Music in American Religious Experience

The American Organist, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Music in American Religious Experience


MUSIC IN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, Philip Bohlman, Edith Blumhofer, and Maria Chow, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 350 pp. ISBN 0-19-517304-X. $29.95. Music in American Religious Experience is an unmistakably contemporary product. A quick glance at the credentials of the dozen-and-a-half chapter authors immediately betrays the deeply seated interdisciplinarity of thought at hand. As though by premeditated design, each contributor works at the intersection of at least two disciplines. And it would be naïve to assume those intersections to be merely music and theology.

Martin Marty puts it best in his foreword (as the dean of American religious studies scholars ought) when he asserts that "this book . . . acquires its distinctiveness by focusing on experience." The fullness of experience, we know, transcends any single discipline.

The contributors, then, given a common starting point in the musical manifestations of religion, are free to whack at that goulash known as American culture, American society, or even American history. That is a broad target, especially when painted in the strokes of ethnic American life both old and, especially, new. America, like the universe of the Big Bang, continues to expand after all. That expansion brings with it new customs, new aspirations, and new songs.

But tile lens of these editors is also plain: what is least at the heart of these essays is what many would comfortably call the "mainstream." The editors represent evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Asian scholarly interests-not the stuff of the clubby religious mainstream. This is not, therefore, yet another collection of screeds about European music in formal American "wanabee" settings. It is not the caricature of British cathedrals, French metropolitan parishes, or florid Roman basilicas that we often imagine to have formed our mainstream. Nor is it about the Americanization of these idioms and influences as with the American wing of the Liturgical Movement, or the helter-skelter of post-Vatican II days, or the (still) hidden and underappreciated genius of the American lyric liturgical composers (and if you must ask who, then you are already set free of the terrible bias that Music in American Religious Experience works to overcome-but if curious, read the list of contributors to The Hymnal 1982, or Worship, third edition, or The Lutheran Book of Worship).

So the starting points here are the Billingses, not the Bachs, the Iveses, not the Howellses, the Thomas Dorseys, not the Dupres. But the essential vocabulary of this work, though perhaps applied somewhat calculatingly, is comfortably familiar: "tradition," "community," "vernacular," "family," "culture." "Art," for all it connotes and aie faces it assumes, is far less in the foreground.

By Philip Bohlman's own admission, the editors struggled with the nature of "American religious experience" and what he terms "the problem of its singularity and plurality." And so singularity and plurality also hints at another common interest of these scholars-that is the " everydayness of religion in America." Such "everydayness" denotes less the entrenched routine of faith in daily life than the traits of unexceptional life that religious practice, ritual, and form has absorbed. No wonder then that religious customs in imitation of European life, especially that of past centuries, increasingly engenders suspicion and encounters the sharp blade of revision. Take note, for the organ itself, for all we say and do here, still signifies for most Americans an isolated artifact of an alien culture.

Thus, scholars like Stephen Marini, professor of religion at Wellesley College, and Otto Holzapfel of the University of Freiburg, who respectively outline sources in evangelical and Lutheran hymnody and hymnals, can conclude that their traditions have been "historicized." For instance, the references to German hymn sources in the Lutheran Book of Worship reflects less the reclamation of pure foundations and unadulterated tradition than the common indexes of song bridging American worship. …

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