Acceptable Sounds in Worship; Objective Beauty

August 24th, 2011

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Really?  So if I find sin to be beautiful, then it is so for me?  While this saying may have been coined with good intentions I find no value in it as a Christian. If someone finds an object, action, or idea beautiful when God does not, then that person is wrong. That thing is not beautiful and the person believes in a lie.  There is beauty in the eye of the beholder only if the beholder we are referring to is God. At this point some may object, “That proverb only refers to things which are actually subjective.  For example, some may find a musical work to be beautiful while another finds it to be disgraceful and both views would be justified.  No proverb is without exception.”  But that’s a silly idea because there is an absolute standard for beauty, and that standard is Christ. Since perfect beauty is possible, human opinion is irrelevant.  Saying that beauty is subjective is as silly as moral relativism (and maybe just as diabolical).

Truth is what is; what is not is untrue. When something is untrue, it is a lie. Lies are not beautiful and no amount of postmodern relativism can make them true or beautiful.  In other words, truth is reality and lies point to nothingness. (I don’t understand why people think “what is truth?” is such a deep question. It seems to have the most obvious answer of any question ever asked.) Conversely, truth gives birth to beauty and goodness because beauty and goodness are real.  Were they not real, they would not be beauty and goodness. Therefore beauty and goodness cannot be subjective.  Truth is true and it does not create things that are unlike itself. If this does not settle the matter for you, read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a conversation happens between two artists; one damned and the other glorified.  The heavenly artist said to the ghost, “When you painted on earth…it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape.  The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”  The ghost’s painting was good because it reflected heaven; because it tried to capture the reality (truth) from which beauty comes. (In this, Lewis also made it clear that Godless men can still depict heaven; which is why Christians should not hesitate to consume secular art when it is good.)  Music is the same way; it is only beautiful if it points beyond itself and towards the standard. Therefore, there is nothing subjective about beautiful music.  It is either beautiful or it is not. If music depicts a glimpse of heaven, then it is so and no amount of opinion or reasoning can undo its beauty; we are obligated to enjoy it.  If it does not point to heavenly beauty (especially if it does not even point beyond the author) then it is not beautiful.  If it is possible that one person can observe God’s beauty in a musical work and another cannot, then there is something wrong with one of the two people’s perspectives.

There is an obvious exception that must be addressed.  Some art is beautiful despite the use of ugliness. In fact, ugliness seems to be the very thing that makes certain varieties of beauty more beautiful.  If this were not true, God’s plan for redemption would be darkened by our sin thereby making redemptive history one enormous contradiction. For light does not do battle with darkness but rather transforms it into more light.  Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is the most obvious example.  It is the ugliest movie ever made: “Let’s sit in a dark theater and watch a perfectly innocent man get sentenced to death by corrupt authorities, beaten to to bloody pulp, mocked by evil, ugly people, and then put to death by being nailed to a splintery cross and slowly suffocating.”  Why is this beautiful? The best it could possibly be is boring if not the sickest and ugliest thing you’ve ever watched.  This is not the case, however, because every ugly element in that movie is transformed by the Object of perfect beauty.  Every insult, every lash, every slap and punch, every nail, and every painful breath was transformed into a beautiful act of forgiveness and compassion because Jesus makes all things new through his own perfection.  Not only that, but those wounds also turned into victory through the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54)!  Such amazing beauty could not exist without something ugly being redeemed.  If you let this line of thought go through to its logical conclusion, you will understand why a good God allows evil to exist.  Sin turns into God’s goodness (Romans 5:20-21).  We can also see that unredeemed ugliness can also be beautiful so long as the ugliness knows that it is ugly and is seeking help; there is beauty in ugliness’s search for a cure to its ugliness. However, when ugliness does not desire to be redeemed or does not even realize that it is ugly, then it is intolerable.  The only exception is when unrepentant ugliness is depicted honestly; to point out a lie is to tell the truth, and this is also beautiful.

So then, there are three ways to express beauty.  One is to depict heaven through divine inspiration. The very thought of doing this makes me very nervous, although I have written a few pieces out of passionate joy that turned out very well.  To call it divinely inspired, however, is someone else’s job.  Another (and much safer way) to depict beauty is through redeeming ugliness or pointing out ugliness for what it is.  The third is to reveal lies for what they are. These three ways of creating beauty are all very difficult, but the only other alternative is to write pretentious lies.

