Some Thoughts on Music and Art

11 Nov

I just wrote a short essay about believers and their relationship to music and the arts. I penned it for one of my classes at my Christian College. It contains my personal thoughts, but I have attempted to construct them from a Scriptural foundation, applying the things I have learned at my Christian College in the last few years. Enjoy.

 

“The purpose of this essay is to examine my personal views about a believer’s relationship to the arts and music. When discussing this issue, certain questions immediately arise. These include, but are certainly not limited to, Should Christians listen to any music? If so, what about “secular” music? Are some forms of music better than others? Questions regarding art arise as well: What is art anyways? How do we evaluate it? Can believers view and appreciate abstract art? I will attempt to construct my answers to these questions from the Scriptures; I have also consulted relevant works by other Christians.

I believe that music has a place in every believer’s life. Paul writes to the Colossian and Ephesian churches that believers ought to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” both to and with one another (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). God commanded Moses to write a song for Israel in Deuteronomy 31. Christians will someday sing a new song to the Lamb (Revelation 5:9). Clearly, the Bible teaches that music is an important part of believers’ lives.

A natural questions arises at this point: Since the music condoned in the Bible is generally either about God or written to Him, should believers listen to any music that is not? This type of music would include instrumental works, songs about life in general, songs about believers’ lives, and so on. I believe that Christians absolutely can listen to such “non-religious music,” so long as it does not cause them, or a fellow believer, to sin. The Bible makes it very clear that you must avoid things which lead you into iniquity (Matthew 18:8-9, Mark 9:43-47). Nor should any believer engage in any activity, including listening to music, that causes a brother or sister to fall into sin (Mark 9:42, Romans 14:21, I Corinthians 8:13). Many non-religious songs pose no problem. Take one of the many country songs on my ipod for instance. Probably it is about trucks and love. I can listen to that song, appreciate the musician’s talents, thank the Lord for the experience of living in the West, and be better off for hearing it. Of course, many songs can be a stumbling block. For example, I find that music with profanity makes it very easy for me to stumble. This is because I usually end up singing a song after I hear it, either in my head or out loud, and often times the curse word(s) will come out right along with it. And then I’ve sinned. So I try to avoid songs with foul language. Of course, there may be other problems with on-religious songs, such as sexually explicit content. Again, if these musical works cause a believer to sin, they must be avoided.

If it is required of believers that they sing and make worshipful music, and it is okay and even beneficial for them to listen to other kinds of music, then that leaves one more question: Are there certain genres or styles of music that are inherently better or more God-honoring than others? No. I agree with Francis Schaeffer that the medium is not the issue; content and effort are what matters (Schaeffer, 1973). If an artist creates a piece with skill and diligence, and the content is not sin-causing, then the work is wholly acceptable. This means that a Beethoven symphony is no more righteous than a rap song by Lecrae. Sure, Beethoven’s 5th may be more complex, but both composers put their best effort into creating a skilled piece with clear content. Others, like Gordon Clark, would disagree with me on this issue, claiming that rock song is not worthy of our Lord (Clark, 1989). But how we can we decide that a piece is not technical enough? Is a child’s drawing not worthy of our Lord because it is not as complex as his mother’s watercolor painting? Again, I believe the issue is content and effort, not medium.

Many people would say that art, like music, presents a challenge to the Christian. However, first priority is establishing a working definition of art. What is it anyways? Many have tried to definite it, some with success and some to no avail. I do not claim a superior definition, but I do hope that my description is helpful. What I present is assembled from the views of Gordon Clark and a definition in the New Oxford American Dictionary. Art, I believe, is the outpouring of human creativity, manifested in such mediums as painting, architecture, poetry, or sculpture, which usually attempts to incite a response in the viewer, either emotional or intellectual.

The Bible is full of art. Schaeffer has pointed out that the tabernacle, the priests’ robes, and the temple were all full of sculptures and tapestries depicting things from nature. Moreover, some were exact portrayals of nature, like the red pomegranates in the tabernacle. Others, like the blue pomegranates, were more abstract (Schaeffer, 1973). God Himself commanded that these things be built. I believe that, like music, any art that is not explicitly religious can certainly still be part of believers’ lives, so long as it does not cause them or other believers to sin. Since God made nature, Schaeffer argues, artists ought to feel free to express their creativity and depict things of the natural world as well, not just explicitly religious material (Schaeffer, 1973).

It is hard to say what makes art “good” or “bad,” but I think a possible system of evaluation is to see whether or not the work accomplishes the artist’s intended purpose. Certainly some measure of skill should be considered, but the primary issue is effectiveness. If the artist wanted to make his viewers sad, does the painting/sculpture/poem/etc. do so? If he wanted to portray the glory of a sunrise, is that what viewers see? This may require an artist to explain his work, or at least point his viewers in the direction that he was thinking. Also, one must remember that an artist can have a target viewer. A work may be painted for a specific person or demographic. If we do not understand it, that does not necessarily mean that the work was done poorly. For example, I do not know very much about French opera. What I think sounds like gibberish may in fact be a rich and technical aria.

It seems that a particularly misunderstood medium is abstract art. Some people suggest that this type of art is wrong, since it is hard to understand and often seems to lack a propositional truth. I disagree, along with Mindy Belz and Edward Veith of WORLD Magazine and the art critic Greg Wolfe. Belz writes that “Just as we take pleasure in the complex pattern of a trees branches, we can take pleasure in the visual impression created by an abstract painting” (Belz, 2005). If the content does not cause one to sin, and the artist does not do shoddy or lazy work, then abstract art is fine. It can be evaluated like all other art. Schaeffer believes that abstract art is not immoral, but “a dimension is lost” because it forgoes useful communication tools like words and clear images (Schaeffer, 1973). I would agree with him to a limited extent. However, plenty of the passages in Scripture are written as very complex poetry, which makes them harder to understand than simple prose. Yet oftentimes, the reaction to poetry or abstract art is stronger than regular art, because it requires deeper thinking and imagination to “get it.”

Thus I conclude, with Scriptural backing, that both music and art have their place in my life. Some art and music is explicitly worshipful, and some is not. Both are permitted, provided that they do not cause me to stumble. No one form of music is “better” than another, but what matters in any genre is content and effort. In art, I think the issue is mainly whether or not a work succeeds at its assigned task, and I also believe that I need not avoid or distrust the abstract arts.”

 

Bibliography:

 

Belz, Mindy. “Art Aflame.” World Magazine, worldmag.com. December 2005.

 

Clark, Gordon H. “Christian Aesthetics.” The Trinity Foundation, trinity foundation.org. May-

June, 1989.

 

Clark, Gordon H. “Art and the Gospel.” The Trinity Foundation, trinity foundation.org. March-

April, 1982.

 

New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.1.3. Copyright 2005-2009, Apple, Inc.

 

Schaeffer, Francis A. Art & the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973.

 

Veith, Edward Gene. “Abstract Art and the Bible.” World Magazine, worldmag.com. December 2005.

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