Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lutheran Roots Rock Renaissance

My musical interests are widely eclectic. However, a majority of the music I own falls into two categories--indie rock and jazz. But within those genres there is great diversity, and I enjoy the full range of that diversity. Perhaps the only style of music I tend not to listen to is what you might classify as "popular." I very seldom listen to Top 40 stuff, and my leanings for radio stations lean towards independent radio and NPR, jazz, blues, and reggae and bluegrass if I can find it.

My preference for music in worship is influenced by these interests. How could it not be? I love worship that works within my preferred idioms. Jazz. Bluegrass. Indie rock. I also happen to love classical music, at least in small doses, so a few worship services a week singing the classic hymns of the church (and especially chant) is both pleasant and meaningful to me. In fact, ours may be one of the few houses around where the two year old asks at bed time, "Can we sing 'Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping," by which she means the chant version of that great hymn from compline in the LBW, which she knows the entirety of by heart.

That being said, it is somewhat rare for me to be able to find worship in an idiom I totally love. Jazz worship is rare. So is bluegrass and blues. And how often have you been to worship that sounds like Animal Collective, Deerhoof, The Shins, Beck, Arcade Fire, The National, Iron and Wine, Joanna Newsome, The Flaming Lips, or Sufjan Stevens, to name just a few indie rock musicians I'd love to hear more inflections of in contemporary worship. Or, for example, my favorite 20th century composer was Olivier Messiaen, and back in the day when he was an organist in Paris you could hear his music in worship, but good luck finding worship in North America where his compositions are featured. Oh, and have I mentioned that there really should be more reggae worship?! I think you see my point.

In fact, much of what I've heard called "contemporary" worship lives within a narrow band of the contemporary musical scene. It's what is played on most Christian radio. I like it, especially stuff from Chris Tomlin, etc. but it is to my musical ears what Top 40 radio is. I'll listen to it, and even lead some of it in worship, but it isn't taking up tons of shelf space in my CD collection.

And, before I continue, one very important caveat. I am reflecting on all of this not to convince readers that there is one best style of music for worship. There isn't, and I prefer that churches embrace widely eclectic styles. My recommendation is that every worshipper, myself included, should go to church hoping that the music is meaningful and inspiring to someone else. If we all went hoping that the songs were what other people like, "worship wars" and the wide variety of ways we fight over worship styles would take on an incredibly different tone. Actually, they'd just disappear, because we'd no longer be protecting our own musical turf but instead advocating for grace space for others and their musical preferences.

Ok, now I can finally get around to the point of this post, which is the miniature renaissance in Lutheran music represented by I probably appreciate the music collected on these recordings because it is intentionally Lutheran. But I also probably like it because it is outside the mainstream. Beyond that, I love it because it is crossover music, seeking to be both contemporary, but also liturgical.

Jonathan Rundman was and continues to be my entry point into the Lutheran roots rock renaissance. He was really at the avant-garde of the movement. One of his early albums he titled "Sound Theology," and it contained 52 songs on two albums, one song for each week of the lectionary calendar. A rock album keyed to the lectionary and the church seasons is a great example of how contemporary music can be Lutheran.

I simply love his music, and think his sensibilities as a musician and Lutheran Christian match my own to such a degree that I feel like he is my own personal liturgist and hymnodist. So when he came out with "Protestant Rock Ethic" a few years ago, I was blown away. I took the album with me to confirmation camp, and sat out every afternoon while the kids were swimming and learned the eight songs on that album that he calls the Heartland Liturgy. Each song is one of the primary songs of the ordo--Kyrie, Hymn of Praise, chant setting of the Psalms, Alleluia, The Great Thanksgiving, Holy Holy Holy, Lamb of God, and Canticle for Departure. By the end of the week, I was ready to lead the camp in a Eucharist using the material. Although I don't know if many camps do it, the music is quite suitable for a camp communion liturgy, and would likely be one of the few times a camp setting of worship could be truly liturgical in the traditional sense of that term.

