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Music That Is Intrinsically Good

The “worship wars” have now ceased, and many people are mostly happy about the cessation. Some of us are less happy, however, because those wars—like many non-metaphorical wars—settled nothing. There was neither victor nor vanquished, neither winner nor loser; there was simply a Nixonian “peace with honor,” in which two unreconciled combatants withdrew (honorably?) from the fray. In previous moments, each combatant was Lutheran, musicologically; each believed that music has some aesthetic properties that are “intrinsically good,” and the two combatants actually believed that their music was “better,” at least in some senses of the term, or better suited to the Christian liturgy. The armistice we now enjoy was purchased at the price of aesthetic relativism; we get along with one another by denying that beauty exists, by adopting the alternative theory that there are merely personal or group preferences, that beauty, in this case, is in the ear of the beholder.

Someone (for the present, yours truly) needs to remind occasionally that Christian orthodoxy has not before been aesthetically relativist; to the contrary, until roughly forty years ago, Christian orthodoxy had never been aesthetically relativist (the late Francis Schaeffer was thankfully spared by death from witnessing this rebuttal of much of his life’s work on this point). In Luther’s generation, for all of the ecclesiastical waves he surfed, he caused not a ripple when he said about musical training for children:

The music is arranged in four parts. I desire this particularly in the interest of the young people, who should and must receive an education in music as well as in the other arts if we are to wean them away from carnal and lascivious songs and interest them in what is good and wholesome. Only thus will they learn, as they should, to love and appreciate what is intrinsically good. (emphasis mine)1

Note two things about Luther’s opinion: first, that some aspects of music are indeed intrinsically good, and second, that it may require some training/education for people to come to “appreciate” this inherent/intrinsic goodness and prefer it to what might be merely “carnal and lascivious.” Today, neither of his two points is widely conceded. The tacit rules of our current liturgical armistice require that we all pretend that there are no intrinsic standards of musical beauty (or aptness), and that no education or training is needed to be able to perceive such (non-existent) standards. Some people may like four-part harmony, and others may not like four-part harmony (or any other aspect of music), but such harmony may not be spoken of as being, as Luther affirmed, “intrinsically good.” Some may like guitar-accompanied hymns, and some may dislike guitar-accompanied hymns, but no one may claim that the instrument is or is not intrinsically good (or better or worse than alternatives) for accompanying the singing of four-part hymns, or claim (as Luther did) that four-part harmony was “intrinsically good.” As convenient as such modernist, relativist, populist cynicism is for the armistice, it is modernist, it is relativist, it is populist, and it is cynical.

Not every armistice settles existing disputes. The Treaty at Versailles is nearly universally acknowledged to have precipitated the Second War two decades later. The manner in which the War to End All Wars ended created another War that made the first look like a mere skirmish. Our current armistice will also not work; perhaps the combatants (my generation) will die out, and another generation will recover the robust Christian aesthetic that informed Luther in his generation, John Milton in his,2 and Francis Schaeffer in his. That aesthetic permits us genuinely to enjoy music, because it permits us to perceive music as a divine gift, as real as food, shelter, family, or friends. One cannot thank God for one’s mere culturally-shaped personal preferences, but one can thank God for something that truly exists, and Luther thought musical beauty truly existed:

I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given mankind by God.…In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.…This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself of the fact that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.3

Luther was grateful for all of God’s gifts; he would have joined us when we thank God for our food, shelter, family, health, and other blessings of this life. But when did you—or anyone you have ever known—thank God, as Luther did, for the precious gift/treasure of music? The Modernist rejection of the idea of aesthetic standards has slipped into what were once anti-Modernist churches not because someone has rebutted the arguments of Luther, Milton, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, or even the late Roger Scruton;4 it was merely the cost of the post-war reparations. The war has ceased not because one or the other combatant won, but because both surrendered. If the worship wars were precipitated by the contest over which forms of music were intrinsically superior (at least for the purposes of the Christian liturgy) to other forms, both parties have now surrendered Luther’s belief that some musical realities are intrinsically good, and with this surrender also therefore surrendered the ability to give thanks to God for His good gift. How can I thank God for a “gift” that doesn’t exist, is merely a personal preference, and a personal preference that effectively divides the body of Christ as much as Pope Leo X’s excommunication of Luther?

