People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

by Matthew Raley

In recovering the folk singing dynamic, you can have all three of the fundamentals we’ve discussed so far without the people actually singing. A congregation can meet in a resonant space that permits them to create sounds together. The people can share a memory of songs from the past, and they can gain new songs that retain the stripped-down style of folk melodies.

But without the fourth fundamental, they won’t sing.

Maybe I should describe what I think singing is. The murmuring of today’s congregations does not qualify as singing — the shifty-eyed, slouching, hands-in-pockets, worthless droning that advertises in the flashing neon of body language a desire to be elsewhere.

Singing is done standing straight, with the chest up, the throat relaxed, and the lungs filled not from the top but from the bottom. Singing is loud — less in the sense that someone turned a knob clockwise, than that someone next to you spoke with sudden intensity. Singing is loud emotionality.

So, I repeat, believers can have every fundamental of the folk singing dynamic and still not sing. They have to want to sing. You can’t cajole them into singing, manipulate them, or in any way circumvent their lack of desire to sing. If they don’t want to, they won’t.

The fourth fundamental is the thing that supplies motivation for singing — a prejudicial belief system. People sing what is beyond question. You sing what you know.

Prejudice now refers almost exclusively to irrational hostility, especially racial bias, and has become popularly synonymous with a quite different word, bigotry. Where bigotry has always referred to hatred or intolerance, prejudice can be used in a more neutral way.

Prejudice is literally pre-judgment, a decision made prior to reason, debate, or fact-gathering. There are morally important human resources in this word. To take just one example, my father drove into me a prejudice against lying. I don’t question whether lying might be an effective tool, or might be justified in a certain instance. My pre-judged position, my reflex, is, “Never lie.”

The Enlightenment taught us that prejudice of any kind is wrong, and must be debunked as so much superstition. Human beings have the power to transcend their experiences, to know truth with metaphysical certainty, and to unshackle their minds from old notions and subjective perceptions. Through questioning every certitude, human beings can gain control over their environment.

The Enlightenment was full of crap.

The educational project of rationalism has not ended prejudice at all. It has merely created people who are prejudiced and pretentious, prejudiced and cynical, prejudiced and credulous, prejudiced and deluded. The atomic bomb comes to mind.

No amount of reasoning eradicates prejudice, though it may put different prejudices in circulation.

Here’s the point: people don’t sing from purely rational motivations. They don’t sing what they debate or question. They don’t sing to prove a point. There are no songs about the impact of the federal fiscal stimulus on consumer demand, the effectiveness of flu vaccines, or the potential of the new season of House. People sing their certainties, and their certainties are largely unconscious. To be sure, they sing about their emotional struggles, but they do so because they know what they feel.

When you get right down to it, evangelicals don’t sing because they don’t know much. Their faith is painfully conscious. Their prejudices have been leveled — and by their own teachers. They have been taught that the solutions to their relational problems are therapeutic, not supernatural. The Bible is no longer an authority in churches, merely a source of quotations. And, most devastatingly of all, God himself is called high but held low.

Evangelical music has degenerated into “At Last, I Know My Issues!” because evangelicals are now a deeply self-conscious people. And this has to be laid at the door of preachers. “Five Steps to a Better Marriage” is not a theme that will ever burst into song. But as a theme, it will appeal to that rational, calculating demon who constantly asks, “How can I get what I want?” Evangelicals now refuse to know anything about God until they’re sure that their selves will remain intact.

With such a troubled belief system, why would evangelicals truly sing?

C. S. Lewis didn’t like what he called “the lusty roar of the congregation.” I’d love to have it back. The return of the primitive, unselfconscious certitude of singing would demonstrate that people once again knew God, that their questions had been driven from them by direct experience of his grace, and that they had yielded control to his sovereign power.

They would sing again about the true faith: the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and pending return, his abolition of wars, lies, betrayals, and loss, the delivery of justice for his martyrs, and the reunion we will have with him. Believers would sing with longing that Jesus Christ be their vision, that they reach that beautiful shore, gathered at the river that flows by the throne of God.

But as they’ve stopped, we listen for the rocks.

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One thought on “People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

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  1. Ouch! Your comments about the WAY we sing, hurts. Thank you. Very convicting. I’m told that T. David Gordon is coming out with a book, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing.” Should be a good book.

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