Some years ago I had the privilege of chairing a search committee charged with the task of identifying a new professor sacred music. As lover of music of all types (or most of them, anyway) and as someone who had been surrounded by the best of musicians and choristers at the National Cathedral, I accepted the responsibility with relish and enjoyed every minute of it — not least of all, the conversations with the candidates themselves.
We had great success. We invited a fine musician to join our already accomplished faculty. He is already making his mark on the school, his students, his discipline, and the church.
One of the questions that I asked everyone in the course of that process was to describe why or how music moves and changes us spiritually or helps us to worship. I had no one answer in mind, but I felt it was an important question and as a lover of music I continue to be intrigued by the role of music in drawing us closer to God. Put another way, I could have also asked: What makes sacred music “sacred”? Is it simply the subject matter and its uses, or is there more to it than that?
My own evolving answer includes these observations:
One: Part of the spiritual power of music lies in its beauty.
We don’t talk much about a theology of beauty and, thanks to puritanical influences, asceticism, and some latent gnosticism, I suspect that most of us don’t really believe that there is a place for conversations about beauty in theology. But we are the poorer for it.
I am not only convinced that there is a place for a theology of beauty, but that our understanding of God is incomplete without a re-appreciation of beauty in the light of faith. I am not talking about beauty of a sexualized nature — though I am not convinced it is unrelated (see, for example, the Song of Solomon) — and I am certainly not talking about the commercialized notions of beauty that are imposed on an entire generation in the name of selling “a look.”
But we can and should talk about the beauty of God that is marked by balance, harmony, color, and texture that draw us to the world around us, to one another, and ultimately to God. Understood in that way music, then, has spiritual power because — at its best — in intersects with and gives expression to divine beauty. It stirs something deep inside of us that is one with God.
Two: Music also has power that lies in its ability to end run the limitation of words and our spiritual defenses against them.
But music — even music that includes lyrics and, therefore, words — can end-run those defenses, connecting us with truths about God and about ourselves that we would otherwise resist.
I am not sure why this is the case. It might be in part because music enters our minds by a different route and remains there in a way that words alone can’t and don’t. In part, perhaps, it is because music invites us to consider truths more gently and gives us the space to consider spiritual realities that other venues seem to force.
But whatever the reasons music connects us in a different fashion with our Creator. It draws and comforts our souls and it can also challenge them.
Three: Music offers a vision.
I confess that the whole image of heaven as a place that looks like the choir, clothed in white robes and standing rigidly in front of a congregation leaves me cold. I am more likely to visualize the choir surrounded by carved, wooden stalls, robed in cassock and surplice anyway. (Oh, and don’t forget the candles.)
But it’s not for nothing that images of heaven often involve singing. I don’t recall any text in Scripture that tries to account for why that is — but I have my suspicions. For one thing, that image echoes something of images conjured up by the heavenly council that surrounds God — angels, singing God’s praise as they rush from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven. But back of that powerful image are other reasons as well — millions, singing one song, focused on one object of worship, sharing a common commitment and passion, a single view of heaven and earth, focused on a single Creator — a Creator worthy and trustworthy of that devotion and delight.
We don’t unpack it in that fashion very often and, when music becomes too much a performance — or when we become sidetracked by the imperfections in our performance — perhaps on this side of heaven it is inevitable that from time to time we lose track of that vision.
I am sure that in trying to tease these factors apart something is lost. But it is my hope that my musical friends will live (with delight) into the privilege and responsibility of the gift that they give us.