“People need balance in their lives,” says Harold Best, dean of the Wheaton Conservatory of Music. “I’m an administrator. My work cannot be measured in tangibles, and I always seem to be behind.” So Best restores old cars in his spare time; his hobbies can be touched and held. “By contrast,” he adds, “factory workers who measure their productivity every hour on the job ought to read philosophy or theology when not working.” That’s what he means by balance.

Best received his B.A. in organ from Nyack College, where he taught before going to Wheaton. He attended Claremont Graduate School for his M.A. in organ, and his S.M.D. in organ and composition is from Union Seminary.

Best is more than an administrator, or organist, or composer. He’s also a teacher. “I love to get an idea in my head and then share it with somebody,” he explains. In the following discussion with Assistant Editor Cheryl Forbes, Best talks about music inside and outside the evangelical church.

Question. Why is music important to you? Should it be important to each of us?

Answer. That’s easy to answer. We are commanded in the Bible to make music. One of the first men we read about is Jubal, the protomusician. I can’t get away from this command. I’m not talking about Paul’s instructions to the churches to make music for one another. Those commands have a different smack to them. God told us to praise him on our instruments with our voices. There isn’t a whole lot in the Old Testament that tells people to use music on one another. But there’s an awful lot about God wanting to hear people make music.

Q. What is the job of a Christian musician?

A. To make his music first to God. It’s his offering and sacrifice. The frivolity with which some people treat music is simply because their theology is cockeyed, and I have to say that to theologian and layman alike. We overlook God’s command. We don’t treat creativity and artistry in a consistently biblical manner. The seminaries have openly failed in this task.

Q. Define a theology of creativity.

A. A theology of creativity takes the arts seriously. And it takes them seriously because it begins with the panoramic and generic and before-everything-else fact that God had to shape things himself. I really think God had to make things, not that he just chose to make things. I go back to the idea of the I AM THAT I AM THAT I AM, the Jahweh. The God who is is the God who acts. You can’t talk about being without talking about doing. God is the I AM THAT I ACT THAT I AM THAT I ACT. Language is linear so those words are in tandem. If we could speak language contrapuntally and say “I am” and “I act” together the way we can sing two musical phrases together, it would hit what I’m trying to say. God had to imagine what didn’t exist; he had no blueprints when he made a cucumber or an antelope or a cantaloupe or a watermelon. He’s the first abstract artist. The fact that he made something out of nothing is not where the miracle comes in. The real beauty is that no cucumber is exactly like another. And all these unlikenesses have their own intrinsic worth. The imago dei, the fact that we were made in God’s image, is not some silly, spiritual, maudlin piece of sentimentality. It means he made us to do and he made us to want to do out of nothing, even though we can’t. He made us to want to imagine things that aren’t, even though we need models. Our creativity lies in the very fact that we’re created, and our wondrous desire never to allow two things to be alike lies in the fact that we’re made in God’s image. Everything we do is subject to that creative mandate. One of those things is art, and within art, music.

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Q. Why do Christians approve certain kinds of music, and ignore others?

A. I’m concerned about why any kind of music is approved under any kind of rubric. Why do Episcopalians approve a certain kind of music that the Pentecostals don’t? And why do Lutherans in Germany approve a certain kind of music that Lutherans in Chile won’t? The Church has failed to differentiate between appropriateness and conditioned reflex. Churches approve music they’re most used to. If a particular church is used to Palestrina motets, it will have trouble with a twentieth-century style. If another church is used to a baroque style in its worship, it will have trouble with late romanticism. If a church is used to the gospel song, it will have trouble with Genevan psalmnody, and so on. To me the first question is, Why does the church bow to conditioned reflex when it gets to the matter of music-making? Right now worship is defined primarily in terms of conditioned reflex. Everything is predictable, passive. There is too much habit and not enough wrestling.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. The music must be chosen for the effect it will have on people, for the way they will respond. For comfortable worship, the music must be familiar. Borrowing from market research, we give people what they want. Since people have come to expect mood music to prepare for worship, that’s what we give them. Why evangelicals approve certain music is answered in that principle. We have concluded that the best way to reach others is with familiarity. So our witness music or art is based on what the world is already doing—and really invented—in the first place. We borrow it and give it back to them second-rate and second-hand. We choose what we choose because we want to massage and soothe people. We use music to produce feelings of warmth, comfort, and security. Then we load them up with the Gospel.

