Posted by: chuckbumgardner | November 21, 2009

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World, Part 1

A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

I mentioned this book before, having only dipped into it a bit here and there.  I had a chance to read it last week and wanted to post more about it.

Stapert explores the writings of the early church fathers — particularly Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom — digesting and summarizing their take on music.  The first chapter gives his rationale for the book, opening with a quote by Karl Barth:

Are we at liberty to ignore the past?  Do the great teachers of the Church . . . not possess a — certainly not heavenly — but, even so, earthly, human “authority”?  We should not be too ready to say, No.  To my mind the whole question of tradition falls under the Fifth Commandment: Honor father and mother!  Certainly that is a limited authority; we have to obey God more than father and mother. . . . There is no question of bondage and constraint.  It is merely that in the Church the same kind of obedience as, I hope, you pay to your father and mother, is demanded of you towards the Church’s past, towards the “elders” of the Church. (1)

An interesting quote, to be sure, and if it goes too far in assigning an obligation to follow the fathers, it does on the other hand guide us away from a temporal self-absorption and gesture toward the valuable insights left us from time past.  Stapert capitalizes on this notion, noting that “by ignoring her past, the church, in the words of D. H. Williams, is attempting ‘to stand tall without the deep roots of its history'” (4).  He quotes Loren Mead in this regard as well: “When the new way is considered the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine'” (4).  If you’ve read C. S. Lewis’s “Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,” you’ll find Stapert’s first chapter to be in much the same vein, focusing of course on music. (And if you haven’t read that Lewis essay, you really should — just follow the link on the sidebar under “Resources”.)

In regards to musical thought from the church’s past, Stapert rightly notes that “we have ignored all but the latest installments of a conversation about music that has been going on for centuries” (7), and his book is an attempt to introduce us to some of that conversation.  His teaser in the introductory chapter is that he will demonstrate that “the church fathers, despite their differences, show a remarkable consistency in their views on music, regarding both what music they rejected and denounced and what they affirmed and promoted” (11).


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