From Memory to Imagination: Reforming the Church’s Music
Steven R. Guthrie is Associate Professor of Religion at Belmont University.
We have reached a decisive moment in Western culture, a moment of monumental consequence, for the church generally and for its practice of music specifically. This claim is at the heart of C. Randall Bradley’s From Memory to Imagination: Reforming the Church’s Music. Bradley contends that the cultural shift from modernity to postmodernity has overturned long-held assumptions, conventional organizational models, and modes of communication. Such an environment re- quires nothing less than the reformation alluded to in the subtitle. The title suggests something of the shape of this reformation: the music of the church must move from memory to imagination. The church should continue to value its past, of course, and memory should inform current practice. The pressing need, however, is for the church as a whole (not least its musicians) to respond to the challenges facing the contemporary church, with creativity, vision, and imagination.
The church’s worship is in crisis, Bradley contends, “because we have denied that cultural shifts have been occurring and that these shifts have been affecting the church” (14). A number of factors inhibit the church’s response to these changes. These include “denial” (22), “provincialism” (22), “retreating” (23), “posturing” (23), “control” (24), and “power” (24). Likewise, a number of different players have contributed to the current crisis including “the academy” (25), “the church” (26), “artists” (26), “performers (27), “commerce” (27), and “the world” (28). What is more, the cultural shifts precipitated by postmodernism have rendered traditional models of ministry ineffective, or even counter-productive. The hymnal, for instance, cannot survive “because it’s not communal” (43), “because it’s a ‘power’ book” (44), “because it’s designed for denominational or niche markets” (45), “because it’s a commercial book” (45), and “because it’s elitist.” (46)
Plainly, the preceding constitutes a fairly sweeping analysis; one which is not only serious, but potentially contentious. At many points, I found myself agreeing with Bradley’s description; at other points I was uncertain. Moreover, I remain uncertain, because this diagnosis and these charges require far more nuance, care, and reflection than is provided. Each of the preceding complaints is followed by only a paragraph or two of exposition, and very seldom supported by either a concrete example or a scholarly footnote. It is very possible that the analysis Bradley advances is self-evident to an experienced church musician, but it is not at every point self-evident to a relative outsider like me. In many instances I could think of counterexamples, or imagine some who would take issue with the account being offered. Bradley might be able to provide good responses to these objections. It is evident that he is a wise, skilled church musician, with a deep love for the church and a wealth of experience; but the book tends to state rather than argue for its perspective. Given the heated debates that have often surrounded church music, it would seem especially important that Bradley advance his case in a way that is careful, thorough, and well-documented.
A much stronger vision emerges in the last part of the book where Bradley moves from analysis to constructive proposal. In chapters seven through ten he addresses four issues to which church musicians should devote particular attention and energy. These are: the building of community, the missional character of the church, hospitality, and the need to become “multi-musical.” In “Community and the Church’s Music,” Bradley considers the many ways in which music can nurture and shape community. He wisely recognizes that a commitment to community involves much more than simply singing together. Such a commitment will also shape how music is planned, chosen and performed, and Bradley suggests ways in which the church can embody community at each of these levels. Bradley also recognizes that there is both a local and a global dimension to Christian community. He suggests that the music of the local church should on the one hand “be rooted in the local context and … [embrace] local distinctiveness” (122). On the other hand, “through singing we expand the community of faith, and we are able to connect to the larger community of faith worldwide” (129). Pursuing both of these admonitions, as Bradley suggests, certainly seems proper – but also enormously challenging. Finding ways to acknowledge properly both the local and global in the church’s music would seem to be an area calling for further pastoral, practical, and theological reflection.
The chapter entitled “The Call to Be Missional” is also worth special mention. In this chapter Bradley gives thoughtful attention to Darrell Guder’s influential Missional Church1 and the ecclesiology it advances. According to Guder and the other contributors to Missional Church, mission, rather than being one of several activities the church pursues, is at the heart of all the church does. Moreover, the mission that drives the church forward is not its own; rather, the church participates in the Missio Dei. Across history and culture, God is already at work, relentlessly pursuing the healing of his broken world. The church fulfills its calling when, in and through all it does, it shares in this mission of God. Missional thought is one of the most significant developments in ecclesiology over the last twenty years, but (to my knowledge) few have considered its implications for the church’s practice of music. By initiating and encouraging this conversation between music and missional theology, then, Bradley makes an important and vital contribution to church music.
