- Series: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies
- Paperback: 246 pages
- Publisher: Eerdmans (December 18, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0802832199
- ISBN-13: 978-0802832191
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,203,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies) Paperback – December 18, 2006
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From the Back Cover
Even as worship wars in the church and music controversies in society at large continue to rage, many people do not realize that conflict over music goes back to the earliest Christians as they sought to live out the new song of their faith. In "A New Song for an Old World" Calvin Stapert challenges contemporary Christians to learn from the wisdom of the early church in the area of music.
Stapert draws parallels between the pagan cultures of the early Christian era and our own multicultural realities, enabling readers to comprehend the musical ideas of early Christian thinkers, from Clement and Tertullian to John Chrysostom and Augustine. Staperts expert treatment of the attitudes of the early church toward psalms and hymns on the one hand, and pagan music on the other, is ideal for scholars of early Christianity, church musicians, and all Christians seeking an ancient yet relevant perspective on music in their worship and lives today.
About the Author
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Calvin Stapert is an American professor emeritus of music at Calvin College, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he taught for thirty-eight years. According to academia.edu, Stapert holds degrees in Musicology, Music Theory, and Music History; however, the institutions where he obtained these degrees are not listed. To date he has written five books, all of which are on topics concerning church music in historical context: My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipline in the Music of Bach; J.S. Bach; Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People; Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Hayden; and that which is the subject of this review.
In A New Song for an Old World, Stapert provides insight into the formative thoughts and actions concerning music in the early church through expositions of several historical church founders, with the end goal of applying these ideals in the modern realm. The author states the reasons for writing this book early on, stating his reasons for reaching back to the voices of the early church as being “the least heard today,” and that “their thought on music has particular relevance for us today” (Stapert 7). Based on these two assertions, Stapert begins a compelling dialogue about the pagan culture in which the early church began, using the writings of several church founders as his primary sources.
The first early church character discussed at length is Clement of Alexandria. The author is quick to note that “[Clement’s] writings reveal the breadth of his reading of both the Bible and Greek literature” (Stapert 45). Because of his extensive knowledge of both realms, Clement is able to take cultural ideas and apply them to Christian life. The best example is when Stapert uses Clement’s writings to offer new insight into Plato’s concepts of music mundane (harmony of the universe), musica humana (harmony in and among humans),and musica instrumentalis (organized music with voice and instruments), finishing the chapter by stating that the “close union between the Christian and Christ…is a Christian musica humana, of which even the music of the spheres is but an echo, and of which the best of our musica instrumentalis is also an echo” (Stapert 59). This idea of cosmic, musical harmony becomes the theme on which Stapert builds his conclusion at the end of the book.
To contrast Clement, Stapert includes chapters on Tertullian and St. John Chrysostom. He explains that while Clement was willing to embrace cultural forms of criticism, Tertullian was vehement about abstaining from all forms of pagan practice, particularly in the marriage ceremonies and theatrical productions of Athens (where he lived and worked). The author explains that most of Tertullian’s comments on music have to do with these types of events, and the main point Stapert makes is that Tertullian primarily called for Christian music to look and sound drastically different than pagan alternatives. It’s important to note here that while Stapert places Clement and Tertullian in juxtaposition, he readily notes, “[T]here is little that separates them when it comes to the music they renounced and the music they warmly embraced” (Stapert 75). Stapert is clear that these men both wanted the same thing: Christian music that was as drastically different from culture as the faith which they adhered to. Later in the book, Stapert cites St. John Chrysostom as recognizing the same need for opposition in the Christian way of life. However, Stapert also credits him with offering a functional method of combatting the pervasive music of pagan culture: memorizing psalms and hymns. St. John Chrysostom, whom the author makes clear probably asserted the most vehement polemic towards pagan practices, ushered in a combatant mindset towards rejecting these practices that “resulted in as thorough a transformation of culture as this sinful world is likely to see” (Stapert 148). A chapter that acts as a summary of this first section in the book’s exposition of early church music is a collection of psalms and hymns that have survived from the era, combined with explanations of their use in the time they were penned, and the styles in which they were composed.
The last two chapters of the book deal with modern relevancy; however, the case for relevancy begins with another church father – St. Augustine. To make this connection, Stapert draws from Augustine’s writings concerning elegance and love, explaining that in the current age, the appeal of elegance is higher than ever. Stapert directly applies Augustine’s ideas on the entrapment of elegance and a misunderstanding of the definition of love to the appeals of modern culture. After this discussion, Stapert neatly concludes by adding the two cities referenced in the book of Revelation, Jerusalem and Babylon, to the musica mundane idea, challenging his readers to incorporate the ideals of musical harmony as a whole into their individual devotions and daily lives, and thereby sing a “new song” from Jerusalem in the “old world” they are in.
As mentioned at the start of my summary, Stapert’s goal in writing A New Song for an Old World was two-fold: to provide insight about the formation of early church thought concerning music, and then to use this insight as a template for similar thought formation in today’s church. In short, I believe the author achieved this goal. The insights provided were eclectic, and the references were all highly relevant. I did not get the feeling at any point that I could skim the information, as it all worked to culminate in the final paragraph of each chapter, and finally into the last chapter of the book.
