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Music and the Spirit

Christian Spirituality Music of the Faith

Christianity is the most musical of religions.

Music and Song In the Bible

The Bible is brimming with music, song, chant, refrains, and commemorations. The Hebrew poetry of the Prophets and Writings lends itself to being sung. The Psalms are really worship lyrics. Embedded in the histories are several songs, including those of Miriam and Hannah. One of the great heroes of the Jewish tradition is David, who was not only a King, but a good musician and songwriter (something said of no other ancient Middle Eastern military hero). The most natural setting for most of these biblical lyrics is in worship. Also, the apostle Paul's letters have several short liturgical lyrics in them. These may have already been in use by the churches when Paul used them, and were probably sung or chanted rather than spoken.

The Bible records that God's worshipers stood up in song (2 Chronicles 20:19), clapped their hands (Psalm 47:1), lifted or raised their hands (Psalm 63:4; 134:2; 1 Tim 2:8), and spoke and sung loud praises (Psalm 34:1; 103:1; Acts 4:24). There were many different kinds of songs, used for many different worship purposes (Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 3:16). A wide array of musical instruments were used (Psalm 150:3-5; Revelation 14:2). Indeed, it appears that Jewish worship in ancient times and Christian worship to this day have been a key force in creating musical styles and forms and instruments. These new kinds of music worked their way into the world at large, giving it great joy, expressing deep sadness, touching people in a way that can only be described as 'spiritual'.

WORSHIP MUSIC and STYLES

Christians can worship using any style of music, but there are still some limits. Music used in worship has different purposes than the music of nightclubs, classrooms, showers, and concert halls. Good worship music is not about the worshipper, but about the Worshipped One. Thus, it is wrong for music in a worship setting to be done mostly to entertain those present, or to be saying all the right and expected things that allow people to stay in spiritual slumber, or to be tricked-up love songs done in karioke. The lyrics matter, because the words are the Spirit's normal means of striking that special chord within us, or teaching us the lesson we need to keep hearing till it sinks in.
follow the bouncing ball


INSTRUMENTS AND VOICES

The most common Christian statement of praise is "hallelujah!". It translates roughly to 'Praise YHWH'. Its Hebrew root word halal  is best caught as 'to resound' or 'to make noise'. A Hebrew word which more precisely means 'praise' is zamar , which according to the Writings includes the playing of instruments.

Not all Christians have supported the use of instruments. The early church leader Clement, in his *Protreptikos*, argued against instruments and in favor of the use of the human voice, and for the mystical music of the art of one's living. Philip Pfatteicher, in *The School Of the Church*, p.61, states Clement's case: "The Lord made humanity a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image, God's harp by reason of the music, God's pipe by reason of the breath of the Spirit, God's temple by reason of the Word, so that the music should resound, the Spirit inspire, and the temple receive its Lord." In the Reconstructionist tradition of the Churches of Christ, and in parts of other Southern US traditions, many congregations forbid the use of instruments and 'fancy' choirs, favoring simplicity and directness in worship. White Baptist and Fundamentalist churches often come down harshly on anything that smacks of a dance rhythm.

I very much love to hear instruments in worship music, as a way to express some things that words don't, to help us remember praises for God throughout the week, and as a way for artists to offer their arts before the Lord. This is true whether they're as fantastic as, say, Christopher Parkening or Brooks Williams or Phil Keaggy on guitar, or as familiar and up-close as someone in your church or cell-group at worship. But then again, I'm also a big fan of acappella, no-instrument singing of all kinds. Clement's approach led in its way to the great Gregorian Chants, which have a kind of aural purity that even the totally-worldly can get swept into. Some of the non-instrumental and no-dance churches were big supporters of sacred small-group singing outside of worship services, which itself was a key element leading to the sacred and popular-music singing groups (with or without instruments) that nearly all people have come to enjoy. Not just the Fairfield Four or the Oak Ridge Boys -- the lineage leads to the Temptations, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Shirelles, Boys II Men, and *NSYNC too. Most Christians (including myself) believe that restrictions on musical styles in worship are wrong. However, the Spirit has never let these restrictions stop the music. Creative musical and related dramatic forms of expressing faith in Christ will develop around the edges, and lead to great things inside and outside the church. In a way, that's the best proof of all that the Spirit is at work in music to bear witness to Christ.

I'm gonna sing when the Spirit says a-sing,
  I'm gonna sing when the Spirit says a-sing,
    I'm gonna sing when the Spirit says a-sing,
  and obey the Spirit of the Lord.

"I'm Gonna Sing", v.1, an African-American traditional song

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MUSIC IN OTHER SETTINGS

Most of our time is not spent in worship-service settings. We go out and serve the Lord in the world in which we live Music is in the air out there.

Even among the poorest of people, there is song. They simply open their mouths to sing. For a rhythm, they slap objects with their hands or with a stick. They can sing of their longings, and thus are not robbed of hope. They can sing of their situation, and thus give voice to their despair. They can sing of the little joys that dot their lives, and thus lift their spirits, even if only for a moment. They can sing of their loves and their enemies, and sing to keep alive truth, history and identity. They can sing to reshape their traditions into new and living forms. Noone has been able to oppress the song out of people; whether it be slaves singing in the US cotton fields or jazz-playing Jews under the Nazis, the oppressor tries to control it but it pushes up through the cracks, stronger and purer than ever. The psalmist asked how his people could sing songs of Zion while in exile in Babylon, yet sing they did, and they were eventually able to sing their way home.

