Sounds of Christmas: An Interview with Wen Reagan

Wen Reagan is a doctoral candidate at Duke University where he is finishing a dissertation on the cultural history of contemporary worship music in America. He also serves as the music director at Christ Community Church in Chapel Hill, NC and as an artist for Cardiphonia, a national network of songwriters that produce collections of liturgical music for the joy and benefit of the church. Wen and his wife Casey live in Durham, NC. TWI interviewed Wen about his album Epiphany

TWI: Why did you Casey and Stuart Pierce decide to record this album?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWen Reagan: Stuart and I have been writing and playing music together since college and Christmas music has always been a big part of that. For the last ten years, the three of us have gotten together in December to play Christmas music in community, first in college and then at church or in someone’s home. So it was there that we started experimenting with new arrangements to traditional Christmas tunes. The first fruit of those efforts was an earlier Christmas EP, Winter, which we released in 2006. Epiphany came about as our second attempt at a Christmas album and a “building up and out” of Winter. 

TWI: Which song are you most proud of how it turned out? Why?

WR: If I had to pick one it would be “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” I wanted to be faithful to the original melody, but I’ve always found the song a little too “happy” with the original arrangement. If Jesus is “long expected,” then there is a sense of angst, of long suffering, of groaning with all of creation in awaiting the coming of the one who will redeem us. So I setup the arrangement to reflect that, pulling the song into a minor progression in the interludes. The bridge then builds the groaning up to a boiling point with a repeated progression, playing off of the cyclical and compounded failings of Israel as it awaits salvation. And then the song resolves at the end, intent to call on God to come and set his people free.

TWI: You are both a musician and a historian. Are there any tensions or complexities between these two “callings”?

WR: Yes, particularly when we’re talking about popular music, which is what I do. Like other aspects of contemporary popular culture, there is a general amnesia in popular music. Both the producers and consumers are focused on the next best thing, always looking forward and rarely backwards. So historical consciousness is often missing from popular musical culture, Christian or not. At the same time, music serves as a potent vehicle for aural memory. Hearing a melody from your childhood can instantly transport you back in time, flooding you with feelings and memories buried in the past. I’m intrigued by this tension between popular music’s lack of historical consciousness and its potency as a vehicle for memory.

TWI: What about the history of Christmas music? Did what you know about how Christians have worshipped across the ages and our current cultural context affect how you conceived of and recorded this album?

WR: Christmas music is a fascinating phenomenon to me. It’s this potent mix of tradition, nostalgia, pop culture, and theology where the secular and the sacred are always intertwined and where authenticity is always contested. It’s a mess, which makes it fun. In our current cultural context, Christmas music is one of the few spaces in contemporary popular music that sustains and celebrates a musical canon. So every year, artists release hundreds of albums with their own take on tradition tunes, hymns, and carols. Audiences generally are not looking for new Christmas songs, but innovative approaches to old ones. In many ways this runs against pop music’s amnesia. It looks backwards and celebrates great songs written in the past, yet looks to recast them in new musical idioms. So I like that, and we’ve tried to contribute to that historical “layering” with our arrangements, paying tribute to the past but also moving the songs forward.

But Christmas music’s popularity is also built off of constructed nostalgia—nostalgia for a fondly remembered childhood, or a neat and tidy biblical story, or some mythical American past (usually in the 1940s or 1950s). When you release a Christmas album, you have to deal with that. There’s no way of getting away or around the messiness of constructed nostalgia. To me, this parallels the messiness and the contingency of the incarnation. When God took on human flesh he took on the risk of saddling up beside future Christmas kitsch and sappy, sentimental Christmas songs. I think we need to constantly challenge the sugarcoating of God’s incarnation, but we also need to learn how to live amongst it, not separate from it.

The history of Christian worship, particularly during Christmas, has taught me is that anything is fair game. Christians over the centuries have approached Christmas in so many different ways. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has traditionally celebrated Epiphany on January 6th, Teutonic Germans incorporated Yule log fires and evergreen decorations, and the Catholic Church celebrated Christmastide, the twelve days of Christmas. Christmas has also been absent for parts of Church history—early Christians in the second and third centuries hadn’t yet constructed Christmas, while Puritans in New England made Christmas celebrations illegal in the 17th century. In fact, until the mid-1800s and Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, most Americans went to work on Christmas. So even though Christmas is a high point in the Christian calendar today, it is constantly evolving, which I think allows a lot of freedom in how we celebrate it (or even choose not to).

TWI: What other Christmas music where you listening to while you recorded the album?

WR: I think at the time I was listening to a lot of instrumental Christmas music from guitarists like Stephen Bennett and John Sheehan, Sufjan Steven’s Christmas albums, Sir Thomas Beecham’s take on Handel’s Messiah, Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God.

TWI: Jeremy Begbie says that the musical experience of worship involves both “memory and expectation,” helping attune us to where we are in God’s story. Can you talk about the theological and liturgical vision that animates the album? Did you have any hopes on how it might function liturgically for those who listen to it?

WR: I think Begbie is dead on with “memory and expectation,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe Christmas. And Christmas music is particularly rich in this regard, as we not only use our music to remember the Incarnation but our own Christmases past. Here constructed nostalgia mixes with miraculous paradox. And then expectation, whether it be of the devotional kind during Advent, or the fear and stress of dealing with broken families and the holiday consumption craze, all mixes in with the songs we sing. Christmas music, when done right, can play a powerful role in attuning us, as Begbie says, to where we are in God’s story. And that is my hope for the album—that it would play some small part in helping people sit in God’s story.

I also wanted the album to be a liturgical and devotional resource. Our arrangements are fairly simple and accessible to small or large music teams at churches, while our hope was that the album provided a refreshing take on some classic Christmas hymns that people could enjoy in their personal times of devotion. There was not a tight theological theme for the album, but I do think all of the songs represent our various interpretations of God’s epiphany to the world in the Incarnation. Each song tells the Christmas story from a different vantage point, revealing the diversity of approaches to Christmas even within the Anglo-European tradition of Christmas hymns and carols. In honesty, though, this album was primarily born of friendship, a way for Stuart and I to share our collaborative work that developed over several years.

TWI: Will we see more Christmas music in the future from Pierce & Reagan?

WR: Looking forward, I think we’ve got enough new material to do a second Christmas album, although this time with more obscure Christmas hymns, which shows the change in my musical direction. We released Epiphany just as I was getting involved in the “Retuned Hymn” movement via Cardiphonia, a national collaboration of liturgical songwriters. Cardiphonia has sought to curate old hymn texts, put them to new tunes, and release them in liturgically themed albums. As a church historian, I’m a big advocate for this kind of work because it brings both historical and theological depth to contemporary worship music. So since we released Epiphany, I’ve been contributing to Cardiphonia albums as well as working on a hymn album that I hope to release next year. After that, maybe we’ll get to the next Christmas album.

TWI: What other Christmas albums would you recommend?

WR: There’s so much good stuff out there. Let me recommend five albums that are a little off the beaten path but fantastic: Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God, So Elated’s The Bewildering Light, Kemper Crabb’s Downe in Yon Forrest, Bifrost Arts’ Salvation is Created and Cardiphonia’s By All Adored.

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