Thoughts on music in worship, part 1: the power of music...
This is the first of several posts on the place of music in worship. Andrew Dionne, a partner on the pastoral staff of Christ the Word and former intern at Church of the Good Shepherd, received his doctorate in music composition from Indiana University before attending Covenant Seminary where he received his M.Div.
Andrew's posts are adaptations of a series of sermons he preached at Christ the Word in the fall of 2004. They will be presented here in the order of their original occurrence.
Tim and I strongly encourage careful consideration of these posts by those who want the music and worship of their church to rise above cultural elitism without falling into the opposite idolatry of pop-culture emulation.
The Power of Music
by Andrew Dionne
Many things created for the praise and glory of God when used wrongly can lead to blasphemies and condemnation. Sex, for example, is something that when partaken of lawfully is to the praise of God but if indulged in unlawfully is sin. "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh" but "...one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her..." (1 Cor. 6:16). We see that sex is given to man for his good, his enjoyment, but when used unlawfully can lead to his condemnation and destruction. We could say the same thing about drinking alcohol or even the use of the spiritual gifts, as Paul mentions in 1 Cor., which are like the clanging of a cymbal if used without love (1 Cor. 13:1); even the Law is good, as Paul writes, only "if used lawfully" (1 Tim. 1:8). That which is given for our good, can be used improperly and thereby become a stumbling block to us and a stench in God's nostrils.
Additionally, a marriage that lacks intimacy is missing an essential ingredient to marital happiness. Not only can something good be used wrongly, but the neglect and avoidance of that good thing can lead to disaster.
Could the same be said for music?
That which is an essential part of our worship, could it, in fact, lead us astray and become a stumbling-block? Of course. Could the neglect of it lead to spiritual immaturity and rigidity? Of course. The power of music to sway our emotions can lead to the praise of God or to the indulgence of our own flesh. And the neglect of this good thing could lead to some sort of unhealthy spiritual stagnation.
This is why, before we get to some specifics about music, we have to think about the power of music.
Everyone likes to know what sort of music people listen to; we take great pleasure in psychologically analyzing someone according to whether they grew up listening to Bach, Berlioz, the Beatles, Bono, or the Back Street Boys. Because I'm a composer, I get the question particularly often: "So, what sort of music do you like to listen to?" For me that is a particularly difficult question; it demands an answer that is more complicated than the person asking really wants to hear. I usually say, "Oh, I listen to pretty much everything except for Country and Western. What do you listen to?" What I really want to say is: Your question reveals a few assumptions: first, implied in your question is the view that music is primarily a matter of personal taste and private consumption; second, your question reveals that everyone has certain strong conviction about what music they like. I also want to say: "Well, the music I listen to depends on several factors like: how I am feeling at the moment or or how I want to feel at the moment. Either I choose music to accompany my mood or I choose music to create my mood. I'm not going to put Barber's Adagio on the CD player when I'm heading to the ball game. I'm not going to listen to classic rock on my way to worship. I'm not going to listen to Shostakovich's Eleventh during a romantic dinner with my wife. I'm not going to ask the gentlemen at the hoedown to play Stairway to Heaven. I'm not going to expect to hear Johan Strauss's waltzes during a documentary on Gettysburg."
Music must be appropriate for the moment; either it will push me toward or away from a particular mood. The Scriptures understand this; Proverbs 25:20 says, "Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda, is he who sings songs to a troubled heart." That is the power and danger of music--it can most beautifully and poignantly or heinously and disastrously move my heart toward or away from a particular emotion. It can lead me to emotional self-centeredness or lead me to doxologies of my God and Savior.
Augustine, the 5th century church Father, experienced this tension between the power of music for good and the power of music to improperly manipulate. He wrote the following in his Confessions:
The delights of this sense of hearing had a stronger grip and a greater authority over me; but you loosed the bond and set me free. Yet now when I hear sung in a sweet and well-trained voice those melodies into which your words breathe life, I do, I admit, feel some pleasurable relaxation, though not of the kind which would make it difficult for me to tear myself away, for I could get up and leave when I like. Nevertheless they do demand a place of some dignity in my heart so that they may be received into me together with the words that give them life, and it is not easy for me to give them exactly the right place. For sometimes it seems to me that I am giving them more honor than is right. I may feel that when these holy words themselves are well sung, our minds are stirred up more fervently and more religiously into a flame of devotion than if they are not so well sung, and I realize that the emotions of the spirit are various, each, by some secret kind of correspondence, capable of being excited by its own proper mode of voice or song. But I am often deceived by this pleasure of my flesh, to which the mind should not be given over to be enervated...