Some spiritual writers have written of a laughing God, a God who is Joy. Others have written of a weeping God, the God who shares others' sorrows and pays for others' crimes. But God is also a singing God, whose creation is not like merely a painting or sculpture or invention, but also like a song. God made us a musical humanity which sings its faith and its sin. Inside or outside of worship settings, Christianity is a faith of music, more than any other faith on earth. It is a faith of tunes, of melody and harmony and counterpoint. And, it is a faith of lyrics, in the firm belief that words (and the Word) really matter.


SILLY LOVE SONGS

The thing that people sing about most easily, even more than God, is romantic love. In fact, the entire entertainment industry is built on songs, movies, videos, and plays about love. We can't get enough of them. Sometimes, it's because we have love for someone, and we grope for ways of expressing it. Sometimes, it's because we long to share love with a certain someone that we aren't sharing now. Or, we don't love anyone in particular, and long to do so. Romantic love hurts, disarms, tears down, rips out, builds up, empowers, sends flying, blisses out, and otherwise occupies our life. When it's not filling us up, we notice it, and especially notice the space its absence leaves within us, a space meant to be full of someone outside of our selves.

Some Christians act as if God has a problem with this. But the Christian God is not the Great Prude In the Sky, wishing he'd never had created this thing called romantic love. In fact, Christ is a lover at heart, with a relationship with His people that is revealed in Scripture to be that between Groom and Bride. It is in the nature of God's creatures for love to beget life, for it was God's love that brought about the creation of life itself in the first place. What God has a problem with is how far we've cheapened and corrupted such a wonderful thing. Music often sings of the cheapness and the corruption, often favorably or neutrally. Unfortunately, modern music is so intensely focused on it that many people have learned to prize the cheapness and eagerly seek the gains of corruption. "Sing" drops its 'g'. In the course of daily living, we are all flooded with the sounds of the good, the bad, and (mostly) the mediocre, the dronings of musical hacks and the clamor of wonderful human noise. Sorting this out is a largely subjective task, and the task is not Scripturally given as one of the main tasks of the Body of Christ. Yet if we don't teach ourselves, our children, and our neighbors how to discern about music, we'll become so junk-filled that we will start to trash ourselves.
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MUSIC AS DEVOTIONS

It's not hard to find ways to bring music into devotional life. Instead of filling one's head with silly but catchy popular songs, we might try some catchy praise choruses or Scripture songs while vacuuming the rug or washing the clothes. Or maybe even just whistling while you work.

Music can be used as part of home devotions, quiet time or some form of meditation. For instance, the music of Bach or maybe Messiaen or even Arvo Pärt, or the recordings of Iona or Jeff Johnson, or of monastic chants, can help to take out everything else and direct your focus onto God. The chanting of monks is an act of prayer and praise. You can chant, too; though it won't sound as good doing it alone, what matters is what God hears coming from within you. (At least, until your neighbor complains.....). Music can also be used as a worship element in personal or small-group Bible study. A 1980s example was the short simple music that was part of Stephen Rose's Uncommon Lectionary; an older example is the use of hymns in the Moravian Daily Texts book. It's good to tap into song and movement at some time when you're studying or researching Scripture, otherwise we can become too caught up in our own minds and lose track of having the rest of our self follow God.

Those of us with at least some musical abilities can bring down their inner walls for God by playing their instrument. If that's you, then take up this special challenge : put your longings toward God, your spiritual frustrations and hopes, into words, then turn those words into lyric and put them to music. Not only is it a good way to work through your own spiritual situations, it gives you something to give to others who may well be needing to say the same thing but can't.
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Christianity is the most musical of religions.

Quotes

"...even to the present day David praises the Lord among the Gentiles by the mouth of true believers; seeing there is not a town, village, hamlet, country, nor even a desert, where Christians dwell, in which God is not praised by their singing the Psalms of David."
---------- Theodoret, as cited by Adam Clarke

"... when some busy man would rush by with that stern face and say, "Why don't you work?" I could stay strong in the heart of the song as if the guitar could somehow whisper to him as he walked away : Hey - why don't you sing?"
---------- David Wilcox, on when he was a street musician


P.S. : As you go through the other pages of this Web site, look near the end, next to the quotes. You'll find various lyrics, mostly from hymns and liturgies, expressing what's found on that page and in the Web site as a whole. If you're involved in churchly music, try finding and learning these hymns. They are a rich source of expression of the faith. You'll also find that there really aren't many songs concerning the Holy Spirit or 'spiritual' matters. In a way, that's as it should be, for the heart of Christian faith is God-with-us, Jesus Christ, and that is who Christians sing about the most. However, the Church over the years went too far in that direction. So I try to bring some attention to Spirit songs on this Web site.

A big, big resource for those who want to learn the world of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) is Mark Allan Powell's *Encyclopedia Of Christian Contemporary Music* (Hendrickson, 2002). Warning : it's thick. Another warning : you'll find so much stuff you'll want to check out for yourself that it will seem like a revelation. I've been doing college radio for the past two decades of CCM's existence, and I've been listening to it since the days of the '60s-'70s folk services, John Fischer, Ray Repp, and Love Song. In its own way, CCM has been as much a part of what led to this site as were the Web conversations that were its direct cause. I find that if you can't sing it, you probably don't understand it well, or it's not made its way into your life yet.


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