When we apply all of this to the music in our worship services, we can see that many people take musical preference far too seriously. When a certain type of music is used because that is what people prefer, there is a risk of using music that doesn’t reflect heaven. The reason we select or create a style of music for worship should not be due to anyone’s preference, but rather to what music is the most true and beautiful. Whether truth is in the music through heaven being reflected, ugliness transformed, or lies dismantled, the music in worship services must be inherently beautiful. If this is done honestly, not everyone is going to naturally favor the music that is used because our sin keeps us from recognizing beauty. It causes our judgement to be biased towards ugliness.  There is therefore no possibility of every individual getting the music they naturally want in light of this truth. There will always be details of beauty that bother some people and not others since we are all uniquely imperfect.  All we can do is create and use music that is as true as possible. But as time progresses our music must point to heaven more and more (or reach out for it). How do we do this?

Technique 1; make beautiful music for beautiful reasons: The measurable and universal characteristics of musical truth must be used (we’ve already addressed this in “Acceptable Sounds in Worship; Quality”). We must also not be picky about what genres to use (this should be based on cultural context), but rather what specific sounds and patterns are based on aesthetic truth and theoretical concepts. Obvious falsehood should be avoided.  For example, heavily distorted electric guitars should not be used simply because the guitarist desires to sound powerful. This depicts God to be more like Thor than YHWH. Traditional western harmony, four part homophony, and strophic form should not be used for the sake of idolatrous nostalgia. The organ should not be abandoned (it’s being replaced by electronic keyboards, let’s face it) because it is quite possibly the most beautifully powerful instrument in the world.  The music is not to be easy simply because people are content to be unskilled; the sounds they make will reflect their poor attitude.  Yet all of these things are becoming rampant and are but a few examples of why the music in many worship services is becoming less and less beautiful.

Technique 2; admit that your music is ugly: All church music is ugly to a certain degree. This should not be a surprise and if it is I hope that it is only as surprising as Romans 3:32. To think that sinful people could create indisputable canonic music is like saying that people are basically good.  Only through divine inspiration could a person make a sound of perfect beauty.  And yet this debate of “traditional vs. contemporary” is still in session.  Just as all people are sinful, so our music is ugly. So instead of forcing music to be something that can only come through divine inspiration, expose the ugliness for what it is and redeem it.  Let the Thor-like guitar be Thor, but redeem it.  You will instantly hear the power of our all-mighty God taking the strength of a brute and turning it into divine power, glory, and majesty. Stop hiding your ugly sounds with lies and depict the ugly sounds reaching for heaven so that we may hear the saintly cry for mercy and God’s response of redemption. Who has the wisdom to attempt anything else? It’s very difficult to do, but I’d rather attempt to make sounds like that than sing lies.

Technique 3; give control to God: Stop and think about a few things that you find beautiful. Take the things you thought about; consider how much control you have over each of them. You’ll find that you have very little if any at all. When we consider Christ as the object of ultimate beauty, we realize that the reason we find him beautiful is not because we have control over him but rather because of who he is without our meddling. This idea holds true in our faith and all the way down through the created order.  We find beauty only when we discover something we don’t know. We discover it in the depths of the unpredictable and constantly changing details of life. My wife is beautiful because she has new things for me to discover each and every day.  She is beautiful because she is growing. Changing. Completely outside of my control. Free to be the woman God designed her to be. Were I to manage this freedom that makes her beautiful, every component of her being that I successfully controlled would no longer be beautiful to me. It would be like capturing a flame in a jar to take wherever I pleased while it slowly faded out of existence. I love the way she thinks because its not the way I think. I love the way she teaches because it’s not the way I teach. I find her beautiful because I do not have control over her, and we attend to each other’s aesthetics like gardeners attending to trees we don’t even know the names of. As should be the case with how we handle all beauty; particularly the bride of Christ and the sound she makes.

