Shout to the Lord

Making Worship Music in Evangelical America

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Ari Y. Kelman
North American Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , June
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this ambitious and wide-ranging study, Ari Y. Kelman delivers a nuanced portrait of how white American evangelicals—including songwriters, worship leaders, record executives, and congregants—come to terms with an aporia inherent in their ritual practice. That is, although contemporary worship music production hinges on sustained and meticulously coordinated human labor, evangelicals ultimately evaluate songs on their ability to “transcend the ritual itself” (xiv). Making worship music in evangelical America, argues Kelman, involves simultaneous investment in and resistance against music as the central focus. In Shout to the Lord: Making Worship Music in Evangelical America, Kelman deploys media and textual analysis, extensive interviews with Christian music industry leaders, and four years of observant participation at church services, conferences, and worship training classes, to demonstrate “how much human effort is required to cultivate transcendence” (157).

Kelman contends that in order to understand how “music” becomes “prayer,” one must approach worship music as cultural production deeply embedded within social relations. Thus, he scrupulously focuses on forwarding an analytics that reflects the ways in which his interlocutors understand their relationships to the music they produce. In the first chapter, Kelman asserts that despite its sonic similarities to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), worship music is differentiated via three main discursive parameters: worship music makes room for expressive prayer, centralizes religious experience, and performs an educational function amongst evangelicals. In chapter 2 the author weaves the emergence of the Christian singer-songwriter within the 1970s countercultural milieu. He illustrates the complex negotiations that songwriters perform to meet the theological and emotional needs of congregations whilst being careful not to mislead them (64). In chapter 3 the author shifts focus from songwriters to worship leaders, that is, musical-religious professionals tasked with the job of leading congregational singing. Worship leaders, like songwriters, develop techniques to maneuver the tricky relationship between musical excellence and the risk of facilitating experiences that stop short of attaining transcendence; they develop the art of leading while “getting out of the way.” Finally, in chapter 4, by highlighting the work of Delirious?, Passion, and Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), Kelman tracks the genre’s sonic shift to modern rock in the 1990s. Here Kelman also provides insights into the entanglements between early 21st century worship music conventions and the economic logics of the recording industry. He concludes by reiterating the “generative and definitive tensions of worship music that cannot be solved or avoided” (155).

Kelman’s Shout to the Lord is commendable on several fronts; here I highlight two main interventions. First of all, deploying Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “organic intellectuals,” Kelman recognizes his interlocutors as co-producers of knowledge and thus centralizes their perspectives as he interweaves evangelical narratives within familiar threads of 20th- and 21st- century American cultural history. As a rare book-length study of contemporary worship music, Kelman accomplishes the important task of making legible Christian worship musicians’ contributions to American (and transnational) cultural soundscapes. Secondly, and more specifically, Kelman’s final chapter extends the findings of earlier pages to present an especially astute commentary on the ways in which religion is practiced in symbiotic relation with modern secular laws and institutions. The author carefully traces how the particularities of US copyright laws combine with worship music’s song-driven tendencies and regular consumption in houses of worship to produce an unusual and potentially lucrative revenue stream for the genre’s songwriters and copyright holders. Kelman thus implicitly addresses the ways in which worship practices—regardless of individual intentionality—reproduce extant capitalist, profit-driven hegemonic structures. Although the author himself gently refrains from extending these critical observations to their logical conclusions, he provides future researchers with a substantial thread to pursue in questioning how power creates conditions for religious experience.

Meanwhile, the monograph leaves the reader pondering how Kelman’s organic and traditional intellectuals might have been brought into closer dialogue. Firstly, the central tension between music and transcendence (a term deployed interchangeably with prayer and worship in the monograph) to which Kelman repeatedly returns, though duly described from a mainstream evangelical viewpoint, remains neither explicitly problematized nor substantially theorized. Because the metaphysical claims of Kelman’s interlocutors are oftentimes taken at face value, questions regarding the noticeably Cartesian tendencies that suffuse evangelical constructions of authenticity in worship (the privileging of “transcendence” over “mere music”) are occluded. Whence comes the intellectual genealogy of the music/worship dichotomy to which Kelman’s interlocutors seem so firmly to adhere? What ideological and material trajectories have historically informed the ways in which American evangelicals authenticate or disavow particular musicking practices as worship?

Secondly, I find conspicuously absent a robust treatment of how evangelical worshippers always already draw from autochthonous liturgical theologies to negotiate their fraught relationships with musical practice. For instance, several moments in Shout to the Lord could be read in productive tension with the work of liturgical theologian Matthew Myer Boulton, who in his 2008 publication God Against Religion argues that “Every liturgy Christians build … is permanently open to the charge of spiritual pride,” and that “God is against religion, and preeminently against worship.” How might Kelman’s findings enter into fruitful dialogue with Boulton’s destabilizing claims about liturgy?

In Shout to the Lord, Kelman meticulously elucidates for his academic readership the internal logics that undergird American evangelical cultural production. Because the study reflects the author’s generosity and responsibility toward his interlocutors, evangelical musical practitioners will find their histories and perspectives presented with patient nuance. This monograph on evangelical worship music, read in careful conjunction with the extant and burgeoning literature in Christian congregational music studies, promises to be an especially productive read for students and researchers of American religion, Christian liturgy, and popular music.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bo kyung Blenda Im recently completed her PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
October 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ari Y. Kelman is Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.


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