Music as Parable | Form and Improvisation
By Dave Yauk
Can thinking through music help us resolve our Worship Wars?
Case #1: The Simple Form of the Regulative
Existing today in churches are basically two approaches to worship. Whether the members in the churches know these terms or not, they most certainly adhere to one approach or the other in practice. First, some churches follow what is known as the Regulative Principle. These are what I call the RED LIGHT worshippers. They believe that God has been prescriptive in Scripture regarding how we should worship him, and anything outside of what is explicitly said in Scripture is a NO GO—stop—RED LIGHT. S. W. Carruthers reiterates this perspective when he says, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at ANY time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” Simple! God’s framework is complete, it’s untouchable, it’s laid out, and it is not to be called into question.
In my book The Tempo of Discipleship I note that “positively, this view does not overcomplicate things beyond God’s Word, and it really tries to govern all of life and worship by God’s Word. It also tries with all its might to honor the Bible and uphold the fullness of its counsel. This perspective also really tries to create a distinction between God’s people (the Church) and the world.” However, a weakness to this thinking emerges in that it separates “gathered” and “scattered” worship. This means that regulative principle adherents begin to apply principles to their services that cannot function in real life.
Case #2: Improvisation in the Normative Principle
The Normative Principle is the GREEN LIGHT principle. It says that anything not explicitly forbidden in Scripture is permitted. Scripture therefore, is more descriptive than prescriptive. This means that if a disciple were to walk into a Normative service, the service would include preaching, prayer, giving, singing, and the like, but may also include other things such as digital media, modern technology in all shapes and forms, and various artful additives.
This view now appears to be complicating things. It’s improvisational, and it holds the most possibility for getting off track Scripturally. However, it does hold strength, in that it allows the worship of God and the truth of God to answer its own questions within a tribal context, an urban context, a country context, or a international context. It allows for the principles to stay the same, but the application to remain flexible. It also treats gathered and scattered worship with equal value. It recognizes that real life has form, but it also has areas of grey, where “matter of fact” is not so clear and clean-cut as we would like it to be. Nevertheless, it can be weak in that it can tend toward deemphasizing tradition, form, and shape, particularly in a gathered worship service where disciples are being formed whether we like to admit it or not.
Music teaches us that Worship needs both the RED and GREEN light…
I believe that music can help settle this worship war! Music has a form (regulative principle) and within that form improvisation can be accomplished (normative principle). Listen to this excerpt from The Tempo of Discipleship:
Jazz and Blues musicians, often known for their intense and colorful presentation, underneath all their looseness hold to what is called a ternary form of A B A. This means that the two A sections contain the same chords and form and switch in the middle with the B section. The Rock or Hip-Hop musician may follow a tradition of sectional form (like verse, chorus, verse, bridge) in which the verses build the thoughts, the chorus expresses the thoughts, and the bridge unites the thoughts and explains the point of the tune. Furthermore, hymn writers use a more strophic form in that every verse is the same, and yet each verse lyrically builds on the next. These forms, although not comprehensive, serve as the rebar around which the artist can begin to improvise, move, and change in freedom even as the base stays solidly the same. This is what enables the Blues greats like BB King and Jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Roy Haynes to improvise with such precision. They are at the mercy of their form. Without the form, their playing sounds like gibberish. With the form, the improvisation comes to life. In the simplicity, the complexity can flourish.
Let’s say the final line again; “in simplicity, the complexity can flourish.” The answer to worship wars is not to find the either/or divide in these two approaches but the both/and. Regulative and Normative principles are made to work in tandem, not in divorce. Like in music, if form and improvisation are separated from one another, they both become logically inconsistent! Once, again, thinking through how music works can help us better theologize about God for the betterment of the church.
Join me in my next post in this Music as Parable series, as we consider the sound and silence elements that make up music’s contents. Considering the by-play in music between the resonance and decay of notes will help us better maintain a balance between work and rest.