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Q. Why are evangelicals accepting rock music wholesale? We haven’t done that with other contemporary forms of music.

A. Because it works. Evangelicals did not choose rock when it first came out. They waited till the controversy wore off. Rock is now seen more abstractly. It’s no longer wholly connected with drugs, ripping up flags, burning draft cards, throwing feces around. It’s a phenomenon that has pretty much saturated the culture. Since people are used to it, we’ve appropriated it as another one of our tools with which to witness.

Q. But what about jazz?

A. When jazz reached its cultural heights in the thirties and forties, evangelicals were so dualistic about the sacred and secular that they couldn’t borrow from the world as overtly as they do now. The associations were too bad and evangelicals were too straight. Theater was out, the movies were out, even opera was out for many evangelicals. Lipstick, earrings, slacks. All that was a great big can of worms called Worldliness. Furthermore, the evangelical leaders of today, who are in their fifties and sixties, don’t have the associations with rock that they might have had with jazz. Therefore they still condemn jazz even though they don’t condemn rock. Rock has become familiar to witness; jazz is still strange. Our borrowing of rock is evidence of a loosening life-style among evangelicals. We can use anything we want to in witnessing now. That’s both a virtue and a vice. We’re in this whole pragmatic mishmash that says, If it works, it’s good. If it’ll bring souls to Jesus, it’s good. As far as I’m concerned it’s just pietized pragmatism.

Q. Does our acceptance of rock have anything to do with its commercial value?

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A. Yes. Evangelicals feel they can earn a little bread with it. I can’t help but feel that much of the evangelistic witness phenomenon is tied up with financial outcome. When I talk with evangelical publishers or with those who manage so-called Christian groups, they’re very much concerned with what will sell. If a person’s going to earn his bread by being a witness musician he’s got to think of that. Granted. But I am offended by the theological and artistic concessions that are made to guarantee the bread. The last thing the integral musician can do is think in those terms. That’s why I believe so deeply in comprehensive musicianship. I want my students to leave here ready to do many things in case they can’t make a living in publishing or composition, for example. I’m a fairly good composer, but I sure can’t make a living at it. I can teach people how to compose—at least I think I can. There’s a lot of money consciousness among evangelical musicians. On the other hand, take Dan Majeske, a Christian musician who’s playing in the Cleveland Orchestra as concertmaster. (Incidentally, Wheaton is giving him an honorary doctorate this year, the first time an artist has been so honored.) He’s not using his music to witness. He’s just doing his music so well that he earns a right to witness. There he is, tucked away in the Cleveland Orchestra. He’s not playing over the rail to the audience. He doesn’t ask the audience if they love Jesus as he plays the Beethoven Fifth. That’s what witness musicians so often do, and it makes me sick.

Q. Isn’t that one of the differences between being an artist and being a performer?

A. Sure it is. An artist is somebody who can’t help being that and will be that anywhere he or she is. But the artistry is not a means to an end. And it’s not an end, either. Nothing in worship is either a means or an end. If we look at something as a means, then we tend to drift into legalism. If it’s an end, then we tend to fringe into idolatry. I want to look at everything as an offering; God is both the means and the end. That to me is the Christian view of artistry. A Christian artist cannot use his music on people simply to get them interested in Jesus.

Q. Is the job of a musician, then, to get rid of himself?

A. How can you get rid of yourself? I say you’ve got to be conscious of yourself. There’s a difference between being ego-conscious and egocentric. When you perform you’ve got to stand up there and love yourself dearly—but not worship yourself. You should get rid of your self-centeredness but not yourself.

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Q. You don’t think that the ego involved in being a performing artist is a problem for a Christian?

A. No, as long as it doesn’t turn into egocentrism. You can’t turn it into self-worship and say, “Hey, isn’t that wonderful. That’s all mine and nobody’s going to get one ounce of credit but me.” The problem of the concert artist is no different than the problem for other people. Wanting to show off is part of our fallen nature. I don’t have to become a musician to want that.

