Axes of Resonance in Christian Congregational Music
The rise of contemporary worship music in the latter part of the 20th century has been bound up closely with ideals of personal authenticity. The use of popular musical styles in church is, at least in part, the result of a pragmatic desire for the music of the church to act as a natural expression of worshippers’ everyday lives, whilst at the same time the need for ‘personal sincerity’ in worship has resulted in an emphasis on the role of the individual’s inward attitudes in the activity of sung worship. As my own recent work, alongside that of a number of others has highlighted, this project has come to face numerous challenges over the course of its development: the diversity of musical lives present in contemporary society calls into question any straightforward relationship between individuals’ musical lives and the music employed in a congregational environment, whilst discourses and ideals of personal authenticity have led to contradictory and problematic dynamics as they have collided with the performative spaces of the commercialised worship industry and the social dynamics and needs of local church communities.
Such analyses are not limited to the academic realm, and a number of popular commentators have charted a generational retreat away from the pragmatic strategies of contemporary worship music environments. Rachel Held Evans has suggested, for example, that her own move towards more traditional and sacramental models of church is part of a broader trend within the Millennial generation, who find themselves alienated not just by evangelical models of music but of church more generally. Alongside this, a variety of voices have suggested that so-called Millennials are looking for a more conversational and responsive relationship with their church communities, are disillusioned by a focus on musical style and are increasingly attentive to elements which seem phony and fake in consumer-driven models. Sensing the need to articulate new understandings, some individuals have found themselves turning to alternative models and ideas in order to understand the contemporary musical practices they find themselves embedded within, exploring, for example an understanding of worship as a formational practice or as a sacramental activity. Such ideas challenge the notion of musical worship as a product of the authentic self in favour of the self as produced by and receptive of divine and social dynamics as transmitted through music. How-ever, at the same time, they continue an on-going quest which sets out to describe and prescribe an appropriate relationship between the individual and the social, spiritual and musical context that they find themselves in within congregational worship.
Such dynamics can usefully be illuminated by an appeal to Hartmut Rosa’s application of the concept of resonance. We can understand the quest for authenticity in musical worship as one particular attempt at forming a resonant relationship between individual, world, group, music and the divine. The individual, through a dynamic of authenticity stemming from both protestant theology and consumer ideologies, is able to appropriate the world around them through its reflection of their everyday self and through their investment and expression into it of their inner spiritual devotion. If this relationship breaks down, then we can ask whether this might be a result of the situation of the contemporary worship music industry’s appropriation of and situation within the paradoxical dynamics and conditions of modernity. At the same time, we can potentially see the quest of the Millenials as a search for alternative models of world resonance, embarking on precisely the same task as a previous generation of worshippers but setting out on a range of different paths in order to do so. This research project will take such contemporary dynamics as its starting point in order to explore the concept of resonance as it applies to Christian congregational music. If the quest for resonance through patterns of personal authenticity has found itself encountering significant challenges, then what axes and processes of resonance can we trace through Christian congregational music’s long and diverse period of existence? What forms of resonance does congregational music permit? What processes have enabled individuals to appropriate this musical and social environment in a resonant manner? How do social and sonic theories of resonance complement, contradict or combine in congregational music?
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Universität Erfurt Postfach 90 02 21 99105 Erfurt