A few years ago, Stanley Gundry wrote an article, “Hermeneutics or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of Eschatologies?” (JETS 20 : 45–55). In it, he proposed that the church’s eschatological trends have not been established principally by hermeneutics or exegesis but by Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age.” In times of persecution or societal disfavor, the church prefers eschatologies of discontinuity or escape (e.g., premillennialism and even pretribulationism). In times of goodwill and societal favor, the church prefers eschatologies of continuity or progress (e.g., amillennialism and postmillennialism). Gundry admitted that these are generalizations, with every era sporting exceptions—principled hermeneuts who transcend their Zeitgeist—but after he completed his historical survey, his thesis feels remarkably solid.
The lesson? Zeitgeist has a far more powerful influence that we realize when we “do theology” (whether in the classroom or pulpit), and we need to make self-conscious efforts to create distance from our Zeitgeist, standing above it without disengaging from it entirely. We need to apply Christ’s injunction to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15ff) not just to our ethics, but to every aspect of the Christian doctrine and practice. Specifically, I’d like to suggest in this blog post that Gundry’s approach to eschatological trends in the church may also be applied to trends in worship and musical style in the Christian community. Note the following historical generalizations:
- The late nineteenth century was a period of tremendous progress, and the church was leading the way. This was the era of martial hymnody—“Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Banner of the Cross,” “Faith Is the Victory,” and the like.
- The early twentieth featured much societal contradiction. Progress slowed and even reversed during the Great War, but the 1920s featured a roaring comeback that in retrospect we know was counterfeit. The church did the same thing, wishing away the looming fundamentalist-modernist controversy with a battery of impossibly happy, rollicking songs like “He Keeps Me Singing,” “In My Heart There Rings a Melody,” and “Love Lifted Me.”
- The New Deal, the Second World War, and the ensuing recovery was a reality check of sort—a period of necessarily organized rebuilding and industrial development. People united to save the country and then to rebuild it. The same thing happened in the church. The music matched the efforts, introducing new forms of upbeat group-sing. It was the era of ladies’ trios and men’s quartets, and whole congregations learned, under the guidance of dymanic song-leaders, to participate in lively and interactive harmonies.
- The late 1960s and 1970s were a darker time, and so was the music of the era. Cynical and wistful critique in secular music gave way to outright defiance as the youth culture gave up on the perceived hypocrisy of the “establishment”—both political and ecclesiastical. In Christian music, the group-sing of the previous group found gentle resistance in the sad, crooning folk style of the “Jesus People,” then more emphatic resistance in the cacophonous sounds of “Jesus Rock.” The church began to polarize over their favored Zeitgeisten.
- The 1980s and early 1990s represented a recovery from the bleakness of the 1970s. With apologies to Neil Diamond and Keith Green, people wanted something lighter and more perky. We found it in Sandi, Twila, and even an unlikely guy named Patch the Pirate.
- The mood of today’s hymns is harder to classify—we lack the benefit of historical reflection. Perky and light is mostly out, replaced by an odd combination of celebrity and deep-seated but private earnestness. Small group-sing (e.g., quartets and choirs) is also out of favor, replaced with music suitable only to acutely expressive individual performance on the one hand or to provincial unisons on the other. And generational segregation, sadly, has never been greater.
So what’s my goal here? It’s not to defend any one popular style as better or worse than the others (I’ve tried to be an equal-opportunity critic). It’s not to say, either, that older popular styles are superior to newer popular styles. And it’s surely not a statement that contemporary musicians are universally too naïve to escape the clutches of their own Zeitgeist. Instead, my point is the same as Gundry’s: We need to be aware of the powerful influence of Zeitgeist on the production and selection of our music (both in content and in style). Then, having become aware of this influence, we need to privilege musical forms that, irrespective of when they were written, self-consciously offer timeless, transcendent, and other-earthly commentary on our Zeitgeist, rather than transient, provincial, here-and-now expressions of the Zietgeist in which we feel most comfortable. We are in this world, yes, but when the mood of the church’s music matches exactly the mood of the age, we inevitably end up with (1) sharp generational polarization and (2) the troubling possibility that the Christian community has missed the paradox/antithesis that attends our dual citizenship both in this world and in the next.