I guess in some ways, I’m an iconoclast, in that I advocate dumping some aspects of UU worship that I think have drifted into meaningless rote, or that preserve “traditions” that do not carry forward our core beliefs.
But I don’t think I’m a bomb-throwing radical — quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, deep down, I am deeply conservative, at least regarding some aspects of worship. In particular, the role of music in worship services.
“Wait!” I hear you cry, “weren’t you the one who was suggesting we look to James Brown or the Monkees for inspiration?”
Yep. But what I was talking about was style, not content. And while I appreciate the style of __________ (fill in the blank with Josquin, Debussy, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, the Beatles, Moby, or whomever), the content of much of that music has no direct connection to worship, to the effort to connect to the holy in the presence of a like-minded community.
This was brought home to me several times recently, as I found myself getting hot under the collar about music (played during a “traditional” worship service) that I would have loved listening to in other circumstances. The problem was not that it was not good music, or that the performance was lacking, but that it just didn’t belong there, then.
Some months ago, one of those musicians approached me after playing at the traditional service and offered to come play some great Duke Ellington pieces they had been working on, at the contemporary service. I replied that, while I am a big Ellington fan, I couldn’t think of anything he wrote that would work in the worship I lead. I added that all the music we use in the contemporary service relates to the sermon, or reinforces UU principles, and that we sing all of it together.
He looked perplexed. As a member of the congregation and a professional musician, he was used to regarding a worship service as a place for his group to showcase their music, without regard to how it fit into worship. And, for many of the congregants he played for, that was fine.
I don’t have time to give ten minutes of an hour of worship to Duke Ellington. There’s too much to do. We only get this short time together to build our community and move our hearts and minds into a sacred space. Being interrupted by “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues” is a waste of the minutes of its performance, as well as the previous time spent getting to that sacred space, which was evaporated by the irrelevant musical choices.
I know that many UUs feel like hearing a wide variety of outside musicians adds to the experience — culturally, if not necessarily spiritually. Some even feel that listening to good music is a form of worship. I’m inclined to agree with that, to a certain extent. But I also know when I hear atonal, polyrhythmic jazz that I am not worshiping. I am in a different space, enjoyable and edifying, but not worshipful.
So, I count myself a conservative on the question of music in worship. Not because I don’t like the use of Macy Gray or the Doobie Brothers in worship (I do), but because I don’t advocate the use of any music that doesn’t advance the purpose of the hour we set aside for our spiritual practice. And, I say without hesitation, the Doobie Brothers have done that for us, while Ellington never will.
Discussion question: should Unitarian Universalists live in their heads or their hearts, spiritually? How do the musical styles above interact with each?