But at other times, when I am overanxious to avoid being deceived in this way, I fall into the error of being too severe--so much so that I would like banished both from my own ears and those of the Church as well the whole melody of sweet music that is used with David's Psalter--and the safer course seems to me that of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who, as I have often been told, made the reader of the psalm employ so very small a modulation of the voice that the effect was more like speaking than singing. But then I remember the tears I shed at the singing in church at the time when I was beginning to recover my faith; I remember that now I am moved not by the singing but by the things that are sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and correct modulation, and once again I recognize the great utility of this institution. So I fluctuate between the danger of pleasure and my experience of the good that can be done. I am inclined on the whole (though I do not regard this opinion as irrevocable) to be in favor of the practice of singing in church, so that by means of the delight in hearing the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion. Nevertheless, whenever it happens to me that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess that I am sinning grievously, and then I would prefer not to hear the music.
What Augustine experienced--this pull between devotion and indulgence--and was able to articulate in writing so well, is something that we all experience--whether we know it or not.
If music has a power to move the soul, we need to think about music and its place in our worship. If we are swayed by the modulation of the melody and not the words of our sacred songs--is it sin, as Augustine called it? On the other hand, if we call bad what God has called good and dismiss music entirely, are we in sin? Is Augustine just a relic of a past age that overestimated or misunderstood the power of music? You may disagree with me, but in a world where music is everywhere (our cars, our homes, our stores, our televisions, our lobbies, etc.), we can quickly lose a good sense of music's strength. What we hear in television commercials is what we hear in our sanctuaries. What we hear in the background as we work is what we desire to hear when intimate with our wives or husbands. What we hear as we wait on hold to fix a problem with our bill is heard in the lounges of new-aged relaxation spas in Southern California. Clearly this confusion is evidence that we can listen past music and not think twice about its effect on us. In a music-saturated society, music looses its intensity, and we no longer listen to any of it but let it wash over us.
Yet, oppositely, we spend a great deal of money to experience its power. I'll never forget the two summers I went to Lollapalooza--the alternative Rock concert circuit. I've only once been more aware of the power of music--for evil--than I was at these concerts. The violence of the mosh-pit, filled with drunken revelers, was fueled by the tempo of the music. The time that I became most aware of the power of music was when I was repeatedly moved to tears as the orchestra in which I was playing rehearsed Mahler's "Adagietto" from his Fifth Symphony; this was in high-school. This music so moved me, I was disappointed each time the movement had finished. And I can't say it was for the better, either. These were selfish and effeminate tears. Largely from that experience, I was inspired to dedicate the next decade and a half of my life to formal music studies (finishing with a doctorate in music composition).
We're confused about music: on the one hand, we hear it everywhere and easily dismiss it; on the other hand, we tap right into its power to feed our passions. Music accompanies our sins just as well as it accompanies our praises. This is an age-old pursuit, and one we read of in scriptures: Those noises of the people of Israel who worshipped the calf are described by Moses like this: "It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; But the sound of singing I hear" (Exodus 32:18) The people of Israel who are shortly to be exiled in Babylon are described by Isaiah; he writes, "Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink; Who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them! And their banquets are accompanied by lyre and harp, by tambourine and flute, and by wine; But they do not pay attention to the deeds of the LORD, nor do they consider the work of His hands. Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge..." (Is. 5:11-13a).
At the very least we can clearly say that music accompanies and emotionally colors most of our activities--whether to God's glory or not. I think we can say more than that: Music shapes our souls, it moves our hearts, it sways our emotions; so, we would do well to think upon it in regard to our worship of God. Even Calvin--the man whose is said to have killed Protestantism's aesthetics--had this to say about the power of music: "...there is scarcely in the world anything which is more able to turn or bend this way and that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious."
