Musical talk these days is heated. Likely it always has been so; but now the debate takes on the flavor of a society which is fiercely committed to humanism. Even among Christians, the banter can become surprisingly pragmatic and presuppositionally trite and many are nearly rudderless when it comes to the principles of the matter. Most Americans prefer to maintain the anonymity of our principles under the guise of preference. Many of us, on one level or another, have accepted the constraints of a culture dogmatically loyal to tolerance...ultimately the worship of human wisdom. We consistently refer to taste in musical style as an issue of personal preference. And I suppose in one sense you could say it is. But when did you ever hear of a preference that wasn’t born out of principle? As Christians, we should have preferences based upon that which is principally right and true. We are required to take our preferences captive to the obedience of Christ, along with every other thought. A lawful Christian preference is perforce born out of the word of God, not our own imaginations. We are supposed to be equipped saints, prepared for kingdom building:
"so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes."
To have this kind of “preference” is an obligation...a necessary result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By this, I mean no more nor less than that, as we grow more and more into the image of Christ, the things which God loves and calls beautiful will be the definitions of our personal taste...our comprehensive aesthetic. Aesthetics and the cultivation of certain tastes are a part of our nature…a nature created to worship. Since we are worshiping creatures, the god we serve must and will dictate the manner in which we worship. This is a chilling reality. It brings the mirror of truth to bear on our labels and categories.
One simply cannot deny the nature of music. It is a lucid reflection of the thoughts and emotions of man’s mind as he reflects the creative nature of Him in whose image he is created. Down to the very wavelengths of the notes, music acts obediently to its Maker. Consequently, it cannot be other than powerful and communicative. For this very reason, one cannot appeal to the topic’s supposed neutrality. Granted, the music itself… that is, the notes, the tools, the function, is not the source of our definition for musical morality. There is after all nothing inherently sinful in a violin (perish the thought) or an electric guitar. The depravity of the human heart is the source of the morality or immorality we find in music; harboring an infinite variety of wrongs which it can cause inanimate tools to express. Since men’s hearts are desperately wicked, apart from miraculous regeneration they produce all kinds of evil…and the world of music is no exception.
"If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air."
~1 Corinthians 14:7-9
This is why men like Bach are fascinating to me. Regenerate and submitting his will to Christ, he recognized the mortal danger of taking the power and wonder of music lightly. He is the kind of man whose music still speaks about the glory of God, even after he himself has long gone to his eternal reward. To this day Bach exacts a kind of awe and applause from even the most nihilistic and degenerate audiences. A kind of noblesse oblige drags the modern musical world to its feet in reluctant ovation. Bach himself admitted to no genius, but only adherence to the rules of the created thing; which rules he uncovered through painstaking study. Like a surgeon delving into the uncountable wonders of the human body, Bach probed with single-mindedness through a perfect creation long twisted by sin; inexorably demanding everything from it, and consequently unveiling the undeniable fingerprints of God.
Christians need to stop imagining that they are not bound to do the same as he. When he said he was obliged to work hard, he said no more than was strictly true . We are not given the option of neutrality any more than he was. We are not even allowed to "do it just like Bach" because that would abrogate the principle. Because of this, Christians tend to allow the issue to slide. The idea of working as hard as Bach makes our flesh, well, balk!
So how does one even begin to form a right opinion on music? It would be easier indeed to call our taste in music a preference in the neutral sense of that word. But I believe this position denies the Lordship of Christ over this as well as every area of life. We must begin by study; identifying the sources and purposes of each musical style and holding up every note to the mirror of God’s perfect word to judge whether it meets the standard.
There are such things as excellence and truth in music principle. They reside first in the nature of God, and appeal to nothing and no one for their authenticity, identity, or authority. If one cannot acknowledge His authority and comprehensive dominion of this matter, one does not even have a logical basis on which to base any kind of knowledge or opinion on the topic at all. If we believe this, we can draw at least two conclusions about music.
First, from infancy music, like any other element of culture, has discipled us. Music teaches men a manner of thought and speech. It formulates an attitude, and a bearing towards our fellow man; and ultimately, strongly influences the nature of our thoughts and emotions towards God. Consider other forms of communication which can be analogous: speech, dress and carriage. No wise man uses slang or street talk before a king. No pure woman wears the garments of a prostitute. No honorable soldier ambles in a slovenly gait. No just business man hangs his head like a coward. And no Christian brings impure, slovenly, disorderly, excessive, insolent or ungainly music into the presence of the Most High God to offer it as a sacrifice of worship with the excuse of preference, ignorance, neutrality or perception.
Secondly, music was not primarily created for our comfort or even our benefit, but for His own pleasure and glory. Of course, in as much as we are submitting to Him, we will find His pleasure becomes our own. However, the moment a man begins to rely on His own skill, taste, judgment and perceptions for a standard of music, so soon does he raise his own will up over the authority and pleasure of God. Music cannot be the expression of the un-bridled human will; otherwise it becomes in every sense most vile and ugly. Only as it reflects the divine image and will of God can it become truly beautiful and right. In one sense, one cannot expect music to excel beyond the sanctification of the men who are using it. It speaks the words of the heart which the mouth cannot utter.
If this little essay has hardly scratched the surface of the issue, then let it insight others to further study. I do not believe there can be such a thing as neutrality of aesthetics in music. Its myriad diversity embodied in infinite continuity is awash with the splendor of the Most High. Don’t let us become confused with our muddied perceptions. The variations that exist within beauty are variations that originated in the mind of God. So let our work in this field of God’s kingdom be variations on a Theme: the Theme of the Creator.
O be careful, little heart, of the music you make.