A Brief Theology of Music

For the music-makers and leaders of the church
Zach Light-Wells

Music in Creation

In the beginning, when God hovered over the waters, God spoke into the formless void, day by day, night by night, in sequence (Genesis 1). Sequential, intentional, rhythmic, and divinely improvised, God’s cadence of creation– God’s song of life –stirred the cosmos into being. Today, just as humankind was charged to cultivate God’s creation in the garden of Eden (Genesis 1), we are called to cultivate God’s creation in our lives, according to our own unique identities and capabilities. Recognizing that music is a gift of creation, it is our responsibility to continually develop and refine our craft, re-creating in the very image of our Creator. In music-making, we participate in God’s active, vibrant renewal of the earth; in music-making, we humbly serve our Creator and the created.


The Twofold Nature of Music-making

In his letters, Paul reveals his understanding of the purpose of music-making. For Paul, music serves two primary functions: to serve Creator God, and to serve neighbor. “Be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians. 5:18-19, CEB). Perhaps intentionally, Paul’s theology of music reflects Jesus’ summary of the law found in the gospels. When asked “what is the greatest commandment,” Jesus responded “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength… you will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, CEB). Just as we seek to serve both the Creator and the created in our daily lives, in our charity, and in our compassion, we seek to serve both God and neighbor in our music-making, for even the angels sing “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV).

Too often, the church fails to embrace the twofold nature of its musical calling. Too often, in our desire to glorify God, we alienate and forget the neighbor; we dismiss the untrained musician in the pursuit of perfection, we dismiss musical cultures outside of our social contexts in favor of familiarity, or we dismiss musical accessibility in favor of grandiose complexity. Likewise, in our attempts to nurture the neighbor, we often water down our musical offerings; we dismiss new ideas in favor of nostalgia, or we dismiss musical and theological depth in favor of market-driven song choice. Too often, in the shadow of declining church membership and the commodification of the worship service, we find ourselves unwilling to stir up the dust, to reach towards the unfamiliar, out of fear of losing another prominent family from our congregations.

So, as leaders of the church, what are we left to do? Only through understanding our obligation to both Creator and creation can we fully live into our ministry. In a healthy worshipping community, one dimension of music-making cannot exist without the other; when we recognize and celebrate the goodness of our Creator, we are compelled to charity and love for God’s creation. As worship leaders, we must bind ourselves to Christ’s commandments and we must live out the two-fold nature of our musical calling.


I. Love the Lord, Your God: Music and God

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day” (Psalm 96:1-2, NRSV). When the bible mentions music, is it most commonly an act of praise, glorifying God. Throughout scriptures, creation is instructed to worship God, recognizing the majesty of the Creator; “Let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord…” (Psalm 96:11-13, NIV). When we offer God our praise, we acknowledge the divine complexity of the Creator. When we offer praise, we recognize God’s supreme love for creation. When we offer praise, we revel in the cosmic mysteries of God. When we offer praise, we thank God for each of our blessings. When we celebrate the goodness of God, God hears our song and, in our joy, God dances with us.

In addition to praise, music-making can serve as an act of mourning, questioning, or petitioning. In the form of lament, music is a type of contemplative prayer, a moment in which we can directly profess our grief, frustration, and confusion (Psalms 42, 77). In our lamentation, our song does not demand a response from God; rather, God hears the cries of our hearts and, in our sorrow, God weeps with us.


