Music and “The Benedict Option”

December 31st, 2018

Reading Rod Dreher’s book, “The Benedict Option”, has sent my thinking careening back onto the subject of music in worship. More than that, it made me realize how important the subject is. Having felt like I would not succeed in my goal of playing a role in making the church’s music more meaningful, I set the subject aside for seven years thinking I was finished with the topic. But Dreher has convinced me to pick it up again with the benefit of more years behind me and the motivation of looming cultural catastrophe ahead of me.

Deconstructionism, not Christianity

the-benedict-optionIn C.S. Lewis’s, “A Pilgrim’s Regress”, John finds himself imprisoned in the dungeon of a giant that represents deconstructionism (the predecessor of postmodernism). John glances around the dungeon at his fellow prisoners and finds that he is able to see through their skin and into their inner bodies. This means that he sees them in a dehumanized way and is forced to conclude that a human being is merely the disgusting sum of its parts. Lady Reason uses three riddles to slay the giant, one of which is, “What is the colour of things in dark places, of fish in the depth of the sea, or of the entrails in the body of man?” After Reason rescues John, she explains to him that objects that can’t be seen have no color. Human organs have no color when they are still part of a person. As soon as the person’s organs have color, they are no longer a person, but a corpse. The ability to see the organ changes the meaning of the object to be fundamentally different. So, the visions John had of his fellow captives’ innards were untrue. A person with visible organs is not a person, but a deception. Just as a person cannot be accurately seen from the deconstructionist perspective (the sum of their parts), neither can a piece of music. One cannot take the meaning of music one chunk at a time. The whole must be perceived as a single unit in order to understand the meaning. A composition is not merely the sum of its parts because as soon as you isolate a part, the part takes on a fundamentally different meaning that has little to do with the meaning of the whole.

Creating and understanding meaning in Christian music is critical because meaning is what justifies existence itself1. Deconstructionism leads to nihilism (which is the belief that nothing has meaning). When there is no meaning, life has no purpose. Thus, meaning justifies existence and music aiming at meaning is true and beautiful. It points at God’s truth and God’s beauty.

As we choose The Benedict Option and move toward a distinctively Christian culture, musical expression and appreciation are going to remain an essential part of Christian communal life and culture. This is good, because music facilitates worship with a richness beyond the power of words. While worship is, of course, possible without music, it is woefully irresponsible to not include it when it is available. And all the better to create music for the pleasure of having an encounter with God through his creation. There is no ascetic2 (not to be confused with aesthetic) value in engaging in worship without artistic expression. More than that, making music to the Lord is a spiritual need, and it should be taken seriously.

So if music is to be included within our Benedict Option communities, we ought to aim for as much meaning as humanly possible. Music is worship only because it has meaning. Music without meaning is not worship. Meaning is worship because it points toward transcendent truth that is not necessarily accessible through rational faculties. John Goldengay writes in his commentary on Psalm 66:43, “…the nature of worship is to collapse the distinction between visible reality and true reality”4 and without meaning to do the collapsing, worship does not take place. This plays into what C.S. Lewis writes about in “Surprised by Joy” when he recounts what he thought to be merely “aesthetic experiences”. He was an atheist having encounters with God through experiences that collapsed the distinction between the two worlds. The music in the Christian community should facilitate this experience. It should be transcendent; other-worldly. It should elevate our bodies and souls alike into a higher dimension of physical reality. It should make us long for God’s kingdom to be revealed. So much so that, for the time we are worshiping, it should feel as if we could reach out our hand, tear the thin veil between us and the Kingdom, and be transposed into that higher physical existence into which Jesus promised to bring us. The way to have such a divine aesthetic experience is to enable our trained musicians to craft meaningful layers as deep and as rich as possible into their musical textures.

Evangelize to hearts, not brains

While there are always exceptions, very few people actually accept Christ simply because they have an accurate account of the gospel message. Even more than that, most people tend to accept the gospel message an astonishing amount of time before they understand it. How many people’s testimonies have you heard that start with, “When I was five…”? Clearly, evangelism has a lot more to do with intuitive inspiration than it does with knowing facts. So where does this inspiration come from? How should our Benedict Option communities show God to a world that largely doesn’t care about our distinctive moral way of life, let alone belief in a reality that transcends reason? How do we inspire others toward Christ when mere words and actions seem to make the same impact on the world as a secular non-profit? After all, secular organizations are doing a fine job in all of this, so what is so great about Christ? Even if we are able to prove that Christianity is true, humans have pesky way of not caring about facts. How does one show pure, deep, and rich meaning to someone who doesn’t care about what the truth is? Dreher, in The Benedict Option, is particularly helpful here:

“Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Why? Because seeing examples of great beauty and extraordinary goodness bypasses our rational faculties and strikes the heart.

