• Vested Interest

The Closest Thing to Real

Mary Davenport Davis
May 8, 2017

Organist and fellow church nerd David Sinden has written a thoughtful and provoking post on electronic organs and the ways they function as a mirror of our world. On some level, this is fairly inside-baseball stuff. The heated debate between musicians who favor (or at least are resigned to) electronic organs and those who find them execrable can seem abstract and remote for those of us who don't know our Aeolian-Skinners from our Hook & Hastings. I happen to think it's terribly important, though, not just for musicians but for all Christians who care about the incarnation (Jesus as a concrete, living presence of God), our worship together, and especially the future of the church.


David's post touches on the history of the pipe organ, argues passionately for the economics and aesthetics of the hand-built organ, and passionately articulates what is at stake for churches and church musicians in this choice. "This almost goes without saying, but electronic organs aren't real," he writes. "They're simply attempting to copy the sounds that a real organ would make....In the case of the Electronic Organ Simulator, the sounds that seem to be coming from pipes are made by speakers." Electronic organs, he writes, are Fake News. And we as a church must choose the real over the fake.


This can sound somewhat alarmist, particularly if (like me) you're not an organist or even a professional church musician. In post-Christendom America, traditional parishes face tighter budgets and a myriad of urgent needs. One way of thinking about the expense of an organ goes as follows: Isn't it better to have a decent copy of the real thing, a good enough version, at a much lower price? Isn't it ridiculously elitist and even idolatrous to insist that churches must always have the BEST? Shouldn't we put our money somewhere else, toward our staff salaries or flower budgets or, better yet, toward the infinite and desperate needs of the world's poor?


Of course, the financial limits of parishes are what they are. And we know that God does not need to be served in wealth and luxury; we know that wealth and luxury and even beauty can become the idols that keep us away from God instead of pointing us to God's vastly greater richness and beauty. But it seems odd to me that an Episcopal church, strapped for cash, would purchase an electronic organ. It's still not a cheap instrument by any means; and it feels to me like keeping up appearances, as though we are trying to maintain a nostalgic vision of what churches look like regardless of what's actually needed in the church today. It seems to me--here as in other ways--that we are indeed choosing the fake over the real, that we are trafficking in memories of God's presence instead of the seeking the living God. If your congregation's budget will not support the maintenance or renewal of an organ, maybe it's time for a new vision of congregational music. Maybe instead of trying to fake what we used to have, it's time to think deeply about how we can bring the richness of our musical heritage into something new.


Let me be very very clear at this point: I like organ music. A lot. And I don't believe that "a new vision of congregational music" means a slick praise band, or a single acoustic guitar, or dumbed-down hymns with all the harmonies, minor key melodies, and references to blood or sin taken out. I have seen firsthand the extraordinary transformative power of rich, meaty, complex music in worship and in the life of a church. Nor do I think churches which can afford organs have any excuse not to use this most flexible and powerful of instruments in weekly worship. But I think that in trying to preserve our musical heritage by adopting synthetically produced music, we're making a deal with the devil; we're holding onto something we love by letting go of an authenticity and integrity that is essential to Anglican worship and that our world desperately needs.


I happen to be writing this sitting in a Starbucks, and I just watched a woman mix instant oatmeal, brown sugar, and blueberries from three different sealed plastic containers into a disposable cup, then tear the plastic wrap off a disposable spoon to eat it with. I'm not sneering at her--after all, I ordered the sous vide egg bites. This is what healthy eating looks like in America today; and even this level of healthy eating is unavailable to many. Resisting the daily pull of the disposable, the "convenient," and the simulated requires immense energy and vision that most of us simply don't have. We choose what is fake and disposable, not out of preference, but out of exhaustion or poverty or networks of oppression; and we come to believe that two tablespoons of prepackaged blueberries are the closest thing to real that we can get.


As a specialist in digital media, I think about this real/synthetic divide a lot. it's important to me that the church take part in the lively and robust forms of discourse that flourish online. It's important to me to explore how we can share our faith using every medium available. And I'm proud to play a part in bringing pieces of our worship--our choral compline podcasts, our stirring sermons--to those who can't be there in person. But as a liturgist, it's also important to me that we not forget the difference between real things and synthetic things. We are a church that's grounded in the Incarnation, in God's real and concrete presence among us, and our worship needs to bring that home. The real voices of a choir and congregation, even if they can't carry a tune in a bucket, are preferable to any recording, no matter how good. Real, living flowers, even if all we can muster are greens from the side of the road, are always better than fake, because they show us the beauty of God's creation.


What if that's what God wants from us in this generation: to choose what is ugly and real over what is beautiful and fake? (I don't believe that's actually the choice, most of the time; I trust the ingenuity and wisdom of the church musicians in my life to create beauty from whatever God gives us.) But perhaps church leaders--musicians and preachers, laypeople and ordained leaders alike--are called, during this time in our culture, to insist on the value of the real. And perhaps our church's worship could be a beacon and a reminder to God's people, a sign that we deserve better than a simulacrum. What else is worship than a piece of holy truth, experienced weekly, to carry in our hearts through this lying time?


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!