Isaac Wardell is the director of Bifrost Arts and the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Charlottesville (PCA). He’s been involved in church music and church plants in Georgia, Tennessee, and New York. He studied at Covenant College. While serving in New York City he played and performed with the Welcome Wagon, and has produced two Sacred Music anthologies with various musicians under the Bifrost Arts banner (Come O Spirit! & Salvation is Created), with a third due out in April.
I got the chance to chat with Isaac about hymnody, worship, the psalms, what it means to be a contemporary musician serving the church, and the relationship between worship and obedience. Part One of the interview introduces the history of Bifrost Arts, hymnody and praise music. Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “Psalm 46” from the upcoming album. Part Two previews the April 22-24, 2013 conference taking place in Philadelphia titled “The Cry of the Poor.” Scroll to the bottom to stream an exclusive preview of “By His Wounds” from the upcoming album.
Hopeful Realism: Tell us about the genesis of Bifrost Arts.
Isaac Wardell: While I had been living up in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) [serving at Resurrection Presbyterian with Vito Aiuto], I had been quietly developing an ethos for approaching church music. I had been studying music in college, studying hymnody, had a strong classical music background, and had been living in an urban, post-Christian community. Incidentally, for about ten years, I had zero exposure to the “Christian culture industry.” I was working in church plants which meant that I was deciding what we were listening to. I wasn’t listening to Christian radio, but was going through hymnals and psalters finding ways for us to worship. In the summer of 2007, we started doing a series of events we called “Sacred Music Festivals” where in small spaces we would invite people to come and talk about sacred music and about this crazy novelty of people singing together- probably 75% Christians or religious people, but 25% or so just interested in esoteria. Those events led to a partnership with Rev. Joseph Pensak, ministering locally to college students, as well as connections with other local churches and pastors who helped.
I was in my twenties at the time and probably felt a stronger burden about church music needing to be more excellent, more beautiful, more soulful…rather than reactive, creative. That’s what I really excited about, especially because of my context. I was working in a cultural context where those were the real values. And much Christian music had such a reputation for being facsimile, consumer-driven and draconian.
HR: Was there a major shift moving from Brooklyn to Charlottesville?
IW: Bifrost has changed a lot. As you said, now I work in Charlottesville, VA, essentially in a megachurch. There are suburban evangelicals, brilliant minds like James Hunter and Nicholas Wolterstorff, college town culture and an evermore diversifying racial complexion. When I think about how Bifrost can help the church, the idea of being aesthetically innovative and challenging the church to think about the arts in a much more deeply theological way is more of just one sliver of what we’re doing now. We do much more education and thinking about how we can educate congregations, worship committees, and people involved in planning worship services to think about their way of approaching worship services.
While I’m really excited about releasing this record in the coming months, I’m actually starting to feel more and more that these church curricula that we’re putting out and these conferences and small events are the most helpful thing that we do. It’s not so much just modeling this sort of ethos but really unwrapping it and showing some biblical concepts that you can bring into your congregation that can really give your congregation a new vocabulary for worship.
When I first came to Trinity it became obvious that our worship vocabulary was so impoverished. People have “traditional-contemporary,” “high church-low church,” people talk about being relevant…all these things that are really not very descriptive about what the bible has to say about worship.
HR: Tell me a little bit about a tension you might feel in your work between tradition and innovation. Singing hymns in new contexts seems to have gained a lot of momentum and quite a following over the last decade or so. I’ve noticed that the times when the Bifrost records do cover hymnody there isn’t an automatic impulse to necessarily “re-tune” the setting.
