Friday, July 17, 2015

Music and Meaning for the “Spiritual But Not Religious”

E. Byron Anderson’s recent essay in Liturgy begins by asking whether music has inherent spiritual qualities. If worship planners want to make an effort to reach out to the self-defined  “Spiritual But Not Religious” folks in our communities, what considerations need to be made about musical choices? Using research from a number of music scholars, Anderson answers that music in not inherently “spiritual” but is perceived as such by what the listener brings to it. The spirituality of music arises from an encounter between sound and hearer.

Asking what worship leaders and musicians might learn, then, about music for worshipping assemblies, Anderson addresses the distinction made by SBNRs between what is “religious” and what is “spiritual.”

Historically, the terms religious and sacred, as well as religious and spiritual, were synonymous in discussions of music, but today they are often defined in oppositional terms. The religious is understood as public, communal, institutional, exterior, intellectual, and objective. . . . grounded in and intentional about its connection to traditions, disciplines, and communities of practice, and. . .  thought to be overly concerned with correct beliefs. Religion is a particular way of life, marked by particular patterns, practices, communities, and commitments. Its patterns, practices, and commitments “exist before the individual” and are “bigger than the individual.” (Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, “Talking about Religion,” in  The American University in a Postsecular Age [New York: Oxford University Press, 2008], 223)  
. . . On these terms, denominational hymnals might serve as representatives of religious music. Although hymnals were initially purchased and used individually, often for personal devotion, they are found today primarily in communal spaces (churches), often with some signifier of denominational identity on their covers. They are developed not by local communities or by individuals but by denominational committees. They express in content and organization the theological perspectives and beliefs of the denomination and they are intended to serve the liturgies and rites of that denomination. They represent the theological and musical development of a tradition. Often implied in the rejection of such religious music is the notion that the only valid interpretation of that music is the official denominational interpretation. We know, however, that interpretation of even the most familiar hymn text and tune will be a mixture of official, local, and personal meanings––developed over time in varying contexts and circumstances. Yet it is a hymnal’s very form that permits individuals to linger with a text (and tune), to study it, to reflect on or pray with it, and to make it. . . part of the community’s language of prayer, [shared] across generations.
 The spiritual, in contrast, is popularly described today as something that is private, genuine, interior, affective, and subjective. It is more focused on inner, even mystical, experiences than on the outward practices of a person’s life. . . . It may explore and widely borrow practices from various religious traditions, often without regard for the connections between those practices and the beliefs that gave them birth. Not only does it often disregard those connections, but also it is often intentional in its disconnection from traditions of practice and belief. The spiritual emphasizes personal effort in the search for self-actualization. Religion and tradition are seen as hindrances to, if not enemies of, genuine spirituality. Meaning is found only in the eye, or here the ear, of the beholder.
Technological changes in how music can be heard are altering much more than the sheer availability of music. Today individuals can amass a musical playlist based in personal taste. Gone is the need to rely on printed books of songs. The question for planners of music in worship has to do with whether it is still possible, in a time of such enhanced individual choice, to really listen to the music as one would do with hymns printed in a hymn book. “Religious” music is assembled by a denomination; “spiritual” music, by the individual. Between these two assemblages of music lies a chasm that has bearing on theological understanding and communal cohesion.

[S]ome church musicians have expressed [concern] about the transition from printed hymnals—and their diminishing place in many North American Protestant congregations—to projected texts. The projected text, which, unlike a hymnal, is characterized by impermanence, participates in or contributes to the “present experience” of music/text. Once the image of the text is gone, so is the text; we cannot linger with it, study it, or even share it as we might with a printed page. . .
Our assemblies may be changed by how worship planners choose and present music. These decisions may in turn, be altering how worshippers understand music’s role in our lives and in our ways of living. 

E. Byron Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship and director of the Nellie B. Ebersole Program in Music Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He served as president of The Liturgical Conference from 2004 to 2015. His published works include Worship and Christian Identity: Practicing Ourselves (Pueblo Books, 2003).

E. Byron Anderson, “Music and Meaning for the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,” Liturgy 30, no. 3 (2015): 14-22.

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