Cultural Memory

While driving back from Nairn last week, Matt & I got into discussions on things like church, tradition, change, and musical worship, among many other things! I made a comment that I’ve been thinking about ever since, and wanted to hear your take on it too. I want to preface it with a small caveat, in the interests of honesty: I’m pretty sure I’ve stolen the idea from someone else, but for the life of me I cannot figure out who!

I shared that I wondered how much of our preferences or distastes for a particular style of corporate worship music are influenced by cultural memory (the term I fear I’ve stolen) more than by the music itself. By cultural memory, I am referring to the almost hard-wired associations we have between things. In part this thought was sparked by the realisation that I enjoy some of the old hymns a lot more when they are set to a different style of music, such as when I first heard the Hymns Ancient & Modern album by the Passion band.

As part of the younger generation, certainly my own cultural memory of organ music is that of stuffy church services I couldn’t wait to escape. For an older generation, their collective cultural memory of guitars and drums is one of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. I wonder how my granny would react if we arranged some Chris Tomlin for the organ? Would it be a doorway to open up some wonderful modern hymns for an older generation, in the same way that arranging hymns such as Come Thou Fount for guitars has been for me?

So, what d’ya think? Crazy idea? Anyone tried anything like this?

13 thoughts on “Cultural Memory

  1. I think it’s an incredibly interesting point.

    I was having a discussion recently about the origins of songs in terms of spiritual homes and heritage. Take for example Matt Redman – under the wing of Mike Pilavachi he developed as a worship leader and was synonymous with Soul Survivor before moving to Passion. I am stereotyping but many churches which you might call “conservative” distance themselves from movements like Soul Survivor yet who hasn’t sung a Matt Redman song in one of these conservative churches?

    OK – those are theological rather than cultural differences but it’s interesting in relation to the OT. How exactly do we view songs and how should we view them?

  2. If you haven’t already you should check out Jars of Clay’s ‘Redemption Songs’ album. It’s a compilation of old grassroots evangelical Hymns set to contemporary and diverse styles of music. It’s a wonderful listen and a refreshing twist on worship!

  3. I think it is a great idea, the only couple of things that might be an issue. One is that most modern songs aren’t written with an organ in mind, they are written with guitars and keyboards in mind. The organ is a very different instrument, and it isn’t as simple as just playing the songs on an organ. The other thing and perhaps this more significant issue is that of attitude. As Harrison said, many churches distance themselves from things like soul survivor, and correct me if I’m wrong or being unfair, but I would say that a lot of organists would be unwilling to play anything that isn’t in mission praise or the hymn book, they would distance themselves from more contemporary music…

  4. @ neal: i’ll try catch it tonight, thanks.

    @ Harrison: I like your question, How exactly do we view songs and how should we view them? I also wonder whether sometimes the unfamiliarity of an organ for me is a helpful thing too, that it causes me to really think, to concentrate on a song; it’s all too easy to sing songs I know without thinking about what I’m singing because of their familiarity. I know that can work both ways, can bring great freedom, but can also be damaging. A mix of both styles would certainly be interesting. And what is the purpose of singing songs? Why do we sing? How deep does the rabbit hole go?

    @ Jim: thanks, I actually have that album too and really enjoy it!

    @ connor: we get in to dangerous territory here too. I understand there are deep traditions, and I am NOT against tradition per se. I am against tradition for the sake of tradition. Some traditions are incredibly helpful, some are purely there because ‘thats how we’ve always done it’. I would like to hope that an organist would not write off playing a song because it comes from a different tradition… but I know that is not always the case.
    As for the actual practicalities of it, yes they are incredibly different instruments, and yes it may be difficult to rewrite a song for a different style of instrument. It might not be a practical suggestion at all in the long run. Am simply putting it out there as an idea, ‘i wonder what might happen if…’, ya know?

  5. I find that in the sense of cutural memory I have a negativity toward music in worship. I am not musical, I can sing but I find it difficult and truth be told as a teenager I was jealous of the Christian poster boys (and girls) who could play in a praise band or stuff like that.

    As a Youth Worker and leading worship, most all of the music I use is on a cd. I have found this a challenge but worth it when people come round to it.

    Is there value in challengeing the churches cultural memory that has music at the centre of worship, or that worship is music and nothing more?!

  6. @ chrislong: I can identify with the poster boys/girls feeling! that was never me! I do think we can come in danger of putting music at the center of worship. Despite all our talk about worship as a lifestyle, do our actions betray us? When we put music at the center of a church service, what are we conveying about our beliefs?

    I’d also like to add that in no way do I think all organ music is stuffy, or that all guitar music is inspiring! Far from it. I got the immense privilege of hearing a beautiful organ recital while in Berlin last Jan. I’ve equally heard some absolutely woeful guitar music, that has made me want to tear my hair out. I’m talking in broad strokes here!

  7. My favourite sung worship is unaccompanied. There’s something amazing about how the old blends with the new when you cut out all the instruments.

    That being said, I love playing in church. (I also like that accompaniment goes some way towards keeping people in tune, but that’s my inner tuning fork talking).

    It depends on the song. Some classics translate to guitar, others really don’t (Thine Be the Glory being my most disastrous example), and it’s pretty much the same t’other way. Things at the more robust, definite metre end of the modern spectrum work perfectly well on organ. Piano tends to be a nice intermediate anyhow.

    I’ll stop rambling now…

  8. @ george-ina: unaccompanied singing can sound amazing… and maybe there should be more of a place for it in our services. i know i find it incredibly difficult personally, as someone without that in-built tuning fork… seriously, you would not want to be standing next to me attempting to sing unaccompanied!

  9. good conversation going here. and great question emma.

    i would say absolutely. our musical preference in worship is all about our cultural/musical tastes. and that’s totally okay.

    the problem comes when we spiritualise our musical preference to elevate it higher than another…and it works both ways in the contemporary songs vs. hymns arguments. we must dismiss the argument that one style is more ‘worshipful’ or ‘spiritual’ than another.

    i would like to explore more dj-led worship and incorporate more rap into our gatherings. it’s all neutral, so it’s about finding the ways we can use it to enhance our gatherings.

    of course i have a particular musical style that i prefer in sung worship but our quest should not be whats good for us, but what is the most accessible and relevant for the people in our church…and in our culture.

    so much more to write but i’ll leave it here…

  10. @ rick: thanks for joining the conversation! i like your ideas about dj-led worship, rap, etc. it’d be great to see musical worship for alternative cultures.
    so how do we avoid elevating one musical style above another? is it ‘simply’ an attitude thing?

  11. i think its a question for the leaderships of churches/gatherings/communities that they choose what type of music fits their gathering. and preferably not one single type for the whole time. but finding the variety that doesn’t lead to ruts, yet balancing that with some form of continuity that helps people find themselves.

    i guess the answer to the question about musical worship for alternative cultures is that its already happening all over the world and we in the West are naive and arrogant to think that our middle of the road, guitar led, acoustic rock music is the pinnacle of ‘worship’ music.

    (take for example the ‘greatest worship songs ever’ cd collection that includes no african style/rap/dj/indigenous musical styles)

    as i said before, music is neutal, so any style can be used for worship. and the same style can be used for ill effects both in and outside the church.

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