Saturday, September 26, 2009

Should LCMS Sell KFUO?

There are rumors going around that the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod is looking for a buyer for its flagship radio stations, KFUO-AM and -FM.

Personally, I could care less what happens to KFUO-AM. I haven't listened to it once since "Issues, Etc." departed. But I hope that, if KFUO-FM is sold, it will continue its excellent classical-music programming. Nevertheless, I think it would be a bad idea for the Missouri Synod to shed its "Classic 99" band. Why?

Not for the reason many people would cite. I don't think it particularly matters whether KFUO-FM incorporates Christian outreach into its programming. There are church-related programs on it, and I applaud them. But my concern is that too many people assume there is something off-color about the Lutheran Church owning a classical station. My concern is the assumption that classical music, as such, is not the church's business.

In my not-too-humble opinion, it is important for the church to promote the fine arts, particularly art music. It should encourage people, especially its own members, to make a habit of taking time out of their busy lives, time for beauty. Our nation's culture, and our church's culture especially, needs to be enriched with more beauty. We would benefit as a society and as a church if more people spent more time and money supporting, appreciating, and (so far as they are gifted) creating beauty.

This flies in the face of the Calvinistic "Protestant Work Ethic" that is so deeply woven into our national character. This Washington Times story illustrates the clash between the American work ethic and the quest for artistic beauty. Many people actually feel guilt over the stolen moments spent looking at beautiful things, or pausing to listen to beautiful music. Martin Luther, on the other hand, would probably say that musical beauty is worthwhile for its own sake. He would take a stand on Christian freedom. And I think Luther would agree with the motto of the classical period: "True joy is a serious thing."

When we give and receive joy through the beauty of hard-won artistic excellence, we make ourselves and each other better human beings. And when we include those pieces of beauty in our worship time and worship space, we bear witness to ourselves and others that our God deserves only the best sacrifices. And the witness borne through such masterpieces is the more potent and lasting because it reaches more deeply into the heart and mind.

What is the witness our church is bearing now? Look at the structures we are building: brutally functional and militantly unbeautiful. Look at the throwaway music that is filling more and more of our worship hour: its value as a commodity (whether it is worth paying for copyright licensing) is measured in terms of its immediate effect on the audience, not on its enduring perfection and artistic beauty. The Calvinist emphasis on industry, productiveness, and profit is evident in these choices. Meanwhile an investment in true joy, true beauty, is too widely regarded as an indulgence in fripperies, a waste of God-given resources.

Again, I think Luther would view the issue otherwise. Martin Luther spoke of music being the greatest gift of God beside the Gospel, and of the two combining into something incredibly powerful. Even if there is no direct combination, even if (for example) a classical radio station does not directly address itself to spreading the Gospel, it still has divine mission. It can instill a sense of freedom to enjoy the good things God has created. It can challenge listeners to invest in beauty, to strive to create it, to spend time experiencing it without feeling a burden of guilt for "wasting" that time, and to fill the world with beauty.

I also think Christ would differ from the Protestant Work Ethic, especially as it applies to this case. He spoke with withering scorn of the upright, uptight people - priests and Levites in his parable - who hurried along the road, going about their business, choosing not to notice the injured man whose plight called out for a demonstration of neighborly love. One needn't be wounded to the point of death to need neighborly love. Ethically, culturally, spiritually, many in our present generation are starved. Starved for an expression of God's love that reaches deep inside them. Starved for an instant of beauty that reflects the Creator's goodness. Starved for an alternative to the artistic fast food, the theological junk food, the industrially-processed soul food you can take home and heat up in minutes in the solitude of your own home.

If the church continues to support that kind of diet instead of the serious thing, the true joy, it will sooner or later make itself redundant. Who needs to drag yourself out of bed on Sunday morning to hear an amateur pick-up band cover Michael W. Smith songs when you can lie in until noon and then listen to a CD of the real thing over instant coffee and the funny papers? Who needs to tithe a percentage of your income to a pole-barn full of pop-psych platitudes when you can catch Oprah on your rabbit-ears for free? Who needs to go to a mega-church when you can find everything they have to offer on TV, in the Gospel music section at Walmart, and on the Inspiration shelf at Borders? When the only meaningful alternative to staying at home and "doing religion" by yourself is to apostasize little by little, what do you suppose most people will do?

But the church can offer another alternative: excellence in doctrinal preaching; observing the sacramental liturgy and the pericopal church year; combining the highest standards of architecture, visual arts, poetry, and music to communicate the precious Word of God in a manner that befits it. There isn't much time left, however. Our culture is reaching a point of no return, a point beyond which the capacity to create and perceive such beauty may be irretrievably lost. It is in the interest of the church, therefore, to support agents of high-culture renewal like KFUO-FM. Perhaps from among its listeners a new generation of artistic and musical leaders may arise.

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