… Put more plainly, unbelievers today who cannot make sense of the Gospel’s propositions may yet have a life-changing wordless encounter with the Gospel through Christian art or works of Christian love that pull them outside themselves and confront them with the reality of Christ.

The first Christians gained converts not because their arguments were better than those of the pagans but because people saw in them and their communities something good and beautiful – and they wanted it. This led them to the Truth.5

Music may not be essential for revealing God’s truth to those being evangelized, but truth expressed in music has the power to proclaim God’s majesty in ways that words just can’t. Our Benedict Option Communities have a responsibility to enable the creation of musical evangelistic tools that we can use for guiding both ourselves and non-believers toward what Lewis calls that “aesthetic experience”. Then the truth about what exactly is tugging on our souls will direct the encounter into the presence of God. This is not manipulation. This is not a trick. It is using God’s natural truth to access hearts directly. We cannot reason our way to commitment to Christ just like we can’t reason our way to a commitment to a spouse. We must bypass our rational faculties and strike at our hearts. We must let our intellect become like a child so that we can readily receive the gospel (Matthew 18). Music is a gift from God that we can use to win the hearts and minds of non-believers and strengthen our own child-like intuitive understanding of God.

Words speak only to our intellect, but meaning speaks to our hearts. Meaning is found in the physical world, not in the rational one. We need physical means to understand the meaning of the transcendent reality in which we are called to live. We need beautiful music within our Benedict Option communities.

The Benedict Option And Christian Music

So when our Benedict Option communities are selecting, creating, and practicing music, we should strive to put as much meaning as possible into what we are creating. The intent of these expressions should be nothing short of worship even within the potentially boring bits of endless repetition6 to sufficiently learn to play a difficult passage. Our intent with even our private musical utterances should be worship, because intent drives meaning and changes the metaphysical structure of music. The intent behind the production and use of musical expression is critical to understanding whether or not the music is sufficient for Christians to use.

Unfortunately, Christians are largely using the lens of Deconstructionism rather than Christianity to select and create music. As one who studied a long time to learn how to make good musical decisions, I tend to be deeply offended when terrible music is exonerated by Christians simply because, “it’s all preference and all that matters is the words.” This is postmodernism. This is not Christianity. Intent gives meaning and meaning affects outcome. The church has to stop being artistically lax and start taking this seriously if we are going to maintain and develop our culture in this post-Christian world. Music is a massive component of every culture that has an uncanny capacity to bypass our faculties and strike directly at our hearts. This would be a horrifying place to go wrong as we move forward. Yet vacuous music has been allowed to infiltrate our culture and rot the church’s soul just as it has in the secular world7.

We must be vigilant to what music we are using as we move forward into the Benedict Option. Using music that is void of meaning and therefore inadequate for worship is fatal to our spiritual growth both in community and as individuals. For a communal example, if music is being used to attract non-believers into a church, then the transcendent nature of worship has been exchanged for a marketing gimmick. Marketing materials need to deliver instant gratification to achieve their goal. While instant gratification is not mutually exclusive to rich meaning, aiming at it is likely to depreciate the overall value of the result. For an individual example, take a Christian recording artist who cuts out part of a song simply to get it played on the radio rather than to facilitate the listener into communion with the Almighty. For the professional Christian musician, compromising artistic integrity is missing the mark. Falling short of the calling. It’s sin. There is no balance of popularity in play here. Christianity is an all or nothing faith. Our choice of music must be intentional and sincere.

Fostering Christian Arts Culture

In The Benedict Option, Dreher challenges Christians to remove themselves from mainstream secular culture for the purpose of forming and/or maintaining our own cultural identity. This withdrawal from culture that Dreher proposes is balanced and nuanced, but it is sufficient here to say that we have lost the culture war, and the next step is to form a sustainable counter-culture. Now, music is an enormously consequential component of every culture. If we are going to recommend that the church step back from music influenced by secular culture (which we should), then the church needs to do a better job of providing something more substantial.  N. T. Wright is very aware of this problem, and it is worth quoting his thoughts from his book “Surprised by Hope” at length.

