What every organist everywhere needs to, for the love of all that is good and right, STOP DOING

A few posts ago I wrote about certain problems common to leaders of musical worship, and I pointed out that organists are just as vulnerable to some temptations as are praise bands. Today I’ll write about another temptation peculiar to organists that I’ve noticed an awful lot.

That is the temptation to play any given hymn, response, musical setting, or other piece of music waaaayy too slowly.

If you’ve ever attended a church service that featured organ music, you’ve probably heard what I mean. Sometimes the “waaaayy” of “waaaayy too slowly” is an exaggeration, sometimes it’s not, but the “too slowly” is almost always present.

True story: When I was thirteen and my immediate family moved to a new state, we tried out a bunch of churches in our new town so we could decide which one we wanted to call home. We couldn’t just pick one from our old denomination, because our old denomination was Presbyterian (PCUSA, if you wanted that detail) and our new town was in New England, where Congregational churches abound and Presbyterian churches are few and far between. We eventually settled on our local United Methodist church for a variety of reasons, but one of the minor reasons was that it was the only one whose organist played the hymns at their proper speed.

Anyway, yeah, too often, organists play too slowly.

Sometimes I complain about this problem to a certain friend at my current church, who always counters that the organist is trying to play in a “stately” manner. In fairness to my friend, organs excel at playing in a stately manner, and the organist probably is trying to take advantage of that fact by giving every hymn, response, musical setting, and so on an air of stateliness. She may not even realize she’s doing it.

But there are at least two problems with taking that approach, and therefore at least two reasons I’d like organists everywhere to knock it off.

The first problem is that not every hymn, response, musical setting, or what have you is meant to sound stately. Sometimes a stately is just plain wrong for a given piece. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” for example–or anything else set to the tune “Nettleton“–should sound sprightly, not stately. “Nettleton” can be lively or mellow, though it should be played at the same tempo either way. But it just plain doesn’t have the gravitas you need if you’re aiming for stateliness, so for ol’ John Wyeth‘s sake don’t slow it down.

Try this, organists: Take the lyrics to any given hymn and sit down with them, or better yet stand up or go for a walk or something, and try singing them without an organ or any other instrument, at the tempo that feels most natural and right for that particular hymn. Then, when you return to your organ, play the hymn at that tempo instead of the one you usually use. Your congregation will thank you.

The second problem relates to a general principle of leading musical worship, which is that nothing kills a congregation’s enthusiasm like a song that drags on too long because it’s being led too slow. (This principle also holds for worship bands, youth group guitarists, and anyone else who leads group singing of any kind in any situation ever.) Even just a little too slow, so little you hardly notice if you’re the one leading the singing, can stretch a heretofore lively song out into an utter dirge once you multiply the slowness by three or four verses. When that happens, the congregation feels trapped in the song, and they stop thinking about God and start thinking about how the worship leader really should be playing faster. They stop closing their eyes in joyous rapture and start looking out the window to watch the glaciers whiz by.

The best tempo for any given hymn or musical setting or whatever is whatever tempo is proper for that hymn or musical setting or whatever. Usually that’s whatever tempo feels most natural, absent the limitations of the congregation or the instruments or whatever else might affect the way you lead singing. But I found, in my years leading musical worship for my college fellowship (yup, I was once that guy), that when you’re actually up there in front of the group, sometimes time distorts itself so the tempo that feels right to you then is actually a bit too slow.

The remedy is easy: Err on the side of playing a little too fast. Don’t race through it, of course; that doesn’t work either. Just play a little faster than you think you should. Sometimes that’ll mean that the song or hymn feels a little too fast, sure–but more often than not it’ll mean that you actually get the tempo just right. And your congregation will thank you.

Just please, please, please stop playing everything too slowly. Yes, this means you.

Thank you.


A few reflections for Good Friday

Today is Good Friday (or Holy Friday in some traditions), the day Christians commemorate the execution of Jesus. Rather than one long post on a single topic today, I thought I’d share a couple of brief(ish) observations on topics related in some way to the cross.

  1. Sometimes we spread the message of the cross in some really screwy ways. Mel Gibson’s 2004 splatter flick The Passion of the Christ, for example. When it first came out, an awful lot of voices in the Christian press were proclaiming how wonderful an opportunity it presented for evangelism. Take your friends to see it! Show them how much Jesus suffered for their sake!

