My friend Mike (who, incidentally, blogs over at a fascinating blog http://thefrailestthing.com) has been thinking a lot about text, technology, and the effect that technology is having on us as a collected body of people. Often times when I read his work, I call him or e-mail him and dialogue about the ecclesial/theological/soteriological implications of what he is writing about. Perhaps I leave a comment. But rarely do I take a nugget of something that he has written and run in a separate direction with it.
Well, that is, until today.
Observe this quote about social memory and social order from Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember.
“Concerning social memory in particular, we may note that images of the past commonly legitimate a present social order. It is an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory. To the extent that their memories of a society’s past diverge, to that extent its members can share neither experiences nor assumptions. The effect is seen perhaps most obviously when communication across generations is impeded by different sets of memories. Across generations, different sets of memories, frequently in the shape of implicit background narratives, will encounter each other; so that, although physically present to one another in a particular setting, the different generations may remain mentally and emotionally insulated, the memories of one generation locked irretrievably, as it were, in the brains and bodies of that generation …
There are many things which cultures and societies use to convey memory and communicate their shared and common story. There are many things the church has done to remember its shared story. It is not accidental that we are coming up on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Why was this translation so influential? I think in part it had to do with the fact that the KJV gave the english speaking world a common language, a common vernacular, when talking about the things of God. Now, the scope of this post is not to get in to the very technical arguments surrounding the textual accuracy, usability, etc. of the KJV. It is simply to make a point: communities that have a common, shared, set of memories (generally moored off of a single, central, collected body of “memories”), the ability to communicate tradition, meaning, value, and memory between generations is greatly increased.
Hymnody works in much the same way. When the church sings from a shared body of work, it is able to pass a common song to future generations. The fragmentation among bible translations (which, I again reiterate, I am using the KJV to make a point, not as an endorsement. I am much more disposed to the ESV, in case anyone wonders) mirrors similarly the fragmentation among christian music and the collective worship language of the church. Take this blog excerpt by Alan Jacobs as an example:
“…there’s something fascinating to me about a vast cultural discourse, stretching across social divides and encompassing people of widely varying educational levels, based on knowledge of one book. A big and diverse book, yes, but one book, capable of providing — through names of persons, place-names, phrases, and what have you — reference that could quickly illustrate, and illuminate, almost anyone’s response to almost anything. Just consider Huxley’s remark when, in his famous debate with Samuel Wilberforce, he realized that the Bishop had inadvertently given him the best possible rhetorical advantage: “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” There’s a world of meaning in that.
Today, it seems to me, there is no such truly common cultural currency. Instead, there is currency shared among small groups of initiates into certain mysteries, often meant to exclude others as much as to include the like-minded.”
The notion of music that is now coming out as fast as artists can write it, and churches being able to instantaneously incorporate it into its body and song is both a feat of great achievement, and great peril. For while we are able to share with the body of Christ a vast array of musical offerings that would have been next to unknown years ago, we now are faced with a new dilemma. How are we preserving the song of our faith so that multiple generations gathered together will join in one voice? This has particular impact on families and family worship. How families can join together and sing (often unaccompanied) highly syncopated, often unmemorable lines of songs together as they worship is a reality that must be addressed as we prepare the next generation to faithfully follow Christ.
Hymnody is good. I hope you have seen value in this discussion. But there is another side to it. When hymnody becomes ultimate, that is to say, to the exclusion of anything else, hymnody becomes idolatry. We find that, along with the generational contribution of hymns and music over the 18th and 19th centuries that another rather peculiar thing has occurred. It seems that the musical styles and trappings of the aforementioned centuries have become normative for the church instead of contextual. In future posts, we will have to deal with this issue of contextualization and what we should and shouldn’t make normative.
How do we grapple with these things? I don’t know that there are easy answers. For now, it was interesting enough to see the collision of research (How Societies Remember), common cultural experiences (a shared, single, translation of the scriptures), and the present day issues of preserving the intergenerational character of the church.
Feel free to dissect my argument. It probably needs it.