The second feature of many communities both in the post-industrial west and in many of the poorer parts of the world is ugliness. True, some communities manage to sustain levels of art and music, often rooted in folk culture which bring a richness to even the most poverty-stricken areas. But the shoulder-shrugging functionalism of post-war architecture coupled with the passivity born of decades of television has meant that for many people, the world appears to offer little but bleak urban landscapes on the one hand and tawdry entertainment on the other. And when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope. They internalize the message of their eyes and ears; the message that whispers that they are not worth very much, that they are in effect less than fully human. To communities in danger of going that route, the message of new creation, of the beauty of the present world taken up and transcended in the beauty of the world that has yet to be, but with part of that beauty being precisely the healing of the present anguish, comes as a surprising hope. Part of the role of the church in the past was–and could and should be again–to foster and sustain lives of beauty and aesthetic meaning at every level from music making in the village pub, to drama in the local primary school. From artists and photographers’ workshops, to still-life painting classes. From symphony concerts (well, they managed them in the concentration camps, how inventive might we be?) to driftwood sculptures. The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creativity bursts fourth for the whole community, pointing to the of the hope that like all beauty, always comes as a surprise.

I want to highlight the sentence, “And when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope.” Since music is one of the few expressions of pure, objective and Godly truth that is universal, it is our responsibility to begin this creative work immediately. We should have been creating better music for the past 100 years and there is no time to waste! For music has the power to shape hearts and minds into the image of God, facilitate communion with Him, and penetrate the hearts of today’s skeptics. Most of all, it is the only audible way to surround ourselves with beauty and express Christian Hope in a way that a child can understand. Sure, we can survive without it, but the church needs to thrive, not just survive. We have to begin producing modern, culturally relevant, and outstanding music at scale if we are going to thrive moving forward as a distinct culture that boldly believes and proclaims the Christian Hope of the resurrection of Jesus.

Unfortunately, the rich and meaningful musical expression I’m advocating takes time to forge. So much time that most artists with the capacity to produce it are unable to do the work while supporting a family. Even most of my believing composition professors were largely inactive during my time at school. Ironically, the only professors I had who were actively writing were the non-believers. State Universities care about teachers enough to make sure they have the resources to do the work. Conversely, we American Christians seem to expect a transactional relationship with our artists. Staff worship leaders are paid in exchange for a service rather than getting paid to be a certain person. Were the approach the ladder (more like a pastor or a professor) these paid positions would shift from being a transactional employee model to a leadership model. This is the model we need to adopt if the church is ever going to develop a sufficient amount of meaning in worship both in our services and in our individual lives.

To quote my friend Nash, with whom I’ve been talking over these issues, “My experience has been that most church cultures are too image conscious to let art thrive without strangling it through stipulation.” During my own brief time in a paid worship position, I was unambiguously told to lead the music during worship services with my voice and a guitar. Yes, building a team was also part of that, but it was secondary. I saw it as secondary because it didn’t seem to matter that there were plenty of folks perfectly capable of leading the service itself with their voice provided that the team was equipped with a plan and led through a time of directed practice. My primary instruments being saxophone and drum set, I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes type of musical leader. And yet my primary job was to work hard to do something that, in my professional opinion, was aesthetically insufficient. The church’s leadership wanted to see their paid staff member on display as much as possible. From their perspective, that was the object of my employment. On my own time, I sought creative ways to walk the worship team through discipleship. I also sought ways to encourage the general assembly to engage in worship outside of church. Ultimately, my focus was deepening worship for the existing church and the leadership was focused on growing the church’s size. It did not take long for us to go our separate ways.

There was nothing unique about my experience. Churches, as a general rule, expect this transactional relationship from their musical leadership. They pay their worship leader and they get a professional image. This model is insufficient. If we are going to thrive, we need to start by making better use of our paid musicians. We need to pay them to be themselves. They need to be given the time and opportunity to minister to their own spirits through writing music (if that’s their inclination), reflection, study, and practice. They should be held accountable to be doing the things they need to do in order to be spiritually rich and musically exceptional beyond mere performance. They should be theoreticians, academics, philosophers, and theologians to the extent that they understand exactly what they are doing and why. Finally, they should be expected to build, lead, and maintain their self sustaining team, delegating the week-to-week responsibilities for the sake of focusing on their work of creating engaging music to present to their church, their community, and possibly even the world through professional recordings. Getting this balance right will require a variety of creative ideas (maybe even hiring a second musical leader), but we need to get this right. Our Benedict Option communities have a tough road ahead of them, and we are going to need by surrounded by beauty lest we cease to hope.

This work must be done at scale primarily because this is the type of work required to have vibrantly artistic Benedict Option communities. If I learned one thing as a food service manager, it’s that people are a lot more likely to be inspired by a leader who is worth impressing. A leader’s technical proficiency and depth of knowledge instills a motivation in the followers to do what it takes to elevate their own knowledge and ability within reach of the leader’s. A musical leader with a high and growing technical capacity is more likely to have a better team so long as they have some basic leadership skills to go along with their abilities (Bezalel comes to mind). But there is a side benefit of an inevitable bottomless pile of transcendent beauty circulating throughout the secular world. While mainstream culture tends to make poor choices when listening to music, people still admit to knowing that other music is better. What if an overwhelming percentage of that better contemporary music were created by the church? What a powerful witness that would be for the world’s greatest music to be produced by the church!