    Except no. If you already know the story of Jesus, sure, you’ll have some context for the events of the movie–but if you don’t, all you really see is some poor guy getting wailed on for two hours. It’s basically torture porn. This is a message of love … how, exactly?

    In a way, what it reminded me of most was a movie they showed at a Maundy Thursday supper at our church when I was maybe three, that my parents didn’t think to remove me from the room for. It was one of those reel-to-reel jobs, and for some reason it didn’t have sound, because I remember the pastor narrating (“This is Peter–crying, because Jesus is dead”). But there was a graphic depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. I remember thinking for months after that, “I’d cry if I were nailed to a cross.” I also remember unsettling dreams about myself or my family members facing imminent crucifixion, usually as some sort of medical procedure whose purpose was never explained. Point is, I saw Jesus’ crucifixion in the context of his life and in a family and church community that would continue to care for me and help me understand, and it still kind of traumatized me. As essential a part of the Gospel as the crucifixion is, we should think more carefully than we sometimes do about how we talk about it with non-Christians, not-yet-Christians, and new Christians.

  2. The theology of the cross is another thing we do weirdly sometimes. About ten or twelve years ago I found myself in conversation with the pastor of a Reformed Presbyterian Church. He was a great guy, but it was clear from the beginning that his theological perspective was very different from mine. He talked about the relationships between grace and law or between the Old and New Testaments in more oppositional terms than I was comfortable with. It wasn’t that I disagreed with his theology, not entirely; I just thought he was allowing too little room for other interpretations to supplement or modulate it.

    As our conversation wrapped up he handed me two pamphlets he had on him that he said would help explain the matter further and give me something to think about. I gladly accepted, and when I got home I read the pamphlets. His good intentions notwithstanding, they were no help whatsoever.

    The problem was that they were written not to convince an outsider that the RPC’s theology of the cross was true but to convince other RPC folks that this or that soon-to-be-ex-RPC-pastor’s theology of the cross was false. Both pamphlets were strident in their defense of something they called “classical reformed covenant theology” (which I’ll abbreviate “CRCT”), but I only knew what that was from a college class on the Puritans I took years before; the pamphlets themselves told me nothing about CRCT, except that so-and-so’s theology wasn’t it. We should defend truth against error, sure, but I was rather put off by the weak arguments (“He can’t be teaching CRCT because he’s not using the phrase ‘substitutionary atonement'” and that sort of thing), the theological rigidity, and the hostile tone of the pamphlets.

    To be fair to the pastor, he hadn’t meant to alienate me. I couldn’t help wondering if he’d meant to hand me those pamphlets or if he thought he was handing me different ones. Or maybe he meant to hand me those because he hadn’t read them and thought they were about something different. I guess, if there’s a lesson here, it’s to know what you’re sharing with whom.

  3. One day during our junior year of high school (which is grade 11, if any non-Americans are reading this), one of my best friends gave me a tape she’d made for me of the soundtrack to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn’t seen a stage performance or movie of it–still haven’t, actually–so it took me a while to sort out which characters were singing some of the songs. But I liked the music well enough, so I kept listening to it.

    I was a bit bothered by Jesus’ apparent lack of concern with matters of salvation and his ignorance of why his Father wanted him to die. And worse, the play ends with Jesus’ burial and doesn’t include his resurrection. Seems rather a glaring omission.

    But as I listened to the tape again and again over the years, I came to appreciate what the opera does well. For example, the political side of what some people hoped and others feared that Jesus would do often gets ignored amid our discussions of spiritual salvation, but Superstar captures it very well. The disciples’ cluelessness about what Jesus is actually up to is evident throughout, as are their changing moods, as the jubilation of Palm Sunday gives way to the violence of Good Friday–and as an egotistical Jesus swings wildly (as they see it) from benevolence to wrath to despair and back again. Even if it takes some liberties with the Scriptural accounts, Superstar has forced me to think about the events of Holy Week, the role of politics, and the perspectives of the disciples more deeply than I might have otherwise. That tape my friend gave me remains a staple of my music collection. And I’ve been grateful to her ever since.

Me and the Eucharist: a brief history

Tomorrow–maybe today, by the time I get this posted–is the day that my church calls Maundy Thursday, some other churches call Holy Thursday, and pretty much all churches commemorate the Last Supper Jesus shared with his closest followers before he was arrested. So here’s how I came to think what I think about the Lord’s Supper–or Communion, or the Eucharist, or whatever you might call the thing with the bread and wine (or grape juice or whatever).

