In recent decades, the evangelical Christian community has made notable advances in education and scholarship, in missions, and in awareness of its social responsibilities. There is among evangelicals a new sense of the responsibility of every Christian to represent, as a living epistle, the incarnational aspect of his faith.

But in the arts and particularly in church music the need for developing a scriptural aesthetic has still to be met. Beauty and truth continue to be confused as do mediocrity and results. Contentment with mediocrity as a would-be carrier of truth looms as a major hindrance to aesthetic maturity among evangelicals.

Contrary to the Statements of many publishers and leaders, there has been no recent revolution in church music. There have been some limping imitations of a true secular radicalism, but no intrinsic upheaval. Church music continues its round of habituating listeners to the comforts of the past and the third-handedness of the present. Just enough vestiges of classicism remain to impart a sense of history, and our borrowings are controversial enough to titillate our sense of contemporaneity. In confusing relevance with immediacy and communication with imitation we tend to reduce Christianity and what we call Christian music to a kind of competitive commodity.

There is no lack of fine artists in the ranks of evangelicalism. There are artists who reflect a new outlook: they refuse to view art as merely a “come-on” to worship and strive to avoid the use of art as a kind of cosmetic for Christianity. They have chosen to remain true to the surrender of their creative talents to God through disciplined workmanship. As a result many of them have been isolated, and for some this has led to their being secularized. Consequently it has been difficult for them to witness to a gospel that isolates them.

Scripture does not contain a set of rules for art, or for any other discipline except the ministry. It lays down life principles to which everything must answer, principles that call us all together. In this essay I shall try to view Christian responsibility in music in the light of biblical principles of creativity, worship, and witness.

I. Creativity

Our human creativity comes from the living God, who dwells in his transcendent advantage as the uncreated One and the inexhaustible Originator. He is the first while being the last, and in the eternal present of his vigor and imagination he is always creating. That he is maker of heaven and earth does not limit him to one time, mode, or means. It simply means that there is no other agency, purpose, or lack of it outside himself to dilute his sole prerogative. His work is the work of omnipotence—having created the unsearchable he still infinitely imagines. To him, everything has a priceless commonality—the blade of grass and the galaxy. What we trample he loves; what we cannot measure he holds in the palm of his hand. The common is a mystery and the mysterious, common. There is pattern but not repetition. God’s creation is a onceness; in its parts, unimaginable complexity. All is summed up historically, redemptively, and eschatologically in the wisdom and purpose of the Triune God.

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Man is God’s unique creation. Made in the image of God, he reflects in his finite way his Maker’s creativity. God alone creates out of nothing, and he does so without models or precedents. Man’s creativity is always dependent and relational. He is part of the length of history and the width of individuality. He needs raw material and models. Culture is his handiwork, his fingerprint on the creation, and it is in the realm of his imagination that he comes closest to the godly prerogative of ex nihilo. He yearns for mastery over materials, to create forms and articulate relationships amid a welter of options and disciplines.

Creation is God’s handiwork. He called it good as it issued from his sovereign purpose. But creation is not intrinsically empowered, nor does it have authority delegated to it. Man’s responsibility is to be its steward and to apply to it the stewardship of his creativity. The essence of the cultural mandate rests on man’s ability to act purposively in contrast to the inability of the non-human natural creation to cause. There is, then, an important distinction between the moral neutrality of creation and its intrinsic worth. Created things are to be cherished for what they are in themselves. They are never to be worshiped. For idolatry is a confusion of intrinsic worth with intrinsic power. It is the corruption in which man worships the creature rather than the Creator.

Through his medium the artist or musician tries to express his existence, to say I am. His imagination and skill endeavor to bring significance to the stuff of his art. He pushes against his temporality to substantiate what does not yet, even to him, exist. To Louis Kahn, the architect, “creative inspiration comes directly from wanting to know how you were made.… All of knowledge has only to deal with how we are made. You discover your own structure by making other structures.”

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The artist lives in a world of models and precedents, knowing that he must take the further step. He thrives on nextness, hence mystery. His art, as the painter Hans Hofmann said, is a created reality. Therefore it has its own integrity. Merely to represent anything that already exists without infusing the artist’s own unique imagination is to deny the intrinsic worth of what exists and to degrade the artist’s work to nothing but imitation. Inferior art is simply art that tries to duplicate something that, whatever its quality, already is, and realism in any art form is a misnomer unless it is suffused with creative, therefore individual, imagination.