Regardless of what generation you are from, your music is not finished developing. I understand that many (particularly my elders,) hesitate to step outside of what they are comfortable with musically, but beauty is born out of the truth we are designed to revel in and there is no such thing as perfect beauty when it comes to man creating art in this life. It has to constantly continue becoming more true and more beautiful. So If the music in your church has not become any more beautiful for several years (let alone a century), then that should indicate a very serious problem: God’s spirit is not developing or moving in your music. Our music needs to progress in the same way that our understanding of God does because our music is an expression of worship created through our understanding of God. If you do not desire for your worship music to develop into deeper and truer beauty, it is very likely that your worship itself is not becoming deeper or truer either.

If you will not grow, then you will die.


Aesthetic Education; See the Art in and Around You

October 13th, 2010

We’ve previously defined aesthetic as the cumulative effect of every component within a specific framework.  Art produces aesthetic, but not just art produced by humans.  God is an artist too, and it is a sin to be indifferent to his creative work, the pinnacle of which is mankind. If only we realized the wonderful artistry found in each one of us we would not be as likely to sin by showing indifference let alone contempt towards each other and the world.  How do we recognize this Godly beauty in creation?  How do we develop it within ourselves?  How do we bring it out in each other?

Every person you’ve ever met has an aesthetic, and I’m sure you are well aware of this whether you’ve thought about it or not.  I’m referring to the cumulative effect of a person’s existence upon your senses.  Analyzing a person’s aesthetic is a completely rational way of evaluating another’s impression on your own mind.  Some components of a person are obvious:  physical appearance, personality, body language, accent, interests, intelligence, etc.  These are the things that determine whether or not a person is attractive, fun, annoying, or simply “nice”.  But there is something about a human being’s aesthetic that is unique; it’s that ability to behave in the way the person chooses.  It’s the ability to go against what is natural to human behavior or to not.  These choices are what weigh most heavily on a person’s aesthetic.

This trait of the ability to choose is what animates us and gives value to our lives.  It’s also what gives us the ability to develop virtue and vices.  It creates harmony because it makes chaos possible.  It is the center of our existence and causes within us a spectrum of possibility ranging from beauty to depravity.  It is this one thing that saturates our being and causes all of our other components to be seen by others in a way that will either please or irritate them depending upon the condition of their own aesthetic.

The evil, twisted, or unnatural aesthetic mutilates the beauty of natural human tendency.  It kills, covets, hates, gossips, and corrupts all that is good, having an inherent effect on the person and destroys them.  The aesthetic that chooses what is good goes along with unnatural human tendency and produces love, joy, peace, etc.  It is choice that creates beauty, but because of our desires that are contradictory to the way God designed us to be we all degrade our natural beauty to an extent no matter how good our choices are.  This causes our personal aesthetics to clash and grind against one another so that the whole of creation is degraded by our conduct.

So then, there is inherent aesthetic contrast between a good man and an evil one.  Obviously we’re all evil to an extent and fall somewhere on the spectrum of beauty and depravity.  But it’s important to identify extremes, decide where we fall, and how to progress on the path towards harmony.  But after we’ve done that, we quickly realize that we are not capable of reaching perfect beauty.  We strain ourselves and punish our flesh in a attempt to achieve a character produced by a righteous life.  Then many good-willed people justify their imperfections with the sorts of things the despised use to make themselves feel better; the main justification being the inappropriately ascribed subjectivity of beauty.

We are all created by the work of God, but we are still in progress: designed to make a choice as to whether or not we are going to allow God to animate us, or let our standard-less selves to animate us.  Whether we are to become beautiful works of art by the greatest artist in the universe who spilled His blood over us to complete us and perfect our beauty for the Artist’s glory, or to remain imperfect by rejecting completion.

We creatures are not left without a clue planted within ourselves.  It’s a taste of the perfect beauty we’re made to long for.  It’s the aesthetic of God longing to shine through our distinctive individuality.  This distinctive aesthetic is beyond words, music, or any other form of expression.  It can only be truly observed in the people you do life with.  And even then only in the people who have let themselves be the jars of clay God calls us to be; cracked and broken vessels overflowing with the Spirit of God.  But even with non-believers, glimpses of it can be seen longing to break forth but are suppressed by their desire to create a cheap imitation of themselves, thinking that they are fighting a tendency to be something ordinary.