Q. But isn’t that a greater problem for the concert artist than for others?

A. Why, because of the larger audiences involved? I don’t think all performers need applause or adulation. Some do, yes. But that same kind of person would need that no matter what his profession. To me it’s a human problem, not just a problem for performers. At the same time you can’t ignore the work that has gone into making yourself a musician. You have to give your music to God all the time. If you don’t offer in the practice room as much as you offer to God on the concert stage, then I think as a Christian you make a mistake. The quality may be better in front of an audience, but your attitude should be the same. It’s an act of worship. I tell my kids that when you go over the G major scale with the metronome ticking, that’s an act of worship just as much playing an altar call.

Q. You keep coming back to this idea of worship. Does the evangelical attitude toward music fit in with that?

A. As long as we use music as a tool, our worship will be messed up. I get angry about this. And it’s not just evangelicals who do this. The Church in general is at fault for looking at music as an aid to worship. I don’t care what the category—classical, gospel songs, whatever. It’s wrong to use music to prepare people to feel a certain way or to lead them into the feeling so as to confuse the presence of God with cultural ecstasy. We should refrain from using music until we get so hungry for it that we say, “Hey, where’s the music? I need to offer something more up to the Lord.” We should never wonder where the music is because we need it to get in the mood for worship.

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Q. Why is it that so many evangelical churches refuse to commit money for music?

A. It might take money away from missions. The problem goes back to theology. I can’t get away from the fact that Jesus allowed Mary to spill precious ointment on his feet. And Judas got teed off because that money could be used for the poor. That sounds familiar. A church wants to buy a good pipe organ, and somebody comes along and says that money could be used for missions. That sounds like Judas. Maybe those people aren’t listening to Jesus.

Q. How are you going to convince evangelicals that such things are worth the money and are not frivolous?

A. By starting a very slow process in the seminaries. The seminaries are not doing their job in making holistic men into preachers. When they talk about faith they link it only to salvation. When they talk about worship they link it to Sunday morning. When they talk about creation they link it to Genesis. When they talk about creativity they do so in an offhand way, using the adjective form—creative love or creative worship, which are redundancies. Ministers will agree that music is an act of worship but turn right around and say, “Harold, I want you to play this for the altar call because it will bring souls down the aisle.” As soon as they do they contradict the concept. We live in the middle of beautiful abstractions and lousy realizations.

Q. What would you do if you were in a seminary?

A. I would make people “scratch gravel” to integrate theology and life. I wouldn’t be interested in getting the students to learn more hymns or giving them a course in music appreciation. I want to get at the creational principles that speak to all of life. Until you get the clergy to think holistically, you won’t get laypeople who do.

Q. Couldn’t the ministers of music begin reeducating the people in the pews?

A. Yes, but they will need to be theologically on their toes and philosophically and conceptually awake. Musicians can’t do it simply by making music. Human beings thrive on words; we need to have things explained. Despite how much I’d like to believe that music speaks for itself, it doesn’t to many people. Musicians within the church need to explain to people why and how music speaks. That can be an exciting theological issue. Too many church musicians resent that guy in the pew who objects to what they’re doing. That’ll have to change.

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Q. But not all musicians can teach, which is essentially what you’re asking for. What do they do then?

A. They better learn. Church musicians can talk—they just don’t talk about the right things. They don’t want to spend their time on broad concepts. They’ll spend great heaps of time, legitimately so, on performance practice. And they can explain that. Most church musicians couldn’t care two hoots about theology. I’m thankful that Union Seminary required me to take ten hours of Bible and theology for my degree. Musicians should force themselves to explain their ideas to congregations.

Q. But how will the Church keep talented young thinking musicians in its community without encouragement? The Church for the most part doesn’t encourage its artists.