The hymn conversation is a fascinating one. My personal thinking has evolved a lot in the last ten years. The last thing I want to do is offend anybody, especially my friends who are involved in setting old hymns to new music. A lot of people who grew up in evangelical churches didn’t grow up singing hymns. I grew up singing popular Christian music. When I got to college, I discovered hymns- the depth, beauty, poetry…all these things that were clearly missing from my previous worship experience. A lot of people have that experience through RUF and others setting those hymns to new music. That wasn’t exactly my experience because I went to school on a music scholarship, and was involved in a really traditional music program. My discovery was in the classroom. My falling in love with them wasn’t in a context of innovation, but rather just falling in love with them for what they were. I have a more romantic relationship with the organ and the hymnal. I don’t have a personal history of thinking of “old, dead hymns.” When I first heard “Be Thou My Vision” it was a new beautiful, adult experience for me.
Part of what I did in my twenties when I was working at these church plants was just opening up the hymnal. We didn’t have an organ. It wasn’t some kind of evangelistic decision. We were just trying to interpret these hymns in a faithful way. If you listen to the Bifrost records, to a song like “Just A Closer Walk With Me” that’s just me playing the song. There’s strings and a particular musical perspective that I’m bringing to it, but we certainly weren’t trying to turn anything upside down on its head and we weren’t trying to indict anything.
HR: Inevitably every artist makes some sort of aesthetic decision.
IW: Sure. And I’ve spent the last four or five years digging even more deeply into the way I feel. At this point I think I’ve come full-circle in thinking that the problem that hymns address is obvious. Everyone can agree that in turning on [Christian] radio, the music doesn’t address real theological questions, all the facets of the human heart. And you open up hymnals and they address that problem. We can agree on that. Beyond that, to say that hymns are the answer to all of our modern worship problems is problematic. If you bring discernment and a historical ear to your hymnal you’re going to find some beautiful things in there, some things that were beautiful because of their context, and some things that are not beautiful because of the failures of their times.
Our children’s choir came in yesterday singing “Jesus Loves me This I Know.” In this and a plethora of other hymns written between 1825 and 1925, that great 19th century British period of hymnody, there are a lot of references to dying. “And when you die Jesus will hold or cradle you.” It’s alarmingly consistent. “If I love him when I die/He will take me home on high.” You look into it historically and you find that during that period of time in the Industrial Revolution is the highest rate of childhood and infant mortality in world history. In all these Sunday School classes, you have these kids showing up to worship and having to deal with their peers dying. So you have people in ministry answering those questions. You can picture those conversations and their attempts at answers that make their way into their music. Some of these answers seem odd or perhaps even questionable, but for the moment they were appropriate responses in their contexts. Likewise, you open up the hymnal and you see people answering questions in hymns. Addressing questions about war, inexplicable suffering and death, globalization and mission; in the best-case scenarios you see these hymns answering the real questions that people are wrestling with in their times.
I don’t think that hymns answer those questions for our time. What we can learn is to be inspired by our hymnal to actually look at the questions people are asking in our times. You read James Hunter’s book: central questions about identity, sexuality, what does it mean to be a person, how do we know that life has any value? Questions about money, human relationships…these are the questions that are on the news every night. I don’t know that I can turn on the radio and hear Christian music answering these questions. But I also don’t necessarily know that you open your hymnal and find answers to these questions.
I’d like to issue a call to songwriters not to stop writing songs and just use your hymnal, but to write new things. The new Bifrost record, and probably any subsequent records, will be all original hymns and worship songs. It’s important for us to start modeling that. In some way there’s something incredibly faithless about resigning yourself to saying that “they wrote all this great stuff back there and we’re not capable of writing stuff like that now.” I’d like to suggest that the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaac Watts is the Holy Spirit that can inspire us to write something as beautiful as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
HR: Beyond answering specific questions for a specific place and time, how do you see worship music working within a framework of a ‘theology of desire?’ Your last conference’s curriculum began to explore some of these themes, seeing a human person as primarily affective or liturgical, how do you design worship with music that takes that whole person seriously? Hymns don’t let you necessarily range the whole spectrum of emotions in the way that perhaps even the most simple praise chorus, that you could pick on all day, may be able.