I grew up in a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church that served Communion on the first Sunday of every month and invited all baptized Christians, regardless of their denominational background. There was a brief liturgy, including prayers and responsive readings, and then the congregation stayed in the pews while the servers brought around plates piled with small cubes of white bread followed by plates filled with small plastic shot glasses of grape juice, each of which elements we’d consume immediately.

Then my family moved and we began attending a local United Methodist church. Communion was also the first Sunday of the month there, again open to all baptized Christians, and again we’d have a brief liturgy of prayers and readings, but we’d receive the elements by going forward to kneel at the altar rail, where the servers would give us cubes of white bread and shot glasses of grape juice.

A few years later I attended my first Roman Catholic service: a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass with a friend’s family. My friend advised me that, since I wasn’t Catholic, when the time came to go forward for Communion I should remain seated. That was my introduction to the concept of closed Communion, which is when a church doesn’t serve Communion to people who aren’t of its denomination, and also to the practice of giving the congregation only the bread and not the wine.

That closed Communion experience followed me to an Anglican church I visited with some friends when I was in college. The service felt similar enough to the one at my other friends’ Catholic church that I assumed the same rules applied. When the time came for the Eucharist to be served, I went forward but crossed my arms over my chest, and the priest prayed a blessing over me. After the service, though, he asked if I was a believer and if I’d been baptized; when I said yes to both questions, he assured me that I could indeed receive Communion there–which, on subsequent visits, I happily did.

But during college I also attended a few other churches on occasion, including some non-denominational evangelical churches. The contrast between the way these churches did Communion and the way the Anglicans did it could hardly have been starker. Where the Anglicans had a complex, thorough, and well-ordered liturgy, these other churches had a Scripture reading and a brief extemporaneous prayer, and where the Anglicans made a point of serving Communion every week, these other churches served it once a month and in some cases only a few times a year. And I found that, where I left the Anglican service feeling like I had partaken of a sacrament infused with meaning and sacredness, I left these other churches feeling like I’d just eaten a crumb of bread and drunk a shot of grape juice and that was it.

Now, I’m not saying there wasn’t any spiritual significance in the way these other churches served Communion; I expect there was for most people in the congregation. And probably some folks would have found the Anglican liturgy impenetrable, restrictive, or otherwise off-putting. I’m just telling you how I felt about the services after I attended them. Your mileage is perfectly welcome to vary.

Anyway, after college I moved again and started attending another Presbyterian church (PCUSA again), but this one did Communion differently from the church of my childhood. Twice as often, for one thing: the first and third Sundays of the month, and a few years later they began serving Communion every week. For another thing, the congregation went up front to receive the elements, we’d tear pieces off a large loaf of bread–or break off a piece of matzo–rather than picking up pre-cut cubes, and we’d dunk the bread in goblets of grape juice rather than sipping the juice from individual shot glasses. On the whole they were a much more liturgical lot.

Then I moved again and started attending an Anglican church plant. The only thing that made their Communion feel any less meaningful than my earlier Anglican experience was that instead of the usual wafers they had us tear off pieces of pita, but for some reason the pita they used was made with a grain that sent big cough-inducing chunks down our throats.

Another move saw me again make my church home at an Anglican church–though this one uses the wafers, so there aren’t any grain particles. Also, you have the option of sipping wine from the chalice or dunking your wafer. (I usually sip, unless I’m sick.)

But one of the things I’ve found, after going to Anglican churches regularly for the last few years, is that, at least for me, weekly Communion doesn’t dilute the meaning or sacredness of the sacrament the way you might assume. (More than likely, that very assumption is precisely what drives some churches’ decision to serve communion only a few times a year: the less frequently Communion happens, the more it will probably mean to people when it does.) No, for me it’s quite the opposite. Weekly Communion becomes almost a form of sustenance, a frequent reminder of my dependence on a grace that I can’t earn but am still given and must still come forward to receive.

And tomorrow, on Maundy Thursday, I’ll go forward again.

Peace to you, whatever your faith, tradition, theology, or lack thereof, and whatever you’ll be doing on Thursday.

Why worship leaders should maybe stop listening to worship music

All right, despite my Lenten intentions, it’s been a few days since the last time I had a chance to post, and I’m not sure this week will be any better. It also remains to be seen what’ll happen once Lent ends, but maybe I’ll figure that out by then. But I’m here tonight, anyhow, so here’s a post.

