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Debate over church music is nothing new, authors write

Calvin R. Stapert. A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Mich., 2007. ISBN: 978-0-8028-3219-1. 232 pagesThere always has been tremendous interest in the church in the first few centuries after the time of Christ. Most know a little about the periods of persecution and perhaps even a little about the development of the early apologists. But there is so much more to be learned. What were their daily lives like? What were their assemblies like? What obstacles did they face that we also face? Calvin Stapert, professor of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., attempts to answer these questions by focusing on one aspect of early Christianity — music. Stapert points out that our present discussions (and sometimes conflicts) regarding music and worship are not new but are, in fact, very old.
The earliest Christians struggled with worship and what part music should play in that worship. Stapert believes that a consideration of the issues they faced can provide valuable insight for the modern Christian era.
He argues that, by considering the writings of early Christian thinkers, we can learn important lessons about spirituality and what part music plays in that spirituality.
In the first chapter, Stapert attempts to set the stage for the more in-depth research in the following chapters. This chapter, and the next, read slow and burdensome. While the point being made is clear enough, the reader gets bogged down in repetition of the main point — we need to learn from the past, especially in regard to early Christian music.
Stapert writes, “For a long time now, Christian thinkers have recognized that much of the illness in Western civilization — and in the church as well — can be traced to the Enlightenment and its Romantic offspring.” He contends that this period has negatively impacted modern spirituality so that we give little consideration to Scripture or Christian history. Two reasons are offered on why we need to return to our early roots: First, those early voices have been neglected today and need to be revisited. Second, their thought on music has much to offer the modern mind.
If one can get past the first two chapters, a treasure awaits. Stapert has masterfully woven together bits and pieces of information found in the first two centuries. In chapter three, “The church in a Pagan Society,” he discusses the three most significant events that shaped the church for centuries to come. First, there was the beginning of persecution against the church by the Roman Empire. Second, there was the destruction of Jerusalem. Third, there was the realization that Christ’s second coming would not be immediate, and that the church might have to prepare herself for a long wait.
With these three events in mind, the church focused on survival. Within 100 years, she already had a fixed canon of Scripture. She also had to deal with liberalism and radical interpretations of the New Testament — interpretations that encouraged Christians to become hermits and monks.
Chapters four through 11 are worth the price of the book. Stapert focuses on five early Christian writers: Clement, Tertullian, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine.
He chooses these writers because they contribute to our understanding of music in the early church. Stapert walks us through a brief history of each man, discussing his upbringing and the events that shaped his life and thinking.
It is in these sections that Stapert shines. With these writers there is considerable material, so picking and choosing which stories to tell and which quotes to give can be challenging.
Stapert puts the material together so well that at times you feel like you are reading a novel — a novel so fascinating that you don’t want to put it down. In addition to notable quotations from the fathers themselves, Stapert also draws from a number of modern scholars who help us glean the most from what the fathers are saying.
His research is thorough, and his documentation valuable, for anyone who might want to search out these quotes for themselves.
But the end of each of these chapters is what the book is all about. In view of the difficulties these men faced in the early centuries, how did it impact their view of music in the secular world and how did it impact their view of music in the church?
Again, Stapert manages to bring their thoughts to light in a powerful and insightful way.
In between the chapters about the church fathers, Stapert steps back to consider the events that are shaping the world at large, and how those events directly impacted the church.
In chapter six, “Expansion and Persecution, Triumph and Trouble,” Stapert notes the effect persecution and paganism had on Christianity (and, obviously, on Christian music). He also discusses what the conversion of Constantine and the legalism of Christianity meant to the lives of Christians and for Christian worship.
In chapter nine, “Rejection: The Music of a Pagan World,” Stapert focuses on how Christians in all of the early centuries recognized the need to separate themselves from the music of the pagan culture.
Chapter 10, “Affirmation: Psalms and Hymns,” concentrates on what the church fathers had to say about the context and source of their music. He notes that even though the Christians frequently based their music on the book of Psalms, they sang these songs “completely devoid of instrumental accompaniment”.
The final chapter draws together the important lessons to be learned. If one has been paying attention through the various chapters, there are no surprises here. Still, Stapert does a good job of wrapping up the discussion and making some personal observations of what should be learned, and what benefits the modern church would derive from learning these truths.
For those interested in music, and especially in considering the church music of the first four centuries, Stapert’s book is highly recommended.
Should one be interested in a broader discussion of the history of church music, another book is worthy of consideration: Generations of Praise: The History of Worship, by Bruce E. Shields and David A. Butzu (College Press: Joplin, 2006. ISBN: 0-89900-941-7).
Shields and Butzu briefly discuss the Old Testament background to worship, and then what can be learned about worship in the New Testament. They devote one chapter to the first three centuries, and then continue on through the centuries up to the present.
Their book concludes with an interesting evaluation of present trends in worship in which they detail their own experience in worship. From there, they identify current trends in several denominational groups and offer their perspective on where the corporate assemblies are headed.
This book has a number of notable differences from Stapert’s book. It is not focused just on church music, but on every aspect of worship, such as prayer and communion. It covers all of the history of worship from the early church through each succeeding century. It also discusses current worship practices and trends.
DENNY PETRILLO is president of the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver. He received his Ph.D. in religious education from the University of Nebraska.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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