I’m assuming you’re probably familiar with Jamie Smith and Desiring the Kingdom? I love Jamie and his writing and teaching, and his new book, Imagining the Kingdom is explicitly about applying that question in a worship context.
For my Presbyterian, Reformed context, one of the main areas of poverty in the PCA’s collective understanding about worship is this understanding of worship as being just a transmission of information. Presbyterians get really excited about hymns being good theology set to music. And there’s something to that. But this fundamental understanding of worship being information and a system of understanding imparted to you so that music is just a vehicle- that’s a terribly small way of understanding what worship is.
In the Liturgy, Music, and Space (LMS) curriculum, we try to give the reader two handles. On the one hand, worship has a formative aspect; worship forms us to think a certain way. And worship has an expressive aspect; in worship our love for God is expressed. Worship is the expression of a whole relationship with God and its also the formation of a whole relationship with God.
That’s what we’re trying to offer, not contemporary–traditional, not high–low, but formative–expressive as the most scriptural worship categorization. These two qualities are manifest in scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that you see God telling the people, ‘when you worship I want you to do it in the very formative way.’ Even Deuteronomy, he says, ‘I want you to write these truths and hang them in front of your eyes on little leaflets and I want you to write it on your doorposts.’ And even when God is telling the Israelites how to celebrate Passover, he says ‘I want you to set your table, sit down, and you’ll say this prayer, and the oldest son is going to ask the dad this question and the dad will answer in this way…’ This is a very formative prescription for worship.
At the same time, you have all these instances in the scriptures, from the prophets right through the New Testament, where God tells his people, ‘I’m not interested in you just going through the motions of worship, not interested in your feasts and festivals, if your heart is not right and your not being obedient to my word.’ And that’s the expressive part. There are times throughout the bible that you read of these exuberant expressions, things much more expressive than we’re comfortable with: banging cymbals, beating drums, David’s dancing in the street. Even in the New Testament where in Peter’s worship services people are accused of being drunk. There is a very descriptive element of expressive worship in the scriptures.
I don’t think that delineating between praise choruses and hymns is always necessarily helpful or accurate. The category that we use around here is ‘scripture songs,’ a subcategory being ‘psalms.’ I think those are really important categories to have in this conversation, because the Psalms are a best-case scenario due to the fact that they are super-expressive. They’re very raw. They’re more expressive than any Chris Tomlin song. The Psalms are the psalmists bringing all their whole hearts to God. But the Psalms are also deeply formative. The Psalms are really challenging. They don’t just give you words for what you already feel. They give you words to grow into. I think the Psalms have to be our model…you see that from Jesus. When he went to worship God, he learned how to worship using the Psalms, he sung the Psalms, and in his hour of need, Jesus quoted the Psalms. When he’s hanging on the cross, he’s not extemporizing. He’s not just expressing, but he quotes something he would have sung. You see the Psalms even forming Jesus’s heart and giving him language for how to talk to God.
The Psalms are the starting place and then out of the Psalms you have a criterion from which you can judge how good a praise song is and how good a hymn is. If you start to see a great disconnect between our hymnody and our psalter or praise chorus catalog and our psalter, it should be clear to us where the poverty is.
But that’s not the way we operate. We’ve gotten so upside-down in our understanding. You have both traditional people that would hate it if you brought the emotion of the Psalms into worship, and then there are those who are all about expression, who have made an idol out of emotive expression – so that when you try to make a case that the bible just doesn’t want us to express things we feel but to learn to express things that we ought to feel – they’d react really poorly as well. I think the psalms are indicting on the state of our worship wars. The one thing we can agree on is that nobody wants to worship that way.
HR: I recently interviewed Sarah DeShields from Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC. They’re really trying to hold this in tension and use the handles “the liturgy and the shout” to speak of that dialectic of formation and expression. Interestingly, they’ve wound up doing a few psalm-based texts to do this on a congregational level.