I remember a conversation a few years ago with a professor at Houghton in which I explained my struggle to reconcile my efforts in my faith and in my musical development, which I treated as two separate endeavors. After a moment, he responded that he would pray that I would discover how the two can merge into one, unified trajectory. At the time, I remember feeling frustrated. I knew in a vague way that my study of music could glorify God, but I wasn’t aiming to be a worship leader and I struggled to understand how hours in the practice room – a solitary affair – could actually be as important as they felt to me. However, through that conversation originated the pursuit of a theology of music that has led to this blog, a theology which draws a great deal from the doctrines of creation and salvation.
As Scripture opens, we are introduced to God as the Creator, expressing his creativity and passion in the creation of a remarkable world. The culmination of this lavish, poetic process is the creation of humans:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
We –all humanity – bear the image of God. It has been tainted and broken by sin, but that image remains stamped on us. And, arguably, one of the most distinctive ways in which we can recognize the image of God is in our creativity. According to Philip Ryken, God’s calling and gifting of artists reveals the deep truth that God “himself is the supreme Artist” (Art for God’s Sake, 22). Ryken further legitimizes this claim by specifically referring to God’s calling and gifting of the artists Bazalel and Oholiab, the artists in charge of the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, as well as his calling of Jubal and line of Levitical musicians (AGS, 18, 25). These artists were skilled and intelligent, gifted by God, as well as willing to answer the call.
Music is also part of the cosmic order of things. While certain aspects of it are clearly shaped by human culture, it also operates on its own plane, in the realm of sound and its interaction with the human body. Jeremy Begbie states it well:
Since music is something made by humans, it will show the imprint of particular people, social groups, cultures, and their interests. But at the same time, because it is made from given sound-producing materials and sounds and by people who share common physical features and together live in a temporally constituted world, it is not surprising if we find extremely pervasive patterns and procedures in most musics of the world. In short, music seems to be a matter of both nature and nurture, and in gaining a Christian perspective on music, much depends on holding both of these perspectives together. What is at stake theologically here is a full-blooded doctrine of creation that recognizes our embeddedness in a given, common physical environment. (Resounding Truth, 49)
In light of this understanding of music, the “sacred v. secular” dichotomy makes little sense, for “so-called secular music is an exploration of the world that God has made” (Ryken, AGS, 34). Music has its own integrity within the sonic order at large and the patterned realm of musical sound, and should “flourish in all the fullness of [its] artistic potential, so that we may discover the inherent possibilities of creation and thereby come to a deeper knowledge of our Creator” (Ryken, AGS, 35).
Music has many functions, which have diversified to an unprecedented amount in the last century (see Begbie, RT, Introduction and Chapter 1). One of its greatest strengths is its ability to express that which is inexpressible or inadequately expressible in words. Music has great power to act on our hearts and emotions, as well as on our minds and even bodies… for which reason it has been linked with the spiritual, religious, and moral from the time of the ancient Greeks until the present. This is not without its dangers, but I believe it is also dangerous to attempt to do away with the less ‘rational’ aspects of our humanity. We could learn a great deal from Bach’s theological outlook, which “is hospitable to both music and word, allowing both to make their contribution, and often together” (Begbie, RT, 138, italics mine). In addition, “Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose” (Ryken, AGS, 41). Thus, the Christian musician expresses truths about the reality of the world, truths that are not solely bound up in words, truths that express both the ugliness and the beauteous hope of redemption.
Ultimately, the practice and study of music must be to the glory of God, but, to draw on Begbie yet again, “it is just because we are oriented to this particular God who desires things and people to flourish in their own integrity that we will long to give ‘room’ to the activities of making and hearing music… it is only as we are reconciled by the Spirit to this God … that we will be able to honor the integrity of music properly” (RT, 23). Thus, the pursuit of music in its integrity may be a valuable expression of an important aspect of God and his creation, glorifying his creativity and lavish love for us… and for the Christian musician, it must be.