A few of my recent posts have centered on music, so here’s one more. And this one will probably hold true for you regardless of what kind of worship music you prefer in your church services, regardless of what kind you connect with or what kind helps you connect with God.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine posted a link to this article by Zac Hicks about how choirs in the middle ages and worship bands today too easily and too often slide from leading the congregation in worship to worshiping on behalf of the congregation. Sometimes that happens because, gradually and (one would hope) unconsciously, those entrusted with leading musical worship become enamored of ever more complex and interesting music–or of their own talents–and the congregation either can’t keep up or doesn’t see the point. Sometimes it happens because, gradually and (one would hope) unconsciously, the congregation takes an ever more passive role in musical worship, content to watch and listen to what happens up front rather than to participate themselves, and the worship leader eventually tires of cajoling them and stops trying. Sometimes these leader-side and congregation-side problems happen in tandem.

Thing is, despite Hicks’ focus on worship bands, worship bands aren’t the only ones subject to this problem. Sure, I’ve seen pop-star wannabes and rock-band theatrics that proved plenty of worship bands were more interested in their own music-making than the congregation’s. But I’ve also heard overwrought flourishes and awkward instrumental breaks that proved plenty of organists were more interested in their own music-making than the congregation’s. At their root, the instruments they’re using and the style of music they’re making don’t end up mattering that much.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending services at the Duke University Chapel a few times. The impressive space and aesthetics of the building and the majestic sound of the organ complemented each other brilliantly. But the organist (whose name I no longer remember) insisted on adding more and more layers of harmony to the successive verses of every single hymn, bringing the sound to the brink of horrific discord by the end and making even singing the melody difficult. The music ended up being one of the reasons I didn’t worship there more often. (Admittedly, the lack of community in the large and anonymous crowd was another, but it was still worth going once or twice.)

A few years before that, I regularly attended a Presbyterian church (PCUSA, if you were curious) that had both “traditional” and “contemporary” services every week, though I generally opted for the “traditional” service. The organist in those days was plenty talented at playing the organ, but not so talented at leading a congregation in worship. Between the second-to-last and last verses of every hymn he insisted on inserting a few bars’ worth of instrumental solo. And every week at least a few people, especially if they were new, would start singing the last verse too early and get embarrassed. Every. Single. Time. I liked enough other things about the church that I stuck around, but the organist was horribly off-putting. (I should note that he’s stopped doing those instrumental solos since then and just plays the hymns straight.)

Now, the offertory, the music played while Communion is being served, or any of those other parts with which the congregation isn’t expected to sing along anyway, those are all fine. And there’s nothing wrong with a recital or a concert either, whether by an organist or choir or worship band or anything else. I’m just saying that soloing, like anything else that smacks of showing off, has no place in the leading of what should be participatory musical worship. And that’s true no matter what musical styles or instruments are involved.

It does seem, though, that worship bands are vulnerable to the temptation to inappropriately solo in a way that organs and choirs may not be. That’s because much modern praise music is modeled after pop music, which often includes instrumental solos, usually before the last verse or refrain. And worship bands learn much of their repertoire by listening to CDs (What? I still own CDs.) recorded by Christian bands of one kind or another, and since the recording is usually just a band playing in a studio rather than a band leading a congregation, they leave the solo in. The worship leaders who listen to the recording think the solo sounds like a natural, normal part of the song, so when they’re rehearsing the song, they leave the solo in. And when they’re leading the congregation in singing the song, they leave the solo in.

Maybe organists and choir directors have a similar problem. I’ve heard a lot more recordings of modern praise music than of organ music or choir music, though, so I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s dangerous for people entrusted with leading a congregation in musical worship to listen to recordings of worship music. It can be done, of course, if due care is given to preserve the participatory nature of congregational worship. But for far too many worship leaders, it’s too tempting to try to imitate the recording–the instrumentation, the structure of the song, and all other elements of it–too closely. For many worship leaders, the best course of action may be to sell, give away, throw out, burn, or otherwise get rid of their worship music CDs.

They’d be doing a great service to the congregations they lead.

Why I like old hymns and their old lyrics

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I grew up in a church where we sang hymns and then went to a youth group where we sang modern folk-inflected praise songs. Might as well write a bit more about church music today, while I’m on the subject.