In my opinion, the armistice is simply too expensive; the cost of the reparations is too high. We have been robbed of the permission to give thanks for what others were permitted to give thanks for. If musical beauty is not real, then we can no more give thanks for it than we can for a unicorn. What we once contended for (belief that some aspects of music are “intrinsically good,” and that music is a gift from God) was worth contending for, and we should re-enter the fray and attempt to settle the matter. It is literally ungrateful not to give thanks for a genuine gift; but if music is not a gift from God, not a reality whose actual traits (rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, et al., according to Aaron Copland, What To Listen For In Music) actually exist, then we cannot express gratitude for it.

Of course I am not actually desirous of rekindling the hostilities. There would be no point, no solution, no victory. The “arguments” of the two sides are stealth weapons, unrecognized and unfazed by their target. The surface “arguments” in the previous skirmish were almost always surprisingly uncogent and/or unsubstantiated, disclosing that something behind or beneath the “arguments,” assumptions so basic as to be unnoticed, were probably at work beneath the surface.

Beneath the surface were very basic assumptions about how the Christian assembly is to be regulated. For historic Protestants and Catholics, the liturgy is to be governed/regulated by Christ’s appointed apostles, who were chosen by him, trained by him, and authorized by him to be the “foundation” of his church (Eph. 2:20). Protestants believed in only one generation of apostles; Catholics believed in an ongoing apostolate, which of course led to different practices, but their formative principle was very similar: the light by which we illuminate our practice is nothing less than that which emanates from the great Head of the church, speaking through his appointed apostles (which Protestants discover in Scripture alone, and Catholics discover in holy Scripture and holy Tradition). The revivalist/evangelical tradition never did have such a firm/narrow view of ecclesiastical authority,5 but always exhibited strong anti-clerical and populist values.6 Note how often in the conversations about conducting worship the revivalist/evangelical side speaks of what “people” want, or what “people” like, or what “people” can follow, appreciate, or understand.7 The Catholics and Protestants, on the other hand, are looking for direction either from the apostles themselves or from the principles they taught—such as the unity of the church—to order and direct the same assemblies. I (a Protestant) routinely asked the rhetorical question: “Where, in the entire history of the apostolic churches, did any group simply dismiss the entire collection of its previous hymns and start again from scratch?” Luther and other Reformers translated many existing Latin hymns into their own languages, translated the psalms into metrical versions to be sung, and, yes, even composed a few new hymns, but they did not simply discard the entirety of what had been sung in the churches before. Now, from my point of view—then and now—my question was entirely convincing, because I am a Protestant, who believes (with the Vincentian canon) that any practice that is genuinely apostolic/biblical will tend to manifest itself historically, and account for why there is great similarity in the various liturgies through the years.8 For me, then, dead “people” have as much a voice in the conversation as living “people,” as I self-consciously resist the tyranny of the living.9 To a populist, however, such regard for those who are “dead and gone” makes no sense at all; it is contemporaries whom we must “reach” (whatever that means), and to whose preferences and sensibilities we must defer.

The previous “worship wars” were therefore fought with fundamentally different weapons to secure fundamentally different strategic goals. One side was attempting to frame a liturgy that would appeal to the common man; another side was attempting to frame a liturgy that would appeal to the apostolic testimony of the common/catholic church. Each may have succeeded only partially and imperfectly, since all human endeavors are imperfect; but they really were not pursuing the same goal by the same means. One pursued a liturgy that was authentic to the apostolic testimony as preserved in Scripture and/or Christian tradition; the other pursued a liturgy that was attractive to a populist, egalitarian culture. Where the discussion became most heated, therefore, tended to be in churches (and their name was Legion, for they were many) that had previously existed as a hybrid of apostolic and egalitarian values. Churches that had previously attempted to be both disciplined by the apostolic tradition (whether found in Scripture alone or in Scripture and tradition) and effectual in a modern egalitarian/populist setting now encountered a conflict that had to appear eventually but had not appeared before.10

If the hostilities were to be renewed, then, the conflict would expose two “fronts,” as it were. Its Western front would address the question of whether there are any objective criteria of musical beauty or aptness; the skirmish on this front is what we now “enjoy” an armistice from. On the Eastern front, however, those churches that had thought they could straddle the apostolic v. populist principles of liturgy would discover that the two could not and cannot always be successfully blended; when the two are in conflict, which is the more-foundational or more-authoritative principle? In the American ecclesiastical experience after the Old School/New School controversy, many/most revivalist churches have Protestant elements, and many Protestant churches have revivalist elements (which is why, perhaps, the term “Evangelical” can refer to either). But that original OS/NS controversy created a denominational split, because the differences were so foundational and formative. And the causes of the split were never historically resolved.

