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Music and the Soul

June 18th, 2008 | 6 min read

By Tex

We’re living in a time when there is a manifest crisis of worship in the church. It’s almost as if we’re in the midst of a rebellion among people who find church less than meaningful. They’re bored. They see the experience of Sunday morning as an exercise in irrelevance. As a reaction against that, it seems that almost any church we visit is experimenting with new forms and new patterns of worship. This experimentation has provoked many disputes over the nature of worship.” (R. C. Sproul. A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity.” Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2006: 13, 14)

The second symposium of the newly formed Alliance of Christian Musicians’ Northwest Chapter opened with this quote, and an invitation to explore issues of a possible crisis of worship among America’s Protestant and evangelical churches.

Much of today’s argumentation regarding worship music center around genre: the tired debate of hymns versus CCM-style “praise” music. Dr. Overman, retired professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound, threatened to overturn the accepted dichotomy by moving the discussion from form to anthropology and ontology. He argued that,

…what has happened, especially in the last 400 years and more in the 20th century, is that human beings have generally lost the perception that we live in a hierarchical universe. All of what were formerly called the “higher levels of reality” have been brought down to one level. The loss of the hierarchy, when applied to the psychology of the Christian, (a hierarchy of the Holy Spirit, one’s own spirit, the mind [thinking, feeling, will], and the body) has been pressed downwards so that human beings today do not first respond by asking questions about their spirit or thinking, but mostly always about their emotions and states of will. The worship wars can be traced fundamentally to the fact that people, when they come to church, have lost the sense that there is such a thing as an extraordinary state of being, extraordinary space, time or manner of speaking. Everything is reduced to the level of the ordinary...defined principally in terms of states of feeling and will.”

Most intriguing about Overman’s remarks is that, if correct, they could fundamentally shift the discussion from an argument of forms and preference to a discussion of what it means to be a Christian human being and, in light of such a shift, might unearth more useful ways to break the stalemate. While proponents of classical sacred music and hymns over and against CCM music generally attempt to ground their reflections in Scripture, they usually are heard as doing little more than elevating their supposedly “refined musical sense” over the more indigenous, folk, and popular musical traditions of a large number of evangelical Christians. The standard response is that there is no sense forcing one group’s preference over another’s—especially when such an enforcement has imperialistic overtones, real or imagined. This debate most usually ends in gridlock, with the CCM group happily singing their anthems, choruses, and pop music while the hymnodists retire with a disapproving sniff and resign themselves to the inevitable denigration of culture.

Raising the issue above mere preference, Overman argues that there has been a shift in the human psyche, a shift that explains the preferences of the contemporary Christian but also provides a meaningful ways for compassionate Christians—pastors, teachers, parents, friends—to love their brothers and sisters with the life-changing love of Jesus Christ. Christian love lifts man out of his quagmire of sin, selfishness, pride, and rebellion and creates within him a new heart that is attuned to the voice and activity of God and that responds in obedience, submission, and self-giving love. This love enables men to think of themselves as something other than a bundle of emotive states and corresponding impulses; it restores the dignity of being a spirit-and-flesh being in communion with God. Along with this new self-understanding comes a greater appreciation for the place that music has in the worship of God, both as an expression of a spiritual being and as a response to one’s Creator and father.

Rather than viewing worship as being an emotional expression, and limiting one’s self to emotive music devoid of intellectual and spiritual expressions, the Christian ought to respond to God with the totality of his being. We are exhorted, commanded really, to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), a commandment to love God with our entire being or self. When it comes to the music that we use to worship God, then, we must not first ask ourselves, “What kind of music do I like?” or even “Through what sort of music am I most able to communicate my heart’s love to God?” but rather, “What music best expresses the full heart of a complete human being to God?”

We must, of course, contend with the probable fact that most of us are incapable of using full expressions of the kind demanded by God, the kind offered with all of one’s soul and strength, because we have lost sight of just what sort of souls we have. Even if we recover this self-understanding, our strength may be ineffectual to support the praise and adoration that a complete human being might be able to give to God. Even so, starting with the question, “What does it mean to be human?” and then moving from this answer to explore the sorts of music most appropriate to human beings in communication with God is a far cry from the common complaint that certain forms of music don’t arouse our emotions as we like them to be aroused. The answer to this question might also leave everybody a bit surprised—the hymnodists as well as the hip members of your church praise and worship team.

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The Alliance of Christian Musicians' roundtable panel was comprised of a number of diligent and engaged local leaders in theology, music, and church worship including: Rev. John Day, Bellewood Presbyterian Church; Dr. Eric Hanson, Seattle Pacific University; Dr. Richard Overman, University of Puget Sound (retired professor of religion); and Mr. Joel Ulrich, Bellevue Christian School. Local names, to be sure, and probably not familiar to audiences outside of the region and the specific disciplines represented, it was nevertheless very exciting to listen to a group of men who care passionately about making theology relevant to church life and practice, and who care passionately about knowing God and making Him known.