Music as “Hard, Bodily Work”

In his book Rainbows for the Fallen World, Calvin Seerveld draws attention to the possible misappropriation of the creative nature of God as the straightforward model of our creative nature (26).  While I’m not sure I agree with him that the relationship between God as Creator and man as creative is always so misleading that it over-spiritualizes and individualizes the nature of artistic activity, he brings up the excellent point that it may lead us to “overlook[] the limited, serviceable, craftsmanship character of artistic activity” (26).  He proceeds to explain that a healthy understanding of art recognizes it as hard work that can be a legitimate vocation that must be embedded both in a community of artists and in the community of saints.

Although many of the performers around me seem to find themselves most at ease in a community of musicians, it can be tempting to consider oneself an autonomous agent, acquiring skills for one’s own, individual creativity.  I think this temptation may be strongest for composers, who are trying to create something entirely new.  But Christian performers and composers (and theorists) should not spiritualize their creative “genius” as only coming as a gift from God and needing no additional development; we all need the training and sharpening feedback of a musical community.

Musicians know that what they do is very difficult.  We are no strangers to long, late hours of practice, rife with muscular, mental, and often emotional fatigue.  But the end result at many a given performance appears effortless, almost like magic.  It is thus tempting for many to imagine music as an otherworldly field only comprehensible to and attainable by a select few.

We struggle when we feel that the body of believers around us has this attitude, or does not understand the energy and richness of what we do – i.e. if they ask us to leave off the complicated “classical” stuff and play something a little more in tune with the times, or if they assume that music is something we should just do in our spare time or should only do in church, etc.  At these moments, we find ourselves tempted to emotionally separate ourselves, or at least our musical selves, from the church, only expecting to grow musically in a community of musicians.

Certainly, the church needs to support artists; they function in a critical capacity, redeeming the culture through hard work and God-given talent, pouring out blood, sweat and tears into yet imperfect work that still hopes to acknowledge the turmoiled, sinful world around it and redirect it to the joy and hope of God’s saving work (Seerveld, 34-41… more later).  But we, as artists, cannot abandon the church either.  As difficult as it can be, we need to find ways to embed our whole selves in the church, to ground our thinking, our practice, our art in the solidity of the word of God and in the fellowship of the body of Christ.  We need to reach out and in love show our brothers and sisters more of what we do and why.  It seems to me that it is worth it to explain some of the difficulty we experience and some of the joy and beauty we encounter in our “classical” repertoire… why we think it gives glory to God in specific and unique ways.  So let us not separate any part of ourselves from Christ’s body, and let us work hard.

A preliminary defense

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.

Why is it so challenging to be a Christian musician?

As an undergraduate student of piano at a Christian liberal arts college, I struggled with my chosen vocation.  I found myself asking questions like, “is this subject really worth studying as a Christian?” and “shouldn’t I be pursuing something more obviously “ministry” oriented?”  Ultimately, I longed to know how the study of music can be a legitimate calling for a believer.

Why these questions, this terrible pressure to justify my calling?  Among the reasons were these:

First, I felt the tug of my field on my heartstrings.  The music world tends to be all-encompassing.  It can inspire whole-hearted devotion because it is both powerful and demanding, but this devotion easily becomes idolatry.  As Philip Ryken puts it, “Art is always tempted to glory in itself, and nearly every form of art has been used to communicate values that are contrary to Scripture” (Art for God’s Sake, 12).  I have seen this born out very deeply in my surroundings during my current studies in a secular environment, where many of the musicians around me live and breathe the music they play.

Second, there seems to be a modernist attitude implicit (and occasionally explicit) among many Christians that music “doesn’t concern anything objective, anything that could invite claims to truth” (Begbie, Resounding Truth, 14).  Or if it does have anything to do with objective truth, as it was thought to in ancient Greek philosophy and Augustinian theology, it simply points beyond itself to those objective things and has little or no value in itself (Begbie, RT, 83).  Related to this issue is the frequent verbal orientation of the church’s view of music.  Music is often seen solely as a servant of words instead of a form of communication and worship in its own right.

Finally, and poignantly, there are more urgent issues out there, such as natural disasters, climate change, hunger, AIDs, and unreached people.   As a result, it is easy to conceive music and the arts as trivial and inconsequential, a distraction from life (Begbie, RT, 14-15).  I wondered if this were true, and if I were devoting my life to something with a negligible role in the process of serving God and others in the world.

Fortunately, my path did not stop here.  In my next post I will explore in brief the reasons that have helped me to develop a more well-rounded theological view of music as a Christian vocation.

Purpose & Mission

The purpose of this blog is to foster and facilitate dialogue about the integration of the Christian faith with the study and practice of music, specifically among young Christian music students and professionals – my peers.  While this aim relates to the use of music in worship, this dialogue is meant to encompass a much broader understanding of the relationship between theology and doxology on the one hand and music in its variegated use and practice throughout Western (especially American) culture, along with the arts in general.

It is unfortunately the case that many young Christian musicians view their musical development as one branch of their lives and their spiritual development as a separate branch, sustaining only a vague notion of how the two might connect.  This ambiguity often finds little clarification within the church, in part because many churches are suspicious of the arts and music, especially as vocational callings.  The dialogue about music in the church is often limited to the use of music in worship services, an area that deserves attention, albeit less divisive attention, but this hardly addresses the problems facing the aspiring Christian musician.

Recently, some theologians within the church have responded with deep insight to this problem, which faces the arts in general (see the Resources page).  It is the mission of this blog to bring this conversation to young Christian musicians, in order that we may equip ourselves with a practical theology of music and the arts, a theology that may perhaps be introduced and summarized by a quote from Philip Ryken:

As Christians, we should lead the way in reclaiming the arts and restoring them to their true purpose.  We are living in a fallen and broken world; yet for all its ugliness, this world was made by God and will be saved by his grace.  Therefore, we should devote our skill to making art for the glory of God, and for the sake of his Son – our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ.

~ Art for God’s Sake, 58