Immanence, transcendence, guitars

By Derek Olsen

Worship wars. Nothing is guaranteed to get more hits and generate more comments on my blog than worship wars. So many chattering keyboards and so much passion expended reminds me that, more often than not, something more than “taste” or “preference” is truly at stake. However, in all too many discussions of worship likes and dislikes the conversation stays at the surface and dissolves into personal preference and subjective aesthetic opinions. I know—I’ve done it myself all too often.

Recently, however, a discussion came up concerning church music on guitars and, in particular, the music of the St Louis Jesuits. You may have never heard of them, but if you’ve spent a few years around a liturgical church like ours, I’ll guarantee that you’ve heard samples of their music: “Gather Us In”, “On Eagles’ Wings”, “Here I Am, Lord”, “One Bread, One Body.” In the midst of the discussion, I got to thinking that instead of remaining at the level of a surface reaction, it was worth digging deeper—getting to the meat of the liturgical spirituality at work underneath, driving these arguments.

As the first major proponents of popular music styles in a vernacular idiom for Roman Catholic worship, the music of the St Louis Jesuits holds an appeal (and a disdain) for some not based on its musical or theological properties. For what it’s worth, I think the musical and theological qualities of much of this repertoire is rather limited. However, it is of immense symbolic importance, especially for Roman or Rome-leaning people of a certain age (read: Baby-Boomers) who were coming of age at the time of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. That is, their attachment to the music is due to what it represents–the American Catholic Church getting to do things its way, a new generation literally getting its voice heard and overturning old ways of doing things. Now that a new “new generation” is rising, certain elements are in classic backlash mode and despise the Saint Louis Jesuit style music for precisely the reasons their parents loved it. Being on the cusp of Generation Y, I’ll admit to having one foot in this camp.

To avoid dwelling in knee-jerk generational generalizations, though, I’d rather cut to what I see as the real reason why this is a fight–and why such a fight should exist.

It’s not really about guitars and folk songs or not-guitars and not-folk songs; rather, what lies at the center of the argument (as I see it) is competing notions of immanence and transcendence and their place in divine worship. Should church music sound like secular music? Why or why not? Speaking personally, I like guitars quite a lot whether it is in classic country or the virtuosity of Van Halen, Hendrix, Gibbons, Morelli or others. But that doesn’t mean I want to hear that style of music in church. I generally don’t like American Folk Revival music from the 60’s and 70’s anyway; I especially don’t want to hear that style in church.

For me, it’s too immanent; I crave something more transcendent. Some have argued that people can generally be grouped as Platonists or Aristotelians. That is, they either have a sense of reality as something “out there” or of reality as something “really here” intimately bound up with the nitty-gritty of life. I intuit that the same is true of spirituality. Some find their connection with God as the God who is immanent and bound up in the holiness of mundane existence. Others find that connection in the God of the transcendent who is “out there” and Other and speaks a word of challenge against what we think is our mundane existence.

Both sorts can learn from each other; both sorts need to learn from each other. But a basic orientation one way or the other will still endure.

I’m the second kind. I’m a Platonist by natural inclination. I find God “out there” and in the transcendent and in the different and in the things that shocking me out of my business-as-usual way of living and, through those experiences, can find God and the Holy in the mundane and the everyday in the ways that I can identify God shocking and surprising me towards transcendence.

As a result, I want my worship to be transcendentally oriented. I want it to help me get in connection with the God “out there” so that I can learn the feel, the touch, the taste of the Other and transcendent God in order that I might recognize that same God in my daily eating, breathing, and moving. Chant is to the ear what incense is to the nose what stained glass and icons are to the eye: culturally conditioned signs of the transcendent but—cutting through the culturally-based significance—vehicles that truly assist me to touch the face of God.

That’s why I don’t want guitars in my service.

And that’s why I understand that other people want them—and need them.

The other side is that I sang for a couple of years in seminary in a Catholic Mass choir that did Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation with a guitar front-and-center. I’ve served and preached at folk services. I’ve even led with guitar in hand a Taizé-style service with guitar and recorder.

Yes, there can be a place for the guitar. Yes, it can be done well, reverently, worshipfully.

But it’s not my taste. And when I’m choosing a congregation where I worship, I will choose a service without guitars.

Derek Olsen blogs at Haligweorc, and is looking for a church home near Ellicott City, Maryland.

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