Essentially, the excitement in art is excitement about existence itself. It comes from encountering another person’s creative imagination in doing something we cannot do. Even when disturbed, we can celebrate the gifting of another I am and participate in that which we cannot yet understand. Every time we hear or see something creative we should applaud God, more than each other—God, the giver of “every good and perfect gift,” who is the source of the tremendous surge and urge within each of us.

To be sure, man is a fallen creature. Sin leads to deviation in what he does. His ideas are often at cross purposes. What he creates is often bent in its content, purpose, and direction. Man’s ability to criticize and judge art is just as fallen as his other faculties. But the glory of the Christian Gospel is that, however fallen man is, however distorted and bent his characteristics, his life and gifts are redeemable. They may be rightly directed and used in the service of God. There is no telling how or whether his gifts will increase. But there is the promise for a radical perspective—Scripture calls it wisdom. And there is a demand that his gifts be exhausted in the pursuit of excellence.

II. Worship

Worship is intimately related to the chief end of man, which, as the venerable catechism declares, is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Therefore worship is God-centered and is a joyful celebration on man’s part.

But the basic concept of Christian worship has often been limited to the way Christians conduct themselves during the few hours they spend in church. Various Sunday activities, churchly symbols, and aids to worship alternate with other activities: prayer meetings, Bible studies, “informal” services. And within the Sunday worship service itself there are lead-ins, interludes, and asides that, depending upon the kind of church, may include anything up to the sermon or the Eucharist.

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But there is more to worship than these localized expressions. Redemption is so radical that it calls for a new totality, hence a total worship. The essential call to worship comes at conversion. In its fuller sense, worship should be the whole life-style of persons in whom Christ lives. They go to church not for part-time worship but as full-time worshipers corporately and habitually. To them everything done by faith, by which alone the just can live, is an act of worship.

Music and art have traditionally been seen as aids to worship. Through no inherent fault they have been considered suspect, even pagan, in their role as empowerers, or secular diversions away from true worship. To be sure, art does move us. But the problem in worship lies deeper. It has to do with whether we are moved because the repetition of something familiar in a familiar place conduces to worship, or whether something new and creative is unfolding and disturbing our present condition and prodding our worldly conformity.

If the former is the whole function of music in worship, then music can be nothing more than a part of a complex System of conditioning and reflex. Errors in our theology of worship have led to the impression that music in worship is only an agent. There are preludes, postludes, interludes, implying preparation, cessation, and holding patterns. Rarely, if ever, is the worshiper faced with the necessity of music as an act, an offering, free of determinism, dependent on faith for its validity.

Man somehow keeps turning his acts into idolatrous aids. Winston Churchill once said that we shape our buildings and our buildings shape us. Isaiah said of man:

He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man; he takes a part of it and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread; also he makes a god and worships it.… Half of it he burns in the fire … and the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol; and falls down to it … and says, “Deliver me for thou art my god!” [Isa. 44:14–17].

There is more idolatry in us than we like to admit as long as we relocate cause in the created order and equate content with context. Once this is established, change is precluded and our capability to act in the unknown is preempted, because we depend on what we have shaped to shape us. In this sense, church music has been imprisoned. Corporate worship can be turned on or off with chords, colors, and textures; in short, by cultural devices. Creative expression that goes beyond what we are used to is suspect because it disturbs our sense of containment and traditional security. Such habituation to the familiaär can result in rejection of the artist’s God-given individuality and talent as well as a sense of not having worshiped. But when we hear a new piece of music, carrying no associative power for us, our scriptural role is to make in faith an offering even of our hearing. So we worship the divine Recipient of the offering instead of depending on the offering to assist us in worship. Thus God is free to act. Newness and strangeness can be celebrated, not as cause but as result. No matter whether one or many voices are raised, the sacrifices of praise are always corporate. And there is no better place to experience the profoundest art for the first time than in corporate worship, where the Christian is knit to his fellow believers in “the communion of the saints.” The faith that this takes is the faith that hopes for and substantiates that which has not yet been seen or heard. Even in repetition, as when we sing the Doxology, there can be no real duplication, for faith demands that it ever be new. In the exercise of faith, old things literally pass away and all things, familiar and strange, become disturbingly new.