Bradley shares (in the preceding chapter) a portion of an essay he wrote to his choir as they prepared for a singing tour of four prisons. The prison tour itself is a powerful example of missional thinking applied to the music of the church, and Bradley’s written address to his choir is likewise rich with missional themes:
Through the years I’ve become convinced that we need to make opportunities for music to interact with our world in places and ways other than Sunday morning worship. … [W]e should be joining God where God is working in the world. … I see us traveling to four places where God is at work, where God is showing up for people who have made mistakes just like you and me. … Let’s join with Christ this weekend in doing what it is that Christ wants to do for us and those we encounter. (118)
In the same way that missional theology imagines churches equipping believers to minister beyond the walls of the church, Bradley imagines a missional music ministry that sends Christians into the world singing: “for the music of worship to reach its fullest impact, it must move from worship to home to workplace” (156). Students of church history may be reminded at this point of Clement of Alexandria’s beautiful description of early Christian song: “All our life is a festival: being persuaded that God is everywhere present on all sides, we praise Him as we till the ground, we sing hymns as we sail the sea, we feel His inspiration in all that we do.”2
Bradley begins From Memory to Imagination by pointing to the cultural shifts arising from postmodernism. The church, he argues, faces new and significant challenges, and church musicians must be willing to think in fresh and imaginative ways about the church’s song. From Memory to Imagination is to be commended for taking up this challenge – for urging the singing church to be willing also to stop and listen. Bradley’s book is especially valuable for its discussion of the pressing issues of community, mission, and hospitality. Bradley is right to recognize that these themes are fundamental to the Christian gospel. He is also right to recognize that they have been given too little attention in the various discussions of church music and worship.
While From Memory to Imagination is to be commended for squarely addressing our postmodern context, it is also the case that as I read I often found myself entertaining a very un-postmodern wish for more of an overarching, unifying narrative (beyond that of a general call for reform). There is no shortage of interesting observations and wise suggestions, and these are obviously gathered from many years of effective church service. Too often, however, these insights are set out in a sort of elaborated bullet-point style, rather than carefully developed in service of an argument. The book is certainly helpful and valuable when accepted as a set of observations from a skilled and pastorally sensitive church musician. The opening premise, however, and even the title of the book seem to suggest something much more cohesive and programmatic.
Finally, there is a sense in which Bradley’s engagement with contemporary culture is not postmodern enough. One theme of much postmodern discourse is its insistence that we attend to “the Other” – the unacknowledged and excluded voice of “difference.” This sort of postmodern complaint can easily descend into self-parody. Nevertheless, there were indeed times when I began to think of “the excluded Other” in Bradley’s explicit and implicit use of the first-person plural. Chapter 2, for instance, explains “Why We’re in Crisis Now” (14, emphasis added), chapter 3 describes “The Mess We’re In” (31, emphasis added), headings in chapter 4 ask “Why are We Afraid of Worship Outside of Our Paradigm?” (60, emphasis added), and “What Happens if We Don’t Reform?” (61, emphasis added). At some point along the way, I began to wonder: “Who exactly is this ‘We’ that ‘we’ are talking about?”
I do not, for instance, recognize my own (Protestant, evangelical) church in much of Bradley’s description. Many of the fastest growing churches in my area, likewise, are hardly “afraid of worship outside of [a] paradigm,” but rather seem addicted to novelty and change. Some of the churches most popular among my undergraduates students are also unlike the “we” and the “us” Bradley seems to have in mind. Many of them, for instance, are deeply fascinated with “the New Monasticism,” with liturgy, or with multi-sensory and multi-media worship. Though these students are in broad strokes similar to the demographic Bradley seems to have in mind – American Moderate or Evangelical Protestants – I am not sure they would find themselves or their churches in Bradley’s description of “our crisis.” Beyond this, increasingly, the American Protestant Evangelical church is also a nonwhite church. Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism3 describes the extraordinary growth of urban multi-ethnic Evangelical churches in America: churches composed of first-generation and immigrant African, Asian and Latin American worshippers. Rah complains that many analyses of “current trends,” “crises,” and “important issues” in the American church simply fail to recognize the reality of the multiethnic church in America. He writes for instance of the “perception nationally … that Boston was spiritually dead, because there was a decline among the white Christian community. In contrast, there had been significant growth in the number of nonwhite Christian churches in the Boston area.”4
To be very clear: if the “voice of the Other” is omitted in Bradley, the exclusion is certainly unintentional. In fact, at a number of points Bradley insists that we must become more inclusive in our music (213), that we become more musically diverse (197), and so on. I am simply observing that “we” already are more musically and ecclesially diverse than Bradley’s critique assumes; and so, whatever crisis “we” as a whole are facing, it may be of a different sort than what Bradley describes. As the American church sets out to re-imagine its ministries of music, it may well be that the resources for reform are already at hand. In the growth of interest in liturgy, in the churches exploring the use of dance and visual art in worship, in the growing use of “re-tuned” hymn texts, in the rapidly expanding multi-ethnic American church and so on, the stuff of reform may already be in practice within the church itself. It is evident that Bradley, as he attests, writes “out of [a] deep love for the church” (xvi). Of all the reforms he proposes, his own example of love may be the best we could adopt. As we love and listen carefully to one another we may well discover within the church the new harmonies we long to hear.
- Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
- Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, Book VII, §35, trans. Fenton John Anthony Hort and Joseph B. Mayor (London: MacMillan and Company, 1902), 63.
- Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
- Ibid., 17.