Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts by Harold M. Best. 2003, InterVarsity Press.
I had just finished my review of Best’s first book, Music through the Eyes of Faith, when I decided to go ahead and pick up his next book. Unceasing Worship is a logical continuation of his work, expanding it into the area of worship.
Much of the book is thought provoking and logically consistent. His emphasis on worship as a continuous part of life is both refreshing and biblical. The first chapter, “No One Does Not Worship,” is an excellent treatise on that very topic.
I also should mention that, similar to his first book, I find that Best’s writing exhibits humility and grace. I feel like I could be sitting at a coffee table, listening to him speak these words, and although there is much with which I disagree, I very much appreciate the spirit in which he speaks. This is no small matter, particularly in such a controversial topic such as music and/or the arts. If my critique comes across as unkind or ungraceful, that is certainly not my goal. I have determined to do my best to emulate the kind spirit he uses in his writing.
Having a good spirit does not, of course, have anything to do with being right. I believe some fundamental flaws in this book disqualify some of his conclusions and should lead us to question the applications of others.
Flaw 1: Best’s Urging for Musical Plurality Flows from Theological Plurality
I try to learn something new from every book I read. The biggest observation I take away from this one is that there is a connection between someone’s basic theology and his or her applications to life categories. Best may be more theologically grounded than he appears to be in this book, but I am sure the book is aimed at the wide evangelical world. Perhaps his wider audience motivates him to be less doctrinally precise. But theological problems in this book will have an impact on his music philosophy.
In chapter 3, for example, “Mutual Indwelling,” Best travels well within the world of spiritual mysticism—so much so that he feels he must try to “pull back” in chapter 4. He does this a lot in his writing: he travels from one extreme to the other stating opposing perspectives , then suggests we include both ends of the spectrum to have true variety and diversity. It seems as though he arrives at his recommendations by synthesizing two opposites together.
Consider this interesting quotation regarding “mutual indwelling” of the church congregation:
Christ is knit into it as chief cornerstone; each believer is a living stone and yet a temple; each believer indwells all other believers; and Christ is all in all (57, emphasis mine).
Alone, this is not a drastic example, and describing the experiential, mystical tone of the entire chapter is a bit difficult. But is it true that one believer indwells all other believers in corporate worship? This is strange terminology that reflects a very mystical approach, which in turn reflects a theological viewpoint that allows for it.
Here’s one more head-scratching quotation regarding mutual indwelling:
Mutual indwelling is about countless people in shoulder-to-shoulder intimacies: church suppers, family outings, voting, barn raisings, boat rides, garage sales, Fourth of July cookouts, parades, hopscotch, town meetings, triple-A baseball, homecoming, weddings, and funerals. Mutual indwelling is the body of Christ swept up in God’s extraordinary cleverness [in creating] flesh and bone, galaxies, field daisies, giant sequoias, spring rains, sparrows, giant squid, icebergs, summer savory, rain forests, caves, clouds, and cougars (59, emphasis mine).
This quotation is typical of Best: some beautiful, picturesque word painting bypasses important questions that need answers. What does he mean by “mutual indwelling”? On one hand he says it is the body of Christ. Does the body of Christ vote together? Go on boat rides together? Have parades together? Play hopscotch? (!) What does he really mean by these activities?
He seemingly vacillates between a “community” kind of “indwelling” and a regenerate definition of indwelling. In any case, this lack of clarity as to what he means by “indwelling” permeates the entire book. This is one of his key points to the whole book, and it is fraught with theological murkiness. If the theological underpinnings of the book aren’t clear, how can we trust his later conclusions?
More Examples of Doctrinal Plurality
When speaking about the Lord’s Supper, he says,
I realize the body of Christ has come upon seemingly numberless approaches, meanings and actions. . . . These range from the Zwinglian constraint of pure memorial to varying convictions about Christ’s being with, in, around and under the bread and wine, even to the bread and wine literally becoming the body and the blood. . . . I am not writing to urge a given position (56, emphasis added).
Best may very well hold to the biblical position of pure memorial, but he feels it is better to leave the door wide open to various interpretations. A conservative, biblical approach to the Lord’s Supper leaves no room for this view.
Jesus Adjusts to Charismatic Teaching?
If some speak in tongues in one gathering and others in another do not, does this mean some have found particular favor with the Lord and others have not? Is it because some have an edge on true experience and others do not? Or does the Lord somehow recognize how typologically different we are . . . and, in his magnificent generosity, adjust and manifest himself accordingly? . . . Is Jesus so kind, even in these microidolatries, as to adjust to our psychodoctrinal patterns and to come to us anyway, allowing us to believe, even if for a moment, that the correctness of our opinions makes his presence noticeable (71)?
This is wishful thinking. Actually, it is plain unbiblical thinking. Jesus adjusts to our microidolatries? This is not the Jesus plainly revealed in Scripture. Doctrinal plurality will inevitably lead to musical stylistic plurality. If Best allows for charismatic confusion, it is no surprise that he allows for musical confusion.
I heartily echo his sentiment. But we cannot lay aside doctrinal clarity for a faux peace.
The picturesque but ultimately nebulous nature of many chapters of this book (the first three in particular) might be due to a somewhat nebulous doctrinal base for the book. Much of the doctrinal presuppositions are not overtly stated but are evident by his attitudes toward accepting so much in the name of diversity and variety.
This is a danger, and it certainly influences his view of music.
Flaw 2: This book substantively ignores the effects of the fall on art and music. He does occasionally mention the fall or sin but never in a way that shows us how it affected (or infected) anything.