We, along with the whole of creation, are simply components of one massive work of art.  Human art is a means of trying to assemble reality and make sense of its intricacies.  It is the physical form of asking questions, leaving finding answers to the perceiver.  It points us to the created world in such a way as to seek truth; God’s truth.  Since we ourselves, the physical world, and the spiritual world are all works of art, seeking the deepest truths of life through human art is perfectly logical.

Art does not teach us to know, but to seek to know.  To dwell on mystery.  To ponder various ways in which reality can be assembled and look at truth from a different angle; an intellectual exercise that brings life to your spirit (Roman 12:2, Phillipians 4:8).  Listen, look, read. Attend to various aesthetic objects so that your perception of reality can be sharpened.  Every angle available from which your are able to observe truth should be utilized.  Therefore, Aesthetic Education in the Church is not only necessary, but it is essential.


Soprano Saxophone and Piano Duet – Hide and Seek

September 6th, 2010

I had a very difficult time finishing soprano saxophone and piano duet. It began as a simple exercise in exploring orchestrational possibilities in jazz chords while applying percussion techniques on the keyboard. Adding a line for the saxophone simply seemed like the thing to do at the time, and it made it possible for me to have a live instrument for the presentation of my final project in the class I wrote it for. So I wrote the first two minutes of this piece with no intent outside of making pretty sounds. But I liked the sounds so much that I felt the need to turn them into a coherent musical exposition. After being stuck on the piece for about six months, I finally decided that the only way I was going to finish it was to make up an ending that worked and polish it until it was good.

This sample is taken from my album, Purpose. Click here for more information.

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Sample Score

I don’t have a sense of closure when a piece doesn’t seem to have any meaning outside of itself. So even when I had all but finished the piece I still couldn’t leave it alone because I didn’t understand what it meant. And yet I had already named the piece “Hide and Seek” simply because of the way it sounded. It seemed to be trying to go somewhere profound, but became sad when it couldn’t get there. Then it returned to searching for that profound place, this time without being concerned about the result.

The sound reminded me of my childhood games of hide and seek when I would be entertained by looking for my friends that had hidden from me. It was enjoyable not because I found them, but because I found them through a process of searching for them. But sometimes they would hide so well that I would grow weary of looking for them. But it would then be all the more exciting when I found them. But the purpose of the game wasn’t to find but to seek. So becoming irritated because I couldn’t find my friend was silly since all that should have resulted was enjoying the game longer.

While applying this concept to life itself, and thinking about the music in the context of the Purpose project, I finally realized that this piece is about searching for the purpose of life. Many people (myself included) become frustrated when attempting to work out the reason God put them on the earth. While there is the obvious Sunday school answer of “serving, worshipping, knowing, and glorifying God”, very few people are satisfied with that answer and justifiably so. Knowing and glorifying God is an infinitely broad description of our purpose since God is an infinite being. Saying that really means to do what we were doing all along but for a different reason and maybe throwing in a few religious practices to remind you of that reason. But as dissatisfying as the answer may be, it’s still the correct one. However, I’ve taken it a step further with this piece.

The beauty coupled with tension throughout the first fast section recounts the beauty of life in the midst of seeking the reason for our existence and being disillusioned by the answer we find. This results in a discontentment because without knowing the details of why we were put on this earth we have no idea of what to expect from life. So as we move into the slow section we wonder in vain why we exist and therefore what we should be doing with our lives. But in the midst of this anxiety, we find that beauty remains inherent all around us, even throughout our pain. This brings us to the second fast section in which the sounds that were harsh in the beginning have been reinterpreted and are beautiful. Nothing has changed but our reason for perceiving. We’ve realized that we exist for the sake of seeking the answer to the question of our existence. God put us here to ask questions and seek answers. Since God is throughout all aspects of creation, this ends up meaning that God put us here in order to seek Him. We still haven’t moved beyond the broad Sunday school answer, but this realization has satisfied me and justified my life and work.

Purpose hides and so we seek it. But along the way we find beauty and realize that the purpose of life is the process of searching for it.

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