A few weeks ago, I had the very great privilege of attending an event—actually, two back-to-back events—at which Dr. Jeremy Begbie spoke, played the piano, and generally inspired and amazed us all! A while back, Rosie posted some info about this remarkable man. He is a scholar, classically-trained concert pianist, theologian, and delightfully witty public speaker. Here is a little video of him playing, speaking, and inspiring. He’s got to be one of the top thinker-performers in the world of faith and the arts today. This dual event was hosted by Biblical Theological Seminary as the first in their Christianity and Culture Series.
The first event was a luncheon designed for worship leaders, pastors, and music ministers, but there were also quite a few teachers, artists, musicians, etc. in attendance. Dr. Begbie briefly gave a c.v., interspersed with hilarious, quirky comments, then opened the session to questions-and-answers. Predictably, many of the questions had to do with the function, choice, and quality of church music. Here are three that I remember pretty clearly and that are fairly representative.
1. QUESTION: We have three services on a Sunday morning. The 8:00 am is the a capella service: no instruments, very plain, prayer, etc. The 9:00 am is the family-friendly service (at a convenient time): contemporary music, band, guitars, drums, praise choruses. The 10:30 am is the traditional, high-church service: choir, robes, organ, Latin anthems with a little John Rutter thrown in for variety. The problem is that we essentially have three congregations [one might even say three churches] and never the twain [well, she meant the three] shall meet. The people in one service never see those in another, never talk to them…we are really three different congregations. What do you say to this?
ANSWER: Well, Dr. Begbie’s answer was really rather amazing, I thought. He started out by giving the disclaimer that he’s not currently a music minister and has never been a pastor in a church with just that situation, so he wasn’t going to offer a solution to the problem. But then he said, quite firmly, that he would approach the problem theologically, because it is indeed a problem. He said that: This must be seen as an interim strategy, not as a permanent situation. The reason that it must be temporary is that it is taking away from the main focus of the Church, which is Christ alone and Him crucified. If a church is organized primarily around something other than Christ, or defines itself by something other than His redemptive work, then that church is in danger of heresy. If a church finds its divisions over musical styles to be its defining factor, then it is in trouble. It simply must find a way to overcome those divisions and unite. Now, he went on to say, the other side of this problem is that it requires great patience. Lots and lots of time is necessary to make a change in a church’s music. The pastoral staff must exercise extraordinary patience and create a very long-term plan to overcome the division and introduce unity.
2. Next, someone asked the rather banal, predictable, and annoying QUESTION: If Jesus were alive now, what instrument and style of music would He play? Guitar, drums, organ? Praise choruses or Classical anthems?
ANSWER: Very cool and casual, elbow on the piano, the little Brit responded without turning a hair: ‘He’d be up here with me, trying to unify them all. ‘
After the laughter died down, he said, ‘But seriously, I do think He would be promoting unity.’ And then he went on to tell some remarkable stories about how he and others have tried to get churches to open out and listen to one another—indeed, even to listen to themselves sing, to enjoy the resonance and beauty of their own collective voices. He talked about a time that he visited a church that had a beautiful building; I picture one of those gorgeous old Gothic stone churches in rural England. He had the whole congregation just hum, first in unison, then adding note upon note until they had a thick chord just buzzing in their resonances, filling the space, rising up in glorious wordlessness. They were astonished: ‘I didn’t know I could sound like that!’ and such an experience could lay the groundwork for really getting the congregation to sing and not just sit listening to the choir/band/worship team.
3. QUESTION: What if you have a little group of musicians who really aren’t very good: singers who can’t sing, instrumentalists who can’t play. Is there ever a time you just tell them to sit down and shut up?
ANSWER: Rather than answer the question directly, Dr. Begbie again told some stories from his personal experience. He told about how he and his family minister at a church with really sub-par music. And in his humility, I gather that he is not even the music minister; it sounds as if he works in a support capacity, accompanying the choir and so on. He kept trying to get us to see beyond the simple binaries of good/bad music, music I like/don’t like, talented/untalented musicians and to see (or hear) it all anew. He encouraged us, rather than getting worked up over different musical preferences, to get to know one another and what motivates us to choose the music we do. He kept insisting that ‘It’s about the people’ rather than solely or even primarily about the music. And yet he has all sorts of sly tactics for introducing congregations to music they thought they didn’t like. He’ll take a praise chorus, for example, and I don’t know, perhaps rearrange it into lovely four-part counterpoint and have a robed choir sing it. Lo and behold, your High Church finds they’re loving a contemporary chorus! Gasp! Or, vice-versa, maybe he’ll take a piece of Bach or Rutter and liven it up, simplify the texture, and get a contemporary church rocking with it. Often he does the simplest step of all: he goes a cappella. He takes out instrumentation, and that often silences disputes, makes them irrelevant.
So, I’ve volunteered to get involved in some way in my church’s music (rather awkward for someone who hasn’t played solo classical piano for 9 years, hasn’t played in church for 5 years, and hasn’t really touched a piano in about 3! Yikes. But there are other ways to help, I should think). And who knows?—maybe I can bring some of Dr. Begbie’s wisdom into play J there somehow. At least I can keep quiet and listen to what motivates people to sing what they do, what it means to them, and so on. And indeed, I enjoyed a truly wonderful conversation with my church’s pianist/music director already as a result of Dr. Begbie’s inspiration. I am very grateful. What a blessing!