WHY THIS COLUMN?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been both a Christian and a musician. Now, twenty-five years after beginning my professional career, I’ve embarked on a new journey: to reflect in this public form on what I have learned about the intersections of the two.
Though I’m a professional musician and educator, this column isn’t emerging principally from my professional life. Instead, it’s the result of a very personal journey. For my entire life I have felt twin callings to a life of faith and a life as a musician. Both callings have been inescapable and unrelenting, motivating decisions both personal and professional. (See my ABOUT page to find out more.)
I’ve also recognized a third calling – and it is the one that has led me to write this column. It’s been a deep need to understand how the two relate to each other in my life. I’ve always felt that music and faith were two side of the same coin, and that whatever decisions I made about one side couldn’t help but affect the other side. This search for personal integration led to many years of struggle, as I viewed decisions about my musical career as really decisions about my faith – and vice-versa. The result was a journey marked by a lot of doubt, worry, fear…as well as clarity, exhilaration, and even (on good days) a sense of peace.
That’s a story for another time. What’s important now is the result of that struggle: that I’m now at a place where I can talk about the relationship between faith and music with honesty and integrity. But unlike some others, my professional career has given me skills and knowledge that have prepared me to share my exploration of this topic in ways that are both intellectually interesting and personally meaningful for other Christians.
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC – AND WHY?
In this project I will take a “big-tent” approach to exploring the intersections of music and the Christian life. If you check out my website, you’ll see that in my career I have sought – and found – connections between the two in many, many different places. I won’t just be looking at so-called “sacred music”, like hymns or worship choruses, gospel songs or Gregorian chant. I’ll be looking at all kinds of music: secular, classical, popular, you name it.
Why? Because I believe we can find God in all kinds of music. From pop songs to symphonies to jazz tunes, I think that music is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Like water, oxygen, sunsets, and coffee, the presence of music in the world shows just how much God loves us. Music brings us peace: it calms us, centers us, and prepares us to worship – and to simply rest (which is a spiritual discipline, of course.) Music brings us hope by reminding us that we are part of one human family, helping to model that unity by bringing us together in song at church – or even at a political rally. And, of course, music brings us joy: pure, ecstatic joy in which we lose ourselves in the glorious sounds of a symphony – or in the beauty earthiness of a mass of bodies on the dance-floor.
Love. Joy. Peace. These are fruits of the Spirit, and music can help us experience them.
Some Christians might say that music, considered this way, is a means of “common grace,” evidence of God that has been freely given to anyone, regardless of their faith. Others might say that music can be “sacramental”, a place in Creation where we truly experience the presence of God.
Of course, as with everything in this created world, we need to bring our full hearts, minds and souls to the process of careful discernment. But a foundational assumption in this column is that this process of discernment is not the last thing we do when we experience music: it’s the first thing. We can’t evaluate, critique, or even explore a piece of music – of any kind – without the right tools. And equipping Christians with those tools is one of the main goals of this column.
Those tools come in two types: thinking tools and listening tools. Listening tools help us dig into the lyrics, melodies, and harmonies of songs in order to understand how they “work”: that is, why they speak to us in such powerful ways. In some ways, music is indeed a “language,” and if we really want to understand a piece of music, we have to learn a bit about its grammar and vocabulary. Just like a spoken language, once we learn how to use some of these tools, we can apply them with equal effectiveness to all different sorts of music – sacred and secular, popular and classical, and beyond.
Thinking tools help us broaden our conception of what the concept of “music” actually is. As we’ll see, “music” is not just notes on a page, or a melody on your lips, or the lyrics of a song. It’s also a complex web of historical and social practices, many of which can reveal God just as powerfully as the lyrics or music itself.
Take Amazing Grace. In a future post I will discuss how the hymn “works” – that is, how its music and lyrics combine to make it so powerful. But another way to look at it is to consider its historical circumstances. For example, did you know that John Newton didn’t publicly renounce slavery until 15 years after he wrote the lyrics? Does that affect how we hear the hymn? Should it? Regardless of our answers to those questions, it is these “thinking” skills that even allow us to consider those questions as valid when we talk about “music.”
This socio-cultural approach to music is also what allows us to look to secular music as a lens through which we can explore our faith. For example, think of a show at a jazz club. Putting aside for now any of the historical connections between jazz and African-American sacred music (which are plenty, of course), looking simply at the act of playing jazz can teach us much about our God and faith – if we know how to look. How? For one thing, jazz improvisation can provide an example of how Christians can only experience true freedom in Christ. A jazz player has total freedom to improvise when it is her turn. But her improvisation will only make sense if fits into the groove established by the rhythm section, if it follows the chord progression given by the composer, and if it is sensitive to the musical ideas of her bandmates. Far from constraining her, those “rules” actually are the foundation for her improvisation: there are actually what allows her to fully explore her musical landscape. Like Christians, she only experiences real freedom when she follows those rules. But, of course, those rules – like the commands of Jesus – only work this way if we understand them as gifts of grace, and approach them with humility, thankfulness, and – of course – a willingness to fully make them our own.
Hopefully, these several examples demonstrate a few of the ways we can look to “music” – broadly-defined – as a resource for thinking about our lives as Christians. If you think about music as a vast and varied landscape, I hope to give you a map that will help you find God behind every rock, tree, and bush. This doesn’t mean that God is always there on the surface. But music, along with all Creation, owes its existence to its Creator. And as a people who have been entrusted a life-changing message of hope, I think that we Christians need to learn how to recognize God everywhere. That includes in all kinds of music, experienced in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons, by all humans, everywhere.
My humble prayer is that learning how to discover God in the music all around you might deepen your faith and help you follow Jesus.
I NEED YOUR HELP
No matter what I cover, I commit to exploring it in a way that recognizes how personal and deeply-felt our opinions about music and faith often are. I’m motivated by the power of music to promote unity within the Body of Christ, and I hope that my work never loses sight of that possibility. Above all, I commit to approaching this project with humility and love: for God, for God’s gift of music, and for everyone who stumbles upon this column. Thanks for joining me on this journey.