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“God saw all that He had made; and behold it was very good” (Zondervan, Gen. 1:31). The Lord is the basis for all things good. When He made music, He wove the notes into everything so that it could be heard in the harmony of chirping birds with the melodic whistle of a gentle breeze, or in the accompaniment of the beat of rainfall between the chatter of distant animals. The Lord says in Scripture that during creation “the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy” (Zondervan, Job 38:7).
The musical ear with which He gifted man gave birth to creativity. Jubal, a descendant of Cain, became “the father of all who play the harp and flute” (Zondervan, Gen. 4:21). It could be implied from Scripture that God gave people the ability to create music and musical instruments to reflect what they heard in creation as well as to discover modes of more complex music in the use of syncopated rhythms, wandering melodies, dissonant harmonies, varying tones, and even poetic lyrics.
He instilled His creative genius into man when He made him in His image as a beautiful form of communication- a spiritual connection between God and man. As we create with music, we worship our Creator in song. Therefore, an absolute standard of music must be inherent in everyone.
As a result of the Fall, however, this standard of music has been subjected to corruption, rejection, and degradation- replacing the glory of God with human autonomy. This can be observed throughout musical history.
The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to many of the greatest musical works of all time- Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, to name a few. While Baroque music is complex, “lively and tuneful”, expressing the “fundamental order of the universe” (“Baroque Music Defined”), “the characteristics of classicism are a concern for musical form with a greater emphasis on clarity with more concise melodic expression and clarity of instrumental color” (“Classicism”). In the era of Romanticism, people saw music as being able to demonstrate intense feelings through images and storytelling (“The Romantic Era”). Impressionists during this time believed music to be a sensuous experience, straying away from rational and ethical messages to the combination of dissonant tones with irregular phrases (“Impressionism”). Early in the 20th century, modernist musicians began to compose music freely without conforming to musical standards of the day (“Modern Music”). They believed that music stood for nothing beyond itself. In a sense, modern music represents our fractured humanity. As a result of our autonomous disregard for the standard of music, we experience lower forms of music, only at times catching glimpses of what it was intended to be.
So because of our current state as fallen humans, music is also not going to be perfect. There is, however, a way to figure out a standard for good music, that is, music which expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color, and demonstrates God’s creative and redemptive work in man in his fallen nature through both the elements of sound and the content of the accompanying words. This is difficult to create, as many musicians do not even believe in God. But the beauty of God’s common grace is that even unbelievers can create good music. They are praiseworthy for doing so too, since they, whether they think so or not, are fulfilling one of God’s callings for us to create and some even demonstrate lyrically more creation-fall-redemption-type themes than many Christian artists.
Music has the ability to instill in people an unseen knowledge of what is good, yet also the power to corrupt minds and stir negative emotions. It is an art form that inspires community the power to corrupt minds in both Christian and secular camps. It is also recognizable, discoverable, and pleasing only to humans. Most scientists view music from the context of evolutionary theory informing us that animals are incapable of producing music for enjoyment. Communication is the sole purpose of music for animals. In Patel’s abstract, The Evolutionary Biology of Musical Rhythm: Was Darwin Wrong? he says,
Darwin, intrigued by the ubiquity and power of music in human life, felt that our sense of melody and rhythm tapped into ancient and fundamental aspects of brain function, arguing that “The perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical and of rhythm is probably common to all animals, and no doubt depends on the common physiological nature of their nervous systems.” (Patel)
We can see examples of this with some animals, yet from a biblical viewpoint, animals instinctively make sounds as a form of worship towards their Creator (Zondervan, Psalm 148:7 10). We also see evidence contrary to the evolutionary viewpoint that music is common to humans and animals. Humans and most animals can sense a rhythmic beat, but only humans can dance. There is no evidence to suggest that animals can sense a beat and move in synchrony with it (Patel). Animals are also incapable of composing music or creating musical instruments. Scripture teaches that humans were created in God’s image, therefore the beauty of music can only be perceived by humans.
Because of the uncontrolled response music invokes in humans and the intangible nature of its being, it is an art which we discover by means of a spiritual experience. As an example of a historic discoverer of music, Jimi Hendrix rehearsed for hours on end playing different guitar riffs, searching for the riff that would please him, until he came up with something that pleased the masses- a melody that triumphed over other melodies. In that moment of discovery, people like to believe that he became in touch with something much greater than he was, something above human understanding, something that expressed the inexpressible. “He called his music ‘electric church’ because he believed music was his ‘religion’ and that people of all ages, interests, and backgrounds could come together to experience music” (Watson). He had the notion that, for some reason, music is better experienced in community. Despite his failings as a human being, he was indeed given a glimpse of what music was intended to be- an art form so beautiful and powerful that anyone could come together in community to experience it. Several musicians have been gifted with this insight, but, like Mr. Hendrix, have missed its potential for worship by practicing immoderation and impurity with drugs, sex, and alcohol.
The absolute standard of music is greater than such pursuits. It is not a product of selfish intent, but of authentic reverence toward the Almighty. We must therefore examine such art in light of Scripture. We are called to “test everything. Hold on to the good; avoid every kind of evil” (Zondervan, 1 Thess. 5:21-22) In his essay on music, Pastor Mike Harding defines good art as “the work of man by which man uses his God given creativity to produce artistic expressions for the enjoyment of man and the reflection of God which meet God’s standards of contemplation” (1). It must be arranged creatively and composed excellently in all categories of rhythm, beat, melody, harmony, and tone. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things” (Zondervan, Philipp. 4:8). We are to apply this same line of reasoning to music containing lyrics. Good lyrics show a high level of artistic genius in the use of figures of thought or speech, poetry, allegory, etc. Words must also appeal to our higher nature and promote godly virtues. They must be true and genuine, honorable, righteous and just, pure and innocent, beautiful, and admirable.
