Beauty and the Best: Toward the Development of Christian Aesthetics in Music

[This article was first published at www.sharperiron.org on July 28, 2006.]

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 will refer to a paper by Pastor Mike Harding entitled “The Beauty of God.” The paper is available at www.fbctroy.org/Church/beauty%20article.pdf. I will also refer to an article written by SI member Pastor Scott Aniol entitled “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 entitled “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 will 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 will 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, MA, and is available at www.amazon.com/gp/product/156563361X. I would like to approach this conversation with a brief comparison and discussion of the differing viewpoints on this issue. Then, I want to 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, will lean more strongly toward an exclusively objective approach to beauty in music. Others, like Makujina and Johansson, will 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 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.

While the Bible never specifically connects music with beauty, it does connect worship with beauty in several Old Testament passages:

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.

Psalms 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.

Psalms 29:2 – Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

Psalms 96:6 – Honour and majesty are before him: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Psalms 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, then we must turn our attention to general revelation. When it comes to beauty in terms of observing general revelation, several ideas come immediately to mind:

1. The Bible tells us that creation declares the glory of God. [Psalm 8]
2. The Bible tells us that creation displays the power of God. [Romans 1]
3. The Bible tells us that creation renders mankind without excuse. [Romans 1]
4. The Bible tells us that all are sinners, and that sin has affected our entire being. [Romans 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.

1. In some African, Arabic, Indian, and Pacific Island cultures, obesity is considered beautiful while in America thinness is most valued as beautiful.
2. 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!
3. How can we trust the conclusions of experts, however united they may be, if all men are tainted with 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”—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:

Gospel Characteristics Pop Music Characteristics
Individuality Quantity
Non-materialism Material profit
Creativity Novelty
Sacrifice Immediate gratification
Discipleship Ease of consumption
Joy Entertainment
High standards Least common denominator
Principles above success Success first of all
Reality Romanticism
Encouragement of the best Mediocrity
Meekness Sensationalism
Permanence Transience

(Johansson 55)

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 which 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 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.

This is a beautiful, intimate communiqué that clearly reveals that Paul practiced what he taught. Why do I say that? In verse nine of chapter one, Paul prays 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, 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 needed to constantly 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.”

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.

So, 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 “whatever is not of faith is sin.” 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 where 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. (Colossians 3:12-14)

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Timothy Smith on October 17, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Okay…

    but how then do we know (if we know) that the aesthetic evaluations of the Bible are largely culturally conditioned (“make his praise glorious” Ps 66:2; “Rebekkah… was very beautiful” Gen. 24:11), but the moral commands of the Bible are not largely culturally conditioned? Is there really any greater reason to hold to one then the other?

    Reply

  2. Posted by Timothy Smith on October 17, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I mean that if the diverse understanding of aesthetics around the world means the Bible’s aesthetics are bascially relative, why would not even more diverse understandings of morality around the world mean the Bible’s morality is largely relative?

    Reply

  3. Posted by PhilipT on October 18, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Good question, Timothy. I wanted to do my part to clarify the difference between the two issues.

    The relativity of aesthetics in the Bible can be debated because the Bible is not entirely specific on the matter; therefore, aesthetics becomes a matter of opinion. In other words, a study of aesthetics based on biblical principles is a philosophical extension of the text and bears a measure of subjectivity because it is based on man’s reasoning outside the text. Such reasoning can be tainted by the culture in which we live and the sin nature which we retain (cf. Isa. 55:8 concludes that man cannot fully reason out God and His ways).

    Morality in the Bible is not relative because the Bible is abundantly clear and explicit on the matter. The issue of morality lies within the text of Scripture rather than in philosophical reasoning. Numerous examples could be cited (e.g. Rom. 3:23 “For all have sinned…” – either thy have or they have not; either you accept what the Bible says or reject what the Bible says). If one wishes to question the moral evaluations of Scripture, he must take specific God-breathed (II Tim. 3:16) statements and claim that modern culture completely overturns the statement.

    Overall, there is a distinct difference between philosophical extensions of biblical statements and the specific biblical statements themselves. The former is only as valid as it is connected to the Word of God and is mere speculation apart from it (however logical it may be). The latter is unquestioned by a believer in the inspired Word of God (however illogical/countercultural it may appear). The study of aesthetics is beneficial for believers, but our human conclusions on the matter are simply philosophical human conclusions (e.g. some conclude that pop music is more aesthetic based on biblical styles while others may conclude that classical music is more aesthetic based on biblical principles of order). In sharp contrast, what the Bible says is clear black-and-white truth (e.g. Eph. 5:3 states that fornication or uncleanness should not even be named among believers; therefore, watching/listening to many pop artists latest hits [i.e. Spears’ “Womanizer”] would be considered clearly wrong because they advocate fornication and uncleanness). I stand personally on philosophical conclusions that I have reached and do not force them on others; I stand confidently on the direct statements of Scripture and can apply them to unbelievers and believers.

    I would like to see Pastor Brian’s conclusion on the matter, but I believe that he is rather busy with his new ministry right now. I have reached these conclusions because they are indicated specifically in Scripture (those passages listed above in conjunction with a study of Matt. 5:17ff – reliability of Scripture vs. untrustworthiness of human conclusions). Please let me know if I was in some way incorrect or unclear in my explanation.

    Reply

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