Toward the Development of Christian Aesthetics in Music
For centuries, economists struggled to answer the seeming disparity between the value of diamonds and the value of water. This paradox was discussed by great thinkers such as Copernicus, Locke, and Smith. Water is essential for life and has many purposes but is far less valuable than diamonds which are mostly appreciated for their beauty alone. Shouldn’t water carry the greater value?
In time, two theories developed in an attempt to answer this elusive question. The first dealt with the intrinsic value of the two items. Diamonds are more valuable then because they require great labor in mining and refining and cutting and polishing. Water can simply be brought to the surface of a well through a single bucket. The second theory, proposed by Englishman William Jevons and Austrian Carl Menger, became known as marginal utility and answered the question subjectively. If a man in a desert is dying of dehydration and is offered either water or diamonds, which do you imagine he will choose?
Suppose the rich hymns of Isaac Watts, one of my favorite composers, were represented by the diamond while the water was reflective of the music of Chris Tomlin, a prominent Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artist. Could there indeed be a time when one type of music is more valuable than the other? Is musical discernment largely a subjective, utilitarian pursuit, or are there inherent qualities built into music that render a composition valuable or valueless?
There is a movement today within Fundamentalism that would propose that the intrinsic meaning of musical style reflects very specifically either the banality of the world or the beauty of God. The interpretation of musical composition in this regard is then applied to making musical choices, both personally and corporately. This is an objective approach to the study of aesthetics in music.
Aesthetics, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, are “guiding principles in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibilities.” To our shame, little has been written or discussed within Fundamentalism on this topic. I have chosen a small sampling of writing from both Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism to compare the various thoughts on the subject, in hope of moving closer toward an understanding of Christian aesthetics as it relates to music.
First, from within Fundamentalism, I refer to a paper by Pastor Mike Harding titled “The Beauty of God.” The paper is available at www.fbctroy.org/Church/beauty%20article.pdf. I also refer to an article written by SI member Pastor Scott Aniol titled “A Believer’s Pursuit of Beauty – Conclusions from Adler.” This article is available at www.religiousaffections.org/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22&Itemid=31. Finally, I will refer to chapter 5 in the book Measuring the Music by my friend Dr. John Makujina. The chapter is titled “Aesthetics, Music, and Morality.” The book is published by Old Paths Publications and is available at www.oldpathspublications.org/newbooks.html. John also published a Response to Rob Schlapfer, which gives greater detail to his thinking on this topic. It is available at www.centralseminary.edu/usermanaged/JMvsRS.pdf.
Then, from the evangelical landscape, I allude to Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Harold Best. The book is published by HarperSanFrancisco and is available at www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060608625. I also make mention of True Worship by Donald Hustad from Hope Publishing and available at www.amazon.com/gp/product/0877888388. Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint, authored by Calvin Johansson, speaks to this issue as well. It is published by Hendrickson in Peabody, Massachusetts, and is available at www.amazon.com/gp/product/156563361X.
I approach this conversation with a brief comparison and discussion of the differing viewpoints on this issue. Then I examine one passage of Scripture that, I believe, sheds important light on this discussion.
Harding: “A God-centered view of beauty locates beauty within certain objective qualities that are real and not just imagined.”
Aniol: “Believers have the biblical responsibility to pursue … what is objectively beautiful.”
Makujina: “I believe there are transcendent principles for beauty in music that can be expressed in various ways and genres.”
Best: “The seeking out of quality must take place within musical categories, not between them … There is no universal aesthetic covering all musics.”
Hustad: “What I call aesthetic relativism includes the idea that there are no absolutes in aesthetic quality … In other words, ‘beauty (in church music) is in the ear of the listener.’ I contend that such a concept is at odds with what we learn from Scripture and from church history; for this reason I maintain that today’s relativistic culture is a “strange land” to the church and is unfriendly to its best interests.”
Johansson: “There are principles … that can guide the composer, performer, and listener in the quest for establishing and apprehending truth in music, principles that when put together may very well not explain the greatness of music, so much as describe its wholesome, artistic, and right orientation. Music that is true is governed by these universal artistic principles.”
At first glance, it appears that, according to the statements given above, all the authors except Best are in agreement that beauty can be identified objectively in the musical arts. However, even Best appeals to the same artistic principles as the others in identifying the best quality of music within a genre. Best, though, will not allow for the universal application of such principles across all musical genres, whereas the others will. Some, like Harding and Aniol and Hustad, lean more strongly toward an exclusively objective approach to beauty in music. Others, like Makujina and Johansson, allow for some subjectivity in the application of principles of beauty.
And what are these principles? Where do we procure them? From what source do they acquire their authority? Assuming they exist, how should believers apply them in personal and corporate musical choices? Is the Scripture silent in this area?
Before we can answer these questions, we should first examine our motivation for engaging such a topic. Why do we even need Christian aesthetics in music? What’s so important about beauty, anyway? One person thinks the music of J.S. Bach is divine; another prefers the music of Matt Redman. Who is correct? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or, stated another way, isn’t beautiful music in the ear of the listener?