The first criterion in determining musical value involves excellence- the perfection of musical composition according to God’s standards. The rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone must be well-crafted, beautiful, and conducive to godly virtues in both our hearts and minds. Ultimately, our creativity in the realm of music is meant to please God. Often in both Christian and secular music, the overall feel of the music is simplistic, with repetitive chord progressions, and lack of rhythmic variation, etc. This is not to say good music can’t be simplistic and repetitive. In fact, complexity and simplicity are both reflective of God’s nature. They go hand in hand with everything created by God. Their interconnection is what makes things beautiful. Why do we cringe at the sound of a wrong note, or sigh in response to a boring piece of music? It is because God made music to be much greater than that! A song may have Christian values in its lyrics but if the music is flat and boring it may leave people empty (Stetzer). Implementing modes of dynamics and tempo enables the music to reach a form of aesthetic beauty. Pastor Mike Harding defends this point proficiently when he says,
If Christian music fulfills its so-called mission of evangelism by adding salvific Christian clichés to poorly crafted music, then the very question of the quality of the music itself is ignored by Christian leaders today. The assumption is that the Lord has no aesthetic concern for excellence, beauty, loveliness, attractiveness, or an honorable reputation. (2)
The words must flow like poetry. They must be a reflection of the heart and mind portrayed in figures of thought and speech. Some Christians excuse their lack of creativity in writing music by asserting that the Lord accepts all lyrics as long as they express truth and virtue. This may be true, as the Lord loves us for who we are, but He does not leave us where we are, challenging us to mature in our faith. And that thought also extends into music. Our call is to always strive for excellence in music and to offer up our best form of worship. The second criterion for judging a piece of music is its truth-value. “Truth is what God has said or would say about any fact in the universe” (Harding 2). If songs are promoting self serving values and autonomous views, they should not be taken as truth. Worldly desires pervade society today and they can be seen especially in art forms like music.
Countless songs about vulgar parties, nasty break-ups, vain self-image, ungodly sex, and other forms of evil do not bring us any closer to the truth which is ultimately found in Scripture. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Zondervan, Matthew 14:6). He is the Truth who had such great love for the world that He died for our sins, who saw wickedness and hypocrisy and abhorred it, who taught truth and lived His whole life as a testimony to the truth. “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Zondervan, Matthew 5:27). Music must not express words of lust, which the world claims as “love”, nor should it focus on the outward appearance of an individual at all, for “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… Instead, it should be that of your inner self” (Zondervan, 1 Peter 3:3-4). The words of a particular song should express with relentless authenticity what is true because the “truth will set you free” (Zondervan, Matthew 8:32).
Paul says to the Ephesians, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Zondervan, Ephesians 4:29). This verse illustrates the third criterion for good music- the need for purity in speech in helping to provide comfort and encouragement to others. Good music has a standard of purity in thought, word, and deed. The lyrics should be free of vulgar and demeaning language, holy and innocent. They should beckon individuals toward worship, not sin or sinful thoughts. In a world of much injustice and conformity, the difference between right and wrong has been downplayed and made to look like what it is not. Good music contains lyrics that tell of true righteousness and justice.
A number of songs today, even some so called “Christian” songs, highlight a relativistic view of the world, asserting that what a person wants is what is good for them, or that immediate pleasure equals happiness. Even some worship songs do this. They are very self-centered in lyrics. One worship song, In Jesus’ Name, contains the lyrics, “God is fighting for us, God is on our side … I will live, I will not die … Alive in me and I am free, in Jesus’ name” (Zschech, Track 4). This is one of those cringe worship songs that, when sung at church, makes one feel incredibly selfish, at least that has been my experience. These types of songs just exhibit a selfish view of God’s redemptive work without even mentioning that we deserve death because of our sin. It simply says, “I will not die”, foregoing any description of God except when it pertains to our salvation and self-security. Several worship songs are like this and as Dr. Thomas Hohstadt stated in one of his articles:
Many churches, though, live in a continual mood of ‘celebration’. If we can just get everybody dancing and shouting, we’ve had ‘church?” Not so, if we have forgotten what we are celebrating-what we have overcome. Too often we enjoy the trip without gratitude for the journey. (2)
Righteousness is a thing worth celebrating, but not in ignorance. Justice tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Zondervan, Romans 3:23). The ideas of justice that popular music teaches today are a slippery slope towards disaster. The Lord says through Amos the prophet to Israel, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Zondervan, Amos 5:23-24).
Music is a part of God’s being. In His fullness He offered to everyone- both believers and non-believers, His partiality to enjoy, to discover, and to celebrate. Notes that sound good together for reasons unknown are evidence of an all-knowing God whose standard is absolute. Therefore, this standard is inherent in us- its excellence, truth, and purity. Choosing to compose and listen to music that reflects these points provides a deeper, more intimate connection with our Creator and with others in community. The gift of music, in its inherent beauty, vast complexity, yet simple means of discovery, gives us a true sense of hope for our fallen nature. In creating music let us then seek to instill that hope in others while reminding ourselves incessantly that music truly is a gift. Let us listen to music not necessarily as skeptics or nitpicks, but rather as humble onlookers who have tasted the hope of Christ and get to witness His beauty even in the most secular music. And finally, let us remember the purpose of making and listening to music. Paul reminds us of it in his first letter to the Corinthians, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (Zondervan, 1 Corinthians 10:31).
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