I got given this book last year when I turned 30, but I really wish I’d read it a lot earlier, because it deals with a subject that has played a major part in my life over the last five or six years. And that is – what is the relationship between Christianity and music?
This is not an academic question for me. As some of you may know, when I finished school, I went to study mathematics and statistics for four years, and then worked as a statistician for five years after that.
And then, all of a sudden, I decided to switch over to working in the classical music industry. (Partly, this was inspired by another fantastic book called What Color is Your Parachute? but that’s for a different review.)
It took me two years to get into the arts, and I’ll tell you now – it wasn’t an easy journey. It was hard on two fronts. One, it was hard logistically. Only having maths and statistics on my resume and no arts experience at all, it was hard to get even an interview when I first went job hunting.
However, running parallel with this logistical issue was a theological issue – why should a Christian work in the arts? If you’re not a Christian, or you’re not familiar with those circles, you may not understand why this was an issue. If you are a Christian, and you can’t see how it is a problem, then you may well hang around with some very well thought-out Christians.
But the basic problem was something like this – Christians are called to follow Jesus Christ in all things – so where does music fit into that? Sure, there’s what’s known as “Christian” music nowadays, which refers to specific genres of music, usually set apart by having lyrics that refer to various Christian themes. And certainly, there is a role for musicians in church.
But working for a classical music company? For music that not only has no Christian lyrics, but no lyrics at all? To just put on music for people to listen to? How on earth would that be bringing glory to God?
I really struggled with this issue, because it was even suggested to me by some people that it’d be a bit of a waste if I went into the arts, compared with, say, working for a Christian organisation that was directly spreading the Gospel. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer these sorts of objections and it left me with another dilemma – if music was a bit of a waste, then being a statistician probably wasn’t all that great either.
So thus began an on-and-off again study of Christianity as it related to work in general, and now with this book – music in particular.
It’s an enjoyable book to read, because the author, Jeremy Begbie, has done an immense amount of research – but at the same time is also a musician himself. So he provides insights that couldn’t be offered by just a theologian alone.
The first half of the book is an overview of the history of thought in Christian circles regarding music. He first of all gives a comprehensive overview of pretty much every verse where music appears in the Bible, and then looks at various thinkers over the last couple of millennia, from the early Greeks to the Reformers to the current day.
Then, in the second half, he sets out a basic theology of music, and how it fits in.
I’m going to give a very simple paraphrase of his position, but really, the book has so many more interesting detail and side tangents to follow (well, interesting if you like music) that this is really only providing a rough overview.
Begbie’s basic point is that, because there’s not a hard and fast theology of music spelt out in the Bible (ie there are no verses which say, “Thou shalt listen to” or “thou shalt not listen to”), we need to follow the larger themes of the Bible to understand where music fits in.
He starts with Creation. God created the world to bring Him glory. He created man, in His image, to be the primary being in this created world that would bring glory to God. The way God wanted man to bring glory to Him is in working with the materials in this world to improve the world (part of the “have dominion over the earth” command).
And so God created the world with various potentialities that we can tap into. For instance, wood is found in trees. But there is also the potential for us to use it to make things – from furniture to houses. Likewise for music. There is the potentiality for us to create certain sounds that blend together and combine in ways that our ears would find interesting.
In fact, interesting is an understatement. Music speaks to us in a language all of its own. It moves our emotions, it inspires us, it saddens us, it uplifts us, it depresses us, it puzzles us, it makes us smile. It does all these things. Just from making a few sounds and combining theme together.
Begbie really brings out that the potential in the creation for us to make musical sounds and the way our bodies are designed to respond to music is something that God planned all along. So therefore, there is an onus on music makers to remember that music is not just something that is man-made, but is actually something that exists in God’s created order that we can tap into and use to bring God glory.
However, because of the Fall, the Bible teaches that the world has become imperfect. And the way we use the world, and the potentialities there, becomes imperfect as well. We don’t always compose good music, we don’t always listen to good music, and we can use music for a lot of purposes that don’t glorify God.
But, Christians believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is reversing the effects of the fall. This is not completed yet – and all Christians look forward to a time when things will finally be perfected – but in the meantime, Christians are called to work in this world to improve it, bearing witness to Christ.
Christians have realised this throughout the ages – it’s no surprise that Christians back in the medieval days and onwards were heavily involved in hospitals, helping the poor, fighting for justic, improving people’s standards of living, etc. (Which is not to ignore, in any way, the many people who also called themselves Christians but seemed to have confused the situation by acting in the exact opposite of that.)
Christians naturally are called to contribute to this world in ways that restore the world, albeit imperfectly, from its flawed state. Music is no different.
So that’s the general groundwork, but there are all sorts of interesting analogies that Begbie draws between music and theology that are worth reading.
However, the book ended with a bit of a cliffhanger – how do you judge what is good music or bad? Begbie says that he’s run out of room in this book and is working on another one.
This is a bit of a shame because, of course, the highly controversial questions are all around “good” vs “bad” music. Is rock music bad? Or if you’re a Christian, can you listen to whatever you want? (As long as you remind yourself that you might not agree with all of the lyrics?)
Then, of course, there is the perennial church music question. Are hymns better than modern church choruses? What makes any church music particularly great? Should we just play whatever is the latest music so people want to come to our church? What do you do about old “traditional” church services where anything that’s not an organ is considered sacrilegious?
I had an interesting discussion this week with a couple of people about the church music question, and I’d like to come back to it soon, but I thought I needed to get this book review out first, because I would say that it’s overall framework is where I stand on the music issue. God gave us the potential to make music, and we make it to his glory.
The question is, what does that look like?
These are the bigger questions and, like Jeremy Begbie, I’m going to leave this with a bit of a cliffhanger and come back to them some other time – hopefully in the not too distant future.