Toward the Development of Christian Aesthetics in Music
While the Bible never specifically connects music with beauty, it does connect worship with beauty in several Old Testament passages. Consider these verses (with emphasis added):
1 Chronicles 16:29–Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
2 Chronicles 20:21–And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth for ever.
Psalm 27:4–One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple.
Psalm 29:2–Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
Psalm 96:6–Honour and majesty are before him: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Psalm 96:9–O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.
The Bible also assumes inherent beauty in describing the physical appearance of several individuals as well as several buildings and towns. However, I do not see any specific principles given in Scripture for the identification of beauty.
If this is indeed true, we must turn our attention to general revelation. When it comes to beauty in terms of observing general revelation, several ideas immediately come to mind:
- The Bible tells us that creation declares the glory of God (Ps.8).
- The Bible tells us that creation displays the power of God (Rom. 1).
- The Bible tells us that creation renders mankind without excuse (Rom. 1).
- The Bible tells us that all are sinners and that sin has affected our entire being (Rom. 3:9-10; 7:18).
I have had the opportunity twice to visit a perfume museum in Paris, France, called Fragonard (www.fragonard.com). I am always amazed at the variety of scents produced by multitudes of flowers and other objects. Now, certainly, as I smell a variety of fragrances, I like some and reject others. But if I am to compare the scent of a rose with the scent of the manure that fertilized it, the rose will always triumph. Is that not evidence of some universal objective principle? Some physical attributes seem to be universally defined as beautiful and others as unattractive, do they not?
The easy thing to do would be to read up on the best books on music, learn the teachings of the experts in the field, and simply govern your decision-making based on your findings. However …
There are a few small wrinkles in the objective approach to beauty. See if you concur.
- In some African, Arabic, Indian, and Pacific Island cultures, obesity is considered beautiful while in America thinness is most valued as beautiful.
- It does appear to me that some aspects of beauty and value are indeed utilitarian. For example, while we relegate the manure to the farm fields, many African families spread it weekly in their homes to “polish” the floors!
- How can we trust the conclusions of experts, however united they may be, if all men are tainted by sin? How can there not be a subjective element to Christian aesthetics?
I appreciate what Harold Best writes to this issue:
Bringing all this around to the subject of musical pluralism, we can understand that even though music x, in the abstract, might be argued to be better than music y, it might not be appropriate for a certain context, while the other would be highly desirable. In others words, musical value is strongly context dependent. To conjecture that Bach is better than bluegrass is one thing, but to perform one of his fugues in the middle of a hoedown is another. Unless we are willing to say that the entire cultural and ethnic context, which includes the hoedown, is aesthetically suspect, we cannot question the worth and value of bluegrass as the best kind of music for that context. The real task is to find the best bluegrass while weeding out the worst. (Best 106)
Makujina also subscribes to this notion:
Another point needs to be stressed: even if musical styles are not universally understood, like spoken language they are still capable of moral discourse within their cultural contexts … From the outset I have insisted that whether music is a universal language or not cannot determine whether music is moral or amoral. I have argued that music is generated and enjoyed within culture and receives its meaning within a cultural context. (Makujina 102, 323)
So I reach another philosophical conclusion: music finds its meaning in the culture in which it is created. Few, if any, musical ideas maintain universal meaning worldwide. So can the Christian use any music within a given culture that does not appear to be contrary to the knowledge of God? I would say no. We cannot overlook the fact that mankind is sinful. Mike Harding makes an important point in his paper:
In our modern pop-culture people gravitate to the lowest common denominator in the arts. Therefore, the good, excellent, virtuous, and admirable art is discarded. Our culture is so steeped in pop music which requires nothing of us that we may soon forget there is anything else to be known other than the trite and profane … With an objective, God-centered view of beauty vis a’ vis a subjective, man-centered view, we will understand what is genuinely good when the artistic expression doesn’t please our sinful nature, giving great works of music the chance to speak to us over time. (Harding-8)
I don’t know that all “good, excellent, virtuous, and admirable art” is being discarded, but I do agree that “evil men will wax worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13)–society will continue to degrade in the arts as in every other area. We must be careful in uniting the message of the Gospel with forms that may be incompatible. Calvin Johansson charts the differences between pop music and the Gospel to make a point:
Pop Music Characteristics
|Discipleship||Ease of consumption|
|High standard||Least common denominator|
|Principles above success||Success first of all|
|Encouragement of the best||Mediocrity|
Do you agree? So I come to the end of this very long (I apologize!) article with a starting point. My personal opinion is that musical discernment in the area of aesthetics involves both objective and subjective processes that are largely culturally defined. While the opinions of experts in various musical fields are important, they are also flawed by the same sin nature that permeates all of creation. To a degree, I think we may find consensus on some broad aesthetic standards for western Christianity. However, diversity of personal and corporate application must be permitted in order to live peaceably and to strive for unity. Where a musical style can be demonstrated to be objectively opposed to what we know of God, we should all consider the evidence and make choices for His glory and not simply our taste, which is also sinfully flawed.
