The liturgical medium is the message

liturgical medium is the message

Contemporary worship music is often banal.

No matter the content, the form by itself trivializes what takes place in the liturgy.

We keep trying to put asunder what God has joined together—medium and message, form and content—but invariably the divorce does not end well.

I’ll never forget when our kids came home with a new song they had learned at school:

I say Pharaoh, Pharaoh
Oh baby let my people go!
Huh! Yeah, yeah, yeah

Don’t be too hard on the song.

It at least keeps together what belongs together—form and content.

The simplicity of the tune and the part-sensual, part-infantile body motions suit the song’s utter vacuity.

It would be unfair to tar all of contemporary worship with the pharaoh-pharaoh brush.

Still, the form-and-content relationship requires careful theological and metaphysical reflection.

When traditional Calvinist churches switch from the Genevan Psalter to worship songs, it’s not just the form that changes.

Calvinism itself is doomed at that point.

When Anglicans trade their organ-led anthems and chants for band-led praise and worship songs, what is lost is a catholic spirituality that foregrounds reverence and humility in adoration of God.

When Catholic liturgies replace Gregorian chant with evangelical songs, a mystical and contemplative tradition comes to an ignominious end.

The arguments are invariably the same: To be missional means to adapt in form, while remaining theologically the same.

The argument assumes it’s possible to put asunder what God has joined together.

But medium and message cannot be put asunder.

The Genevan Psalter has the five points of Calvinism baked into its tunes; even the organ is indispensable in conveying that God is sovereign and puny creatures are not.

The musical form of Gregorian chant suggests that its words are meant for meditation and contemplation.

Just as monks read Scripture in lectio divina for the sake of mystical union, so they sing Scripture in musica divina as a form of contemplative prayer. “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” just doesn’t do quite the same thing.

The suitability of music for worship does not depend on lyrics alone.

Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

In this book, he coined the expression “the medium is the message.” McLuhan was convinced that we have to think more about the medium and less about the message.


It’s the medium that produces the message.

When you control the medium, you control the message.

We all know that Twitter is not suited to a discussion on the difference between inherent and infused righteousness.

When we put asunder medium and message, we let go of the particularity of liturgical traditions, telling ourselves that what counts is simply keeping the message intact.

The new medium that results is predictable: Liturgical renewals in Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic churches end up looking nearly identical. Continue reading

  • Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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