The first thing I’ll say is that I’m not here to take sides in the hymns-versus-praise-choruses debate. People connect with God through many different kinds of music, including not only the stately majesty of hymns and the creative energy of praise choruses but also the lively immediacy of Gospel songs, the lavish richness of classical choral compositions, the spare simplicity of monastic chants, and plenty of other forms. More than one of those musical forms has helped me connect with God myself at one time or another, and if hymns resonate a little more deeply with me, that’s just me; other folks have the same response to other kinds of music. That’s one of many things that makes the diversity of the worldwide church so enriching and exciting.

But I do want to write about hymns a little bit today, and the thing I want to address is the modernization of the lyrics. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens, and I usually detest it.

See, one of the things I like so much about hymns is their theological density. The verses of a good hymn can bore through the layers of a theme or unfold a progression of ideas in a way that fires my imagination and gets my spirit–which, for me, has a close relationship with my brain–eager for God to reveal himself. (Again, that’s what hymns do for me; other musical forms grab other people, and sometimes also me, in other ways that are also good.)

But sometimes modern Christians insist on revising the words so the hymns say something different. I’m not talking about writing a new refrain to insert between the verses of a classic hymn, though for purely aesthetic reasons I’m not always crazy about that practice either; I’m talking about rewriting the words of the hymn itself. Why some Christians do this, I don’t know, and it probably varies from instance to instance. Maybe they see a word they don’t really understand, so they figure that to make the hymn comprehensible to them, or maybe accessible to non-Christian visitors to their churches, they have to rewrite the line to remove the offending word. Maybe they see a theology they don’t recognize, so instead of trying to understand it they replace it with another one. Maybe–and this one I can sort of accept–they see gender-specific language in a lyric that’s meant to apply to all humans everywhere, so they try to expunge it for the sake of inclusivity.

Whatever the reasons, the classic instance of this problem, for me, is coincidentally (and irritatingly) one of my favorite hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” usually sung to the tune “Nettleton.” The version I grew up singing had this second verse:

Here I raise my ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

Robert Robinson’s original 1757 lyrics were in a different order, so perhaps in inveighing against monkeying with hymn lyrics I’m a bit hypocritical. But this version, even while reordering them, leaves the ideas themselves essentially intact. What doesn’t is this late-20th-century revision:

Hitherto thy love has blessed me;
Thou hast brought me to this place.
And I know thy hand will bring me
Safely home by thy good grace.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Bought me with his precious blood.

To begin with, the first four lines are completely rewritten. Now, I understand that nowadays the only reference point people have for the word “ebenezer” is Ebenezer Scrooge. But the word itself, derived from Hebrew, means “stone of help” and is used in I Samuel 7:12 as the name of a monument Samuel erected to commemorate a victory over the Philistines, won with God’s help. (Side note: we should totally start using “ebenezer” as a normal word again.) The idea of a journey and a return home is preserved, but in addition to replacing God’s help and pleasure with his love and grace, the change deprives the hymn of both a vivid image and a Biblical allusion.

The other major change to this verse is in the last line, where “interposed” is replaced with “bought me with.” These are two very different understandings of the cross. The newer version is economic: there was a price to be paid for me, and Jesus paid it, using his blood as the currency. But the older version has an immediacy to it that the newer one doesn’t quite capture: death or some other danger was making straight for me, but Jesus stepped between it and me so that it would strike him instead. In the newer version, Jesus pays a ransom for me; in the older version, Jesus takes a bullet for me.

Mind you, the new lyrics are not theologically incorrect. It’s not as though the hymn used to be true and now isn’t. It’s that the hymn used to say one true thing and now says a different true thing instead. The first true thing, which may have fit well with 18th-century theological emphases and sensibilities, has been replaced by a different true thing, which fits well with 20th-century theological emphases and sensibilities. But maybe it’s because the revision fits so well with current thinking that we should keep singing the old, un-revised version to remind us of other truths that we too easily forget because we don’t encounter them as often.

That’s one of the reasons I like hymns. And it’s one of the gifts that, at their best, they can offer the whole church–including the people who prefer praise choruses.

Christian rock: How I started listening and why I started listening less

A couple of weeks ago I said I might write a post about how I got into and then back out of listening to Christian music, so here I go.

I grew up in a church that sang hymns. I knew of a few Christian songs in other genres, like the folk-ish kinds of things you’d hear someone strumming on a guitar in the ’60s or ’70s, and I was dimly aware of something called “gospel,” but most of what I knew was what you’d find in a standard white mainline Protestant hymnal. But then I started attending Bible studies and other events for a youth group at one of those suburban megachurches, where we sang what I can best describe as newer songs in the tradition of the ’60s and ’70s folk stuff. It was fun, but not particularly earth-shaking.

