Friday, September 18, 2020

Drummed out of Church? Evaluating Music for Adventist Worship

  • Drums are acceptable in worship as long as they don’t play certain rhythms.
  • Drums may not be seen in worship but may be played as part of a pre-recorded accompaniment track.
  • Drums arranged as a drum kit may not be played in church, but traditional African drums like bongos and djembes may be played in church
  • Drums arranged as a drum kit may not be played in church, but a wooden box rigged to sound like a drum kit (a cajón) may be played at church.
  • Drums are not to be played at all in church, but at youth events, they may be played however the youth like it.
  • Drums at church should either be contained behind a sound barrier or electronically mixed so that they don’t disturb sensitive ears.
That’s a sample of various stated and unstated customs restricting the use of drums in worship I have encountered in various Adventist churches. Given the diversity of approaches, it seems that there is no agreement on what principle or set of principles guide the use of drums in Adventist churches. In this essay, I will propose that (1) we have been looking for such principles in the wrong place and that (2) our practice is better than our theory.

Philosophical Framework: Time and Reason

To explain what I mean by that I will need to introduce two different ways of reasoning about things relative to time.

The following philosophical and theological overview is based on my careful reading of Fernando Canale’s PhD dissertation: “Toward a Criticism of Theological Reason: Time and Timelessness as Primordial Presuppositions.” It is also informed by Canale’s later work on the sanctuary, most succinctly captured in his article, “Philosophical Foundations and the Biblical Sanctuary.” For an accessible summary of Canale’s dissertation see Sven Fockner’s “An Introduction to Canale’s Criticism of Theological Reason,” part of a collection of scholarly essays in honor of Canale’s work.

The first mode of reasoning in time comes from an assumption baked into the grand tradition Western philosophy since Parmenides that what is really real is what doesn’t change. Consequently, to make reliable inferences we need to find ways to think about what is in time and changes by relating it to what is outside of time and cannot change. Much of science, for example, operates on this assumption by explaining changes we observe in the world as the operation of unchanging laws of nature. I will call this the analytical mode of reasoning because analysis often means defining unchanging structures of reality in terms of their constituent parts. (Caveat lector: My definitions of analytical and phenomenological are limited to the purposes of this essay. They are not intended to describe those philosophical traditions or the other ways those terms are used in scholarly discourse.)

But what if what’s really real really does undergo change?

As a Christian, I understand God as the creator and sustainer of all that is: God is the being in whom everything else that exists holds together (Acts 17:28). While God has revealed properties of his being that are consistent through all time—for example, his character (Malachi 3:6)—he has also shown us in his sanctuary that his experience, and thus ultimate reality, is subject to change. Though the bisection of the space where God dwells—a division that demarcates a two-phase heavenly ministry of the Son before the Father—the architecture of Heaven shows us that ultimate reality involves change and time.

The biblical sanctuary further demonstrates that what’s real about where God dwells is not completely disconnected from human reality, so that we do not need to escape from our changing world into a changeless, divine reality to connect with God. Rather, we connect with God by joining our stories to God’s story, especially as told in the sanctuary and its services. This has profound and far-reaching implications for how we are to reason about the human relationship to God, but in this article, I will focus on those that relate to the evaluation of music for worship.

Joining our story to God’s story requires a mode of reasoning that makes inferences by relating past, present, and future. Such inferences seem arbitrary to those who intuitively reason analytically because no one narrates their experiences in exactly the same way. But if what’s really real is changeable, we need to have a way of reasoning about our experience, which is, after all, organized by time.

I will call this the phenomenological mode of reasoning because phenomena are aspects of reality as we experience them (as opposed to reality as we analyze it). How we experience reality is determined by (1) our habits, customs, and overall background that has been shaped by our past; (2) by our states of consciousness, bodily states, and all else that directs our attention to the present moment; and (3) by our goals, commitments, and other exercises of the will that open up new possibilities for the future. These are always changing and particular, yet not so unique that we do not share commonalities of experience connected by shared physiology, culture, and/or conviction. (In this description of the constitution of persons, I am drawing on Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, which critiques modernity as an attempt to escape the historical nature of reasoning about human experience.)