One might ask at this point, “If this is so important, why can’t such musical production be done with the artists’ free time?” Creating such rich art is a profoundly intellectually demanding task (and physically demanding for performers). Most professional musicians should hone their skills at least 20 hours a week outside of performances (if performing is their inclination). If this rhythm is interrupted, the music doesn’t turn out nearly as well if at all. This is completely unsustainable while working a full-time job, raising a family, being active in the community, taking care of one’s health, and spending time in prayer and study. Yes, there is a professional class of Christian musicians already doing work and I have happened upon some great resources. But we need people in every community with active and astonishing musical ability to lead amateur artists toward richer and fuller meaning. Even if having an inspiring leader wasn’t important, the people who need to consume this musical expression don’t know where to look for it, and there is very little of it to go around even if they do. But more importantly, the very act of creation is essential to your music leader’s ability to do their job.

Capitalism may be a fine way to run a society, but it’s an abysmal way to cultivate religious artistic expression. Music having to make money in our current mainstream market necessarily means that money is always going to be a primary motivating force behind the musical decisions made by every person involved with the creative process. So long as the artist’s livelihood depends on the financial success of the work, it has the potential to degrade the artist’s sincerity. In the rare case where a truly genuine artifact does well in a capitalist environment, it is purely coincidental. The church has to be intentional about enabling sincere creative expression if the church is going to produce a sufficient amount to sustain a culture.

Ideas spread because they are popular, not by being good ideas. Markets don’t support a product that doesn’t spread, and people don’t spread an idea just because it’s the best thing for their spiritual lives8. So the funding, by nature, cannot come from the people consuming the art. People tend to buy things they like and will make them happy. If there is no instant gratification from their purchase, they will feel cheated and not buy again. So if the financial demands imposed by artistic expression must be met by the people consuming the art, the art we need will never be created. Art that has ability to “collapse the distinction” is by nature not marketable in our current social context. But if it is freely available and purposefully shown to people by a religious authority, it will be well received and its purpose will be accomplished.

Our Benedict Option communities need to support musical expression in the same way and for the same reason they support the creation and delivery of sermons. All Christians, rich and poor, need constant reminders of where our hope lies. So this beauty needs to be accessible to the whole community. Churches and Christian individuals ought to seek out and support musicians whose work facilitates worship. Churches can easily start in on this by enabling their existing worship leader to do what they love specifically for their congregations in or out of Sunday morning service. This could manifest itself in countless ways depending on exactly what their passion is (singing, songwriting, classical composition, electroacoustic music composition, instrumental performance, etc.). Many of these new worship songs, concerts, recitals, and album release parties will seem to fail at first, but given enough time this process will yield fruit in the church. Make rich musical expression an expectation for the position, and ensure that they have plenty of time with which to do the work. Your music leaders will be blessed beyond measure, and so will your church. The creative process is the spiritual fuel your music leaders desperately need in order to do their work honestly. Even the transactional component of the relationship will show obvious improvement since your volunteers will be inspired by the leadership and artistic mastery of their music leader. Sunday morning will become the overflow of a vibrant artistic community that revolves around the truth and beauty given by God through your leader’s discipleship and musicianship.

I know I’m placing a massive burden on the church, but this is important. If we get this right, it will be a step toward thriving instead of merely surviving what is coming.

  1. Jordan Peterson unpacks this in his 12 Rules for Life.
  2. Ascetic as in the discipline of depriving one’s self of pleasure so as to strengthen one’s resolve to a holy life. Then when true temptations come, resistance is already second nature. It’s a fine Christian practice, but abstaining from good music has no value here. You may as well abstain from prayer.
  3. “All the earth worships you
    and sings praises to you;
    they sing praises to your name.”
  4. The words “true reality” imply that what we see is somehow less true than the spiritual world. I take issue with this wording.
  5. This quote is copied from this site.
  6. There is an almost monastic ascetic value in the musical discipline of practicing difficult passages. Wood-shedding in place of chanting.
  7. I’m against music devoid of meaning whether traditional or contemporary and have written previously about this topic.
  8. To prove this point further, wiping out tuberculosis worldwide would cost less than 6 billion dollars. Yet this is a tiny fraction of what the developed world is spending on climate change. Why? Because the idea of ending tuberculosis isn’t popular and doesn’t spread. Click here for the exact numbers in the midst of a fascinating conversation.

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