II. Love Your Neighbor: Music and the Neighbor

Community Building
Congregational music is distinct among all elements of the Christian liturgy in that it invites congregants to collectively dwell within a transcendent medium. No other element in Christian liturgy invites congregants into a corporate, intangible, and immediate act of creation. Because each participant adds their own unique, independent musical interpretation to a whole, each moment of communal music-making is inherently distinct; never again will the same sounds, the same sonic landscape, or the same exact combination of vibrations and stillness, exist again in time. Communal music-making, then, is just that: making, creating, re-creating. When a community sings an ancient melody, they invoke the inspiration of the original songwriter while simultaneously and collectively creating new musical ideas, bringing a new musical moment into being, unique in both time and space. In our communal singing, we mirror God’s song of creation: we perform an act that is intangible, vast, and transcendent. While spoken liturgy also contains auditory elements, music’s use of intentional pitch and defined rhythm weaves together the creative minds of participants in manner that is unmatched and unmistakable. Sociologists consider communal music-making to be “attentionally entraining,” in that it streamlines together the minds of participants. This entraining, this weaving of minds, reflects the creative nature of our calling, and reveals music’s power to unite individuals in active, communal participation in God’s creation.

Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli believed that sacraments serve as a public testimony of a grace that has already been given. Just as baptism is not the single moment in which one is justified, or the single moment in which salvation is bestowed, music, through the parameters of sacrament, seeks to reveal the reality of God’s ever-present, ever-moving Spirit. Music in the church, then, is not an attempt to instigate the Spirit towards movement, but is a realization and exploration of the movement of the Spirit, which is alive and at work in the world. Just as baptism represents new life and new creation in Christ, and just as the eucharist represents the incarnation of God’s grace, music, by its very existence, intrinsically shares the story of creation and, therefore, reveals the movement of the Spirit. When we allow music-making to act as sacrament, our music becomes a testimony for the benefit of both God and neighbor.

“He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV). Whether or not it is realized, music leaders serve communities in a pastoral role, navigating and guiding their community through musical experiences. As shepherds, we must recognize our responsibility to comfort and care for our communities. When we are unsure or afraid, shrouded by a cloud of uncertainty, God’s spirit of comfort moves through our music-making and renews our faith. “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8, NIV). In the night, God, the great shepherd, recognizes our need for comforting and meets us in our song. So, too, should music leaders recognize the need for musical comfort in our own communities.

For some, musical comfort may come from the incorporation of a popular folk melody, and for others, it may be in reviving a hymn from their childhood. For some, it may be the weekly repetition of specific service music, and for others, it may be the reprisal of certain songs on specific liturgical holidays. In each case, comforting music provides a feeling of security and reassurance, and reminds us of God’s promise to shepherd us— to carry us close to God’s own heart.

While shepherds comfort, they must also stir up or provoke their sheep in order to move them to a new field. Out of love and care, shepherds must guide their herd through uncomfortable places, pushing and nudging them forward when they are afraid to take another step. In his philosophy of church music, Martin Luther notes that psalms should both “excitare et provocare,” excite and provoke, “…because when we are challenged, soon God is stirred up as well.” Throughout the bible, music is often found on the edge of comfort, particularly in its association with prophesying. “David and the army officers set apart Asaph’s family, Heman and Jeduthun, for service to prophesy accompanied by lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (I Chronicles 25, CEB). Prophesying is edgy, uncomfortable, and vulnerable, demanding boldness and courage from those who make prophetic claims. As an attempt to name truths which have not yet been realized, it is fitting to pair music-making, a corporate act of creation, with the act of prophesying. In both prophesying and music-making, we seek to reveal the unknown, intangible aspects of God.

In our obligation to care for our neighbors, we must not be afraid to venture into the uncomfortable places, into the deep waters of faith (Luke 5). We must not avoid the unfamiliar, because God’s own self dwells there, for even “if I make my bed in the depths, [God] you are there… if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me” (Psalm 139:8-9, NIV). It is in the depths that God redeems and renews; in the flooding of the earth, there is the promise of the rainbow; in the deepest waters, the fisherman’s largest yield; in the suffering of the crucifixion, the redemption of the earth.

As shepherds and as music-makers, we honor our neighbor, and therefore God, by pushing the boundaries. We honor our neighbor, and therefore God, by rejecting complacency. We push, we comfort, we praise, we lament: we create. When we make music, we participate in God’s active renewal of the earth; when we make music, we humbly serve our Creator and the created. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

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