Our music, just like all our worship, can be too creative--beyond the bounds of God's Word; more for us than for God. Nadab and Abihu were foolishly bold and didn't give the right consideration to their imaginative offering--and after they offer "strange fire" the Lord destroyed them (Lev. 10). Ananias and Saphira didn't give the right consideration to the offering--and after withholding some of their earnings, the Lord destroyed them (Acts 5). The Corinthians didn't give the right consideration to the Lord's Supper--and some among them fell asleep (1 Cor. 11:30). These examples are examples where the elements of worship were abused--overused or too imaginative. Speaking of music, I would say that overly subjective, hyper-emotional music is the same sort of abuse. It is worship done according to one's own terms without the fear of God.
On the other hand, we can seek to control worship so tightly that we withhold biblical elements from worship. I, for a while, wished I was in a church that had no instruments and sang only the Psalms. I wanted to be done with opinions and preferences and the power of music. Get rid of guitars, get rid of "special music," get rid of all the emotional pony rides of worship. But this is to call bad what God has called good. It's pharisaical.
The Pharisees, who were overly preoccupied with their tithe of dill and cumin, neglected to honor their fathers and mothers--the weightier matters of the Law. The Puritans, who I respect a great deal (I'd call these men my "bread and butter") and believe were wise to reform in the ways they did, rejected antiphonal singing, hymns, chanting, choirs, and organs. Many branches of the Puritans ended up singing Psalms only, with no instrumental accompaniment, in unison. Did they throw the baby out with the bath water and reject that which is biblical, namely loud, instrumentally accompanied singing? This situation is like the Israelites who would rather have endured slavery in Egypt than to enjoy worship in the presence of God in the Promised Land. This is an unholy negligence of the good things God has given us. Jotham, king in Jerusalem after Uzziah, is described as a king who "did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father Uzziah had done" (2 Chron. 27:2). Yet it goes on to say, "However, he did not enter the temple of the LORD. But the people continued acting corruptly." Was this a "holy" negligence? Or think of the time of Josiah--the Book of the Law is found lying in the corner of the Temple under a stack of other materials. The glorious Law--about which the psalmist sings in Psalm 119--is neglected perhaps in the name of "true" religion. What is right is also what should be wholly delightful. In other words, we can sweep clean and put in order our houses, but unless we fill it with good--the demon that left when we cleaned will return with seven others. Our purpose is not simply the avoidance of error but the generation of spiritual good. Our music is not exempt from this examination.
So, how do we use music in our worship in a way that pleases the Lord? How do we control the power of music and focus it toward good ends? This will lead us down several paths that we'll begin to look at during the rest of the time tonight and during our next Sunday evening service. Hopefully, as we look at the music mentioned in the Scriptures--its focus, its setting, its structure (as much as we can discern it)--we will be able to draw some conclusions about worship music that is glorifying to God.
Question: What is the subject matter of the songs we read in Scripture?
First of all, why is this question important? This question is important because as I choose songs for worship and as you sing them on Sunday, we should find that what we sing falls into these same categories--we should sing as the Scriptures shows us the people of God sang. As we think about what we sing, we are held accountable by placing them in these categories. Additionally, we can better focus our minds when we discern which category they are from.
I find three categories: Songs of commemoration to God's works in history; Songs of pure praise of God; and Songs of personal expression, rooted in God's mercy.
Songs in commemoration of God's works
The first place we read of singing in the OT is in Exodus chapter 15. There is an important lesson about music from this passage. Just following their crossing of the Red Sea and witnessing the destruction of Pharaoh's entire army, the whole assembly of Israelites pauses and sings to the LORD. This song is in praise of God's strength and a commemoration of the historical events that took place. A brief comment: the last thing we would think to do if we had seen the extraordinary events that happened before their eyes is to sing. Yet, this is what Israel did. To sing this song before the LORD is to commit God's saving deeds to memory and pass them on to later generations. Are we, or should we, be committing the works of the LORD during this age to song so our children's children might be in awe of His mighty deeds. This is the very reason that "A Mighty Fortress" is powerful to us...not only is it derived from a Psalm but, we remember the historical context of its first singing and it is a powerful testimony about the work of God through the Reformers. Is God's work so weak in the world today that we have nothing to commemorate? We have much music that commemorates our own personal testimonies but very little new works which commemorate God's work in this age's history.
