A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church
“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Tertullian, the 3rd century B.C.E.) is really the basic question addressed by this new book, which is part of the Liturgical Studies Series of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Calvin Stapert’s small book undertakes an enormous task, sketching a brief history of documents that refer to musical thoughts of the Early Christian Church and then drawing parallels with our postmodern world. Making music, often of the titillating kind, the primary goal of art, literature, and music has fostered the “flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities” (197).
Stapert makes extensive use of primary sources or the translations of such sources to support his thesis that the modern Church has been corrupted and the gospel message diluted through the incursion of culture – for example, from the writings of Clement of Alexandria (d. ca.215).
After having paid reverence to the discourse about God, they leave within [the Church] what they have heard. Outside they foolishly amuse themselves with impious playing, and amatory quavering, occupied with flute-playing, and dancing, and intoxication, and all kinds of trash (143).
The difficulty for the modern reader foments from the acceptance that culture has always intruded upon religion; in fact, culture has formulated religions. Some would even say that culture causes religion. Musicologists accept the fact that the earliest Christian music came from three sources: (1) Jewish temple music, (2) secular music of the ancient world, and (3) original music (the least contributing factor, by far). Modern missionary efforts are enhanced by the missionaries setting the gospel message to some indigenous music of the peoples who are being evangelized. The Christian message and culture are as inseparable as religious rites and music. Even this argument is addressed by Stapert in referencing the writings of Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and Sue A. Rozenboom:
Then, too, every message is affected by its medium….And so our central question returns: Once the gospel has been translated… do we still have the gospel according to Jesus Christ, or have we fashioned a gospel according to contemporary culture (199).
The strength of Stapert’s admirable tome is in the collection of sources that he has collected and made available for the reader. Such sources are of great interest to theologians, musicologists, ministers, worship and music leaders, and many others. As his title suggests, he has leaned heavily upon the Early Christian Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine. Abstracting passages of their writings that concern music, Stapert supports his thesis well. However, the author becomes mired in lengthy background material provided for each of the figures he references. It seems that Stapert spends as much time on a defense of each primary source, by including a cultural and historical background, as in supporting his own thesis. It is somewhat ironic that culture and history are used to defend each writer, yet are the target of Stapert’s own criticisms.
Equally troubling is Stapert’s reliance upon secondary sources that are quite dated rather than exploring some newer scholarship. Support for Stapert’s basic premise abounds in modern scholarship. Although not addressing music specifically, consider the remarks of Erskine Clark in the journal from Columbia Theological Seminary, At this Point:
The consumer society provides for us all, in other words, a social and moral universe that is familiar and that makes up the ordinary character of our daily lives and is therefore powerfully seductive to a moral vision that sees the emptiness of constant consumption.1
All in all, the result is a work by a distinguished teacher who feels great passion for musical traditions of the Church. The primary sources that he has provided are of great interest and assistance for scholars. However, Stapert comes finally to his primary objective when he assails the modern Church:
Nevertheless, it is as important for us as it was for the church fathers to keep the distinction clear, to remember (1) that response, not stimulation, is the fundamental role of worship music; (2) that “inflaming” can easily degenerate into manipulation; and (3) that not all that is called “”spiritual” is of the Spirit…(202).
For the author, the issues that plague the Church of the 21st century are similar to the issues that the Early Church leaders confronted. However, this connection is not made easily for the reader who will be processing from the cultural packaging of the modern world. Stapert’s comparison of our society as “likened in its decadence to the late Roman Empire” comes across as another adult warning against the follies of youth. There is little doubt that Stapert reaches his conclusions from a perspective of theological and historical scholarship, but in the end, his message is one of “dooms day” rather than hope and trust (195). His prescription for engendering a “new song” (Christ) is a return to the chants and psalms of the ancient Church or at least to the age of Calvin. Compare that with David Music’s recent article in Reformed Worship when he wrote, “If we want to use “secular” styles in worship, let us acknowledge that these too are gifts of God, not something we have to obtain from the devil.”2
God has always used saints and sinners for His purposes. That remains a constant, even in the twenty-first-century Church.