. I'm blessed to have as my in-laws a family that is rich in uncommon love, and I think that that love was fostered, at least in part, by their habit of singing together. They sing not to perform, but as an expression of their unity, their joy of being together, and their love for one another. They were sung lullabies as children, they sing grace together at the table, and at each family gathering there always seems to be an impromptu hymnsing. While I don't have the ear for harmony that they do, I love this practice of beauty and joy that they share in their singing. And it was the same with many of my college friendships. During one of my first weekends at Houghton College, the group of honors students that I was with was assigned to hike into the woods, build a fire, and cook a meal together. That was all well and good, but it wasn't until after all those things were done, and we were sitting around the fire singing songs together, that I knew I was in the company of men and women who would be my lifelong friends.
Congregational singing in church is important, and I hope that churches begin to recover the understanding that this is more than a medium for each individual's worship of God; this is something we do together. And the simple fact that we do it together makes it important. Too often we worship in church as if we were alone, dutifully ignoring our neighbors. I rather think that it would do us good to look at one another as we sing, to stand in a circle as we raise our praise to God, because there is joy in knowing that this is a together-act. There's a popular piece of worship music out there right now called "Prince of Peace." It has its merits in tune and content, but I think the real reason why people love it is because it consciously forces us to the realization that we are singing together, as one. Men and women each have a separate part, and then come together on the last line in unison. It's wonderful and compelling, and I think its great appeal is that it's a worship song that one person can't possibly sing alone. That song tells us that we need each other, and there is tremendous joy in worshiping together, in creating something of real beauty with one another.
At the end of his essay, as he pondered why communal singing had vanished from the modern world, G. K. Chesterton tells how he wandered by a church, and heard them singing inside: "They were singing anyhow, and I had for an instant a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human. Human nature is hunted and has fled into the sanctuary."