By Daniel Thomas, Church Musician
I write this while in New York at a conference of theatrical producers (I am the Executive Director of 42nd Street Moon, a musical theatre company in San Francisco). One of the topics that has been a focus for us is the revival of older shows for modern audiences – in particular, shows that, in light of changing attitudes and acceptances towards race, gender, and sexuality, could be perceived as difficult, not in line with our current sensibilities and/or beliefs, or even worse, offensive or oppressive. Many of the shows that are discusses are considered “classics” and are well-loved by millions of people – to the point that many of the questionable content may not even register with a lot of people. As an example, even musicals that are currently receiving major Broadway revivals, such as “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady,” raise questions about empowerment, gender balance, and patriarchy that, when viewed through the prism of current events and mores, make those pieces look a bit antiquated or even regressive. A question that gets repeated is: how do we honor the legacy and craft of a hundred-plus years of theatre (and allow us the opportunity to hear some of the greatest music ever written) while recognizing that these are products of the time in which they were written, and often no longer reflect the world that we live in?
This reminds me of a struggle with our Lutheran musical traditions that we have, especially as we look at Reformation and Christ the King. We have hundreds of years of hymns that use the language of war and patriarchy – and yet, millions of people, if asked to think of their best-loved hymns, will give you “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “A Mighty Fortress is our God” or other such pieces. Often it’s simply because that’s the familiar – we heard these songs countless times in the churches of our childhood, and so they are inexorably tied to the development of our faith, and the language and words may no longer register (or may never have) as problematic?
So how do we balance the desire for the familiar (and often beautiful) music that is part of our faith tradition with the necessity to grow in our inclusiveness? Is it enough for us to excise the language of violence, or to play (as an online detractor put it) “pronoun police” with references to God? Or, will we find it necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and to simply focus on the breadth and depth of music that is being written in current generations? And will be asking the same or similar questions about these pieces 20 years from now?
I am not going to pretend to have any answers to these questions, although I love having the discussions. That said, spoiler alert: you’ll be hearing “A Mighty Fortress” in service on Reformation – just the music, though, not the words, as I think it’s a beautiful and timeless melody, and, for better or worse, because it represents a fundamental part of our history and tradition as Lutherans. I hope that all of us can have honest, open, and loving discussions about the parts and process of worship as we continue to move forward with the light and grace of God.