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Music through a sinless lense

Music through the Eyes of Faith by Harold M. Best (Harper Collins, 1993) is not a heavy read, but it’s not light either; the author is obviously well trained in both music and logical thinking. The book is a little dated (1993), but in terms of foundational philosophy, it is an excellent example of what a thinking, scriptural philosophy in support of Christian pop would have to be.

Music-Through-the-Eyes-of-Faith-9780060608620

Tone

I was relieved because the tone of the book is excellent, the spirit gracious. A pleasant spirit can be lacking in books going either direction. I never once felt insulted, patronized, or irritated because of the personality. The author did an excellent job maintaining a Christlike spirit throughout.

Part of my relief might have been due to the fact that the author is classically trained and shows an obvious love for the classics. I tire of the rock vs. classical straw man debate, and he avoided this. In fact, he insists on the necessity of classical music in our lives.

Personal Introduction Holds Keys

We can learn much from his personal introduction. When Best was a young person, he learned to enjoy many styles of music. From classical music to boogie-woogie and swing, he “fell in love with this music, not even guessing it could be separated out from Bach and Brahms and Beethoven. . . . To [him], it was all one enchanting world” (2).

This would all change as he encountered the thinking that there was spiritually “good” and “bad” music. The good music was good because it resided in the church, and the bad music was bad because it was secular. He writes that he began to live two lives, one in public with the good music of the church and the “Masters” (the classics), and one in private while “not so sure that what I had once so naturally embraced was to be trusted” (3).

I winced at this point, because Best’s experience from an early age was molded by a false dichotomy.  Musical conservatives such as myself do not argue that moral content of music is defined by where it resides, as though it is a church vs. secular debate.

Through spiritual brokenness he “began to put these worlds back together and to reenter once more the delights of early childhood” (4). He goes on to describe, in colorful terms, the vast world that is music. He often provides  these beautiful descriptions of nature and music throughout the book, and I many times found myself quite caught up in the descriptions, although I disagreed with his conclusions.

From this point, the book takes on the purpose of justifying the “plurality” of musical styles for use in sacred contexts. He states clearly in the introduction, “I [will] make a defense of musical pluralism. . . . Music is part of a divinely ordained world of relativism” (8). In fairness, he maintains that this relativism has nothing to do with moral relativism. He attempts to keep these two kinds of relativism separate with varying success.

Musical Pluralism Is Godlike

Best’s idea of musical pluralism is both simple and complex. It is simple in that he uses the variety of creation, both in original creation and as it stands today, as the primary basis to accept a wide variety of music in our lives.

He describes various aspects of creation, such as strawberries. No two strawberries are alike. God created both beautiful flowers and “ugly” insects. What right do we have to say one is better than the other? Best writes, “We often choose parts of the creation the way we choose art and music: some we like, some we don’t. . . . We may have no more aesthetic right to say that a sunset is more beautiful than an artichoke then we do to say that classical music is more beautiful than jazz or Gothic preferable to Bauhas” (25).

His many statements about the need to draw from many music styles and cultures sound good. “They can drink in from as many sources as possible, giving thanks for the rich world of musical creativity” (36). Another typical statement is this: “Does God have any taste? Or is he a Creator whose sense of rightness and beauty are so complete that we will have a more comprehensive way of integrating all of the supposed anomalies and contradictions in human creativity? Is there a way for us to see if or how the music of Eric Clapton or Beethoven can find a place among the musics of Japanese kabuki, the Belinese gamelan, the songs of Stephen Foster, an anonymous dreamer of songs in Africa, J. S. Bach, and Blind Lemon Jefferson” (24).

The Great Leap

In the case of his arguments for musical pluralism, there is an elephant in the room: the concept of sin. I waited through three philosophy-filled chapters for him to address how we should deal with sin’s impact on creation in music and culture. He seems to treat the very concept of culture as a neutral thing, like strawberries, trees, or a sunset. He speaks of artists creating variety but never once mentions the possibility of an artist creating perversion.

He touches on the entrance of sin into creation in one brief section early in the book by encouraging the reader not to concentrate on the fall.

Perhaps we should ask this question instead: As horrible as the Fall is, do we make too much of it by trying to guess what it is all by itself, instead of talking about how God works within it and helps us overcome it, even while we continue to sin (17)?

A few paragraphs later, he attempts to lay to rest any concern about sin in creation by stating that Jesus used the music of His day for weddings, feasts, and everyday life. Therefore, it was not to be shunned.

This conclusion misses the point. The point is not that all music is equally stained by sin. The point is that somewhere the effect of sin is evident. Is a rotten strawberry, an animal with rabies, or toxic pollution God’s creation? Can there not be music that is the equivalent to these examples?

Best tells us that cultures, and accordingly musical styles, are equal (63) and that the value systems within those cultures should inform usBut are all aspects of culture morally good? What about the culture of the Nazis? What about the Goth culture? What about sodomite culture? Are these not perversions of what God created?