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Of course, the musician cannot expect the layman to go it alone. He must examine his own motives as to why he is doing what he believes. He must be able to move gracefully from simplicity to complexity and share the problems and experiences of the layman in art. He must be ready to empty himself in order to provide genuine help to his brothers. This emptying is not unlike our Lord’s: the prerogatives of excellence are not preempted. Above all, he must be ready to make his music an offering. He must love his people deeply. More people would encounter new music if they sensed that artistic disturbance was couched in creational love.

An offering is costly. It is not a means, because it has no merit in itself. It is not an end, because it cannot be worshiped. The essence of a sacrifice is only that it can be surrendered. In a fullness that is uniquely right, God is both means and end.

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The Christian musician, like his Christian colleagues in the other arts, is responsible to live and work in accord with a biblical, God-centered world view. In offering his art to God he is offering himself as best he knows how. So he worships and so through his music he serves and witnesses to the God who gave him his talent.

III. Witness

The Christian is to spend his life knowing that the two words Jesus saves mean that nothing is beyond the scrutiny of redemption. Christian growth, inseparable from stewardship, is the whole man probing all the possibilities of existence, discerning among its options, and in a faithful and excelling manner acting freely while adding to them. Witness is the total speaking and doing of this fullness. Authenticity is the cohesion of being and doing, of revelation and response. The whole rieh creation of I ams is to be transformed from a citizenship in a world that overpowers them to a body that by all its doing, overcomes. Witness is not complete unless it demonstrates that every creaturely gift and response is capable of its longest reach when regenerated. If this is a fairly accurate description of witness, then, at least in the arts, the Church is not witnessing well.

Today we are inundated by an unprecedented quantity of music, literature, films, and art. In music the market overflows with anthems, folk music, cantatas, and that unscrupulous aggregate of pseudo-rock-folk-pop called “contemporary.” Among these, the ratio of quantity to quality is appalling. And it is all supposed to support a so-called radicalizing Gospel. Its advertising abounds with superlatives and “with it” slogans, as if to repeat back to the world in its own jargon such fallacies as that the value of a thing is determined by what it is called, not what it intrinsically is. So we mix entertainment with the crucial task of exposing a person to the whole force and weight of the Gospel.

We seem to be afraid of being innovative, of matching the far reaches of truth with creativity. So we slip into a shallow borrowing in our musical witness. Now it would be incorrect to denounce borrowing completely. Since man cannot create out of nothing, he must borrow as a catalyst for his imagination. But gradually we have come to the place where borrowing has become our mainstay instead of a point of departure. Because of this, we produce flattened, redundant versions of what was once vital. A good example is rock, the best of which is indigenous to the secular counter-culture. For a good many the Church’s answer is a kind of “chicken” rock, which is neither reformed nor transformed but merely diluted and institutionalized with just enough imitativeness to give a feeling of adventure and “relevance.” Such a violation of integrity has driven a good many people of artistic sensitivity back to the world in search of greater honesty of expression. The implication is that authenticity, the consistency between being and doing, can exist only outside the Church. So they conclude erroneously that Christianity combined spirituality with cultural sterility.

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A misuse of history has overemphasized borrowing. A case in point is Luther’s comment (when he was criticized for borrowing a drinking song) that the devil should not have all the good tunes. But Luther’s position must be seen in the fuller context of his convictions about music. Borrowing to him was only a small part of a rich means of expression. When he borrowed, he borrowed excellence only and left mediocrity to the devil. A skilled musician and a composer, he looked with the greatest admiration to the best music of his time, that of the composer Josquin des Prez. If Luther’s total position were injected into the contemporary discussion of church music, it would make him very unpopular.

And if he were here today, he would have to reckon with new factors. He would have to examine the practice of borrowing in the light of a distance between the Church and secular culture unlike anything he had to face. He would have to confront an unprecedented proliferation of musical styles from both within and without Western culture, and he would have to face the Church with its preference for a provincial witness. He would undoubtedly recognize that a large part of our musical experience is depersonalized, issuing electronically from walls, ceilings, and earphones as a background for everything from shopping to worshiping.

