Bags of Bran


Why I Don’t Sing [the expurgated version]
October 4, 2011, 8:31 am
Filed under: Biography

My e-mail address has provoked some curiosity over the years. I’ll not share it here due to the weirdos that attempt to put spam in my comments, but it involves the fact that I don’t sing.

Some have taken it to mean that I can’t sing. I can sing. I’m able to discern pitch and match it for the most part. It is not skilful singing, nor does it have anything attractive about it which would cause me to do it in front of other people, but it’s not the worst you’ve ever heard. If you know me, you’ve probably heard it. So it’s not that I can’t sing, or that I shouldn’t sing for fear of injuring or bewildering myself or others. I don’t sing.

Why don’t I sing, you ask, hands held aloft in disbelief that a guy who could sing wouldn’t sing, or don’t sing, when you feel that he should sing? That’s a fair question, and a question that is rumbling around the campfire these days. Finally it’s not just me provoking it.

Read around the dogmatism in the next paragraph to get at the truth of it.

I don’t sing because whatever I’m not singing is not worth singing. Every song has two parts, and both parts have to be worth singing for me to sing them. If one or the other parts is not worth singing, I’m not going to try and fix that part so that the entire song is worth singing, because many, if not most, of the people around me are going to be singing the part of the song that I don’t think is worth singing, and it will come out all cacophonous. Great word, by the way: look it up!

The two parts of the song are the words (content) and the music, both the tune and how it’s played (form). If the words are not worth singing because they’re either janky or wrong, I’ll not be participating, thanks so much. If the music is not worth singing because it’s either janky or wrong, I’ll not be participating, have a nice day. And if those in charge of the music want people to know that they’re in charge of the music by how the music is emerging from them, I’ll be over here not participating, thanks again.

If a song has words that say “It’s me and Jesus, here on higher ground/Holding hands, talking ’bout the weather/We get up and start to waltz around/Life’s so grand with my best Friend forever” I’m not going to sing that. I would never say that about another human being, especially one whom I respected, let alone feared. I’m certainly not going to say that about God. The technical word for this is “janky.” There are several authors in the hymnal who wrote/write stuff that is this kind of “janky.”

Another instance of jankiness is when self-consciously correct doctrine is battered into rhymed prose by blunt instruments. If a song says “Since Christ has died in my behalf/And I’m no longer wracked with wrath/’Cause wrathful wrackings’ woes were wrong/I’m gonna sing me this here song” I’m not going to sing it. It’s true that we no longer fear condemnation, and there are plenty of great songs which ably bring this out. This tells both singer and hearer “beautiful theology is not worth expressing with beautiful poetry,” and that pretty much negates the beautiful theology. There are plenty of new songs that try to express theological truth in a “fresh” way that embarrasses both author and singer with tongue-twisters, ineptly-placed conjunctions, and all manner of poetic malapropisms. Janky.

Wrong words are words that convey wrong doctrine. “God our Father, Christ our Brother/All who live in love are Thine” would be an example of wrong words: God is certainly not the Father of all who live in “love” by any normal definition of the word, and Christ is by no means our “brother.” This is classic liberalism from the early 20th century, yet it’s in our hymnals. Jesus is just a man, all nice people are Christians in their essence.

These are the easy ones: like catching ducks with a barrel. Easy as cake, a piece of pie, etc.

What if the music is janky or wrong? What if the words are right, but set to a fluffy waltz tune, an advertising jingle, or a pop ballad? Or what if the words are good and the tune is fine, but the people performing it are rocking out?

This is where the discussion gets fisticuffy. It shouldn’t, but it does. When you see a discussion on music that begins to grow heated, this is a good time to perk up your ears and listen closely: who is getting upset? Why? What part of man is most affected by the music discussion? Learn this and be wise, O young one.

Now, for a list of concessions.

First concession: I’m not what the king would be looking for if he summoned a “music guy.” My musical knowledge is a lot like my car knowledge. I have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge base for correctly guessing what make and model a car is, but if you lift the hood, I grow quiet and slink away lest someone ask me to fix something.

Second concession: I’m not hard-and-fast certain about when I can and can’t sing a song simply by music alone. Sometimes it takes a minute to discover that the music and the words are doing two different things. Other times it is painfully clear however.

Third concession: I played in bands, so I am perhaps more attuned to mediocrity and sub-mediocrity than most of my peers, simply because I brought forth much sub-mediocrity into the world in my time. I tend to notice if a song is written around power chords, for example, or if it borrows heavily from another tune. Call it a bias.

Third concession, part B: Since I played in bands, I know when people are rocking out, whether it’s on the organ/piano/flute or on the can of spray paint acoustic guitar.

If my conscience tells me that the music is not fitting to what I understand God to be like, I don’t sing. If it’s a waltz with words or an advertising jingle, it’s janky; if it’s pop, it’s wrong. If the style in which it is being performed (a word chosen from among thousands) even whispers “rocking out,” I probably will find something else to do.

If the whole rest of the church disagrees, I am as embarrassed for them as they are for me. Yet when I have to abstain because of the music itself, this is probably the most difficult stand to take, and I am certainly not as consistent as I wish I were in applying my filters. The filters themselves shrink and grow over time. At least I have them and they get used, right? Well, they also get misunderstood. I find that I have to be cautious here, because my palate has been trained a certain way, and I can’t always trust myself. But I’m not at liberty to defile my own conscience.

There are tolerable evils in this world, and there are intolerable evils. Then, there is a sufficient conglomeration of tolerable evils that the sheer mass of them becomes intolerable. So, if I find myself “don’t singing” enough, perhaps I’m not in the right church, or the right church tradition.

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