Man, because of sin, perverts what God has made. Satan delights in changing God’s creation. For all the beautiful analogies and word pictures Best uses to describe the wonderful variety in the world, he never once mentions the perversion of creation. This absence illustrates to me a huge lack in his argumentation. A biblical philosophy of music simply must take the sinfulness of man into account. Best basically ignores this. By ignoring this vital element at the inception of his philosophical base, he is able to make an otherwise logical case for accepting any musical style from any culture.

This omission is unfortunate, and to a musical conservative like me, it discredits the rest of the book. He presents two plus two and comes up with three. All the rest of the math might be correct, but because of this faulty first step, his conclusions will be wrong.

Music Is Unable to Be a Moral Agent

If musical pluralism is one main thrust of the book, the other is that music is unable to carry propositional truth and, as such, is incapable of expressing morality. Although he spends far less space on this claim, this concept is just as paradigm changing as musical pluralism.

His reasoning is this: music is unable to express moral direction. He writes, “What is true of meat and idols can be equally true of music” (55). “From here on out, I take the position that, with certain exceptions, art and especially music are morally relative and inherently incapable of articulating, for want of a better term, truth speech. They are essentially neutral in their ability to express belief, creed, moral and ethical exactitudes, or even worldview” (42).

He takes this position as an assumption (as per his next sentence—“I also assume”), which he then attempts to prove. What is very informative is to note the small footnote, in which he states that all art should be divided into art with words and art without words. Art with words (word-deeded art forms) can show moral content more easily. He writes that “virtually all” music falls into the other category (non-word-deeded) and therefore doesn’t carry morality. Perhaps it is foolish on my part, but I think of modern music (where the controversy rages) as a composite product of music style and words. Apparently, Best is talking about only instrumental music.

Why is this important?

  1. His argumentation against meaning in music is easier because it is partially true that specific meanings are rare in music without words to clarify.
  2. He can more easily say that music is subjective and carries no agreed-upon meaning. Therefore, any meaning comes from words alone. This conclusion clears the way for the approval of any musical style as long as the words are good.

He makes much of the idea that the meaning of music cannot be quantified or agreed upon (a position he later contradicts by stating that we need to apply aesthetic measurements). But he ignores the fact that being unable to quantify a quality doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or has power to influence. You may not be able to tell precisely how much an elephant weighs, but if it sits on you, it will affect you! You may not be able to pin down the exact “numerical” value of an attitude in a particular style of music, but that doesn’t make its net effect zero.

I will say it is refreshing to read statements about propositional truth. Truth needs words. I agree with that 100 percent. But musical style tells us how to feel about truth we are communicating! That may be just as important.

Taken together, these two main points form the best defense I have ever encountered for the neutrality of music. It strongly argues for complete subjectivity in musical meaning. I think any conservative Christian musician needs to read this book and grapple with the first four chapters.

Other Observations

New Evangelicalism vs. Fundamentalism

I have never seen the difference between new evangelical and fundamentalist thinking presented as clearly in a music philosophy book as in this one. His entire way of thinking is to change by infiltration. “In other words, whoever seeks to move a culture towards transformation by Christ must join it, participating in the transformation from within” (67). I wonder how many fundamentalists have drifted toward new evangelicalism because they accepted the infiltration philosophy through the music they accepted.

Rock Music Is Taking Over the Musical World

He makes the case that there is no universal music; therefore, there is no universal standard by which to judge music (9). Other pro-Christian pop authors repeat this claim often. But I find it incredibly interesting that there is one type or style of music that is making inroads in every culture: the rock idiom. He admits as much in several places:

Since more and more Christians everywhere seem to be picking up on [hymns] is this not a sign that some such universality might already be in progress? What about the way people deep in New Guinea and high up in Switzerland all seem to pick up so easily on rock music (65, emphasis mine)?

It is not uncommon to hear Korean rock, Chinese rock, Hispanic rock, and the like. Each uses the overall rock style while containing a rather pronounced musical ‘accent’; the ethnicity hangs on despite the influences. Much of this ethnic rock music is in transition. As to whether the ethnic roots will win out and somehow transform rock or rock will win and subsume ethnicity remains to be seen (64).

I am surprised that as a lover of “pluralistic” music, he is not more concerned about the endangered musical species of these cultures falling victim to this idiom. He doesn’t seem to be at all concerned about losing these indigenous musical cultures he prizes. The fact of the matter is that the rock idiom is an example of a universal. But even if you don’t think rock is a universal by inherent meaning, it may well be on its way to becoming a practical universal because of its absorption into nearly every major culture on earth! As Best says, “The nearer musical dialects or styles are to each other, the more they may be subject to common evaluation” (102).

