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From Memory to Imagination: Reforming the Church’s Music

C. Randall Bradley
Published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2012

C. Randall Bradley is the Ben H. Williams Professor of Music at Baylor University, where he is also the Director of the Center for Christian Music Studies and the Church Music Program.

I offer my deep appreciation to Steven Guthrie for his engagement with my book and for his perceptive affirmations and critiques. Likewise, I am grateful to this journal for the opportunity to continue a conversation related to the questions that Guthrie has raised. In some ways, his comments themselves demonstrate several of the inherent challenges within the music of the Church. For instance, while some might expect a syllogistic argument, numerous propositions put forward in this book cannot be supported logically and systematically; this failure to produce a fully-orbed and logical argument related to many issues concerning the Church’s music is at the heart of much of the confusion. When discussing an issue as emotional and memory-packed as music, conclusions may lack the support of two or more seemingly logical propositions. In many instances the book’s hunches are put forward as a means to create conversation and further dialogue. It is hoped that dialogue will lead to greater reflection and that in time these perceptions might move the Church and the music that it engenders toward action and reform.

Guthrie’s critique that the book contains a number of propositions followed by sometimes as little as a paragraph of explanation is valid. While I understand Guthrie’s criticism of the use of bullet points and shorter paragraphs to a certain extent, a more fully fleshed out argument would have meant writing a larger and very different kind of book. The fact is that few have written on these issues. Rather than continue to neglect important issues regarding the Church and its music, to restate older arguments, or to skirt difficult questions in order to risk offending, I chose to address issues (albeit too briefly) with hope that other scholars and practitioners will come forward with quantitative research (where applicable) and that leaders and worshipers within the Church will add their stories and conversations to shore up the current lack of qualitative research in the field.

Lastly, while the book originally intended to be more intensively researched throughout, the first few chapters did not lend themselves toward a more footnoted scholarly format. Eventually, the book assumed a more casual tone in an effort to allow broader accessibility.

Guthrie brings up the question of the elusive “other” to which the book refers. Guthrie clearly states his own challenge in finding himself in some components of the book, and he speculates that others – he suspects his students and some members of the international community – might join him in his isolation. Guthrie is correct, and he observes the obvious in acknowledging the difficulty intrinsic in any attempt to speak to the whole Church. Unfortunately, “our” personal isolation, local context, proclivity toward individuality, and penchant for believing that our story is perhaps everyone’s story more than it is causes us to always ask the question “Who is the ‘other?” However, Guthrie’s confession that he had a difficult time finding himself within the “our” in the book is further evidence that while I made every attempt to be inclusive, my attempts came up lacking even for someone as culturally, theologically, and musically astute as Guthrie. There is surely much more work to be done as we continue to move toward finding ourselves in the broader story that comprises the Church and its music.

As the book attempts to show, our best hope is to be found both in discovering the memory of others while together imagining a song of the Church yet to be realized. All are needed in the conversation (11). The challenges within the Church’s music should be viewed as a family matter; the problem belongs to all of us: “Whatever affects the church’s music is my challenge, your challenge, our challenge, the church’s challenge – and it is most certainly God’s challenge” (12).

The book is organized with bookends of “Memory” and “Imagination” as possible metaphors through which the music of the Church might be discussed. Chapter 1: “From Memory to Imagination: Beginning the Journey” explores the role of memory as it reflects on the Church’s past, informs the Church contemporarily, and serves as a catalyst for imagination and action. Next follow chapters 2 through 6 which pose questions, present the Church’s music problem, deconstruct many of its long-held assumptions, and attempt to build consensus around the music challenge facing the Church (“Why We’re in Crisis Now,” “The Mess We’re In,” “A Clearer Picture,” “Worn-Out Paradigms, Unquestioned Myths, and Threadbare Clichés,” and “What the Bible Does/n’t Say About Music”). Guthrie correctly acknowledges that the core of the book is found in chapters 7 through 10 (“Community and the Church’s Music,” “The Call to be Missional,” “Embracing Hospitality,” and “Becoming Multi-Musical”). These chapters attempt to propose somewhat objective lenses through which the music of the Church might be more accurately viewed. The final chapter of the book, “From Memory to Imagination: Finding Our Way Forward,” seeks to build a foundation for future conversation, a platform for imaginative thinking, and a vision for connecting our current dilemma with our assured future with God in heaven. Lacking in Guthrie’s assessment is more than a passing mention of at least three of the book’s linchpins – “Embracing Hospitality,” “Becoming Multi-Musical,” and “From Memory to Imagination: Finding Our Way Forward.”

