Music is constantly changing, and it mutates not only from culture to culture but generation to generation. The only place this bothers people is in church. There, fashion-driven variability encounters the unchangeable. Somehow we expect that worship music will be as immutable as the nature of God. It isn’t, to the lasting distress of those who want young people to love 19th century hymns and organ music.
Music changes, and it has always changed. The biblical psalms were clearly meant to be sung, but we have no idea what kind of music was dear to their authors. Would we like it? Perhaps not: I doubt I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew music any more than I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew clothes. Thankfully I do not have to: the psalms are taken up in musical styles that suit the times and the culture. The Scots put all their psalms to music—Scottish music. The Dutch Reformed did too but in a Dutch way. The English taught us to chant them, and still do. None of these is universal or eternal. The psalm singing that was bedrock for my Scottish grandfather is gone with the wind. It is not coming back!
Yet for all music’s impermanence, there is no worship without it. And perhaps the variability, the flexibility, the variety of music is a part of its glory. My friend Joyce Scott, a South African, has spent much of her life encouraging African people to use their traditional music styles in worship songs. She is healing a historical wound: When Africans encountered Christianity they often adopted European hymns and abandoned their parents’ music. In many cases a very musical people became much less tuneful whenever they entered church. Joyce loves music passionately, and she began to experiment with Scripture songs as a missionary in Kenya; eventually, her specialty became training and encouraging indigenous music in the church. To every people and every generation, a different music—their own music.
Yet here is the interesting thing: we re-write the music every generation, but we do not re-write the psalms. The psalms as literature cross the gulf of years as though it were nothing. At least half of the psalms reach me without the slightest strain. Culturally we are far away from the men who wrote those poems so long ago—but our experiences of life and God seem not to have changed very much, nor do the words that capture them.
So the timeless and the time-bound are knit together. You can’t get a knife in between a song and its words; we respond to them as to one unit. Yet one goes on and on, and the other fades away with its time, and must be renewed. One translates across all cultures, and the other bears all the local color and spirit of its time-bound surroundings. The eternal spirit is in the words, but it comes clothed in music. Spirit must be incarnated in the mortal, changeable flesh of the tune.
We speak of mysteries. How do permanence and variability go together, making a single unit? We cannot say, but we can sing. All this dense reality—body and spirit, two natures fully expressed in one being–is on the tips of our tongues when we open our mouth to make music.