Yet we continue to worship the Lord of all and witness to his Gospel in artistic forms that are provincial. The story of Pentecost is history, but it also has allegorical implications. For it shows that the Church, at the urging of the Spirit, is capable of speaking in a beautiful variety of artistries. The Gospel is rich and is susceptible of a many-tongued witness other than linguistic.

Granted, of course, that in our witness some of our music must be direct and simple, this does not mean that it all must be so. Ironically, it is the borrowing of simple music that has been troublesome to the Church, because even though it is easiest to assimilate, it is also the most difficult to dissociate from its prior contexts, such as dancing, drinking, revelry, drugs. This is largely why before we borrow we wait for time to pass. The longer we wait, the greater the detachment from the original context. This allows us to see the borrowed material for what it intrinsically is. Consequently, the baroque dance suite today is totally harmless, the Viennese waltz probably harmless, the panoply of jazz questionable, and rock highly controversial. But why must we commit ourselves so largely to retrograde creativity? If there is to be controversy, let it be one generated by a stunning authenticity.

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The concept of act-of and aid-to pertains to witness as much as it does to worship. For if art is used primarily for its associative powers and perceived only as a tool by which people can be moved, the question then must be faced as to what extent art and music can carry an extrinsic message, and to what extent the message subordinates the medium. There is a difference between the concept of medium as a carrier and medium as a message. The ideal situation is when both “media” agree.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case with those who stress mass communication in the spread of the Gospel. If communication is described as the success with which a maximum audience is attracted and held long enough to get a message across and if art forms are the supporting means (the carriers surrounding the “word”), then the blunt question must be asked: “Given today’s preference for shallow entertainment, how does the Church reconcile the Nielsen ratings with the scandal of the cross?” The kind of mass communication on which the media subsist depends on two things: a minimal creative element and a concept of music that sees it only as conveying a message rather than being a message. Viewed as a carrier, music tends to be reduced to a format equated with entertainment. The greater the exposure desired, the lower the common denominator. So the distance increases between the radical authenticity of the Christian message (the scandal of the cross) and the vulgarity of the means.

This is a peril, because in the very presentation of Christianity, a union of evangelical truth and methodological falsity may result. Christian witness may play into the hands of the very cultural determinism it sets itself against. Thus the new creation and the old may be confused. This is the ultimate consequence of a series of mistakes issuing from an honest desire to save souls that does not fully understand the complete integrity that must mark any activity done in the name of the sovereign God.

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If art is to be an integral witness, it has to show how disturbing vital Christianity can be. Our witness is for us to be the best carpenter, housewife, business man, teacher, poet, or musician we can be. Only so may we be used to direct someone else to the God of all excellence, beauty, and truth.

It is impossible to escape the paradoxical nature of the Gospel. It is both the power of God unto salvation and a stumbling block. Primarily because salvation is God’s doing, it cannot be separated from the fullness of grace perceived outside the constraining power of Christ’s love. A stumbling block has nothing to do with tripping the world from behind. A stumbling block is set out in front, far ahead, and the world falls over it in its own rush to save itself. If redemption affects man’s whole being and doing, if it is the final benediction on his identity in Christ, then the life-style of the redeemed must lead in opening new ways and developing new forms for worship.

If there is ever a truly authentic church music, it will come through a relocation of priorities in a flow of excellence celebrated creatively, by faith, as worship. The aesthetic faculties of each person can find complete expression in the service of God in the world. Church music can then be the place where excellence is born and where it is continuously welcome. It is church music only because it is heard there first. Then the world will have to face the necessity of borrowing from the Church because Christianity offers more creative options than any other life. We need never invert our priorities and violate our artistic integrity for Jesus’ sake. The Gospel is too great for this kind of compromise. In reconciling the world to God, our Lord Jesus Christ did not compromise his integrity to gain maximum results. And he is the true model for a redeemed artist.

The story of Joshua and Jericho can be interpreted in two ways, each representing a pattem for the use of music in worship and witness: Men, blowing their trumpets, brought the walls down; or, as men blew their trumpets to the Lord, he brought the walls down. Only according to the latter pattern can we use music to the glory of God.

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