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; Quality

January 17th, 2011

What are you capable of?  How much more time do you have to spend in practice?  Is someone available that has more time and would do a better job?  What is your motivation for being in front of your church playing an instrument or singing?  Are these fair questions?

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:19-25 (NIV)

My siblings in Christ, this is what we are doing on Sunday mornings during services.  This is what we are doing anytime we come together in prayer, fellowship, study, or song.  This is worship.  When we join together in song on Sunday morning or any other time, we are entering the throne room of God through the blood of our Lord Jesus to spend time pouring our hearts out to the King of the universe.  If we are going to insist on using music at our meetings, I would expect that the people or person leading the music take it more seriously than anything else they do during their week (unless the same person is speaking).

I have an unsettling number of memories of worship services that were clearly not taken seriously.  Sometimes this has been demonstrated through an effort issue in which a better sound was possible but not attempted because it was “good enough for church” (being out of tune due to laziness during performance for example).  Sometimes it has been a preparation issue that should have been avoided through more individual study and practice. Sometimes it has been because a person incapable of the task leads music because they were “led by the spirit” to do so.  If the music during services is being taken as seriously as it should be taken, should we not see people’s most valiant efforts to sound as good as possible?  Unfortunately, the issue of taking the music seriously is a surface issue, the possible causes of which are much more diabolical.

Being a highly trained musician, I know all too well the extreme temptation of thinking too much of myself after a performance that brings people to their feet in appreciation for what I just accomplished.  While it’s fine to be pleased that I have pleased others, it is not fine to be pleased with myself for all the hard work I did to get that reaction (that is pride, the sin that made Satan who he is). I should be pleased only to the end that I brought pleasure to my audience.  Leading worship with music requires humility in performance to be taken to a whole new level. When I do a recital, it’s half about me being really good at music and half about teaching people about God through music.  Pleasing my audience for the sake of pleasing my audience is on my agenda.  However, when someone leads worship with music their agenda should not be to please others, but to lead both their self and their congregation into passionate worship of our Creator.  If someone is pleased with the leader, I hope it is because the leader played or sang so effortlessly, skillfully, and passionately that the layman saw Christ right through the leader and worshipped Christ without a second thought towards what the leader was doing.  Therefore, every musical leader in a church should search themselves deeply and honestly in order to find their motivation behind leading worship.  Regardless of what they find within themselves, humility has to be the top priority before leading music.  If this one thing were handled more honestly, many issues related to taking musical worship seriously would be solved.

Take ability for an example. As a music teacher, I can confidently say that consistent practice for a notable length of time will always yield an increase in proficiency.  If someone is not showing steady progress in their technique, then they’re clearly not taking the role of leading a congregation into the throne room of the Almighty through the blood of Christ seriously enough. If not practicing would not be acceptable in a recital hall, how much less in this context?  If people are getting on the stage in church and not giving the sacrifice of praise they are capable of, what is this saying about their motivation for leading worship? As I hope you are beginning to see, the attitude required in order to lead musical worship takes care of these other problems.

Humility causes the right motivation. The right motivation causes leading music to be taken very seriously. Taking worship seriously causes refined technique. Therefore, just as good works are the natural result of faith (James 2:14-25), good technique is the natural result of humility.

So how good should the music be in church to be acceptable?  Depending on the cultural context, the size of the church, the availability of skilled people, and the quality of the local teachers, the music should be the best in town.  However, it should also be very different because of the reason behind the sound…


Art and Imagination

November 29th, 2010

This an essay that a good (anonymous) friend of mine wrote a while back.  It seems to tie some of the things that we’ve been discussing together and I’m exited about showing this to all of you.  Don’t forget to click the “like” button on the bottom!

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Art is a set of actions, rather than an object. When I see a painting, I see the actions someone has done with a set of given materials. Artistry is an act of creation. Thus, giving someone a cold glass of water in Christ’s name is a work of art. Witnessing and giving a sermon is a work of art. We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires us and brings new life, which in turn changes the way we act. In this way, spiritual fruit, the act, becomes art: we engage in the act of creation, imitating God in the beginning.

When we see the natural world, we see the creation of the Master Artist, even though both the natural realm and our perceptual faculties are filthy with sin. As disciples, one of the ways we grow is by fellowshipping (communicating) with other Spirit-indwelt believers.  This communication may take many forms, but it may be boiled down to action. A sermon, for example, is an action: it is art. The preacher engages in an action that involves communicating truth to the congregation.

Art, then, is a witness and a discipler, because it is a set of actions that communicates truth from a Spirit-indwelt believer to the world. This holds true for music, literature, paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc. All of these forms may be as didactic as any Western sermon (though most CCM today is not. As Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology, “[W]hen I began to select hymns that correspond to the great doctrines of the Christian faith, I realized that the great hymns of the church throughout history have a doctrinal richness and breadth that is still unequaled”). Art in this sense, can also do the work of systematic theology texts (and for many, it is more memorable.)

All of this hinges on the act of communicating, which invokes the concept of the metaphor. Because our feeble brains are not capable of comprehending God fully, we understand his characteristics are like unto other things, but always better (here the imagination is at work). So when David declares that “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress,” we obviously don’t believe that the Lord is actually a rock or a fortress, but our imagination allows us to make the jump from that metaphor to an understanding of the Lord really is like: stable and unmoved, like a fortress, only better. This is how the imagination is tied to worship. The imagination allows us to make attempts at seeing what cannot be seen from what we can see.

Art is a way of explaining these things because it welds the natural realm to transcendence. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth forth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” The ultimate tapestry reveals truth in a way that is not actual speech, but it is of course communication. Human art, then, is a way of imitating God and conveying his truth.

