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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

No Drums, Please

So, as I said at the eighteenth annual Concordia Catechetical Conference in Waukesha, Wisconsin last Thursday, there is such a thing as Dionysian music, as Dr. Daniel Reuning proposed some twenty-five years ago, and that it is to be discouraged, even disallowed in the Church.

Dionysian music, as I recall his having explained it, is music with a profound beat; music which resonates well with the natural rhythms of natural man (who is opposed to all that is spiritual, according to St. Paul).

I'll even venture to put it another way: natural man has a natural life which is defined by a naturally beating heart. The heart thumps as it pushes blood through the body, by which we live. And this, I would further venture to suggest, is what is so appealing about many kinds of popular music. It has a strong beat. We like a beat, because our hearts beat.

Once upon a time music had no beat at all. It was melodic and lilting, but tones and melismas moved with the syllables which were spoken. Gregorian Chant is the name given to this ancient type of music.

The first use of metical music in the churches was likely to have been a bit jarring to the people, to say nothing of their bishops. My guess is that one could find evidence of controversy surrounding its introduction into the churches, though I have not done the research.

Nonetheless, it gained acceptance, and my guess is that the Church determined it was at length admitted because although it now had a beat, its beat was determined (or, more likely, instinctively considered) not to have been so profound that it became the driving force in the music. Thus hymns and chorales as we now know them became acceptable.

Then came the mid-twentieth century, when 'contemporary music' invaded the churches. The argument has been made that this was just another step in the same direction. Jarring at first, but eventually, the reasoning goes, it will become counted as acceptable.

So, what's the problem?

My take is that it has crossed a line into what may be termed Dionysian music. In classical mythology, Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, was the god who inspired ritual madness and ecstasy or frenzy (bakkheia). I call Dionysian music a musical style driven by the natural impulses and rhythms, a drive which so governs the genre that the other elements of it are relegated to a sometimes distant second place.

This is certainly true with regard to many forms of rock music, jazz music, and pop music. As a musician, I find myself so enjoying these musical forms that I care little what the lyrics are saying. It bothers me that, say, some Led Zeppelin lyrics are raunchy, but admittedly it doesn't bother me all that much. I love the music. I love the beat. I am driven to a miniature kind of frenzy when I listen to it.

Hence, my reasoning goes, if it were employed in worship, in a manner of speaking it would be found to be in service to the god Dionysus: given to frenzy and ecstatic experience.

One can scoff at this idea, but I believe it is well worthy of considering, and I am thankful that Dr. Reuning explained it to me back when.

Thus I repeat the comment I made the other day: if I enter your church before the service commences, and I see an organ, fine. If I see a flute, or a violin, or even a guitar, ok: I would not be yet able to make a value judgment. But if I see a drum set, I know there's something wrong. A drum set keeps the beat, and strongly. It bespeaks a pulse, as it were a strong and powerful heartbeat. Too strong. Dionysian. Inappropriate for the service of God's Holy Word.

And this, I will dare to declare, is the very heart(beat) of what's wrong with contemporary worship.