Last week I mentioned the fact that there has been a resurgence of sorts in recent times of emphasis on the disciple-forming power of gospel-shaped worship. What has not yet been recovered in my opinion is a recognition of the disciple-forming power of Scripture-formed music. In fact, both Bryan Chapell and Mike Cospers explicitly deny music’s formative role. While they argue that the narrative arc of liturgy is formative, aesthetic forms within the liturgy like music are neutral and relative.
On the contrary, I suggest that since Scripture is itself expressed through various aesthetic forms, what kinds of poetic and aesthetic expressions God chose to use in the communication of his truth in Scripture should inform the kinds of contemporary musical expressions Christians produce as they communicate the gospel and disciple believers into acceptable worshipers of God. What is important about a corporate worship service is not just what is said from the pulpit or the doctrine of the hymns, for there are aspects of Christian piety that are inarticulable; as I have argued, much of Christian piety is learned only through doing; as Mark Twain once quipped, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”
That is what liturgy is—it is learning through doing, and that is what art is—the purpose of art is to incarnate values, and we experience those values as we participate in the art. This is the power of aesthetics, and so my argument extends beyond the shape of the liturgy itself to the other aesthetic forms employed in corporate worship. The liturgies and art forms of Christian worship embody and form certain aspects of Christian discipleship in a way that nothing else can. Just like Scripture-formed liturgies are what will transform us into mature followers of Christ, so it’s not just any songs, but Scripture-formed songs that will accomplish Christian formation.
In contrast to other recent authors, Jamie Smith explicitly argues this in his trilogy and You Are What You Love. In these works, he addresses both “(1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute elements of that enacted narrative.” As to the former, Smith suggests following historic Christian tradition in which “the practices of Christian worship reflect the plot line of the gospel, that the lineaments of Christian worship rehearse the story line of Scripture.” As to the latter, Smith argues we must concern ourselves not just with the “what of Christian worship,” that is, the content, but “also the how,” that is, the poetics. Smith is worth quoting at length here because I would like to develop and build on his argument, extending it a bit further. He argues,
There is a reason to our rhymes—a logic carried in the meter of our hymns and the shape of our gestures. Worship innovations that are inattentive to this may end up adopting forms that forfeit precisely those aspects of worship that sanctify perception by forming the imagination. Hence wise worship planning and leadership is not only discerning about content—the lyrics of songs, the content of a pastoral prayer, the message of a sermon—but also discerning about the kin/aesthetic meaning of the form of our worship. We will be concerned not only with the what but also with the how, because Christian faith is not only a knowing-that but also a kind of know-how, a “practical sense” or praktognosia that is absorbed in the “between” of our incarnate significance. Because meter and tune each means in its own irreducible way, for example, the form of our songs is as important as the content.
Worship wisdom requires that we be attentive to the practical sense of aesthetic forms, lest we end up singing lyrics that confess Jesus is Lord accompanied by a tune that means something very different. . . . Worship that intends to be formative—and more specifically worship that intends to foster an encounter with God that transforms our imagination and hence sanctifies our perception—must be attentive to, and intentional about, the aesthetics of human understanding.
This builds directly from what I have already argued regarding the nature of discipleship and the nature of Scripture. What art forms are chosen to express God’s truth are of utmost importance since they express not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. Just like a liturgy is a narrative drama on a macro level that shapes those who enact that drama, so works of art are micro dramas—the artist, through the various aesthetic devices he employs, creates a little drama into which we enter, experiencing for ourselves that drama and thus being formed by it.
For example, not one of us has journeyed through Middle Earth, battled orcs, resisted the power of the One Ring, or defeated Sauron. But in reading The Lord of the Rings, we can experience those things as if we had done them ourselves, and thus are formed by those experiences. Likewise, when we sing, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion,” we experience for ourselves what it’s like to be God’s people in exile and are thus formed by the experience.
This is the power of all art—literature, drama, painting, poetry, and song—they don’t just allow us to express what we have already personally experienced, they also shape our responses through portraying powerfully formative realities that we may have not actually experienced for ourselves.
What is at stake here is the very knowledge and worship of God. If works of art express particular ways of imagining God, then it is quite possible to express through art an imagination of God that does not correspond to how he chose to communicate himself in Scripture, even if the propositional content of the work of art is technically accurate.
Most evangelicals today view art forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. Worship music, for example is just a way to make truth interesting and engaging in worship. But imaginative forms are not incidental to truth—they are essential to the truth, expressly because they are fundamental to the way Scripture expresses truth. Therefore, art forms help to express the imaginative aspect of truth in ways that propositional statements alone cannot; they communicate not just the what of biblical content, but also how that content is imagined.
Thus, the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth in Scripture should shape our art forms. The Bible’s aesthetics should be the taproot of our contemporary worship aesthetics. Choices of what art forms we will use to express God’s truth and worship him are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms we choose for our worship must be based on the criterion of whether they are true—whether they correspond to God’s reality as it is imagined in his Word. Further, if those writing contemporary worship music desire to accurately reflect the meaning of Scripture in the songs they compose such that believers are transformed by the primary means the Spirit of God has chosen for transformation—his Word, then they must give careful attention to aesthetic correspondence between Scripture’s meaning and the contemporary form.