Monday, December 23, 2013

Minor Music

Christmas music brings out the best and worst of emotions for me. I absolutely love some Christmas songs and find listening to such music during Advent to be an essential part of the season. However, much of what passes for Christmas music is just so bad. Part of the issue is I love minor-key music so all of the over-the-top cheery music begins to wear on my nerves. For some reason it seems that many musicians today think the way to sell a Christmas album is to try and sing all the songs faster than they have ever been previously recorded. Perhaps that fits with the crazy hustle-and-bustle Christmas pace set by the stores, but it hardly seems to fit the season of Advent's waiting and reverence. Additionally, the lyrics of many Christmas songs lack any emotional or theological depth. It is bad enough that so many songs make Christmas out to be just about having a merry time, but even many of the ones meant to be explicitly Christian seems to miss so much of the biblical accounts. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission captured this well as he critiqued the "Holly-Jolly Christmas songs" that permeate so much of Christian radio and church services during December:
Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a "holly-jolly Christmas" or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there's our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the ... "narrative tension" of the Christmas story.
The biblical Christmas story explodes with surprises and rich nuances, but our songs generally ignore such aspects in favor of feel-good lyrics and tunes.

On the first Sunday of Advent this year, we sang the first verse of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" in church. One of my favorite Christmas songs, its minor-key mournful tone perfectly captures the theological longing of Advent. But then we stopped after the first verse, which left me disappointed and wanting more. A couple of days later during a worship planning meeting for the third Sunday of Advent, one of the church's pastors (who likes to tease me since he thinks I am weird for preferring minor-key music) pointed out for me that we would sing three verses of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" that Sunday. "Oh, good!" I injected as I told him how I had been excited Sunday when we started singing it but disappointed that we only covered one verse. He then explained we were adding a verse every week this year to keep us waiting until Christmas comes. Laughing, I added that it clearly worked as I would now be waiting with greater anticipation for the upcoming services. Of course, the problem still remained that Advent has far too few verses to get the whole song! We also sang one of the other good minor-key Christmas carols, "What Child is This?," that third week. I am not trying to be a scrooge (but, while we are on it, at least our Christmas songs do not talk about doing something like "raising my ebenezer"). However, I would love more songs that capture the complexity of Christmas.

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