[1] Preface to the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, Walter E. Buszin, “Luther on Music,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (January, 1946), 87.

 

[2] In his letter to Samuel Hartlib, now known as “Of Education,” Milton recommended that music follow strenuous physical exercise and again after dinner, saying that music “with profit and delight be taken up in recreating and composing their travail’d spirits with the solemn and divine harmonies of Musick heard or learnt… (which) have a great power over dispositions and manners, to smooth and make them gentle from rustick harshness and distemper’d passions. The like also would not be unexpedient after Meat to assist and cherish Nature in her first conction, and send their minds back to study in good tune and satisfaction.”

 

[3] Buszin, op. cit., p. 80, emphases mine.

 

[4] Lewis’s aesthetic thoughts appear frequently, but perhaps his most interesting appear in his little-read An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, 1961). Schaeffer’s mature thoughts are disclosed in the book (later film) How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976), and Roger Scruton’s aesthetic ideas informed his penultimate book, Music as an Art (Bloomsbury, 2018), and played a large role in his participation in the BBC production, “Why Beauty Matters” (2009). Scruton’s earlier works pertinent to music and aesthetics include An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (OUP 1998), The Aesthetics of Music (OUP 1999), Beauty (OUP 2009).

[5] Or of civil authority; the same Appalachian “nation” that clannishly resisted all centralized civil authority is and always was the primary host of revivalist/evangelical religion that resists all ecclesiastical authority. So Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2012).

 

[6] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1991).

 

[7] And, of course, for a populist, what “the people” want never includes yours truly, and not merely because I am just a small person; for a populist, what “the people” want always means “what other populists like ourselves want,” or “what the common man wants,” without regard for what people with greater experience, learning, or more-refined sensibilities may say. If a populist is offended by my saying I don’t especially care what the average person on the street thinks about ecclesiology, I am offended that the populist regards that average person’s opinion on the matter as equal (or superior) to mine. Did I learn nothing in one undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees in Religion?

[8] For a well-written survey of that liturgical unity, cf. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, 2017.

 

[9] A twelfth-century hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux that has been translated into many languages, such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” has a catholicity that a recently-written hymn will take a millenium to achieve, and will probably/possibly never achieve. Since we will spend an eternity singing praise with believers from every generation, we may as well enjoy singing with them now, as a foretaste of eternity. Of course we will encourage contemporary hymn-writers to add to the existing hymnody of the church, but we need not discard the hymns of the past that have proven themselves over many centuries in many cultures to capitulate to sensibilities that have been shaped by the unsolicited background pop music that characterizes the present moment.

[10] George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (Yale Publications in American Studies, 2003). Cf. also the generation earlier study by Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 (John Knox, 1967), in which he contrasted the previous criterion (before the Revolution and the first ostensible awakening) of “scriptural decorum” with perceived “evangelical effectiveness” (that appeared after). The “changing patterns” he observed consisted of the effort to blend the previous, Protestant liturgical principle with the later, populist/pragmatic principle.

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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.

