Monday, February 25, 2008

Holy Music

A lot is said of different styles of music in church and a lot of judgements are made about what is more appropriate "worship" based on the style of music. In more contemporary churches "good worship" is defined as music that stirs us and where we had a jolly good bounce and felt good. In more traditional churches "good worship" is defined more in terms of the sung liturgy, or beautiful hymns that have been sung "by the saints" for hundreds of years.

I recently read How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt. He discussed at one point the impact Christianity had made on music, and applauded the Christian music that conformed to the classic forms, whilst making an argument that since Jazz and Rock and Roll there has been a decline in the "holiness" of music, due to its discordant and rebellious themes. (I don't have the book around anymore so if I'm doing an injustice to his point, my apologies).

I personally wonder how we can make an objective assessment of whether a certain piece of music is "holy" or not. This needs to go beyond our subjective experience of it, to what musically and lyrically is pleasing / unpleasing to God. Does God have a sense of aesthetics? Does He enjoy one form of music more than another based on its "beauty"? If you divorce the lyrics from music, are there styles of music that are more honouring to God than others?

I think this is all rather difficult to answer. God hasn't revealed through His word a preference for a certain style of music. I haven't found anywhere it says, "Thus saith the Lord, I hateth Rock n' Roll, giveth me only thy praise by way of the pipe organ", and neither has He said, "Thus saith the Lord, I am bored of choral music, please someone plays drums in mine sanctuary". And if we stuck to what is literally said in the bible then musicians would be "dressed in fine linen and play cymbals, harps and lyres" (2 Chron 5:12)

I would definitely say that God has a sense of aesthetics, or else where did we get a sense of aesthetics from?? Where does our appreciation of beauty come from otherwise? C. S. Lewis wrote "The sweetest thing in all my life has been the find the place where all the beauty came from". There is something about beauty that inherently draws us towards God, as it reveals God.

There is amazing diversity in creation, and all of it He said was "good". That would include a stormy winters day as much as a beautiful spring afternoon. (And yet that winter's day is dark, broody and chaotic, as is a lot of modern music.) I think God would appreciate a peach as much as He does a pear, and likewise from a musical perspective I think there isn't that much difference in essence between madrigals and the latest hillsong jumpy song. Given that God is a creative God and that we are made in His image, isn't creating music, of any genre in some way honouring Him, particularly when the music is written or played for the glory of God? This goes to the "spirit and truth" question, what is the motivation for the music?

One difficulty in determining the "holiness" of a piece of music is really that without the lyrics, a piece of music does not communicate clearly its subject matter. It communicates and ellicts feelings, and in time you can come to associate certain strains in the music with certain subjects, but it isn't clear without lyrics who or what is being played about. This is of concern in the respect that a piece of music maybe joyful, but is it communicating and elliciting joy about God or about something else? Charles Spurgeon wrote, "When I have heard of large congregations gathered together by the music of a fine choir, I have remembered that the same thing is done at the opera house and the music-hall, and I have felt no joy. When we have heard of crowds enchanted by the sublime music of the pealing organ, I have seen in the fact rather a glorification of St. Cecilia than of Jesus Christ. Our Lord trusted in no measure or degree to the charms of music for the establishing his throne. He has not given to his disciples the slightest intimation that they are to employ the attractions of the concert room to promote the kingdom of heaven." So Spurgeon wouldn't be a big fan of Planetshakers. Are the people there worshipping God or are they simply enjoying the music? Or both?

I think a good line would be to try an ensure that any music is not distracting. I often find with the louder styles of music that my attention is distracted away from God, whereas the softer music (or silence!!) is less distracting. In which case this isn't just a question of aesthetics as such, one can enjoy many styles of music, and yet find one style more distracting than another, when the aim is not the enjoyment of music but glorification of God.

I think lyrics are the clearest way I think we can assess a piece of music as to whether it is glorifying to God. Obviously if the words are blasphemous, irreverent or promoting a non-biblical world view then there's a problem. I also think there is an issue when too much is made of "me" in the words, rather than focussing on Christ. And this is probably where a lot of modern Christian music is problematic, "I love you Lord", "I give my life", "I come to you", "I called, you answered". I, I, I, me, me, me. Rather, He first loved us, he gave His life for us, He came to us, He called us, etc. And how about, "You are everything to me". Well, is that before or after we swear at our neighbour for cutting us off in traffic? Before or after we prioritise sleep over spending time with Him in prayer? How honestly can any of us ever say that He is EVERYTHING to us? Our faithfulness to God is quite pitiful, rather it is His faithfulness to us that is worthy of song.

God bless,

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