Bonhoeffer and “Disgraceful” Habits in Worship
To fully understand the import of the quotations in this post you have to understand something about Dietrich Bonhoeffer the person in addition to Bonhoeffer the theologian. Bonhoeffer was born into a rather aristocratic family. His father was an eminent psychiatrist, one of his brothers was a physicist who was working on splitting the atom. To say that this family was “just another German family” would be wrong on so many different levels. And the same could be said about arts within the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich was raised to have an intense love for music, and he could play many instruments, the piano and lute were two he excelled in playing. He was such a gifted and talented musician, in fact, that his family once thought that he would enter the field of music as a profession.
So, do not think that any of his statements concerning music in the worship of the church come from some tone-deaf crank crying “sour grapes.”
In his doctoral dissertation Bonhoeffer objected to the current state of affairs in a “bourgeois” church where there was more of an emphasis on pleasing the crowd than there was proclaiming the gospel. He wrote:
In this case the sermon serves the need to experience something beautiful, learned, and moral during the free hours of Sunday; hence the all too familiar type of sermon, the ‘speech’ in which proof is offered for the literary expertise of the preacher and the corresponding interest of the ‘audience.’ The danger of allowing the church to become a voluntary association is all too obvious here. (The same is true of the disgraceful habit of including individual artistic performances, such as a solo by a professional singer, in the worship.) [from Sanctorum Communio, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 1, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p.273.
Later, in a work dedicated to the communal life of the church he had this to say about congregational singing:
The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing – untouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess – the clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality and autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing….There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together…There are the bass or the alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of its own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally there are often those who will not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community. [from Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p. 67]
I find it very interesting, profoundly so in fact, that here we have someone who is so musically inclined, gifted and talented that everyone who heard him play or sing knew he had the talent to be a professional musician, and when he speaks of congregational singing he insists on unison singing (all voices singing the melody) and specifically against the pretension of having gifted singers emphasize their vocal range, or especially, sing a solo.
Contrast this to the arguments made in favor of using instrumental music, “praise teams” (a term I am beginning to despise with a passion), liturgical dance, or some other form of performance worship in many congregations today. “But how can you deny someone who has been gifted by God the right to exercise that gift?” “We are all supposed to share our gifts to build each other up, and I have the gift of (insert: playing the guitar, operatic singing, liturgical dance, etc). “Having a professional group lead our worship leads to a more dynamic and pleasurable experience – no one wants to hear bad singing.” I could go on. The emphasis is invariably placed on the quality of the singing and the resultant pleasurable experience for those in the “audience.”
As any reader of this blog probably already knows I am a devoted Bonhoeffer student. And, not surprisingly, I believe Bonhoeffer nails it with these comments, among others. Congregational singing is not about the quality of the product, it is not about highlighting someone’s obvious musical talent. If there ever was a theologian who wanted to make that argument it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But, Bonhoeffer knew the purpose of congregational singing – it was to be a unison event in which the entire congregation participated to the glory and praise of God, and to the mutual edification of each member present.
Having been raised in a fellowship that stresses four-part harmony with the occasional very strong lead sections for soprano, alto, tenor and basses, I wonder how the unison only, no four-part harmony idea would go over in the congregations where I have worshipped. This one thing I do know, however: I would much rather worship in a congregation in which only unison singing was encouraged, than in a congregation where a few “gifted” individuals were allowed to perform for the congregation every Sunday.
I find it amusing in a way, and not just a little disturbing, that I find in a Lutheran pastor the kind of dedication toward congregational singing that I also see disappearing from a fellowship that once made that dedication to congregational singing one of its identifiable hallmarks. That is the funny thing about theology. No one group can claim a monopoly on good theology. And, regrettably, bad theology is a common failing of every group.