Saturday, May 20, 2006

Music and the Bible

Not too long ago my family had the privilege of visiting a family of traditional Mennonites. One of the features of this family’s religion was the rejection of worldly practices and objects that might serve as a distraction in the pursuit of holiness. As a principle, that sounded scriptural and I agreed with it. However, I was concerned when I learned that the pursuit of holiness excluded the use of musical instruments. When I questioned the father of the family on this position, he explained that it was because the New Testament does not tell us to use musical instruments. Fortunately, not too long ago I had done a Bible study on ‘music appreciation in the Bible’, so I was able to share with this man all the New Testament verses that do support musical instruments.

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament provide a strong basis for the importance of music appreciation. The first place we see this is right in the beginning of the Bible, where God made man into His image (Gen. 1:26). Now what in the world does that have to do with music? Well, being made in God’s image means that we are innately musical just as we are innately linguistic. Some people are more musical than others, but all people have the capacity to recognize and appreciate music. Because this capacity for musical appreciation arises from our being made in the image of God, it is not something our animal friends share, at least not in the same way.

If we reflect on God’s attributes, we see that music arises out of His very nature. We learn in the Bible that the triune God is both a unity and a diversity. We learn from the Bible that God and His purposes have continuity while also being dynamic. We read in the Psalms that the Lord is a God of beauty. The flow of Biblical history shows us that the Lord is a God of order and purpose. Now all these divine attributes are also characteristic of good music: good music has unity and diversity, continuity and dynamism, order, beauty, purpose. All the ingredients of good music arise out of God’s being. Therefore, good music has the capacity to draw us closer to God. But music also has the potential to draw us further away from the Lord, in so far as it departs from the divine characteristics of order, beauty, coherence, etc..

So to summarise my first point, music arises out of who God is, and because we are made in the image of God, we are capable of appreciating music. This does not mean that our appreciation of good music will be automatic, any more than our appreciation of language is automatic. We need to be trained to learn how to enjoy the language of music just as a young child must learn to enjoy verbal language.

The second reason music is important for Christians is again found in Genesis 1. The Lord instructed mankind to take dominion of the earth and to keep/guard that which He had given. This dominion mandate was a challenge for man to develop the earth, which was rich with cultural, aesthetic, intellectual and technological potential. Music, like all the arts and sciences, is an area where we can take dominion as God’s image-bearers.

Even before the fall, Adam must have known that he was incapable of completely fulfilling the dominion mandate by himself, even with the help of his wife Eve. He must have been aware that it would be through His offspring that the dominion mandate would be progressively fulfilled. Even the simple job of naming the animals is something Adam would not have been able to do alone. Scientists are still finding new animals to name, and in many cases it has only been because ultra high-tech equipment has been invented that they can discover and name certain microscopic species. Similarly with music, it falls on Adam’s descendents to take dominion of the earth’s musical resources. As we read through the Genesis narrative, we find different family groups taking dominion of different areas. We are told in Genesis 4:21 that Jubal who was descended from Cain was “the father of all those who play the harp and flute, just as Jabal was “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” (Gen. 4:20). Exploiting the earth’s resources to build pianos, cellos and recording equipment is a way of fulfilling the cultural mandate and is, therefore, part of our spiritual worship. (See Denis Alexander's article 'Worshiping God with Technology'.)

These principles are not nullified when we come to the ‘dispensation’ of the New Testament, as was suggested to me by my Mennonite friend. The New Testament affirms the continuing relevance of the Old Testament and, moreover, it shows that man still has the vocation to act as God’s image-bearer. As the community of Jesus’ people, the injunction to proclaim the Lord's dominion into every area of life and culture is increased not diminished. (See my article The Power of the Gospel Part I and Part II)

Another reason why music is important for the Christian is because music is a tool for praising the Lord. All of the Psalms were originally songs to be sung, and references to praising the Lord on musical instruments permeate the Psalms from beginning to end. The Psalms enjoin us to “sing to the Lord a new song!” (Ps. 98:1), to “Come before His presence with singing” (Ps. 100:2), to sing of mercy and justice to the Lord (Ps. 101:1), and on and on. Even when we play, sing or listen to music that is not directly praising the Lord, God is praised indirectly when the Christian does it to God’s glory. There is a great line in the film Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell said that when he runs he feels God pleasure. Similarly, when I listen to good music, and especially when I start analysing good music, I feel God taking pleasure in it.

The next reason why music is important for a Christian is a bit more complicated, but bear with me. Listening to music critically helps to interpret scripture. This is because critical music appreciation exercises the brain’s capacity for abstract thinking. Because music, unlike all the other arts, is made up of pure sound, it is invisible. If you listen to classical music critically, there isn’t any concrete immediacy. You have to use your abstract mental muscles to notice patterns, themes, coherence, connections, differences, etc.. You have to recognize the flow: where is this coming from, where is this going, how does this fit with that, and so on. Now the ability to recognize patterns, themes, coherence, connections, differences, flow, etc., is a mental skill that is also necessary for critical reasoning and Biblical interpretation.

