Wednesday 21 July 2010

Music, Life & Worship

The place of music in the Christian life is frequently misunderstood. I have heard many views expressed concerning its place, that range from one extreme where it is rejected as an unnecessary distraction from God's word, through to the opposite extreme where it is given a place at the centre of the Christian life and experience of worship that reduces the importance of expense teaching the Word, prayer and so on.  At either extreme, the focus can drift easily from the cross of Christ to us - our desires, needs and personal satisfaction. We could all think of trivial and largely unimportant arguments that distract us from actually understanding what the Bible teaches about the relevance of music to worship, faith and a life centred on Christ    

The latest edition of Case magazine with the theme 'Music and Theology' attempts to shed some biblical light on the place of music in the Christian life. One of our contributors is Steven R. Guthrie. In an earlier article 'Singing, in the body and the Spirit' (2003) Guthrie suggested that music is not just a simple addition to what people of faith do in the name of worship. He argued that it has always sat alongside prayer and the reading of the Word as one of the building blocks of Christian worship.  He wrote in 2003:
Whatever support music may offer words, however it may highlight, reinforce or enhance the text, music itself—the music of music—is used in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Music is a suitable resource in this work, not despite, but because it engages women and men at the level of body and sense. First of all, music enlists body and sense in the praise of God, re-orienting and re-defining these fundamental human endowments, which may once have been used solely for self-gratification. Secondly, singing together involves sensing and responding to others and one’s environment. Throughout Ephesians and elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul likens the church to a body...Corporate song is a sensory experience in which we dynamically respond to others, and so, give these corporeal analogies greater depth and power. Finally, by virtue of the distinctive properties of musical sound, music offers a powerful aural image of life together. In particular, music articulates a kind of unity in which individual distinctiveness is preserved and even enhanced.
In the latest issue of Case Magazine Guthrie contributes a new piece, 'The Song-Shaped Soul', in which he extends his earlier thinking by examining a letter written by Athanasius (c 295-373) to Marcellinus about the Psalms. In it Athanasius draws attention to singing the Psalms as part of our 'spiritual discipline' and as part of our growing life of faith.

Guthrie points out that Athanasius suggests that a primary reason for singing is not expressing ourselves in words and sound, but rather taking words in, something he calls 'im-pression'. The psalms for Athanasius were a way not just to express our emotions, but also to understand and express the emotions of others. Guthrie reminds us that singing is an act of imitation not just expression. Athanasius wrote:
"He who recites the psalms....sings them as if they were written concerning him, and he accepts them and recites them not as if another were speaking nor as if speaking about someone else. But he handles them as if he is speaking about himself. And the things spoken are such that he lifts them up to God as himself acting and speaking then from himself."
Guthrie's thoughts, and those of our other contributors to Case may just change the way you view music. If you'd like to read the other articles in this issue you can obtain a single copy or become a subscriber to Case. You can also download Guthrie's piece free. The five articles on theme are:
  • 'The song-shaped soul' by Steven R, Guthrie - As the above suggests, Guthrie explores the question 'Why do Christians sing?'
  • 'Theologising about music in worship' by Andy Judd - Judd examines four theologies of music and poses a challenge for today's church and music leaders.
  • 'Polyphony of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer' by Jeremy Begbie - Begbie explores the place of music in life drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writing.
  • 'Musical aesthetics: Paul vs Plato' by Peter Dart - Dart considers Paul's words on music and how these relate to the rest of Scripture as well as Platonic thinking of the first century.
  • 'Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. What are they and why sing them?' by Rob Smith - Rob Smith considers what Paul meant by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
Steven Wright also reviews Jeremy Begbie's book 'Theology, Music and Time' (HERE).

For those readers living in or near Sydney you might want to come to the New College Lectures this year (14-16 Sept 2010) at which Prof Jeremy Begbie (below) will deliver three lectures in a series titled 'Music Modernity and God'

Previous post 'The Influence of Music on Hearts and Minds' (HERE)

1 comment:

Greg T said...

Hi Trevor,
Thanks for putting together this issue of CASE. Questions of why and how we “do” music in church (or generally as followers of Jesus) have always provoked a good deal of heat as well as light, and I found all of the articles interesting, and helpful in sorting out some of the issues.
There are a couple of topics of that didn’t receive a great deal of attention which might be worth exploring at some stage (maybe in a follow-up issue, or in the blog?).
The first of these concerns a deeper exploration of the “why” (and in a particular sense, the “how”) of church music. Most of the articles explore to a greater or lesser degree the biblical justification (or injunction) for “making music in our hearts to the Lord”. What interests me is what happens when we do that. How, for instance, does the Holy Spirit use music in the hearts of individual believers, and in our gatherings, to achieve his purposes? Music has the function (among other things) of engaging the emotions. It seems likely that God wants us to worship him with our whole being – with every part of ourselves (this I take to be the main point of the command to love him with all of our “heart, soul, mind and strength”). If this is the case, can it be that we are loving God inadequately if we do not worship him with our emotions (what I think John Piper refers to as “godly affections”)? What part (if any!) is played in this by the way we make music in church? Peter Dart’s article did touch on this, but I would have enjoyed reading a deeper exploration of the subject.
The other topic I was hoping might have received more attention is the question of the kind of music we use in church (once again, I think the Peter Dart article touched on this). To put it bluntly, not all church music is of equal quality – especially modern worship songs. The scriptural model seems to be that we should pursue excellence in this area (1 Chronicles 15:22). I have to say that quite a few of the modern worship songs I am familiar with are almost unsingable (I do not have any particular skill in that area, but am also not entirely unmusical, so I don’t think it’s just me!). I think it is a question of how well songs work as songs. Certainly, as some of the articles suggested, the music must support the words: the starting point should be lyrics that are at the very least biblically sound. However, it seems that quite a few modern worship songwriters (Rob Smith, I should point out, is not one of them!) simply haven’t learned that the music and lyrics of a song must work together so that the end result is singable – that it works as a song - rather than being merely a paraphrase of, or exposition on, some part of scripture “shoehorned” into a melody, with little regard for questions of metre, rhythm, breathing, and other factors. If a song doesn’t work as a song (i.e. at the very least be singable for the great majority of ordinary people with no musical training), then personally I would rather just recite scripture! I admit I have a bee in my bonnet about this, so had better cease ranting!