When you need to relax, here are the songs that neuroscience has demonstrated are most likely to reduce our stress.
This fall our worship series is entitled Reformed as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation with a focus on various doctrines of the Reformation and what they might mean to us today. First up this morning was Soli Deo Gloria--Glory to God Alone. In my sermon prep I was reading about Johann Sebastian Bach, as he signed all his compositions Soli Deo Gloria. When Katie, my Associate Minister, asked if I'd do the conversation with the children in worship, I said I would, "And I'm going to talk about Bach." Here's how that went.
Kids are coming forward and sitting beside me on the chancel steps as I engage in some lively banter with them. Before I can begin in earnest one of the older kids asks about the picture I'm holding, "Is that George Washington?"
"No. This is not George Washington."
"No. It is Johann Sebastian Bach. Have any of you ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach?"
"My last name is Bock," says one of the kids.
"Yes, but he spells it differently. He spells it B-a-c-h." This news is greeted by a grimace. "How do you spell it?"
"See. It's spelled differently." Then other kids start spelling their names.
"Here's another picture. It's an action shot."
"He's playing the piano."
"Actually, it's the organ. Bach composed music. He may be the greatest composer of music ever."
One kid shakes his head. "No."
"Who do you think is the greatest?"
"Okay, I like Michael Jackson too. Let's hear some Bach. Stephen [the organist], can you play us a few lines of Bach?"
Stephen plays the opening of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
"Did you like that?"
One girl, loudly, "No!" A few yeses.
"Is it pretty?" A few nods.
"It's often played at weddings. Have you heard it at a wedding?"
Mr. Michael Jackson Fan says, "I went to a wedding last week."
"Did they play this music?"
"Did they play any Michael Jackson?"
Stephen, the organist, interrupts. "I have another piece they might like better." Plays the opening of Toccato and Fugue, very loudly. Some kids like it. One says he recognizes it. Some laugh. Some put their hands over their ears. And one girl utters a loud, primal scream.
Pastor and congregation begin cackling.
Mr. Michael Jackson Fan, "That sounded like Dracula."
"Yes, that's sometimes played in scary movies. Did you think it was scary?"
No Girl from earlier, "No."
Then I went on to talk about how Bach believed God inspired and spoke through his music and that people could experience God through music.
"What's experience?" Then I tried to answer that.
Then I asked them what are ways they can show the beauty and joy of God in their lives, and they gave good answers.
Practice was over and everyone was in the locker room getting undressed in order to shower. Most awkward when you are in eighth grade. Moreso if you are a nascent gay boy around lots of unruly jocks. Suddenly organ music was playing, and I was confused.
One of my classmates had a giant jam box on the bench where he was changing clothes. The jam box was the source of the organ music. Had organ music suddenly become popular, I wondered? I was a dorky, religious and intellectual kid who had no sense of popular trends. Then, suddenly, the organ gave way to the beats of one of the most popular songs of the moment.
This was the first time I ever heard the album Faith by George Michael (as opposed to the hit single, and ultimately singles, on the radio).
I was raised a Southern Baptist. We were always on guard for religious faith to be mocked in popular culture. We were particularly alarmed whenever spirituality and sexuality were intertwined (Madonna freaked Evangelicals out). So all these impulses and passions were at war when I listened to such popular music.
The decades bring further reflection upon the enjoyable ironies of moment. Here in the most homoerotic of heterosexual spaces--the junior high locker room--I always felt manifestly uncomfortable and most different from my classmates. Playing this sexually charged popular music made me feel even more different. Yet, the cool, popular straight guys were listening to George Michael sing erotic songs. George Michael who later came out as gay.
1996 I graduated from college and that summer I neither worked nor went to school, wanting a break before graduate school--it was the last long break before this summer's sabbatical. Derrek, Ben, and I moved into our Dorothy Street house and most days I mixed reading and housekeeping with hanging out with our wide circle of friends. It was a fun summer.
And according to this brilliant article 1996 was the year that alternative rock died. I, in somewhat of a hyperbolic joke, stated on Facebook that this article made sense of my life in a way nothing else ever had.
A few comments on some of the contents of the article.
My own musical tastes were evolving at this time. I was surrounded by a number of friends with great tastes and broad collections, and they have continued over the decades to influence me.
R. E. M. had been my favourite band since high school, and still is. Though I must admit that in 1996 New Adventures in Hi-Fi wasn't something I rushed out to get.
I was behind-the-curve on grunge and much of the early 90's alternative music. When I was in high school in Miami, Oklahoma it was the era when country stars like Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, and Clint Black were on top. That's what most folk in my high school were listening to. Or, alternatively, Boyz II Men. Only a few odd folks were listening to the stuff from Seattle. It was really in my mid-late twenties that I finally embraced the great music of my adolescence (isn't part of the fun of the 20's those epiphanic moments of discovery or rediscovery?).
In 1996 my roommates were listening to an inordinate amount of The Counting Crows. Because of that I didn't get into them because I was burned out on them. It was years later when I collected their albums, long after I was living alone. And I've got touching memories of "Round Here" and "Mr. Jones" from the turn of the century.
Dave Matthews Band seemed to be the most popular band among the teens I was working with at the turn of the century in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I was into them as well, though I summarily abandoned the ban with the release of Busted Stuff and have rarely since listened to music I listened to often once upon a time.
I didn't fully embrace The Smashing Pumpkins until the early Aughts, when to do so was somewhat sentimental. As I was in full-time ministry the spiritual aspects of the songs resonated with me.
Near the end of the article he discusses the emerging Indie Rock of the late 90's that ultimately replaced the alternative season and fortunately never became mainstream. Tim Youmans introduced me first to Wilco about this time and living in Fayetteville, Arkansas in the early Aughts and working with David Breckenridge (who came there from Austin) acquainted me with the rich indie rock tradition that basically became my favourite genre of music and has persisted so ever since.
I was intrigued by this passage from Otis Moss, III's Blue Note Preaching:
Now remember that Hip-Hop is the first cultural creation that does not explicitly come out of the church. . . . Hip-Hop is standing outside of the church looking in the window because no one is raising questions about poverty and deindustrialized urban landscapes . . . . Young people become the Griot to be able to speak prophetically when preachers said, "We will not speak."
One of the true joys of attending the Festival of Homiletics is the singing. A congregation of ministers who sing loudly and confidently and fill the room with a sound that moves the deep connecting tissues of your body. The Festival also books stellar musicians to lead the worship, including last night where members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir sang of the Spirit.
After a powerful worship experience the schedule included Hymns and Beers at a local saloon. I enjoyed watching a group of pastors raise their beers to the chorus of "How Great Thou Art."
In James K. A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, which I read on Monday, he wrote about the power of congregational singing:
First, singing is a full-bodied action that activates the whole person--or at least more of the whole person than is affected by merely sitting and passively listening, or even reading and reciting texts. Singing requires us to call on parts of the body that might otherwise be rather dormant--stomach muscles and vocal chords, lungs and tongues. And since singing seems to tap into our joints and muscles, song often pulls us into dance or raising of our hands in praise. Thus in song there is a performative affirmation of our embodiment, a marshaling of it for expression--whether beautiful songs of praise or mournful dirges of lament.
A personal eulogy and analysis from Simon Critchley, including this fabulous paragraph:
Within Bowie’s negativity, beneath his apparent naysaying and gloom, one can hear a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all of its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight. For Bowie, I think, it is only when we clear away all the fakery of social convention, the popery and jiggery-pokery of organized religion and the compulsory happiness that plagues our culture that we can hear the Yes that resounds across his music.