Here, all of the referred authors speak with clarity:
Harding: “God’s beauty is inherently connected to His character, name, excellency, and majesty. The whole of God’s unchanging attributes forms the objective standard and truth deposit by which all things claiming to be beautiful can be evaluated.”
Aniol: “What is crucial in our application of this passage [Philippians 4:8] to our discussion is the observation that elements of all three realms—truth, goodness, and beauty—are present in this verse. Especially notable are words like ‘pure,’ ‘lovely,’ ‘excellent,’ ‘praiseworthy,’ and especially, ‘admirable’ (the very same word Adler uses to describe the objective beauty of an object). The Bible commands believers to think about things that are objectively true, objectively good, and objectively beautiful.”
Makujina: “Since man’s aesthetic endowment is an attribute of God, not only does it obligate him to seek his aesthetic standards from God, but it also minimizes relativism and uncertainty in the aesthetic enterprise. God is absolute, not relative. He creates things for a purpose, according to his divine counsel and wisdom. He has instituted the arts and music within human culture, not to be developed according to fluctuating human passions, but analogically as a covenantal expression of his glorious nature.”
Best: “Regarding the creation, the Scriptures make simultaneous provision for the intrinsic goodness of all things and one thing being better than another … This approach flies in the face of the kind of loose, generalized rhetoric in the area of multicultural studies that rejects almost any discussion of relative goodness. It calls for a more discerning kind of thinking, especially on the part of Christians. It condemns exclusivism while allowing for hierarchies of values.”
Hustad: “The ancient Hebrew law required that everything offered in tabernacle worship was to be the best available—the best ox in the herd, the healthiest lamb with best conformation, the cleanest grain without mold, and the clearest, nonrancid oil. We must believe that the same standard applied to the words and music and dance that were performed in connection with the sacrifices; they were to be the best the culture could produce … Gifts to God under the New Covenant—gifts of fashioned words, of music, and of all other worship arts—certainly should be as complete, as perfect, as functional, and as beautiful as those under the Old Covenant.”
Johansson: “While the Bible is the final rule of faith and practice and puts knowledge into a proper framework, it never should be thought of as the sum total of all man is to know of God. God has made man that man might discover, and in the discovery learn more of truth in general. In the Imago Dei, He has equipped man wonderfully well for fulfilling the creative and cultural mandates, mandates which in their fulfilling reveal more of the truth of God which is to be found everywhere in all disciplines. In its own right, music tells us more of the Almighty Creator—revelation which comes only through the medium of music.”
So, as I digest this information, the initial philosophical conclusion I reach is that the study of aesthetics is valuable to the Christian because our creative ability, though tainted by the Fall, is a part of the image of God in man. As a result, we have a responsibility to ensure that our musical creations are reflective of the God who gave us such abilities.
Before tackling the next question, I want to offer a caveat to this discussion: there is a danger in the study of musical aesthetics. While I would concur that such a study is beneficial as a part of developing a philosophy of music, it appears that some have laid their philosophical foundation with the stones of aestheticism. Johansson has a stern warning to offer in this regard:
In building upon aesthetics as the foundation for a philosophy of church music, we run the risk of elevating art to a place where beauty becomes God, or if not thought to be God, is at least equal to God, or thought of as essential to knowing God. Although there are values in an assessment of the aesthetic experience for arguing the existence of God, there can be no justification for placing art in a position where it may become that which is worshipped. We worship the Creator, not the created—God, not beauty. The dangers of aestheticism are clear. At the very least, its nebulous, analytical passivity does not necessarily encourage a creative dynamic; at most, it is idolatrous. (Johansson 5)
It is my opinion that some who are trumpeting the demise of Christian aesthetics in today’s church have indeed fallen prey to a slavish idolatry to beauty itself and to the forms they believe to most closely portray godly beauty. The clearest indication of this disturbing trend, in my opinion, exists in the condescending demeanor with which they engage fellow Christian brothers in this topic. The seeming obsession with specific musical forms indicates to me a dangerous leaning toward the worship of the creation, rather than the Creator. I trust all of us will take heed to Johansson’s counsel.
Next, a definition of beauty is in order. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, beauty is “the quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” In the Scriptures, three words are used in reference to beauty in the New Testament. Horaios describes that which is seasonable, produced at the right time, as of the prime of life, or the time when anything is at its loveliest and best. Asteios was used primarily of that which befitted the town. Kalos describes that which is beautiful as being well-proportioned in all its parts, or intrinsically excellent (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).
The third word kalos seems to best fit the description of objective or intrinsic beauty as proposed by several of the authors referenced in this article. The corresponding Hebrew word from the Old Testament would be tobe. In my thinking, the next step to developing Christian aesthetics in music would be to identify the principles of beauty. That would lead us to two paths which must be traveled: the path of special revelation and the path of general revelation. We must know what God has revealed to us about beauty.
Brian McCrorie is the Assistant Pastor for Music, Children, and Technology at Red Rocks Baptist Church (Denver, CO). He is a graduate of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) and Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Deborah, have been married for 14 years and have five children. His interests include fine arts, culinary arts, politics, the media, and of course, SharperIron! You can read Brian’s personal blog at http://bowingdown.wordpress.com.