What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us about Church Music Styles

As my church moves toward merging its two divergently styled worship services, a few people are wringing their hands over how we can combine the hymns of the early service–they actually don’t sing very many hymns now, but don’t tell anybody–with the cutting-edge nature of the later service–which isn’t really that cutting edge.

People have probably fretted about church music since Bach was “contemporary” and people in the pews pined away for Gregorian chant. I recall a devout old woman from my former church who declared that “guitars aren’t sacred,” unaware that people in a previous age had said the same about the organ she played.

As we consider this, let’s look at John Everett Millais’ famous painting, “Christ in the House of His Parents.” (Click the image for a much larger view.)

What does this painting have to do with church music? Consider what Charles Dickens had to say about the composition:

In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.

What Dickens missed or simply ignored was the symbolism and thought behind this painting. Yes, that “blubbering, red-headed boy” had received a poke in the hand. Interesting, the position of that wound, isn’t it? And the nails seen over both shoulders–are they coincidental?

The Mary of the painting, while not an idealized woman, can scarcely be called “horrible in her ugliness” nor does her neck seem unnaturally positioned.

In allowing his vocabulary to play havoc with the reality of the painting, Dickens ignored the dove perched above Jesus’ head, the slightly older boy (John the Baptist?) bringing (baptismal?) water to the scene, and the blessing-like position of Jesus’ wounded hand.

What Mr. Dickens should have said was simply, “This painting is not my cup of tea.” What worshippers, faced with changing music styles, should say is, “That’s not exactly my cup of tea.” Such a judgment is perfectly acceptable. The reality, of course, is that we can learn to worship in many styles if we focus not on the means of the worship (or the style of the painting) but on the object of the worship, that “blubbering, red-headed boy” who grew up to carry the sins of the world onto a Roman cross.

Whether guitars are sacred or not, if they sing about Christ and him crucified, they sing truth.