A. You’re right. Yet there are more young artists today than at any other time in history, and that just isn’t because there are more people today than ever before. I think the Holy Spirit has invaded the creative community. The ones with real creative conscience, the ones who are desperately searching for a proper expression of themselves whether in simplicity or complexity, are often being hurt by the Church. There’s no doubt about it. On the other hand, you have a long line of gospel pop musicians, the witness musicians, who are making a living. Their lives and their musicianship, whatever the quality, are being spiritualized to the hilt. These people are being used as test cases by those who say that this is the music that gets people interested in Jesus. Sure, the music gets people interested in Jesus, because that’s the way we want to do it. I say that’s not the way. We get people so culturally wrapped up in the faith that they are never really told what it means to be a Christian. People are lubricated into the Church—the big evangelistic massage. Or the whole celebrity-loaded Christian television special. When you load mass communication with art, you must reduce it to its lowest common denominator. Ironically, you don’t have to do this with preaching. It can be of the highest order and still hold people because it’s true. Not so with art. We’ve got spiritual Nielsen ratings. The market researchers are right; there’s no doubt about it. It works, but I think that’s the wrong way to evangelize.

Q. Isn’t that just commercialism?

A. Yes, but that’s evangelicalism, too, let’s face it. You name me a church that isn’t leaning in that direction and I’ll join it. That’s what’s getting worse to me about evangelicalism—the whole matter of behavioral control, crowd manipulation, and market research. That’s grabbing us more and more. Our emphasis is on mass evangelism, not biblical evangelization.

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Q. Don’t producers of these programs look on each viewer the way a secular advertiser does, as a potential buyer?

A. Right. The same techniques are used in almost as blatant a fashion. It depends on conditioned reflexes, giving people what they’re used to. Push the bell and people slobber.

Q. What is the problem with the way we approach worship?

A. At the first note of the organ we’re told to prepare for worship, as if preparation is caused by environment. But really, the call to worship comes when a person is regenerated. From then on out, the kinds and degrees of worship are subsumed under one rubric, namely, that you are to be a living sacrifice. We should go to church as worshipers, rather than going to church to worship. The whole making of music would be overhauled if you went on the principle that people were already worshiping when they entered the building. Then the music would not be the trigger to fire people into worship. Music would not be used as an “interlude” during worship. What’s an interlude to a worshiping person? Why is it that we have to have music during communion? I’m more and more against it. Maybe it’s because I’m a musician, but during the communion service I’m analyzing the music instead of recalling the mystery of my redemption. Why is it that some churches insist on having an organ respond to a prayer or even worse play background music during a prayer? Why do we need music during the offering? The offering is an act of worship and we should observe each other giving money. Music is also an act of worship. Why confuse the service?

Q. Does music in itself have a value or a moral? Can one form of music be bad, another good?

A. Music has no moral meaning, no theological or philosophical meaning. But when a certain kind of music is done repetitively in a certain place, it comes to mean that place, that context. Music is abstract until you begin by repetition to link it to a certain circumstance, environment, or event. Then it begins to mean the event itself. Thus the term “sacred music.” We have certain expectations about how sacred music should sound, not because there’s an intrinsic thing called sacred music, but because by association we’ve come to expect certain things. That’s why people will say that jazz is immoral, because they’ve heard it played in cabarets. But they won’t say that Wagner’s music is immoral, even though some people like to fornicate with Wagner in the background.

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Q. What you’re saying, then, is that we confuse the symbol with the sacrament.

A. Yes. I’m concerned that by doing so we commit idolatry in the Church. We end up being shaped by the things we have shaped. That’s essentially a definition of idolatry. When I walk into a worship service, I don’t want to be shaped by the music but by the Holy Spirit. Then I’m free to offer the music.

Q. How would you plan a church music program?

A. I would want to be as comprehensive a musician as possible. I would want to direct, play, improvise, arrange, and compose. For example, I decide to write a piece on the denial of Peter. I choose my best singer and section of the choir. I know I have a fine tympanist in the congregation. So I score the piece for soprano, small chorus, and roving percussion. But I’d want to work with more than just music. I’d want to be responsible for the whole of the fine arts. I’d open up the church building for dance and theater, use the halls as an art gallery for young painters and sculptors, develop a music therapy program to work with disturbed children. I would try to form a total program of the fine arts within the church. In a small congregation, some of this would not be possible financially, but I would try to do as much of it as I could. I would help the congregation understand the nature of worship, faith, and creation, and show that through music and the other arts we can offer back to God what he’s given us—his image.

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