Tag Archives: instrumental music

A mansion, a harp, and a crown

no_harps_allowedI was at a funeral of a longtime member of the Church of Christ the other day. The family requested several traditional hymns be sung by the entire congregation. The person who prepared the slides apparently retrieved the lyrics to those songs from the Internet, rather than “approved” brotherhood sources. Therefore, when we sang the traditional Mansion Over The Hilltop, I was surprised to see these lyrics in one of the verses:

Don’t think me poor Lord, deserted or lonely
I’m not discouraged, ’cause I’m heaven bound
I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city
I want a mansion, a harp, and a crown.

If you didn’t grow up in the Church of Christ, you’re probably not surprised by those lyrics. That’s how the song was originally written. But most of us in the CofC grew up singing: “I want a mansion, a robe, and a crown.”

There are hundreds of examples of lyrics that were changed to protect our brotherhood from false doctrine. But this one surprised me. And pained me. For it was changing away from a biblical concept* in order to protect a treasured doctrine: a cappella singing. This song appropriates a lot of images of heaven and the afterlife that the Bible uses; a harp is one of those images. It fits the song’s use of biblical imagery, but it doesn’t fit our doctrines.

I’ve run into this before. At one church, during a singing night, I dared to read Psalm 150. I naively thought no one would question someone reading a portion of Scripture. I was wrong. How dare I read about instrumental music during a singing night!

I’m not here to discuss the rightness or wrongness of our stance on instruments; I may address that one day. But when you start avoiding Scripture and scriptural terms just because they make you uncomfortable… that’s a pretty bad precedent to set.

*Please note that there is a lot to question in general about the “doctrine” in this song, from the mistranslated “mansion” to the literal approach to symbolic language… not to mention the materialism expressed.

How old of a path should we seek?

I want to pause this discussion for a while. All of the good comments have left me with lots to think about, and I want to work through some of this in my mind before proceeding. More than once I’ve been accused of beginning a series like this with my mind made up, with my final conclusions preset. That’s just not true.

I want to leave you for now with one big question: how do we deal with the Old Testament passages on worship?

The traditional argument I always heard was that the Old Testament was nailed to the cross and has nothing to do with the practices of the New Testament church. Or as Thomas Campbell eloquently put it in his Declaration and Address:

That although the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are inseparably connected, making together but one perfect and entire revelation of the Divine will, for the edification and salvation of the church; and therefore in that respect cannot be separated; yet as to what directly and properly belongs to their immediate object, the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline and government of the New Testament church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members; as the Old Testament was for the worship discipline and government of the Old Testament church, and the particular duties of its members.

Others say that the Old Testament moral law is still in effect, but all of the ceremonial law was abolished.

Another view is that the Old Testament shows us what is pleasing to God; unless a practice is specifically said to be discontinued, it should be a part of our worship.

And there’s a multitude of nuances from there.

What’s your view? In what ways should worship in the Hebrew Scriptures inform the worship of the church?

Chant? We cant

The Jews developed a system for ritual chanting of readings from Hebrew scripture. It’s called cantillation and consists of a series of marks placed within the text to guide the canting of sacred texts during worship. The system is fairly complex, but most congregations have a cantor (a hazzan) to lead them.

(Some missionaries have translated the New Testament into Hebrew, adding marks to allow the text to be canted.)

Many feel that the cantillation marks come to be a commentary themselves on the text, emphasizing musically ideas considered to be important. The marks are called ta’am, which means “taste” or “sense”; the idea is that the accents bring out the sense of a text. (The Jewish Encyclopedia points to Nehemiah 8:8 as the basis for this)

It’s interesting, then, to note that those who essentially chant scripture in their worship consider the basic music they use to be a commentary on the text. How much more could be said for modern melodies and harmonies?

If you argue for church music that emphasizes the text, if you want to avoid the sensationalism and sensuality of modern music, if you feel the need for a theological basis behind every aspect of your church music… shouldn’t you be chanting? Or canting?

Consistency would demand it.

(Since some of this discussion has been prompted by the subject of instrumental music, you might be interested to read what the Jewish Encyclopedia says about instrumental music in the synagogue)

Why don’t we chant?

One thing that I haven’t figured out yet is why our brotherhood hasn’t embraced chanting more fully. Before we get distracted, please note that the ancient world didn’t make the distinction between chanting and singing that we do, so we’re not talking about anything extrabiblical. At least some of what we see in the psalms would probably have been presented via a chant.

There were other ancient music forms, so I’m not arguing that all the early church did was chant. But as I listen to people discuss the benefits of singing, it seems that most of those benefits are better served by chanting.

We do know that the early church wouldn’t have used the four-part harmony that is so common in the U.S. And our modern melodies would have definitely had a foreign ring to their ears. Undoubtedly, our singing is very unlike what the early church knew. I sometimes think that people envision the Ephesian church sitting in pews, holding Songs of the Faith and singing “I’ll Fly Away.”

Don’t chants better emphasize the idea of speaking to one another? Don’t they put the emphasis on the lyrics? Wouldn’t they avoid a lot of the sensationalism that we are concerned about?

Is there any theological justification for intricate melodies and part singing? Is there any benefit in those things, beyond the way they stir human emotions?

Why do you suppose we haven’t put more emphasis on the chant?

Church music: What other issues need to be addressed?

As we continue discussing the questions surrounding church music, I’m wondering what other topics need to be included. Philosophy of worship has been mentioned, as well as hermeneutical principles. What else do you feel needs to be addressed?

And major thanks to all who have commented. So far the discussions have been respectful, especially considering the baggage that most people in our brotherhood bring to this issue: baggage of past experiences, baggage of past online discussions, even the baggage of concerns for the future.

Have a great weekend!