My wife had a Bible club in our home fifteen years ago—unchurched junior high kids from our neighborhood. And they were excited about going caroling with us one December except for one thing—they didn’t know any carols.
“Frosty the Snowman,” they knew. They knew that Grandma got ran over by a rain deer, too. But no “Silent Night.” No “Joy to the Word.” No actual carols.
The music teacher at their school was a Baptist pastor’s wife already bound by school policy about mixing religion and education. I’m sure she had plenty of carols to teach—if only she could. And since then it has only gotten worse.
I thought of this when I read Paul Tice’s excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “The Christmas Pageant as a GapKids Ad.” Tice chronicles his own experience over 20 years with his children in school, as Christmas pageants became Holiday Concerts.
Some religious music was allowed at that time, but only if sung in Latin or French Creole—and only if balanced with songs about every other holiday between Thanksgiving and New Years, no matter how obscure. Perhaps this is the best we could hope for in a pluralistic society like ours.
But now, even Holiday concerts, perhaps too close to “Holy Day” concerts, have morphed into Winter Concerts. “The theological became meteorological,” Tice writes. Even Santa was dropped, given his troubling association with the 4th century Saint Nicholas. Eventually all you have is ice-skating and sleigh-riding penguins and snowmen.
The colors even changed as green and reds became monochromatic greys and silver, until the winter concerts became more a celebration of the winter solstice, with Druidic overtones.
You should read the essay, which concludes this way:
Much of the music is simply bad: mindless melodies and meaningless lyrics, whether saccharine and syncopated or somber and staccato. To ignore the significant body of church music composed to celebrate Christmas—from English carols to Bach cantatas to the full oratorio of Handel —borders on musical malpractice, even if it is motivated by fear of the ACLU. No matter how technically well-executed, Broadway show tunes and “Glee” versions of pop standards will never inspire hope, goodwill and renewal.
And hope we need. And music.
I was preaching last week at our church and ended the service with the London Philharmonic Symphony’s “Unto us a Child is Born” from Handel’s Messiah. We sat in silence as the rich music filled the sanctuary. You could see some older people singing, as well as a few younger people fortunate enough to have classical training in private schools.
But I’m sure our Bible club students from 15 years ago would have been bewildered, as I’m sure many of those under 30 were that day. And this is a pity. A tragedy, really.
Speaking of the human heart, and of this very sort of education, C.S. Lewis once wrote, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
To separate a generation from its cultural heritage is to spawn a people devoid of their roots, deprived of their esthetic, and divorced from their values. I’m not saying if we sang a few Christmas carols our politicians would quit lying and our celebrities would quit fornicating. I’m just saying we have gained nothing in this way and have lost a great deal.
No wonder we long, with the ancient Hebrews and with Handel, for a day when “the government shall be upon His shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
I’ve argued before that churches have a unique opportunity to assist families in basic literacy, which could include musical literacy.