Urban Hymnal Review

While the cat's away, the mouse (who is a dweeb) will blog. Angel's at work, so I've got a few moments this holiday season to post some thoughts. I thought I would write on the "Urban Hymnal" experience on which I posted previously.

If you're like me, the name "Urban Hymnal" draws to mind a rapper singing songs about lovin' Jesus, or possibly the old Verve album that had "Bittersweet Symphony" on it (which was called "Urban Hymns"). Nothing really attractive in either of those, but the good news was that it wasn't really like either, either. It was a sort of self-consciously post-modern take on a compline-y service. That is, it was music and readings and projected images, and a giant ball of yarn on the altar of St. Mark's Cathedral, all put together and presented by a group called "Urban Hymnal". The band was really pretty good--good musicians, their original music had it's moments of beauty (bouncing off the Cathedral walls), and their "covers" of old hymns were pretty. The Cathedral was full on a Friday night, which is saying something as well. I'm not sure who these people are, or where they come from, but they're undeniably good at promoting (this was their first concert, or service, or whatever you'd like to call it).

I have to admit that my initial response wasn't entirely positive--my first comment after the service was "I think that made me a little more Anglo-Catholic". For those of you who don't know and don't care, I was suggesting that all of this "contemporary post-modern worship" mumbo jumbo made me long for the old days of structured liturgy, smells and bells. I should explain that response though, because it shouldn't be taken entirely as an indictment of the service. The service did in fact get me thinking about music and art, and the way it's used religiously, and I really do think I had a bit of an epiphany in that I am in fact more Anglo-Catholic than I had previously realized.

In some sense, this is because I'm a reactionary. Here's a short history of my religious music experience: I grew up with hymns in an evangelical protestant church, and then moved on to the saccharine praise songs of mega-church worship and Christian Rock. After that, I started branching out into less-skillfully performed (though maybe more sincere) praise music in Evangelical Anglican worship. Then it was back to the hymns of Anglo-Catholic Worship, and now I'm mixing it up, going to churches that use "secular" music as worship, hymns, "praise music" and various combinations of the three. The worst part of my religious experience occurred during the "saccharine" stage of my musical life, so anything that smacks of that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's like listening to a song that was playing when a girlfriend dumped you, or something. Because that's the case, the music that seems "holy" to me is primarily either "secular" (that is, not produced for church) or ancient/classical in form. The point I'm making here is that "Urban Hymnal" did smack of "Christian Music" to me--which of course isn't illegal, and doesn't mean their music was necessarily "saccharine", but it did inevitably color my experience. So, I realized during the service that I've got a lot of the Anglo-Catholic in me, which I hadn't thought before.

So, what's the point of all of this? Urban Hymnal was, for me, an effective post-modern worship service: It didn't entirely makes sense, because it wasn't in a clearly recognizable "worship" format (Read my friend Blaire's largely negative post on the service here), and it didn't provide me with some sort of subjective touchy-feely "experience of God". Rather, it got me asking questions about the meaning of music, and the definition of sacred. Also, it had a giant ball of yarn on the altar--apparently senseless, definitely abstract, and thoroughly post-modern. Does that mean I liked it? I don't know. I think so, all in all. Does it mean I'd go again? Probably, because I want to see what they'll do next. Was it a refreshing change of pace from both church and "secular" musical performances? Yes, probably so. Was I more inspired there than at the Holiday Party with friends I went to afterwards?


Zadok said…
So many great insights here; thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Urban Hymnal... and you pegged us--we really don't know what we're doing.