One of the problems with Bible teaching in a lot of evangelical churches is that there is an inability to notice the patterns, themes, coherence and connections in scripture. People don’t have a sense of the overall flow of where things are going and how everything in scripture fits together in an overall theological scheme. Often the Bible gets reduced to so many isolated proof-texts or stories, with no understanding of the grand meta-narratives. Now the ability to make connections and identify features of continuity is only possible with people who can think abstractly, even creatively. Music trains the brain in these areas. Therefore, I believe it is essential to teach Christian children to classical music critically because it trains their brains in these areas.

Now listening to classical music critically is not the only valid way to listen to music. For example, some people listen to music for a purely physical effect, such as to enjoy a driving beat or syncopation, or the uplifting feeling of hearing lots of brass in a big orchestra, or something like that. Or you can listen to music to invoke a certain mood, maybe to relax you or to cheer you up or to create a certain emotional atmosphere. But the kind of listening that leads to the greatest enjoyment is when you can listen critically or intelligently. This is the kind of listening where we know what’s going on in the music, and we can pick out some of the interesting features.

Most of the music that was written in the Western tradition that we broadly call classical music (which some people also call ‘art music’), was written to be listened to in this way: it was written to be interesting. Thus, getting to know this kind of music is like getting to know a person. Just as you might find a person boring before you get to know them, so we sometimes find certain music boring before we get to know it. With music, like with people, you have to work at it and then you are rewarded by enjoyment. Now, of course, it is always possible that you might come to understand what is happening in a piece of music and still not enjoy it. But very often when you do come to understand what is interesting about a piece of music you do then enjoy it. It’s the difference between merely hearing and listening.

There is an excellent article ‘Thoughts on Worship Music’ on the Christ Church’s website (in the section 'free literature'). In that article, the authors emphasize the Biblical importance of working to learn to appreciate certain musical forms.

“…modernity has prejudiced us to count only surface-level beauty as real beauty. In other words, we discount things that aren’t immediately beautiful to our personal tastes. We can tend to want everything to be immediate and automatic, and we cast off whatever doesn’t instantly please. That is one reason why non-Christians treat Scripture lightly; they refuse to look deeply. They can’t see the beauty in the story, though it jumps out at those who love God.

We also tend to think that if we’re merely regenerate, then we can easily discern between what is beautiful and ugly. But wisdom always takes time and discipline and pruning. Scripture orders us to ‘incline your ear to wisdom’ (including musical wisdom) and ‘apply your heart to understanding’ . . . If you seek her as silver, and search for her as hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 2:2-5). Mining takes great labor and exercise. Discerning beauty is like that. It often takes great effort to train ourselves to see profundity….


We rob ourselves of wisdom if we judge a hymn or psalm after one singing. We don’t even truly know it at after only a month of singing. It can require a long period of meditation and work.”


Another reason why music appreciation and instruments are important for the Christian – and this was the main argument I used with my friend who was as suspicious of the Old Testament as he was of musical instruments - is because Jesus is Lord of music. In Colossians we read that by Jesus “all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible… All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Col. 1:12-17) All things, of course, includes music. Jesus is the Lord of music.

When Jesus died on the cross, He died to redeem everything that was affected by the fall. Now music was affected by the fall just like everything else. Christ died to redeem music, and it is only because of Christ’s blood that music can now glorify the Lord.

This same point can be made by considering Christ’s role as the second Adam. Because the sin wrought by the first Adam affected every aspect of life, it follows that the work of the second Adam must be at least qualitatively and quantitatively co-extensive to that of the first (Rom. 5:12-21 & 1 Cor. 15:21-22). When Christ died on the cross, He died for every nation, every institution, every person, every discipline, and every blade of grass affected by the fall. Jesus died for the restoration of music, education, painting, technology, economics, poetry, politics, philosophy, literature, dance, and on and on. It is sadly ironic how many evangelicals are ready to admit that the work of the first Adam affected everything, while hesitating to believe that the work of the second Adam also affected everything. There is an excellent by Derek Carlsen HERE which explores the full implications of Christ’s redemptive work.

So Jesus is Lord of music. One of the ways we can glorify the Lord is through music appreciation. Music is not separate from the Lord, for when one has a Biblical understanding of music, the more you appreciate music, the more our appreciation for God Himself is expanded. Music is spiritually important, and part of what is involved in learning to glorify and enjoy God is learning to enjoy the music He has given us.



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