There is one final idea I would like us to think on. It is found in a familiar Pauline passage to the Philippians:
Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace. For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ (emphasis added).
This is a beautiful, intimate communiqué that clearly reveals that Paul practiced what he taught. Why do I say that? In chapter one, verse nine, Paul prayed that the Philippian believers’ love for each other would grow. Look how Paul expressed his love for the Philippians in the bolded sections above. This was not unusual; Paul began the letters of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians with the importance of Christian love. He emphasizes it as the greatest Christian commodity in 1 Corinthians 13. Love, agape love, was to be prominent in the lives of those following Christ.
Without completely exegeting this passage (and creating a “Part 3”), let me point to a few important observations about this love Paul desires the Philippians to have for each other.
First, it was a love that constantly needed to be growing. Second, it was not an unfettered love. The Bible teaches that such love has boundaries. These boundaries are found in the words knowledge and judgment. The Greek word for knowledge, epignosis, refers to advanced knowledge, real knowledge, full knowledge. In short, it is a reference to Scripture. So our love must be tempered by the Truth.
Then, the Greek word for judgment, aisthesis, is most interesting to our discussion. It is only used once in the New Testament. It is the word from which our English word aesthetics has its origin. It means “discerning.” It’s the practical application of that deep and real knowledge.
It’s interesting that in this progression of thought in Philippians 1, the next result of a growing love with truth and discernment as its boundaries is the proving of things that are excellent. As John MacArthur writes, “It is not the ability to distinguish between good and bad. Everybody can do that. It is the ability to distinguish between good and best and only a few seem to be able to do that” (http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/50-6.htm).
Susanna Wesley wrote a letter to her son John when he went to Oxford University. Here is an excerpt:
Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God or takes off the delight for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin.
While musical meaning is largely determined through its cultural milieu, we must draw conclusions–we must draw lines–in musical choices. As I have often referenced, Paul also wrote that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Not everything is best. Not everything is worthwhile. That does not mean the music may be bad or valueless, but it may mean it’s not appropriate for the maturing Christian who seeks to redeem every moment and capture every thought to the obedience of Jesus Christ.
Now, here’s the rub: we will all make different choices. We will all draw different lines. And in those moments of tension when we don’t know if we should separate from our brothers and sisters in Christ over musical selection, let us be mindful of the priority of Christian love … a love that acts on truth and application of truth … a love that sacrifices for the good of others … a love that does not separate over opinion, but always separates over Truth.
Let me leave you with this final thought from the mind of God through the pen of Paul:
Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness (Col. 3:12-14, emphasis added).
I am very interested in your thoughts on the various opinions relating to the study of Christian aesthetics as presented in this article. Perhaps we can find some consensus and some sharpening in the comments to come.
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.