Thus, phenomenological reasoning doesn’t have to describe what is true for everyone in order to arrive at truth. Rather, it aims at conclusions that are true as far as they go or to explain why different kinds of people experience things differently. For example, biblical typology reasons from past to present and future in order to show, among other things, what changed in the experience of God’s people so that where people connected to God’s story in the past had to offer animal sacrifices, in the present they do not.

The Failure of Analytical Evaluations of Worship Music

Because music and worship are embodied in human cultural practices that change over time and have different effects on different kinds of people, I propose that phenomenological reason is the correct mode of reason for evaluating the role of drums in Adventist worship. We cannot resolve a phenomenological problem by asking an analytical question.

The failure of this analytical approach is laid bare not only by the plurality of practice in Adventism, but also by the General Conference’s disregard for what it has plainly stated in its Church Manual: “Any melody partaking of the nature of jazz, rock, or related hybrid forms … will be shunned” (p. 150). This statement is adapted from page 10 of the outdated 1972 “Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Music” guidelines voted by the General Conference Executive Committee, which also counseled against the extensive use of jazz chords (specifically, “the seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords,” p. 10). Yet when I heard the Breath of Life Quartet sing at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, they “saturated” their music with beautiful jazz chords that made it past a rigorous vetting process.

Examples could be multiplied to illustrate my point: Attempts to define the right and wrong forms of music using the analytical tools of music theory have proven unworkable in the Adventist experience. They also tend to elevate forms of music associated with white culture and denigrate forms of music associated with black culture. Yet there is a cottage industry in Adventism claiming to have discovered the timeless properties of music that are suited or unsuited to worship.

Drums are often a focus of these attempts at analysis. Such teachers may claim that because percussion instruments are not in the lists of instruments played in the sanctuary, they are not suited to Adventist worship. Or they may claim that certain rhythms always produce certain effects on human consciousness. Whatever their reasons, what these self-appointed guardians of Adventist worship have in common is a mode of reasoning that, while intuitive for many, cannot adequately account for change through time and thus also experience.

Evaluating Worship Music as Phenomena

The structure of music can be explained analytically, but its suitability for worship can only be evaluated by its effect on human consciousness (which is not to say that the technical proficiency of worship music cannot be evaluated analytically). This is similar to the biblical criteria of fruits (Matthew 7:20) or to the test of God's blessing proposed by wise Gamaliel (Acts 5:38–39). It is the reasoning “from cause to effect” that Ellen G. White counseled in a variety of situations, but is perhaps best illustrated by this counsel regarding diet in a sermon she preached in 1908:
There is no door in our stomach by which we can look in and see what is going on, so we must use our mind, and reason from cause to effect. If you feel all wrought up and everything seems to go wrong, perhaps it is because you are suffering the consequences of eating a great variety of food (Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 23, Ms. 41).

Like food, the effects of different kinds of music can vary from setting to setting and individual to individual across time and place for reasons that are hidden from us (“there is no door”). But we can aim at evaluations of worship music that are generally true for particular Adventist communities. We make those evaluations by observing the results of steps taken to improve the quality of our worship music relative to our common background and the goals of Adventist worship (“perhaps it is because …”). By repeating this process, we can tell a story about the community’s relationship with God in music and worship, a story that we can evaluate by synchronizing it with God’s story.

It turns out that this is what many Adventist communities have already done with the question of drums in worship, even if they haven’t been aware of why it works or how best to accomplish it. What appears to analytical intuitions as confusion about timeless principles turns out to have prompted the first steps toward phenomenological clarity. In 2004 the General Conference replaced its proscriptions of genres and chords with guidelines that take a phenomenological approach: laying out the goals of Adventist worship and leaving it up to individual Adventist communities how to best meet them.

For guidance on how to do that, I recommend the 2010 book, In Tune with God by Lilianne Doukhan, professor of music, emarita, at Andrews University. She is a musicologist trained to observe music as a phenomenon. Her book helpfully walks readers through the ways music affects our experience and how our experiences affect the way we individually and collectively interpret music. Based on these understandings, she gives practical guidelines for how music in worship, including the use of drums, can be evaluated.

A version of this essay was published in the September, 2020 issue of the Alberta Adventist News.

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