I have now been leading worship using his Heartland Liturgy for years. We used it most Wednesday nights for worship, and it became ingrained in our hearts. Children and families sang it especially robustly, but it catches almost everyone and gathers them up into praise. Over the years, we've invited Jonathan and other musicians like Rachel Kurtz to visit, to strengthen us in learning this Lutheran roots rock tradition.

More recently, I received a CD in the mail from Nate Houge called Becoming Liturgy He has some spot on definitions of liturgy and worship in the CD case worth reading, and he provides a songbook and bulletin inserts free through a creative commons license on his web site. Nate's music satisfies virtually all of my sensibilities--it's rootsie, rockin', and strange (he even sent me a great bumper sticker that reads, "Keep Church Weird" that now adorns my laptop and car).

So, for the time-being, I invite readers to listen to the tons of music these musicians provide on-line for free. Lutheran Songs Today has an especially extensive collection, there's no better place to start your journey of discovery. Even better, go out and buy their music. All these folks make a living playing music, so don't buy just one album and copy it for all your friends. Do them the respect of spending money on their music! I'd love to know if you did, so let me know.

Finally, as part of Lutheran Songs Today, Luther Seminary hosted a conversation on what makes a song Lutheran. Here's a summary report of that conversation:

What does it mean to sing in a Lutheran key? What is a Lutheran song?
1) A Lutheran song is not restricted to Lutherans alone. What we are defining in a Lutheran song is not exclusively Lutheran, but what ischaracteristically Lutheran. Many of the features we identify in Lutheran songs are also common to other traditions and expressions of singing. Avoiding a vague blurring of Lutheran identity to reach some truncated bottom common denominator, we instead claim that a clear embracing of Lutheran identity is the best way to practice the hospitality of Christ in a pluralistic world.
2) A Lutheran song confesses the faith. A Lutheran song announces the Gospel, through paraphrasing of scripture, interpretation of scripture, a sung sermon, a midrash, or a life story.
3) A Lutheran song is singable. A Lutheran song can be sung not just by the extremely talented, but by the many. Whether the focus in a song is on the strong beat or the offbeat, whether the song moves with a Gregorian or Salsa beat, the goal is to fully engage the singers.
4) A Lutheran song springs from a Lutheran way of speaking the faith. Lutheran don’t claim to have some truth which others do not have. Lutherans point to thetruth, Lutherans relate with the truth, with Christ. A Lutheran way of speaking/singing the faith acknowledges our lack of answers, our weakness and doubts, and includes laments and a cry for justice (i.e. – the theology of the cross). A Lutheran way of speaking/singing the faith finds joy and new life in trust, not certitude; in faith, not sight; in the truth living among us, but not the possessing of that truth.
5) A Lutheran song comes through many cultures but is not contained solely by any of them.
A Lutheran song can come to form through many music cultures – through the styles of classical, country, jazz, blues, hip-hop, pop, folk, ska, Gospel, TaizĂ©, rock, spirituals, etc. A Lutheran song can come to form through many ethnic cultures - Latin, African, Norwegian, Detroit Motown, etc.
6) A Lutheran song is a living event, guided by the Holy Spirit. (This last point came from informal discussions after the panel ended.) A Lutheran song is a living event, best led by a strong song leader. The best written song can be rendered lifeless and without spirit if it is simply played and people are not invited and led. A strong song leader, vocal or instrumental or simply with personality, welcomes people into the song and into the presence of the living Spirit.


  1. Hey Clint!
    Thanks, as always for the blogosphere shout-out.
    Glad to see you're aware of the Lutheran Songs Today project that's been building momentum for the last year or two.
    This weekend in St. Paul at Luther Seminary there'll be another LST event, with another panel discussion on "What Makes a Song Lutheran?" And the Friday night concert will be an astounding gathering of Lutheran contemporary composers, inlcuding John Ylvisaker, Ray Makeever, Lost And Found, JUST ADDED Jay Beech, and the next generation of folks like myself. Never before have all these people been in the same room at the same time. I blogged about it at the link below....thanks again for the online coverage!

  2. Thanks for the post and link!