This flaw was a significant weakness in his earlier book, and, despite acknowledging his reticence to deal with the fall in his first book, that doesn’t improve this volume.
Emphasis on Chaos Rather Than on Order
As I read through multiple music philosophy books from a variety of positions, seeing different authors emphasize diverse aspects is interesting. Best seems to be pushing back against the teaching of order in nature (and the subsequent need for balance and order in music) when he writes,
God is not especially interested in straight lines, perfect circles and geometric tidiness; His world is more chaotic than symmetrical. A statement like this flies in the face of our neatly packaged, superficial and often spiritualized ideas about order, symmetry, harmony and balance in the creation. . . . Nothing repeats and nothing is predictable (135).
Although in his next sentence he acknowledges the “governing laws” that do not change, his emphasis on chaos is worth noting. Does he equate governed chaos with the chaos resulting from the fall, sin, and the curse? He doesn’t give a clear answer to this question.
Good Questions Raised but Not Answered
I was elated to find that Best at last dealt with the nature of music in chapter 9, “The Peculiarity of Music and Its Unique Role.” But I was soon disappointed. In addition to the incomplete explanation of what “a new song” means (according to Best it isn’t the nature of the song that changes; it is new because “faith alone makes it new”), he turns Colossians 3:16 on its head. Where we are admonished to “teach one another” through music, Best, because of his presuppositions, reasons backward into the passage, saying only the words teach. Paul couldn’t actually have meant what he said!
But he summarizes a conservative objection, one that I or some other similar conservative might raise, rather well on the next page, again raising my hopes for a moment that he might indeed deal with the nature of music.
[I]f it is true that music has such force in the context of worship, it must have similar force in the context of worldly gatherings. If intimacy with the Lord is expedited by music, then why not sexual intimacy or drug intake in a mosh pit? Since some argue that music is morally and spiritually causal, it would follow that the music producing worship would have to be radically different from music producing immorality. If this is true, then why is so much praise and worship music based on rock music? If the argument is that the Holy Spirit makes the difference, why is he so quiet during other “sets” than the worship set or in the use of traditional music (148, emphasis mine)?
The statement in italics is a near approximation of what I, a musical conservative, would teach. Yes, it does indeed follow that the music would have to be radically different! And why is so much praise and worship music based on rock music? Because people don’t understand the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the effect of sin on art.
Wait for him to answer his well-put objection, and you will wait in vain, for his solution two pages later jumps over any discussion and simply states,
By all means, let the music come. Traditional, contemporary, avant-garde, ethnic, jazz, rock and chant—name it and pour your heart and mind into it. Rejoice in it. Dance with David in it. Let Taize ring the changes on the glory of God, and let “Jesus Loves Me” done in a thousand styles become everybody’s invocation and benediction. Let the emotions roll and the endorphins break their dikes (117).
Best tries to make the point that music is too important and shouldn’t overshadow the ministry of the Word. With that I agree. But why does he not deal with the effect of sin on music?
To “let the music come” is no solution. Unanswered observations abound in this chapter. Is the solution to make sure we have a balanced approach, to take the extremes and mix them together? That solution is neither biblical nor practical.
A Glimpse into Applications Made without Accounting for the Fall
Assumptions about the neutrality of music and the arts in general lead to this astonishing conclusion, with which I will conclude this review. Speaking of artistic freedom and the idea that only artists themselves can accurately judge their work as being either right or wrong, he says,
For example, in the area of the visual arts, nudity is equated with pornography, and abstraction or radical stylization is equated with a fractured worldview. In dance, the body is defensively robed, redeemed sensuality is repressed, movements and gestures are severely limited. . . . Consequently many Christian artists react to these shrunken opinions with angered and corrective intent (115, emphasis mine).
When I encountered this paragraph, I was stunned. I’ve tried to rationalize his blanket statements here in several different ways, but I’ve failed. The best I can come up with is that he is trying to legitimize “great art” that sometimes includes nudity. When we grant that claim for sake of argument, as weak a defense it may be, how are we to understand his criticism of the body being defensively robed during dance?
To defend what God’s Word teaches isn’t a “shrunken opinion.” It was God, not puritanical preachers, who clothed Adam and Even after the fall. Nudity outside the marriage bed is condemned in Scripture. “Redeemed sensuality”? In what context? It appears he is speaking of dance. Clothing sensual dance is defensive?
How can he say these things? How is it possible to defend what the Word decries? It is possible when one fails to take into account the effect of the fall on mankind. Before the fall, mankind was unclothed and was unashamed. But such is not the case anymore.
As with Best’s first book, there are many good thoughts and paragraphs. For example, he makes good observations about our worship being too tied to music in general. He makes another great little statement: “Witness is overheard worship.” That’s both catchy and accurate!
It isn’t the 75 percent with which I agree that worries me. It is the other 25 percent and the presuppositions carried over from his first book that concern me.
This book isn’t really about core music philosophy. The neutrality of music is presupposed and carried over from his first book. A person reading this book alone won’t need to wrestle through the issues of music philosophy because this book assumes them. A reader may feel like the author has adequately dealt with issues of music philosophy due to the numerous descriptions of the huge variety in music, but no substantive discussion of the nature of music itself takes place.
The book is beautiful in many places, and the author’s sweet spirit pervades it. But the good spirit and poetic writing cannot overcome its theological contradictions and vagueness.
Note: This review first appeared here and is republished at the request of the author.