  1. Preface to the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, Walter E. Buszin, “Luther on Music,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (January, 1946), 87. []
  2. In his letter to Samuel Hartlib, now known as “Of Education,” Milton recommended that music follow strenuous physical exercise and again after dinner, saying that music “with profit and delight be taken up in recreating and composing their travail’d spirits with the solemn and divine harmonies of Musick heard or learnt… (which) have a great power over dispositions and manners, to smooth and make them gentle from rustick harshness and distemper’d passions. The like also would not be unexpedient after Meat to assist and cherish Nature in her first conction, and send their minds back to study in good tune and satisfaction.” []
  3. Buszin, op. cit., p. 80, emphases mine. []
  4. Lewis’s aesthetic thoughts appear frequently, but perhaps his most interesting appear in his little-read An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, 1961). Schaeffer’s mature thoughts are disclosed in the book (later film) How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976), and Roger Scruton’s aesthetic ideas informed his penultimate book, Music as an Art (Bloomsbury, 2018), and played a large role in his participation in the BBC production, “Why Beauty Matters” (2009). Scruton’s earlier works pertinent to music and aesthetics include An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (OUP 1998), The Aesthetics of Music (OUP 1999), Beauty (OUP 2009). []
  5. Or of civil authority; the same Appalachian “nation” that clannishly resisted all centralized civil authority is and always was the primary host of revivalist/evangelical religion that resists all ecclesiastical authority. So Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2012). []
  6. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1991). []
  7. And, of course, for a populist, what “the people” want never includes yours truly, and not merely because I am just a small person; for a populist, what “the people” want always means “what other populists like ourselves want,” or “what the common man wants,” without regard for what people with greater experience, learning, or more-refined sensibilities may say. If a populist is offended by my saying I don’t especially care what the average person on the street thinks about ecclesiology, I am offended that the populist regards that average person’s opinion on the matter as equal (or superior) to mine. Did I learn nothing in one undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees in Religion? []
  8. For a well-written survey of that liturgical unity, cf. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, 2017. []
  9. A twelfth-century hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux that has been translated into many languages, such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” has a catholicity that a recently-written hymn will take a millenium to achieve, and will probably/possibly never achieve. Since we will spend an eternity singing praise with believers from every generation, we may as well enjoy singing with them now, as a foretaste of eternity. Of course we will encourage contemporary hymn-writers to add to the existing hymnody of the church, but we need not discard the hymns of the past that have proven themselves over many centuries in many cultures to capitulate to sensibilities that have been shaped by the unsolicited background pop music that characterizes the present moment. []
  10. George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (Yale Publications in American Studies, 2003). Cf. also the generation earlier study by Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 (John Knox, 1967), in which he contrasted the previous criterion (before the Revolution and the first ostensible awakening) of “scriptural decorum” with perceived “evangelical effectiveness” (that appeared after). The “changing patterns” he observed consisted of the effort to blend the previous, Protestant liturgical principle with the later, populist/pragmatic principle. []

4 Responses to Music That Is Intrinsically Good

  1. Thank you! Do you think we’ll EVER get our old faithful hymns back? And before that sounds too old-fashioned, let’s not forget they lasted for two thousand years (some of them)and appealed to every generation. They still appeal to this generation – when they hear them. Unfortunately, because most churches have ditched two thousand years’ worth of hymnody, most Christians today are completely ignorant of the wonderful treasure that has been lost.

  2. “And, of course, for a populist, what “the people” want never includes yours truly, and not merely because I am just a small person; for a populist, what “the people” want always means “what other populists like ourselves want,” or “what the common man wants,” without regard for what people with greater experience, learning, or more-refined sensibilities may say. If a populist is offended by my saying I don’t especially care what the average person on the street thinks about ecclesiology, I am offended that the populist regards that average person’s opinion on the matter as equal (or superior) to mine. Did I learn nothing in one undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees in Religion?”

    These remarks helpfully express an important point. Thanks for writing this article!

  3. If we were to develop a Christian theory of culture, it would probably begin by recognizing the wisdom of Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.” Many of us individuals cannot write poetry; but we can preserve it. We cannot write a novel; but we can preserve one. We cannot sculpt a statue; but we can preserve a statue. We cannot write hymns, but we can preserve them. In each case, we both inherit a culture and then pass that culture along to others, while possibly making a few positive additions. But to delete what others have created for us, and not to pass that inheritance along to others, is uncharitable. The “worship wars” were never—ever—about adding some new hymns; they were about deleting all the others.

  4. I would say that it is not only uncharitable, but downright wicked to deprive future generations of that great treasury of hymns. I feel so sorry for young Christians who haven’t got those wonderful hymns to encourage them. I am so grateful that when I was growing up, those hymns were available. They have been an endless source of comfort, instruction and inspiration to me down through the years. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gordon.

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