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Worship Meets Postmodernity

Review by David Heetderks

The worship wars are over, or so claims Mark Galli in Christianity Today (March 11, 2011). Congregations have largely weathered the upheaval caused by the introduction of contemporary praise styles into Sunday morning worship in the 1980s and 1990s. Individual churches have either settled on one style that best represents their worshiping body, or they have opted for a “blended” model utilizing both traditional and contemporary elements.

From Memory to Imagination
Reforming the Church’s Music
By C. Randall Bradley.
Eerdmans. Pp. 235. $25

Most would breathe a sigh of relief that arguments over musical style are abating. But for C. Randall Bradley, the worship wars are only a prelude to a larger reformation in Church music. In From Memory to Imagination, Bradley argues that it is time for Church musicians and pastors to devise new forms of worship that respond to what he calls the postmodern cultural movement. The term postmodern has several possible meanings; in Bradley’s book it can be defined through a series of questions about the broader purpose that music serves: How can music reflect the narrative and values of the Church’s community? How can churches change worship so that it is community-directed, rather than guided by a leader? How can music further the specific mission for which God has placed the Church in its local context, while also reflecting the full gamut of human experience?

Bradley argues that the current tools that churches use for designing worship are, unfortunately, not yet capable of answering these questions. In a wide-ranging critique of contemporary worship practice, he notes that music and preaching are leader-centered, stifling a collaborative planning process. They tend to be male-centered. They are performance-driven, turning the congregation into a group of spectators. Most significantly, their legitimacy comes from the power of an academy that confers a professional degree, or from the power of commerce as it markets songs to churches. These structures do not allow Christians to take ownership of their worship experience. Lest readers think that Bradley aims to wipe away the Church’s entire institutional structure, one should note that he is a long-experienced church music director. His goal is not revolt but reform, in part through prompting all Church members to rethink their role in its mission and to imagine what would remain if supporting power structures were stripped away.

Bradley’s vision of worship is based on three ideals of a postmodern Church: it is communal, it is missional, and it practices hospitality. Devoting a chapter to each ideal, Bradley draws from his experience as a music director to make imaginative applications of recent trends in Christian thought to Church music. When Bradley addresses specific musical styles and forms, he refrains from aesthetic evaluation. He justifies this approach in part through a pithy chapter, “What the Bible Does/n’t Say about Music,” which persuasively demonstrates that the Bible makes no enjoinders about musical style, instruments, or structure. Instead, Bradley orients his discussion of each style toward its potential for supporting the three ideals.

As a way of ascertaining the role of different songs in the Church, this seems an excellent approach. Bradley’s observations on the role of music in the Church’s mission are insightful and generous toward all styles. Contemporary praise music, for example, has reached worldwide popularity and has almost become a lingua franca for Christian worship. Because it enables dialogue and outreach across cultures and boundaries, it is valuable, although Bradley also recommends that music reflect the local character of the community (pp. 149-50).

Nonetheless, many songs from the last half-decade have taken individualism to new levels, not only focusing on a first-person experience but encouraging a body language that stresses individual engagement (p. 130). According to Bradley, this mode of worship impedes communal participation and should be reformed. Bradley views it as an unambiguously positive development that multiple styles have proliferated alongside contemporary praise music and are easily accessible: “[S]ince a primary component of the missional church is contextualization, it seems that the music of the Christian faith may be poised to serve God in the world.” Indeed: “Perhaps there is no better way (other than being there) to stand in solidarity with Christians in other parts of our vast planet than to join them in singing their songs” (p. 149). Songs with short, repetitive texts and songs with longer texts both play a valuable role in creating a hospitable Church (pp. 177-79). Older music, because it creates a connection between believers past and present, should also be used in worship (p. 103). The Church should create new songs, and songs should be evaluated primarily on their ability to create group participation.

From Memory to Imagination is not without weaknesses. Bradley fails to acknowledge that his advice is potentially self-contradictory. It is quite possible that the goal of communally directed music may conflict with the goal of music that reflects the full gamut of human experience if, for example, members of a community are reluctant to adopt songs that express mourning. The book would have benefited from a case study that shows in greater detail how a church undertakes the difficult business of reforming its worship.

Bradley is also a prolix writer, especially fond of overly elaborate metaphors, and some passages may tax readers’ patience. One could even start reading the book from Chapter 3, since the first two chapters form a lengthy introduction of points that can be gleaned later in the book. Finally, I would argue that the title is misleading. Understandably, Bradley might wish to avoid displaying the buzzword postmodern on his cover in order to avoid being misinterpreted or unnecessarily raising hackles of potential readers. But his theme of memory and imagination only appears in the weakest passages in the outer chapters, and they are tangentially related to his vision of moving the musical locus of power to the community in the service of God’s local mission.

Quibbles aside, From Memory to Imagination gives plenty of food for thought to any worship leader, pastor, or churchgoer who thinks seriously about the role of music in the contemporary Church. Its thought-provoking vision will prompt many worship leaders to rethink the purpose of their ministry and imagine new possibilities for its future.

David Heetderks is assistant professor of music theory at Oberlin College and Conservatory.


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