Art, then, can be a sermon. It can be a teacher, a discipler. Art is one of the best ways to awaken our minds to the worldly areas of our minds, since much art from the past was created by the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. When Dante came to Purgatory, the place of cleansing and preparation for Paradise, he noticed many souls staring at carvings in the stone walls. The carvings were works of art, many of them portraying Biblical scenes, and the point seems to be that art can be used by God as a purifier, a conveyor of truth and beauty. Dante, Dostoevsky, Caravaggio, and Bach are no less brilliant teachers in my mind than Grudem.

Beyond the teaching aspect, art can also be legitimately pleasurable. On this Calvin writes, “Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of the smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet it will be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor…Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us apart from their necessary use?” So apart from the necessaries, there is something about beauty that is good for us. One must ask, “Why, then, did God give us flowers? or pleasure at all?” I submit that we not only learn more about the beauty and the joy of the Lord, but it is an aesthetic experience that is wholly separate from knowledge and wisdom, and equally desirable.

One final point involves the skill necessary to complete certain pieces of art. When building the tabernacle, the Israelites selected only the finest craftsmen to complete the Lord’s house. This suggests that only the best will do for God, as in the first fruits. This is deeply connected with how David speaks of worshiping God in the “beauty of holiness.” To be holy is to be separate. There are many works of art that the layperson will never be able to imitate; these beautiful artworks (sets of actions) are beautiful because they are distinct and set apart. This suggests that true beauty is separate and transcendent, and that all beauty that we can ever see in art is merely a signifier, a pointer to true beauty: God.


Saxophone and Clarinet – Essence Altered

October 7th, 2010

I originally wrote this saxophone and clarinet duet for Liz and I to play at our wedding. It is, however, perfect for any setting whether it be for a wedding, church service, or a recital (I’ve used it for all three). However, since it was designed to be played by a bride and groom, the idea is to depict two people becoming one in the music. This is exactly what happens at a wedding, and the piece’s dissonant beauty reflects this sacred concept. This concept should be made clear to your audience so that they properly understand the piece.

This sample is taken from my album, Purpose. Click here for more information; its total length is 5 minutes

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Sample score

Additional information

I am now going to disclose my full intended meaning for this saxophone and clarinet duet, and I fear that both good-willed and malicious people may misunderstand. Discussing sexuality can be a very sensitive thing because of how our culture has mutilated it. We have taken an innocent and beautiful part of creation and removed it from its proper context thereby perverting the entire concept; from the act itself to its relational and spiritual application. Currently, sexuality is always associated with copulation in one way or another and people cannot seem to get this out of their minds. Sexuality can be (and in this context should be) understood as a deeply intimate relational concept that refers to a certain level of connectivity between physical sentient beings. It cannot be related to animals and it cannot be related to spirits. It is for the spirit-animal hybrids that we humans are. It has something to do with sex and as well as something to do with the marriage relationship and its intimate spiritual connectivity.

While this piece refers primarily to the spiritual aspects of sexuality, the sex act makes the spiritual aspects possible which is why its purpose in uniting man and wife cannot go undiscussed. Between Genesis 2:24, I Corinthians 7:4, and Ephesians 5:28-31, it is quite clear that a married couple is to be regarded not just as a unit, but a single physical organism. How this works is something of which Paul writes in Ephesians 5, “This is a profound mystery.” When a couple gets married, their resultant relationship is so deep and so profound that eventually their body, soul, and mind literally begin to function as a single unit. Two separate beings slowly growing to know each other perfectly and in every way in order to become one while each individual maintains the wonderfully complex distinctiveness that God gave each of them. Sex seems to have something to do with this, but it’s simply a means to an end. This end is what I’m attempting to get at with this piece; that profound mystery that I will never understand.

The first thirty seconds or so begin with a technique in which I give the performers a set of notes and tell them to improvise for a set amount of time. I’ve written the pitch sets in such a way as to leave no possibility for resolution so that by the time this section is over an unsettled and yet profoundly peaceful atmosphere has been created. This resultant texture represents two restless spirits of a living man and woman who are longing to be with one another; the essences of two human beings passionately desiring the fundamental change needed for them to become a single entity without compromising their distinctiveness.

After this opening improvisatory section, the rest of the piece consists of a simple three part form. The outer sections resemble a series of long sighs in which the instruments slowly merge in and out of each other’s timbre and pitch. The resultant sequence of dissonance and consonance is reflective of the intensity, depth, beauty, and mystery of the love found within the marriage relationship. However, since I’m depicting a change, the first of these outer sections deals with the relationship before the fundamental change that begins after marriage.

The middle section takes a motive from the limited melodic material presented in the first section and elaborates on it. This development is accompanied by the same type of improvisation as in the beginning, but this time with direction and intent. These elements work together to push the sound back into the sighs depicted at the beginning. The saxophone’s improvised texture is designed in such a way as to envelop the the clarinet’s sound while still allowing the clarinet to be clearly heard. Heading towards the climax of the piece the clarinet and saxophone both begin to have windows of improvisation. The lines (both improvised and not) dance around one another with increasing energy, finally pausing on a single pitch in unison. The two lines then separate with a sharp attack on the same dissonant interval which we heard in the beginning that resolves to reveal a much more intense and in depth joyful sigh compared to what we heard in the beginning. When the saxophone resolves the sigh, the clarinet responds by cascading down to a lower register which results in a related and peaceful sound caused by all of the sound that came before it.

The final section represents the goal of this fundamental change. The two distinct and complimentary people are now seen as one person. Their essences can now freely pass in and out of one another without fear and without shame. They know and are known deeply by one another.

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