Biblical Principles Are Good but Are Often Postassumptions

I do appreciate Best’s attempt at relating his words to scriptural principles. At some key points, however, I feel that he applies the verses as “post-assumptions.” For example, he reminds us of the responsibilities of believers in dealing with the controversy of meat offered to idols. This is good, except that he’s just assumed that to be classified as meat, music is completely without moral content to any degree. Jesus’s statement that it is not what a man eats that defiles him but what is in his heart clearly contradicts this assumption. Where does music enter? The stomach or the heart? I don’t argue with the biblical principle. I disagree that this principle applies to music in this way.

It’s a thought-provoking read and one any Christian musician should wrestle through.  With beautiful, even poetic descriptions throughout, the reader will walk away with a new appreciation for God’s variety.  But without substantially dealing with the effects of sin on creation, this book repeatedly ends up at the wrong conclusions.

Benjamin Everson is an itinerant evangelist. This article originally appeared here and is reprinted by permission.

About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.

7 Responses to Music through a sinless lense

  1. saniol saniol says:

    This is an important review, because I think this book significantly affected much of the current evangelical landscape as one of the most thoughtful (but errant) defenses of musical pluralism. Thanks, Benjamin Everson.

  2. Kevin Mungons says:

    Kudos to Ben Everson for such a thoughtful review.
    I agree that Best’s book is important and worth studying,
    even if his view only partially intersects with our own. And I agree with Ben’s
    concern about the “sinless lense,” Best’s failure to fully account for the
    effect of sin on our creative acts.
    I ran back to my own copy of Best’s book and read a note on
    page 18, right where I had scrawled it back in 1993: “Author completely
    sidesteps the effect of the fall on Christian music. Contrast this with Calvin
    Johannson’s book, especially regarding the implications of imago Dei.”
    But having agreed about Best’s greatest failing, I’d also
    add that I find his book quite valuable for other reasons—I still consider him to
    be part of the Mt. Rushmore of Evangelical Church Musicians.
    Best brings to the conversation his conservative evangelical
    theology and his understanding of the free church tradition. He’s an organist
    who was reared in CMA (feel the tension there!) He developed an admirable
    school of music at Wheaton. (And remember that he contributed a chapter to Exploring the Worship Spectrum,
    representing “Traditional Worship.” Yup. His views are nuanced.)
    True, Best skewers the idea of “morality” in church music.
    When reading his comments, remember that he is critiquing the way “morality of
    music” was taught by fundamentalists in the 1970s and 1980s. In my estimation,
    our viewpoints from that era deserved his critique! But I might take issue with
    Ben’s summary (“His [Best’s] argumentation
    against meaning in music”), because this summary is actually the opposite of the
    author’s position. Best affirms that music
    has meaning. He even goes as far to say music communicates “strong or shifting
    moral messages.” But he does not embrace
    the “morality of music” as taught by 1970s fundys. (So they responded by
    slamming Best when this book came out, mostly because they didn’t understand
    what he was saying.)
    According to Best,
    the “moral meaning of music” does not operate directly. It is not an opposable
    force that “makes” people behave in a certain way. (Don’t get me started. Yes,
    fundys taught this in the 1970s.) Best also suggests that musical meaning can
    change over time, and can change from culture to culture. He acknowledges
    universals—but again, he articulates this in a nuanced way.
    If the question is “what
    does Best mean,” I’ve found it helpful to read his later books, and to also
    read Nicholas Wolterstorff, who strongly influenced Best’s ideas.

  3. Benjamin,
    Thanks for this review.  It is helpful to have someone do this kind of work.  One point that I took from your review that was highly enlightening was the difference between new-evangelical and fundamentalist thinking, at least as I see you define it and how I had understood it in my past.  I don’t know that many or most fundamentalists would agree any more, because the infiltration type of thinking seems to more and more characterize fundamentalists now too.  I hope my positive endorsement is seen as positive.
    Thank you!!

  4. saniol saniol says:

    Kevin, it’s interesting, you mentioned reading Best’s later work to understand his earlier work, but actually I think that Best changed over time. For example, in Unceasing Worship, it appears that Best realizes that he’s been wrong on some issues. I think that book is far better than the one under current discussion.

  5. Kevin Mungons says:

    Scott–You may be right about Best changing over time (don’t we all!), or perhaps he was responding to his changing times with a readjusted emphasis. For instance, I’ve always appreciated his long cautionary chapter on mass culture in Unceasing Worship. I suppose this is a cautionary lesson for any of us who “go on the record” as we write about church music. We like to see the noetic effect of sin on everyone else’s work!

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] Harold Best represents the majority of evangelical opinions on this matter, which is fitting since his writings and teachings have significantly contributed to perpetuating this thinking among evangelicals. You’ll find that most evangelical leaders who defend musical relativism–everyone from John Piper to Bob Kauflin to Matt Cosper and others–quote Harold Best’s classic Music Through the Eyes of Faith as support for their views. By the way, we posted an excellent review of Best’s book and its philosophy here. […]

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