Why is it that so many song leaders insist on leading songs with bad music? You’d think that worship leaders, of all people, would understand the importance of beauty in the melody and the arrangement. But in the Churches of Christ, we’ve adopted a form of Greek dualism, treating the words of the song as holy and important to God, whereas the melody and harmony have no place in our theology at all. And so we insist on singing bad songs … but with just, oh, so wonderful lyrics that fit the theme of the sermon so very well. Here’s why.
First, the Churches of Christ are culturally Calvinist even though theologically we’re Arminian. We rejected the Calvinist teaching of predestination, election, and perseverance of the saints. But when the Restoration Movement was formed in the early 19th Century, most of our members came over from the Baptist and Presbyterian churches — and both were very Calvinistic at the time. They gave up their Calvinist theology, but they brought with them the culture of early 19th Century Calvinist Christianity — largely inherited from the Puritans.
Therefore, it was taught that buildings should be simple — “plain” — and not ornate. Many of the Calvinists in Switzerland were iconoclasts, literally tearing down and burning much of the art created by the Catholic church of the Renaissance. In the American frontier, there was little art to tear down, and so the iconoclastic impulse led the churches to avoid steeples, stained glass, and the like. The “church” was called a “meetinghouse,” and it was repeatedly emphasized that the meetinghouse was not holy but only an expedient for meeting to worship.
Hence, Churches of Christ tend to occupy buildings that are more utilitarian than beautiful. This is changing, but historically, our buildings tend toward the plain — and those churches that dare build a building with a steeple or stained glass should be prepared to be criticized as “worldly” or “denominational” or “like a cathedral.” That’s right — cultural attitudes can carry on for 500 years.
Once we make plain architecture — and hence inexpensive architecture — a doctrinal question, as Churches of Christ tend to do, then we’ve basically declared that art — architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, special music (any singing other than congregational four-part harmony) — is somehow anti-Christian. And any attempt to break the mold is met with doctrinal objection. Add a fellowship hall or kitchen to the building, and we’re somehow guilty of drinking judgment on ourselves under 1 Cor 11:29.
The second factor in our rejection of beauty as a value is found in the instrumental music debates. It’s frequently argued that instrumental music is sinful because of this passage —
(1Co 14:7-11 ESV) 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
This passage is addressing the spiritual gift of tongues, and the problem that arises when a tongue-speaker is not translated. This lesson is distorted to mean that only rational communication is of value in the assembly, so that in singing, only the words matter. After all, the notes are also “not intelligible” and, in effect, a language that cannot be understood.
Hence, songs should be selected for the excellence of their lyrics — especially how well the lyrics should fit with the sermon (since the Bible plainly centers the assembly on the sermon, right?) — and the quality of the singing is beside the point. Indeed, it’s common for song leaders to urge the congregation to “make a joyful noise” even if they can’t carry a tune. (The KJV “make a joyful noise” is now generally translated “shout for joy.” Try that
at church in the meetinghouse and see what happens!)
(The error in this reading is that Paul is not criticizing music as music but when the notes are “indistinct” or “not intelligible.” Paul is against bad music, not music per se.)
The result has been a religion that can be very austere, utilitarian, and lacking in beauty. Indeed, I’ve never heard a Church of Christ sermon extolling the benefits of beauty as a gift from God. Rather, we start from the assumption that only the rational and practical matter. And our sermons and our assemblies tend to focus on the rational and practical. It’s who we are.
So what would be the primary counter-argument to this teaching? Well, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Our God is a God of beauty, who made beautiful things, and who placed man in a beautiful garden so he could enjoy the beauty of God’s handiwork. In fact, our God is first described in terms of his creativity — and then he is described as making mankind in his image. Surely part of being in God’s image is being creative.
(Psa 8:1-9:1 NAS) O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Thy name in all the earth, Who hast displayed Thy splendor above the heavens! 2 From the mouth of infants and nursing babes Thou hast established strength, Because of Thine adversaries, To make the enemy and the revengeful cease. 3 When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; 4 What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? 5 Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, And dost crown him with glory and majesty! 6 Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet, 7 All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field, 8 The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Thy name in all the earth!
(Psa 19:1-5 ESV) The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, 5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
God is the creator of great beauty. Beauty therefore has intrinsic value. More precisely, all that is beautiful points us toward God. Not just the rational and practical. God himself is much, much more than rational and practical, and he made us to be much more as well. There are large areas of our brains dedicated to creativity and the appreciation of beauty. God made us that way. And how can we properly worship a God of beauty without beauty in our worship?
So here’s another way of thinking about the song service. The scriptures urge us to sing praises to God. Why “sing”? Why not recite the lyrics as poetry? Why not quietly read the lyrics to ourselves and prayerfully meditate on them? Not that these alternatives would be wrong, but they’d plainly not be singing, and yet we are urged to sing our praise to our God. Why sing? What does the singing add not found in the mere reading or recitation?
Well, obviously enough, music. Notes. Harmony. Rhythm. Beauty. Not that the words can’t be beautiful. They often are. Some of the greatest poetry ever written has found its way into our hymnals (as well as some of the worst). But the music adds to the beauty and causes more of our brains to be affected by the words. We remember and feel differently about the songs because of the music.
One hundred years ago, movie makers discovered that their films came across as more “real” when music was played in the background. Somehow, the music turns a two-dimensional film into a world inhabited by the viewer. Great movies have great music.
It’s how God made us. I can’t imagine that it’s an evolved thing. I mean, what evolutionary advantage could there be in being moved by music? I don’t know, but there’s a huge religious advantage. Great melodies help us remember the words. They tie the words to our emotions. Music has a way of changing us that mere spoken words rarely can attain to. It’s a part of our spiritual formation.
And one of the messages implicit in good church music is that God is beautiful — but this message gets lost — concealed, in fact — when our worship leaders lead bad songs with great lyrics. Just like bad architecture and bad interior design and bad landscaping, ugliness conceals the message of God, no matter how powerful the lyrics are.
You see, our bodies aren’t going to burn. Not the bodies of Christians. They’ll be transformed. And while I don’t entirely know what they’re going to be like, this much I know: We’re going to sing in heaven. In fact, no book in the NT contains more hymnody than the Revelation.
(Rev 4:9-5:1 NAS) 9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.”
I have trouble imagining a disembodied soul singing, but it’s easy enough to imagine a body like that of the resurrected Jesus singing praise forever. That’s what we’re going to do. Pray that the worship leaders in heaven care about the beauty of the melodies.