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Is It Time for Spanish Adventist Music to Rock?

“Rock music is evil, it comes from the African spiritualist rhythms and a Christian should not listen to it.” The first time I heard such a declaration was the summer of 1998, in the Adventist Seminary Schloss Bogenhofen, Austria. In my church of Barcelona, Spain, music was hardly an issue. Of course, there were some who said that certain types of music were harmful, even with subliminal messages if played backwards, but music never made its way to our public sphere.
Eleven years later, specifically in Valencia, Spain, starting December the 4th and continuing for four days, the Spanish association of Adventist university students and graduates, (AGUAE) celebrated its 35th convention, this time addressing the issue of music. And fortunately, it was discussed with such rigor and honesty that declarations like the one that opens this post would not have stayed in tune.
Instead of a list of dos and don’ts, the theme was broad reflection on the youth congress theme: “Music in the Life of the Christian.”
Given that attendance included 160 registered attendants with more than 250 persons on Saturday, half of them younger than 35 signaled that the topic of music was not chosen by chance. The question of “music” has become a hot issue in Spanish Adventism.
Álvaro Calvo, director of the Spanish Adventist music school J.S. Bach, based in Sagunto, published last July a post about adoration in the Spanish Adventist church with the headline “Lord, teach us how to adore”. Among others, he pointed out the need to worship with “different songs sung in a new way” and emphasized saying that “we need to renew urgently our chants”.
Calvo, as well as the former J.S. Bach school’s director, Adriana Perera, are fully convinced that the music we play in church requires an update. Thus, six years ago, they started an ambitious project with the Adventist Spanish Union (UAE) in order to provide every Spanish church with new hymnals filled with contemporary Christian music. Due to several problems, which are unclear, it is not finished yet. The Union says it is going to be ready by 2010, this time for real.
Last November, we Spaniards received the Nuevo himnario adventista para jóvenes, a coproduction by the Adventist publishing houses ACES, APIA and Pacific Press. Over time, this new hymnal will replace the current hymnal which was last revised in 1962.
In addition to these publications, there are several other factors that made a conversation about music and worship timely, if not essential.
The first one is a new generation is seeking guidance. Youth born between late 80’s and early 90’s do not enjoy the music played in the Spanish church. They speak English; their parents do not. They carry their mp3 players full of Gospel and contemporary worship music, among others, and they want to sing these styles of music when adoring the Lord. There are already some churches that have included these style in some of their services.
The second one is that the current generation in control has seen the native Adventist membership decline in the last fifteen years. Without immigration, the Union would have been closing churches. On the other hand, these very same parents perceive that singing 17th century chants is not the best way to give an incentive to their children to remain in the church.
The third and final aspect is immigration itself. During the last 10 years, Spain has received five million of people from Latin America, Europe and North Africa. If in 1998, foreign population in Spain was just a 1.6% of the total, nowadays it represents 12% of 46 million inhabitants. Of course, our churches have been impacted by this, but in even more significant ways. Among the around 15,000 Adventists now present in Spain, more than a 60% are immigrants coming from South America and Romania. South Americans say that we, Spaniards, sing with a lack of joy. Romanians accuse us of a lack of reverence.
This explains why, where possible, congregations have been split up into cultural groups and, where not possible because of a lack of money and/or membership, coexistence is a challenge, and music the bone of contention. The fact is that when, for instance, drums are used in the service, most conservatives stand up and leave the church because they do not want to be part of the “blasphemy.” At the same time, the musicians who see them leave call them “fanatics.”
What lies behind these attitudes and behaviors is known very well by anyone familiar with Adventism.
In this context, AEGUAE invited five musicians to discuss the topic of music in our church: the already mentioned Calvo and Perera, along with Wayne Bucknor, María José Jimeno and Arturo Balué. All together delivered six talks and four workshops that made us reflect and debate about adoration through music.
