One of the most famous images of the United States Naval Academy is not the dome of the chapel, the Tecumseh statue on the Yard or the beauty of Bancroft Hall.
The Men’s Glee Club is, by far, one of the most powerful sights and sounds of an institution that demands physical fitness, fortitude and courage in the face of dangerous enemies. There is no school of music at the Academy (most midshipmen study engineering or some other scientific major), but the USNA’s music department is one of the most respected in the nation—performing to standing room only crowds around the world. They frequently sing for events at The White House, and are always received with honor when they sing for the annual Christmas in Washington celebration and presidential inaugurations.
This is a group who sings with gusto and rehearses meticulously not only “sea songs” and patriotic pieces, but also classical/spiritual literature such as Hassler’s “Cantate Domino” and hymns such as “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” The Navy hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” is a favorite of all—past or present—who serve in the U.S. Naval service. These young men command respect as America’s young scholar warriors, and yet, they are deeply engaged with music for reasons that reveal something about them and something about music.
The USNA Glee Club is a tight bunch. Their friendships are supported by a long and distinguished line of those who sang in the Glee Club while midshipmen. A simple, “I sang in the Glee Club,” closes the span of years and causes old sailors to brim with nostalgic pride for the years they once were able to sing together, “Anchors Aweigh.” The professionalism, leadership and a pride of excellence dominate the group. A certain seriousness marks them in ways that broaden their depth of understanding about many subjects and compels them to work together to represent one another and the institution well.
The idea of a singing sailor gives evidence to the significance of music in general. National anthems are composed; military service songs are written; love songs still move the heart, and entire regions of the country are known for their style of music—such as New Orleans jazz or the Memphis blues. People naturally sing about what is important to them, and the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ has contributed to the musical repertoire over centuries is evidence to the fact that the Christian Gospel is a singable story bearing a capacity of both worship and teaching in a single hymn.
And yet, the hymn is becoming an endangered species among the Church from whence it came. Candidly, much of the music that passes for contemporary Christian music is far more contemporary than Christian. Compared to the theology embedded in the hymn, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken,” and some of the modern praise choruses which simply repeat a version of “Yes” or “Jesus,” proves the fact that so much “Christian” music is little more than one word, two notes, for 30 minutes.
Simply wading into the discussion about music can be both theologically challenging and downright dangerous. On one end of the spectrum, for a pastor to express a desire to incorporate new choruses into corporate worship is to risk his job. On the other extreme, to sing the hymn, “For All The Saints,” would be seen as a throwback to an era that is now out of date. Weighty issues such as preference over substance; medium versus message; methodology over theology are waiting in the wings of the 21st Century Church and must come to the fore of contemporary Christian thought.
T. David Gordon, professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, has once again proved helpful in his latest work, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. It is not a read for the faint of heart, and he is unafraid to expose the shallowness of modern church life all the while commending modern composers (such as Stuart Townend and Keith Getty) for their work of biblical theology with musical excellence. As controversial as it might sound, Gordon believes that the music of the Church reveals the heart of the Church’s understanding of the Gospel and its thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) of worship planning and execution.
It is not enough to simply allow the discussion to remain at a superficial level of mere preference of musical style. “Whenever we choose one thing over another, there must be some reason, some rationale, for determining, at least in that particular circumstance, that the one thing is in some ways, for some purposes, superior to the other,” he writes. With this perspective, everything from interpretive dance to praise choruses to ancient hymns become the subject of scrutiny as to what exactly should be or should not be included in the corporate worship of Christian congregations.
Gordon does not champion the ideas of musical identification and practice simply for the modern notions of “meeting people where they are” or “reaching the young.” He believes that “biblically, the goal of youth is to leave it as rapidly as possible.” Against this backdrop, the music of the church is to accurately teach and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ in such a way that edifies and encourages believers all the while exposing the lost to the majesty and glory of God presented by the Church in worship in ways that compel the truth that God is among His people in corporate worship.
The USNA Glee Club is filled with evangelical young people—some of them raised in Southern Baptist churches. After a particularly rousing and moving concert, the parents of a midshipman, who heard the group their son had joined sing for the first time, remarked, “Why can’t our church’s music be more like this concert?” The young Southern Baptist midshipman responded to his parents, “Because it takes some clear- headed thinking to realize that singing about God is less about you and more about Him. That just isn’t what I learned at church.”
Though not universally true, the indictment stands. The music of the Church must be biblically based, theologically driven, musically singable and stylistically appropriate to honor the One from Whom all blessings flow.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.