Until the night they showed us the music video for Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition.” (Warning to sensitive viewers: The linked video includes brief scenes of flogging and crucifixion. Also, a mullet.) This was the first exposure I ever had to Christian rock. I’d never believed (or been taught) that you couldn’t combine Christian themes with rock music; it just hadn’t crossed my mind that you could.

Shortly after that I learned about Petra (Warning: More mullets. I’ll stop with the video links here, though.), then others. My high school days brought me Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys, DC Talk (of course), Jars of Clay, the O.C. Supertones, and Caedmon’s Call. Then in college I joined one of those CD clubs they had in those days, where you get a dozen CDs for the price of one and then every month they send you another one in your genre of choice and you can either pay for it or send it back. That CD club was focused on Christian music, and through it I discovered the likes of Skillet, Bleach, Guardian, mxpx, Burlap to Cashmere, and Room Full of Walters. I even had a show on the campus radio station one semester, playing Christian rock for the, like, two people who were awake and listening to it at 6:00 on a Wednesday morning.

I should point out that I never adopted the mentality that a Christian should only listen to Christian music. But I was impressed with the variety and quality of some of the acts, and I liked the music and lyrics I was hearing.

But college was also a time to start thinking about life more deeply than I had done so far, and Christian music was part of my life so I started thinking more about it.

At first the question was merely one of taste. I’d heard enough Christian music I didn’t like that I came up with a rule of thumb: if I wouldn’t like the music of a given act without the Christian-themed lyrics, I wouldn’t bother with it as a Christian act either. That was simple enough.

But then the questions started getting more complicated. A woman I knew wouldn’t let her teenage son listen to the Christian heavy metal he liked because the lyrics weren’t clearly audible. Does music not count as Christian if the words aren’t distinct? Another friend pointed out that the applause at Christian artists’ concerts might not all be given to God. Is an artist’s message invalidated if some of the fans are applauding the band instead of God–or if the artist is accepting some of their applause for himself? I found myself less willing than some of my friends were to reject most music as Christian over issues like those, but the questions still troubled me.

The questioning continued after college. An article about author Reed Arvin’s struggles to find a Christian publisher for his novel got me thinking about Christian music in the context of the larger Christian publishing industry. A book about the spiritual journey of U2 and a couple of interviews with Bruce Cockburn (the sources for which I can no longer find), which included Cockburn’s and some of the U2 members’ thoughts about deciding whether to identify as Christian artists, pushed that issue further. I came to understand that, in their capacity as gatekeepers, publishers can legitimate or exclude certain voices and could restrict the kinds of decisions artists made about the lyrical content, the auditory balance between music and words, and so on. And marketers, culture-makers (like the reviewers who wrote for Christian magazines), and retailers shape both production and consumption along similar lines. It becomes easy for Christians to sequester themselves in a sort of pop-culture silo, hearing little from outside and being heard by few who aren’t their own.

On its own, those insights might have made me appreciate how the cultural gatekeepers can protect Christians from unwittingly hearing anything that might be a bad influence (although that kind of protection isn’t something I’m inclined to appreciate to begin with). But couple them with some theological points that I was beginning to understand–namely, that all truth is of God regardless of whose mouth speaks it and that creativity and excellence honor God simply by virtue of creatures made in his image using gifts he gave them to create and to create well–and I was bound to start seeing the Christian gatekeepers as restricting the artists, sanitizing the art, and inhibiting the integrity of their art and their messages. And I didn’t want to restrict my own art consumption that way, to implicitly validate the pop-culture silo’s restrictions, or to privilege Christian art over art that took other forms or spoke other messages.

So I backed off a bit. I didn’t stop listening to Christian music–and in fact I still listen to most of the CDs that meant something to me when I was in high school or college, and they still speak to me–but of the new music I’ve bought in the last twelve years, none has been Christian.

And it’s been interesting to notice the truth and beauty I’ve been finding in other places. Maybe eventually I’ll write a post about that, too. But no promises.

Radio: a complaint, a defense, and a plea

A few posts ago I was writing about music, habitual music listening, and the fear of silence. I mentioned a radio station I was forced to endure at an office job I held for a few years and posited that I might write a post about that station. Here’s that post.