The role of hospitality in the music of the Church has been under-represented in the literature, and carefully considering the role of hospitality among all Christians is helpful in assessing some of Guthrie’s concerns related to finding ourselves within the broader narrative of the Church’s worship. With the release of Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by Vatican II in 1963, Catholics began to discuss the implications of hospitality for worship; however, Protestants have lagged behind in their intentional embrace of hospitality, and the discussion of hospitality related to music has been completely absent. Within worship’s reciprocal dialogue between host, stranger, and guest,

we are sometimes the host, showing hospitality to someone who is our guest. At other times, we are the stranger, the one in need of hospitality, and the one who does not yet understand or know his or her way around. Yet at other times, we are the guest, the one being hosted, the one who comes from afar and needs a temporary home. (158)

Although often viewed as a gift that one either has or does not have, hospitality is in fact cultivated as it is practiced. Regarding offering music as hospitality,

since music is intricately connected to emotion, music can calm our anxious spirits and offer us repose in the midst of the otherwise unfamiliar. Perhaps you recall having been in a threatening environment and then hearing a familiar melody or song, one that connected in some way to your memory. Instantly you felt calm and assured that safety is near. (172)

The welcoming potential of the Church’s music is immense, for

often the musical connection is one of the first to be established for in the church, music is often the first element that we hear. … The role of host implies vulnerability, and when we risk being vulnerable through offering ourselves through music, we create a space where our willingness to be vulnerable inspires guests to take similar risks. (172)

The vulnerability described above is exactly the sort of hospitality that Guthrie sees missing in the Church. By addressing issues that are too little discussed and even less frequently addressed in print among scholars and practitioners, I have attempted to create a space where others might take similar risks.

Furthermore, the book’s contribution to “becoming multi-musical” might further inform Guthrie’s concern that all people within the Church find their place within the music of the Church’s worship. Just as the world is a richer and more nuanced place as a result of the influence of many linguistic systems, in order to embrace more fully the vastness of the God of all times and all places, the Church should also learn to embrace many musical languages. Meeting the need for the Church to develop the ability to worship in multi-musical languages is a pastoral function. It falls into the category of discipleship; that is, it is part of the process of being transformed into the image of Christ. It is a process by which our individual needs are diminished and others’ value is amplified. Failing to speak a language is no reason not to visit distant places or to host others locally, for we build bridges with others as we use the phrases we know until our language usage expands. Moreover, we can choose to travel with an interpreter who knows more languages than we do. Similarly, “not speaking the musical language isn’t an excuse for us or for the congregations we serve to be musically homebound. The more we are all engaged as learners and not experts, the more those less confident will feel invited to truly participate” (197).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s concerns can only be fully addressed in a new day in which value for the “other” is so deeply imbedded within the Church that admitting to difficulty in finding ourselves within what comprises the Church would be unthinkable. To that end, the final chapter of the book challenges the Church and its music to become inclusive (213), to establish commons where genuine dialogue can be exchanged and hospitality can occur (214), and it calls for catalysts who have the energy and calling to offer their contagious spirits to the Church to facilitate change (215). The chapter also calls for an ecumenical spirit among all who serve the Church and puts forward the belief that the dynamic and ever-changing Spirit calls the music of the Church to be in a state of continual re-formation (221-222). While institutions that serve the Church and the Church itself must be re-imagined, the musicians of the Church must stick together. The Church is the body of Christ, and all who serve the music of the Church are a part of the full body of Christ. Far too long we have selectively chosen parts of the body of Christ that we were comfortable serving, and we have ignored other parts whose harmonies and rhythms were not in our experience. The time has come for the Church and its music to serve a bigger God (226). Lastly, we are challenged to move toward imagination. Ironically, the Church has often failed to reimagine a different world – “The hope of the church lies in its ability to move from the perceived reality of humankind to the assured reality of God’s self” (233).

Cite this article
C. Randall Bradley, “Response to Review of From Memory to Imagination: Reforming the Church’s Music”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 417-420

C. Randall Bradley

Baylor University
C. Randall Bradley is the Ben H. Williams Professor of Music at Baylor University, where he is also the Director of the Center for Christian Music Studies and the Church Music Program.