Thanks to my current college classes I’ve been thinking a lot lately about architecture. Even if we don’t often pause to consider it, it’s a subject most of us have at least some appreciation for. You could probably describe your idea of a cozy house, a sleek office building, or a majestic church just by how the structure is put together.
Architecture is fascinating because it can give us clues about the attitudes behind the buildings as well. Houses are built with separate rooms for individual people to sleep in, but also common areas for families to share meals and other day-to-day activities. Office buildings tend to be designed in tightly-packed cubes to optimize space and maximize productivity. Churches, at least old ones, often include lots of filtered light and upward-pointing lines in an effort to set the sanctuary apart from the workaday world.
I was reminded of the descriptive power of architecture just the other day, when the Alliance Defending Freedom released a video explaining my college’s current legal battle against the abortifacient mandate of Obamacare. The video contains footage of both Geneva’s campus and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and as a professor noted, the difference in architecture is immediately striking. Massive bureaucracy on one hand contrasts with small but vibrant community on the other. You don’t even have to begin by knowing the people inside each organization; you can see it in the buildings.
The point is this: Different architecture reflects different spirits. The way something was put together does–or should–reveal something about what its creators valued. And the same is true for music.
Music has its own kind of architecture: plain or ornate, simple or complex, for one voice or many. Music, too, conveys attitudes and beliefs about the world in which it is created. And when you consider psalm-singing alongside the dominant music of contemporary society, the result is again a study in contrasts.
Think about the structure behind “pop” music genres like screamo and dubstep–the piercing vocals, the guitar riffs, the electronic manipulation, even just the sheer volume. All of these traits certainly seem to send the message (what T. David Gordon would call a “meta-message”) that edginess and entertainment value are the supreme goals of the music. The content of music and lyrics may be trivial, but that doesn’t matter; the medium was created merely for mass consumption, and that’s what counts.
A good topic for another day would be to try to answer whether the genre of “contemporary Christian music” sends a different message. I’m afraid much of it doesn’t. But let’s skip this category of music, along with the older category of hymns, and go back to the psalms. What does the architecture of psalm-singing (not even the content, but just the structures and patterns of psalm-singing) reveal? I’d love to hear your thoughts, but for now, here are a few of my own:
- Psalm-singing reveals a common identity. When we sing psalms in church, we don’t perform solos. Neither do we let a group of people stand at the front of the sanctuary and do the singing for us. No, we sing together, both in unison and in harmony, affirming that we are all members of the universal body of Christ.
- Psalm-singing opposes the idea of performance. Groups like my college choir may occasionally sing psalms in concert, but congregational psalm-singing has never been designed around performance. To be honest, a lot of congregational psalm-singing sounds pretty rough around the edges. But in the era of squeaky-clean digital mastering, we may need to be reminded that there are reasons to sing other than “sounding good.”
- Psalm-singing legitimizes a wide range of emotions. In contrast to the limited emotional vocabulary of pop music, the psalms treat a vast spectrum of life experiences with a vast spectrum of emotional responses. If we take psalm-singing seriously, our worship will include a variety of moods and subjects, some of which we may not be particularly comfortable with. And that’s the point: over time, psalm-singing prepares us for all the ups and downs of the Christian life.
- Psalm-singing reveals an attitude of worship. The psalms address God so frequently that this point almost seems unnecessary–but it isn’t. The ultimate recipient of our singing isn’t the giant crowd in a mosh pit, nor is it even an auditorium full of fellow believers. The primary reason for our singing isn’t to share our thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world, it’s to communicate with God.
Different architecture, different spirits–and may the Spirit that dwells within us impart a God-honoring (and refreshingly different) shape to the songs we sing!