Bonhoeffer and “Disgraceful” Habits in Worship

Deutsch: Gedenktafel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Zio...

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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.

About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on January 31, 2012, in Church, Worship and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I find this post extremely interesting. You know my roots as well as I know yours since we spent a number of our years together as youth at the same church and college. I too have a deep, profound appreciation of music. I was classically trained in music, playing violin and singing in choir in high school and college. I also have a sister who is a music professor at one of our Christian universities and is a few months away from earning her PhD in music. My feeling for the reason Bonhoeffer argues for unison singing is that his ear cannot abide hearing anyone singing off key – even a little bit. It can set a person’s teeth on edge whose ear has been trained to strive for perfect pitch. Unison singing would hide a lot of that. I am assuming the term “bourgeois” was used by Bonhoeffer. His own comments about “bad taste”, “vanity”, “bellowing and quavering” leave me no doubt of his feelings of other singers.

    Over the years I have known and experienced singers as he has described. But I have also softened my feelings about them as I’ve come to realize that there is no way I can determine their motives for singing as they do. Sure, some sing loudly because they want others to hear them and enjoy compliments. Others sing loudly because they are moved by the hymn. Everyone can carry a tune. Some just can’t unload it. As far as how I believe I should react to it, I have to refer to Ephesians 4:1-3. I’m afraid too many of us in the past have paid much more attention to the three verses following and have ignored the first three.

    There is something very powerful about music and the emotions that it can easily stir. Music can calm (lullaby), just as easily as it can cause great tension (horror movie soundtrack) and many other strong emotions in between. God has wired our brains to respond to music and rhythm. A simple search on the internet on the power of music quickly reveals many scientific researches that speak of its great effect on humans.

    Congregational singing is much more than singing praises to God. There have been many a time where I was moved to tears by the music and words of some hymns and brought to mountaintops just as well. Remember “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” being sung at Moody Colosseum? While I am not advocating solos during the worship service, I have been to concerts where the performance by the individual or ensemble was as deeply moving as some worship moments. “Do You Hear the People Sing” – Les Miserables. God does not want us to sing emotionless. “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing.” Ps 100:1-2. Yes, I know there is a difference between witnessing a performance and participating in worship, but sometimes similar, if not the same, emotions are stirred up in both and music is the catalyst.

    I am going to have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Bonhoeffer on this one. Unison singing does not bring out the wonder and beauty of certain hymns. But it certainly would cover up those whom might be found “distasteful” by bringing everyone to the same level.

    • Joel, great to hear from you and I appreciate your comment! Yes, I remember “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” and perhaps a dozen others, especially good old 728b. I really appreciate your insight into the professional musician mindset, it was an angle that I had not considered. However, from the readings that I have by Bonhoeffer I just do not believe that was what he was getting at. From this doctoral dissertation all the way through his last writings Bonhoeffer was concerned about the unity of the church. He saw the professional performance or the exhibitionism of a soloist (intended or otherwise) as being divisive within the worship experience.

      As I have been working through this issue I have wondered how our four part harmony singing has not subtly but distinctly changed our view toward worship. We love the sound of four part harmony, and it does move us to tears or elevate our spirit. My father had one of the most beautiful tenor voices I have ever heard. I cannot sing “When All of God’s Singers Get Home” anymore. I just turn into a sniffling, blubbering blob. But, that being understood, is it the message of the song that is moving me, or the sound of the voices that is moving me, and does it really matter? If it is the sound that moves me, then I am drawn to more and more of a professional worship experience where the un-gifted need to be squelched. And, that is the danger that I am sensing in too many worship services.

      The gift of four part harmony clearly came from God. Only God could have designed the human voice with such amazing range and distinctive sound quality. However, just as with any other gift, the use of the gift is worship, the abuse is idolatry. God gave us food, but enjoying too much food is gluttony. You could even say God gave us wine, but too much wine is drunkenness. And, God gave us sexual enjoyment, but the wrong focus results in pornography.

      I really do appreciate the comment, it adds to the conversation and your point is legitimate. Take care, and I thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  2. barry aebischer

    Have either one of you read “Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement” by Dan Lucarini and if so, your thoughts please?


    • Barry, thanks for stopping by the blog, and especially for joining in the conversation. No, I have not read the piece you mentioned. Is it a book, journal article? How can I get ahold of it? It sounds like an interesting read.

      Thanks again for visiting my blog.


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