- Miriam' echo in chapter 15 of Exodus;
- Deborah and Barak's song in Judges 5;
- 1 Chronicles 16 (after the ark returns to Jerusalem)--Asaph and his relatives sing, "Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples. Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders;"
- think of the many Psalms that go through Israel's history
- REVELATION 5:9-10!
- St. Patrick's Breastplate--the Lorica (verse 2 and 3)
Songs in praise to God and His beauty
This is the category in which we place most of the Psalms. These are the pure praises of God--extolling God's virtues. "I will sing praise to Your name, O most High" (Psalm 9:2). "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). "The Lord reigns, let the people tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!" (Psalm 99:1). "I will sing of lovingkindness and justice, to You, O Lord, I will sing praises" (Psalm 101:1). In the book of Revelation, those who are victorious over the beast sing: "Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous and true are Your ways, You King of the nations" (Rev. 15:3).
In the book of James, we receive this exhortation: "Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises" (James 5:13). Singing praises to God is the practice of letting our minds dwell on the ultimate thing that is praiseworthy.
Songs of personal expression, rooted in God's mercy
The final type of song we sing are those of personal expression or experience. We have to pause here and carefully consider this type of expression. First, some examples: In Psalm 4, David sings, "Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. O sons of men, how long will my honor become a reproach? How long will you love what is worthless and aim at deception?" (Psalm 4:1-2). Here we see David singing about his own circumstances--and he sets his prayer to music. Think of Psalm 51--The song David wrote as he repented over his sin with Bathsheba.
This is 1st person music--and I find this the most difficult for my own soul. I'll never forget when David Crum, who was assistant pastor at the church I first attending in Bloomington, said that there were times when he had to refrain from singing lines in hymns because he would be lying to God if he were to sing them. I thought to myself, now there is a man who comes into worship fearing the Lord. He would read through the songs before the service in order to assess himself. Think of honestly singing Psalm 7: "O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is injustice in my hands, if I have rewarded evil to my friend, or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it; And let him trample my life down to the ground, and lay my glory in the dust" (Psalm 7:3-5). Later in the Psalm he sings, "Vindicate me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me" (Psalm 7:8). Now in one sense we can all be so bold in our prayers because we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But this is not to ignore the holiness that the Lord calls us to live out and actively pursue. Can you with integrity and honesty call on the Lord's vindication based on your righteousness?
How wrong it is for some of us at times to come into the sanctuary and sing, "I love you, Lord!" after we have not put an ounce of time into reconciling with our brother or repenting of sins. Before we present our offering on the altar, we are to be reconciled with our brother. Should we not, at times, silence our mouths? These subjective songs are much more difficult to sing and require a spiritual maturity to sing. We can't avoid them because Scripture presents song after song of personal prayer and confession. But our singing, just like all aspects of our worship and life, is not exempt from Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians: "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1).
Having said that--I want to be realistic and the following distinction may help. I am not talking about your feelings right now. There will be times when your heart is cold and it is hard for you to sing the songs of love to God; this is different than outright rebellion. As a matter of warming your heart, you need to sing of your love for God. It is one thing to lie to God and play the part of a hypocrite; it is quite another to have a cold heart which longs to be warmed by a vision of God and the movement of His Spirit. Sing, move your heart to warmth, sing to create that mood--this is the very power of music to bend us toward the good. Yet, When we have spent the week in sin--we have not loved our wife, spent the week away from the Word and enjoyed pornography, cheated our way through exams or lied our way through meetings at work, we would do well to refrain from singing of our love to God. Your actions tell you that you do not love God. Allow the faith and life and example of your brothers and sisters, who can sing without hypocrisy teach you as you silently listen and they loudly sing. Perhaps this is part of what Paul meant when he said: "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs... (Col. 3:16-17).
One final point about the subjective or first-person songs we see in Scripture. Often, though they are bold prayers and I would even say complaints against the Lord's providence, they end in the objective. A complaint may be an honest prayer--but a complaint that ends without acknowledging God's good providence could be sin. An example is Psalm 13. David begins by questioning God: "How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?" This is a brutally honest prayer; have you ever felt this way? Were you as honest as David? David concludes, though, with: "But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart will rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me." Had David ended with the complaint, he may have followed in the footsteps of Job's wife: curse God and die. But he comes out of himself and at one and the same time acknowledges the discomfort of his soul but the comfort he finds in God.