The book’s strengths are a result of its diverse bibliography. The author has done a fine job of gathering pertinent information to create brief biographies of each founding father’s life, and to explain the cultural practices of the time. Although I had studied at least two of the figures depicted, the writing style and sources referenced amounted to an almost personal experience with each founding father. This personal caricature leads to another of the book’s strengths – the in-the-moment feel given to descriptions of second, third, and fourth century practices. By illuminating the characters quoted before inserting their monologue, the author sets up a connection with these ancestors of the faith. Often, this leads to a humorous comprehension of the texts, such as when Tertullian is cited pronouncing judgment on those who dye their hair, claiming “the constant application of any undiluted lotion ensures softening of the brain in your old age” (Stapert 63). These less-quoted moments in history are what instill readers with connection, and I believe it’s quite possible Stapert included these sections to give further clout to his goal of making their arguments have modern application.
Another strength of this book is its careful attention to presenting first-hand accounts of important moments in church history. Rather than providing a chronological narrative of certain events, the author’s formula is to depict the general circumstances and then quote at length a primary source. This of course has its dangers, but as previously mentioned, not one of the citations in the book feels unnecessary or out of place. Perhaps the best example of this strength is when Stapert exposes the assumption that the Biblical psalms and hymns have always been sung by the common people in the church. His response to this is simply to quote St. Ambrose’s account of being held up in the church during Justina’s military attack: “That was the time when the decision was taken to introduce hymns and psalms sung after the custom of the [Latin] Churches, to prevent the people from succumbing to depression and exhaustion.” He goes on quoting Ambrose claiming that “From that time to this day the practice has been retained and many, indeed almost all [churches], in other parts of the world, have imitated it” (Stapert 172). The book’s direct citation of first-person accounts is more than just a strength – it gives the conclusions drawn from them highest authority.
While the book contained strengths that make it worthy of high commendation, it did possess a few qualities that give it characteristics of weakness. The primary characteristic was its organization. A brief look at the chapter titles is enough to suggest that the expositions of the church ancestors are not all together, and reading the book ratifies this notion. For the sake of organization, it might have been better to convert this book from two main sections into three: one for narrative development of the characters addressed, a second for the explanation of cultural practices combined with responses from the church figures, and then the final section centered on modern relevancy. The current organization suffices, but the suggested adaptation would provide the reader with a better chronology than the one presented.
A second weakness lies within the potential for bias based on the author’s age and training. While the scholarship of the author is unquestionable, his high level of musical training suggest a predisposition towards certain musical styles. However, I consider this a minor weakness because counteracted with my own potential for bias as a reader on the lesser end of the age spectrum, I arrived at a common ground with his conclusions, and even with similar musical training myself (though certainly not to the degree the author has achieved). In fact, the entire argument of the last chapter lends itself to the idea that older styles of Christian music are more reverent and lyrically free from heresy, a sentiment that I readily second. Yet, the idea still lingers for me that while the danger of heresy and irreverence exist in the creation of new musica instrumentalis, the creation of it is still pertinent for the modern church. While the finale of this book does not directly forbid this practice, it leaves its readers who are composers with the gravity of their craft heavy upon their brows. Perhaps that is one of the very points the author seeks to make when he writes, “Shouldn’t a composer be cognizant of the ‘God-given order…permeating all things’ rather than being in touch with no ‘reality beyond [his or her] own inventive mind’ or, worse, his or her sentimental feelings” (Stapert 207)?
Along with a new sense of gravity for my craft as a musician, the book also stimulated me in other ways. Admittedly, I’m not as well-read a person as I want to be, although when I do read a book, it’s usually in the academic genre. I finished this book and wrote in the margin, “I need to read more.” Through this book, I was challenged to take a stance on what music I select for my congregation and listen to personally; but more than this, I was challenged to take up the reigns of those who established the church and join in the symphony of life around me. This doesn’t mean that I’m realigning to Mysticism (though the book does make St. Ambrose’ approach to life sound pretty interesting, to say the least) – but it has already made me consider that my following after Christ is really a joining in with the cosmos as we hurriedly work to be fully restored to oneness. The implications of this kind of life are both yet to be determined and partially discovered by those who have done it. This book has taught me, a musician by skill and trade, that following Christ involves learning His new song – one different than that which I natively sing (see Augustine) – and proclaiming it in an old world, “which so desperately needs to hear it” (Stapert 209).
How did we arrive on that opposite shore? That is the story of this book. Read it and you'll recognize, for what it is, the poor taste that too often masquerades as "good" church music today. That said, the book neither chides nor preaches. Rather, it offers a hopeful vision that is rooted in the present and in the loving heart. As to devotional and church music, the book summarizes Patristic teaching: "It [music] is a joyful response to the works of God, stimulated by the Word and the Spirit, it is sung to God and to each other, with the saints and angels and all creation."
The book's many quotations from the Church Fathers are not merely informative but devotional, and deserve a five-star rating for this alone. I especially value the quotation from Augustine's "Expositions of the Psalms": "With this in mind the apostle exhorted Jerusalem's citizens to sing canticles of love and to arouse their longing to return to that most fair city, to that vision of peace; 'Sing hymns and psalms in your hearts to the Lord,' he tells them (Eph. 5:19). What does he mean by 'sing in your hearts?' Do not let your songs be inspired by the place where you are now, by Babylon; but sing from where your hearts are, sing as from your habitation on high."