Whose story?

Published in Movement magazine issue 113 January 2003

Since recorded music was invented a century ago, all kinds of music have become available to all of us. For the first time in human history, we can have any music we want, whenever and wherever we want. We choose from the greatest variety of music available to any society in history. But our choices are largely determined by which story we want to put ourselves into. Every genre of music embodies and evokes its own story of social and personal identity. In listening we take part in those identities, even if only in imagination. Rejection of music is often about rejecting the identity it weaves.

But if music embodies life-story, what about the music in church? Whose story does the music in your church embody - your own, or someone else's? If someone else's, whose? Thinking in terms of life-story takes us beyond the usual arguments over 'good' and 'bad', 'contemporary' and 'traditional', and helps us see why musical style and change are such fraught issues in churches. The music we use in church can be a potent representation of our story to God. If the music does not represent us, belongs to another story, we could be alienated at the point where we most need connection.

The story embodied in our chosen music is often an inner story that circumstances will not allow to be expressed in any other way. If this is so it's all the more important for us to use that music in our dealings with God, for honesty and freedom's sake. If we can do this, church becomes a space of liberation, where our hidden selves can be expressed to God and to one another. We can recover our sense of who we are, and find strength to resist the pressures to be otherwise.

But the musical menu available in most churches is very limited by comparison to the world outside. The music itself isn't necessarily bad, but the chances are it's alien both in style and in the way the music is used. In limiting the forms of music that are permitted, churches limit the life-stories that are permitted expression. Often it has been forgotten that every story was someone's story at some time in history, and churches lapse into essentialism, saying this story is the only story for Christians, and to be a Christian you must walk in it. In cultures where there are few musical stories this may suffice as an argument, but in our own culture we are aware of a great many musical stories, and have already placed ourselves somewhere among them as a part of our growing up.

Story isn't necessarily about following a single genre. Mostly we weave several, and creatively appropriate music from seemingly different storylines into our own. Nor is it just about musical style, which is why Christian substitutes 'in the style of' don't always work. We expect artists to live up to the stories embedded in their music - in short, credibility. It's been said that the job of the artist is to go through extreme states on our behalf, so that we can work through these things vicariously and survive. If so it's no wonder that 'Christian' exercises in decency and moderation fail to heal us.

In the light of all this, churches need a much more complex approach to music than they have generally demonstrated. Music in this context is a means of communication and expression between ourselves and God. If the music we use in church represents us then communion with God takes place within our own story. And since the music of our own story runs throughout our lives, when we discover how to make communion with God in it in one place it can, potentially, be a vehicle for communion with God anywhere, anytime else. Church is no longer an event outside our storyline, but an event within it.

I've discussed the issue of life-story in terms of music, because music is its most potent carrier in our society, and we all understand the dynamic. But it's worth asking the question of all aspects of church, the liturgical, the visual, the theological - whose story is this? If not mine, whose? Can I take it for my own, or would it be a charade? And what would it look like if re-embodied in my story?