Bucknor, a teacher at Oakwood University, musician, composer and music minister, gave some advice on how to manage a music ministry in our churches. Jimeno, an Adventist Spanish singer-songwriter joined with Perera did a workshop music composition. Balué, a student of modern music and a guitar player in several christian music groups, offered a workshop to help incorporate and improve the guitar‘s role in our church service.
Perera, a current professor at Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama, is both a musician and a composer. She stated that the Bible has more than 500 references to music and that if we study them, we can conclude that music, in the context of worshiping God, is a means to reflect Jesus.
“Jesus has always been the center of adoration”, Perera pointed out. She explained that Jesus as God is both transcendent and immanent. His double condition can help us comprehend the different musical manifestations given throughout history.
Catholics and Anglicans, for example, have produced music towards God’s transcendence while Evangelicals and Pentecostals have preferred to focus their worship on His immanence.
From the beginning, according to Perera, religious music has tried to dissociate itself from secular music. As early as the 6th century, Pope Gregory I set the rules for Christian music. Gregorian chant, for example, aims for a feeling of restraint. It promotes contemplation and tries to move us away from the worldly. It has no instruments because back at the pre-scientific time when it was defined, existing instruments were associated with hypnotism.
Later, Luther, inspired by already existing folkloric melodies, created what is known as the Lutheran Choir. Even though his songs were not used in mass, they were sung during weekly meetings. Luther’s intention, said Perera, was to change doctrine by changing the liturgy. It is said that priests feared his songs more than his preaching. Luther changed the music because he want to change his culture’s aesthetic, theological, philosophical and social ideals.
Nowadays, if we observe our current prospects, we see two factors we may take into account. On one side, we have to admit that contemporary religious music still carries medieval guidelines. On the other side, it is being said that technology has demolished the barriers between popular and educated music.
In light of this evidence, Perera rejected the need for a list that demarcates music. Instead, she said, “when we love God and we are willing to adore Him in spirit and truth, we may not need any list that contains what we can and we cannot do”.
However, Perera reminded us that sometimes theory is easier than practice: “in the United States, 85% of the churches have been torn apart during the last ten years due to worship issues.” As noted earlier, this is also a cause for division in the Iberian Peninsula.
Touching more on music’s cultural aspects, Calvo, also a musician and composer, said, “In Spain, Latin-Americans emphasize rhythm, Romanians pay much attention to harmony and Spaniards are crazy about melodies.” That said, he emphasized, that “we cannot forget that rhythm, harmony and melody constitute songs.”
Something similar seems to have happened back in the New Testament times when we read that we should adore God with psalm, hymn, and spiritual song. Psalms come from the Jewish tradition; hymns come from the Greek tradition, and spiritual songs, which might have come Barbarian or Arabic traditions. These all came from different cultural sources, but they shared a common goal: to praise the Lord.
Calvo advocated for a clear separation between secular and religious music but rebuked any intention to declare some instruments moral and some immoral.
Doubts and questions were discussed by a panel chaired by Bucknor, Calvo and Perera. In this meeting it was said that we should not label any music as evil just because of its origin, as we sometimes do with African music. It was noted, as well, that Art History shows us how art generally evolves, moving between reason and feeling and vice versa, like a pendulum. Today, we find ourselves with an inherited Anglo-Saxon music, which put a lot of weight on reason, living as postmoderns, we are more interested in emotions.
But AEGUAE’s last convention not only reserved time for theory and practice. It dedicated some time to enjoying music. On Saturday night, the J.S. Bach Choir and Orchestra delighted us and the next night, Bucknor took us to heaven with a tremendous piano recital.
Worship music was played by the NTM group. With drums, bass, guitar, keyboard, piano, violins and voices, NTM performed the music that may well be the rule in Spain in ten years from now: North American worship translated into Spanish. Of course, there were some who stood up and left the room outraged. Nonetheless, those who stayed with an open mind left Valencia with the joy and peace of the One, know through truth and through spirit.

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