Saturday, August 4, 2012

Idiom and Translation in Christian Music

The question of musical style or idiom for Christian worship can be a complicated issue. Within the same culture there can be a variety of musical expressions, some of which are less suited for use in worship than others. In any culture, including that of the West, music that fails to convey the distinctive difference between biblical faith and prevailing values can be counter-productive when used during worship.

For example, Christian faith sees God as Creator acting through history to bring about the redemption of his people whom he loves. Music that is only cyclical — repetitive, not beginning and ending but going nowhere, such as New Age — runs counter to the biblical principal that history and events have a purpose and goal in God’s redemptive plan. Or music that is consistently harsh, dissonant and disjointed, as with some contemporary types both popular and symphonic, can be taken as a statement that the universe, and human life, are meaningless. Such music is a denial of the biblical perspective, which sees a coherent and purposeful universe created by divine intelligence.

Some music from other cultures seems to be of the repetitive sort — not progressing from beginning to ending as we know them from “classical” music — and I wonder what message this conveys about biblical faith. On the other hand, we don’t know much about Israelite or early Christian music. It was probably closer to traditional African or Asiatic music than to the modern Western idiom. As I said, it's a complicated issue.

There is something to be said for having Christian music, anywhere, different from what is heard in the streets or popular media. The holy God, Scripture is clear, is “set apart” from the profane; the true sense of his presence partakes of the “numinous,” or a mysterious otherness. Music that is just like what people hear on the radio or download to their iPods cannot convey this transcendent mystery. Worship music needs to bear a certain “exalted” quality, especially where it is directly addressed to the Lord — as far more of it should be. Some types of music just cannot bring across this sense of exaltation and mystery. For that reason I feel that popular Hispanic or American country music, to mention just a few examples, are inadequate media for Christian worship.

I had an experience once of “translation” in 1998 when I was invited to teach a class on the Psalms in a seminary in Croatia (my nephew was acting dean). As part of my course I wanted the students to sing some Psalms, so obtained a New Testament and Psalms in Croatian. I studied the language some and got so I could handle a little of it, and attempted to match the words to various styles of psalmody such as chant, Geneva or English psalter, or psalm-paraphrase hymn. The biggest challenge was to set Croatian words to contemporary choruses.

My effort wasn’t very successful for various reasons. Not knowing the language well enough, I don’t think I adequately matched the speech accents with the musical stress points. And I tried doing the chorus “The Lord Reigns” (Psalm 97) as a Croatian text with local help from a woman from Serbia, since Serbian is supposedly the same language. It turned out that “The Lord reigns,” for which I had Gospodin caruje, was a Serbian way of saying it while the Croatians said Gospodin kraluje. The best work was done when I invited students in the class to make their own contemporary Psalm settings.

I also visited a few Croatian Reformed churches in the area (eastern Croatia, near Osijek) and discovered that they sang only Psalms. They sang in Hungarian, since the Reformed had been ethnic Hungarians, though in their daily speech they used Croatian. And except in one new church plant where the pastor was young and “on fire,” they sang laboriously slow, dead settings of the Psalms. No wonder these congregations were down to a handful of older people.