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.


Acceptable Sounds for Worship; Deeper Problems

December 12th, 2010

I’ve heard more than a few stories about churches breaking apart over issues related to music used during services.  I’ve heard many arguments condemning much of the music I enjoy because of it’s musical content (not lingual).  More often than not, traditional music is accepted in the sanctuary no matter its intent while new music is probed and prodded simply because of the fact that it is new.  But on what basis do all of these things occur?  Is it the Word of God, or is it a dismissible preference issue that has been blown way out of proportion?

I hope that we can all agree that there is no solid Biblical basis for deeming one sound as blasphemous and another as holy.  On what doctrine or passage of scripture is the organ more relevant to our relationship with God than a guitar?  By whose authority is a four part homophonic texture sacred and a rock beat profane?  Do the dark forces have such specificity in their dominion over the physical world that they have actually taken control of certain sound waves and mathematical patterns when executed through time?  Of course not, that would be silly. It seems to me that the only satanic thing that has taken place as a result of the new sounds that have been made over the past century is the fact that they have divided the church and caused wild accusations in various conservative Christian circles.  To deem a rock beat or a strummed guitar as unfit for use in worship is comparable to saying that certain shades of purple or the use of a powerpoint presentation is unfit to use for worship.  Satan does not have power over such things, he only has the power to tempt us to use them against God’s laws (pride, for example).

Different sounds are the musician’s tools for creating aesthetic (the actual message). In language, you cannot condemn a speech based on the use of a certain word. Even if a pastor uses a curse word in a sermon (I’ve witnessed this twice and was not offended at all) you cannot judge his message based on the use of a certain linguistic tool unless you deeply analyze its context. Sounds are elements of a larger context, just like words. To condemn a musical work for the use of a specific element is comparable to the condemnation of a craftsman for using a crescent wrench instead of a regular one.  Instruments and basic stylistic expressions and ostinatos are tools and have no spiritual implications outside of the ones maliciously ascribed to them by humans.  Does it matter if the pastor uses powerpoint, overhead, or no visual aid when he speaks?  Should congregations be worked up about the eccentric polka-dot skirt someone wore to Wednesday night prayer meeting?  Wrenches are wrenches, visual aides are visual aides, clothes are clothes (assuming the skirt is in line with 1 Timothy 2:9-10), and sounds are sounds.  If anyone has any contention about this, I urge you to dig into the Bible (the whole Bible) without allowing your interpretation to be influenced by your immediate social context or the way you were raised.

Please note that I have no quarrel with preferences.  If you just don’t like the drums, I’m fine with that.  But don’t you dare say that they have no place in corporate worship. If you don’t like a strummed guitar but it’s being used in your church, feel free to make a quiet suggestion knowing full-well that the sound itself is of no consequence.  I hope that clears up any misconceptions so that we can move on to deeper and more urgent matters:

Please bear with me as I contradict myself.  Sounds (when put together in profound ways) have enormous theological, philosophical, programmatic, political, and emotional implications.  However, the complexity and formal structure required in order to achieve sounds that are capable of this are far greater than with what most Christians are familiar.  The fact that many of us are unfamiliar with sounds capable of deep meaning is a matter that concerns me greatly.  This is not because Christians should be expected to be interested in the complex sounds of today’s academic institutions.  On the contrary, I don’t think the church as a whole has any use for the academic classical music that is being produced today. I’m concerned because nearly every church in the world uses this form of expression, yet their leaders don’t understand music well enough to use it in any constructive or deeply worthwhile way.

Week after week our congregations are presented with sounds that function as no more than an entertaining addition to the text (which had more meaning before it was set to music).  In extreme cases, the music even makes a mockery of the text it sets. Outside of the text, much of the church’s music is very shallow if not completely irrelevant to our faith.  It seems to me that if something is going to be included in our corporate worship that it be valuable at least to the end of coloring a relevant text in a way that enhances its meaning.

Worship music is not simply a melodic line used to sing a text that agrees with the Christian worldview.  For example, “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” is not worship music, but a worship text.  That tune played by itself portrays Christianity and a form of deism simultaneously, making the melody an unsettling oxymoron. While the song can be justified being used in church by pointing out aesthetic implications between the text and the music and the comparing text to the text in Beethoven’s 9th, the tune is not worship music by any stretch of the imagination and the hymn should be handled very carefully if it is used in worship. The key words in worship music are “worship” and “music”.  I’ve been asked before what I thought worship music was, and I never gave a straight answer. I am realizing that the reason for dodging this question is due to the scarcity of worship music.  It’s very difficult to pinpoint a definition without clear examples to test your conclusion.  But in any case, this essay demands to conclude with an attempt:

Christian worship music is harmony, melody, color, and rhythm that is organized for the expressed purpose of paying homage to Christ and portraying or teaching the Christian worldview with it’s cumulative effect on a sentient being.

Sounds without theological meaning have no place in corporate worship.  That said, I hope we all realize that people on both sides of this issue have a lot of work to do.

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