Which radio station it was is not important. If you live pretty much anywhere in the English-speaking world, your radio dial can tune in at least one station like it; if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you can probably get half a dozen. You know the ones: they claim to play “the best mix of today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites,” and most of them, including this one, have something they call a “no-repeat workday.” You hear these stations a lot in workplaces, especially workplaces with large populations of middle-aged white people, because the music they play is generally thought to have the broadest appeal, or at least to offend the sensibilities and tastes of the fewest people.


Now, it’s not that the music (well, most of it) is actually bad. Some of it is, of course, but the bulk of it is pretty mediocre, and some is even quite good. No, there’s another whole set of problems, which tie into the fact that a radio station is a business whose customers are not listeners but advertisers and whose product is not music but the ears of the listeners.

One way this fact plays out is that the disc jockeys don’t actually choose what songs will be played over the air. In fact, the DJs aren’t even necessary, except to maintain the illusion that there are still humans in a studio deciding how best to entertain their listeners, the way radio used to work decades ago. No, the songs are chosen by computer algorithms and compiled into lists that can be played entirely automatically. The computer algorithms calculate the selection and arrangement of songs that will induce the largest number of people (or at least the ones in key demographics) to tune in the station and leave it tuned in. Different radio formats–country, classic rock, pop, and so on–draw from different pools of songs, but they all work basically the same way. The “variety” these stations promise the listeners is in fact carefully controlled.

Try making a list of the songs your local station plays during an average workday. Then do the same the next day, and the next. Then compare the lists and see how many songs are on all three. Then note the number of songs that get played at roughly the same time every day, give or take a few minutes. You’ll see what I mean.

I will cop to liking ABBA. I will cop to liking “Dancing Queen,” though I prefer some of their other songs, if only because I hear them about a twentieth as often. But when the radio station at my former workplace played “Dancing Queen” sometime between 10:20 and 10:40 every morning for six straight weeks, I had quite enough.

This brings me to another point: the con that is the “no-repeat workday.” Ostensibly this is another promise of musical variety, assuring you that, even if a given song is a big hit, you won’t have to hear it over and over during the day. But that’s only sort of true, because most stations’ “no-repeat workday” lasts from around 9:00 to around 4:00, but most people’s actual workday (well, OK, mine at that job) ran from 8:00 to 4:30. So what would happen was that we’d hear a certain hit song between 8:00 and 9:00, then again between 9:00 and 4:00, then a third time as soon as 4:00 arrived and the restriction of the “no-repeat workday” was lifted.

Even so, the “no-repeat workday” might well have “[made] your workday go by faster,” as the station’s jingle claimed–if not for the fact that its effect on the workweek was precisely the opposite. By playing even a handful of the same songs at the same times every day (e.g., the “Dancing Queen” fiasco), the station made every workday blend into every other and thereby only increased the soul-crushing monotony of the job. (Oh, right, forgot to mention: I wasn’t terribly keen on this particular job to begin with.)

I did get a little bit of relief at 3:00, when the two co-workers with whom I shared workspace left and I was free to change the station on our radio to whatever I wanted, so long as I kept the volume reasonable. I usually opted for classical, because it was far away, musically speaking, from what I’d been subjected to up to that point.

Anyway, I noted earlier that the business of radio works in particular ways, and that leads me to my final point: we can demand better, and we should.

Radio at its best can give our days and nights wonderful soundtracks that surprise us and expose us to new music that we might not have sought out but that grabs hold of us anyway. I’d never heard Counting Crows’ “Long December” until I turned on the radio one night when I was feeling low and the song gave the perfect voice to my mood. Then there’s Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6, which I heard for the first time one afternoon at work–and drove to a store and bought on CD as soon as I clocked out. An mp3 player I loaded myself couldn’t have done those things, but a radio station could. Radio can be great.

But so many radio stations use this horrible operating model, and they do that because it still draws listeners, so it still draws advertisers, so they have no incentive to change. But there are a handful of radio stations, including public ones and a few others, that operate on different models and that still use live DJs to select music. So find those stations and listen to them. Because if enough of us abandon the stations that use computer-created playlists that vary so little from one day to the next and listen instead to the stations that use live DJs who remember what “variety” actually means, perhaps the advertisers will take notice, and then perhaps they’ll encourage other radio stations to change their ways.

And then maybe, just maybe, radio will be worth listening to again.