Integration Questions for the Disiplince of Music
Dr. Paul Munson, Assistant Professor of Music
Mine is not one of those disciplines in which people have difficulty imagining that there might be distinctively Christian perspectives and practices brought to bear. Although some may balk at the idea of a Christian approach to math or grammar or chemistry, everyone knows about "Christian music." And nobody is surprised when Christians have something "Christian" to say about the latest trend in feminist criticism, or about the influence of popular culture, or about the worship wars. Less widely acknowledged is that there might be distinctively Christian presuppositions that ought to undergird a Christian approach to such big issues relating art to culture and life.
Ontological questions. What is art? Why is it that human beings at all times, in all cultures, have sung songs, drawn pictures, and told tales? To what ends have we done so? What is it that we can do in art that we cannot do in more direct kinds of human communication? And what does this tell us about human nature? It seems appropriate for Christians to think about human imagination in terms of the imago Dei and the cultural mandate. We are made in the image of the creator and sustainer of all things (Gen 1:27). We are made to glorify him by filling the earth and by exercising dominion over it, by tilling and keeping the garden, by naming every living creature (Gen. 1:28, 2:15, 2:19)—in short, we are made to create culture, what J. R. R. Tolkien called "sub-creation." Art is a necessary part of culture because we, as creatures with one foot in the spatio-temporal realm and one foot out of it (Eccl 3:11), need to be able to communicate to one another and to God in forms that embrace the messiness and uncontainability of meaning. Hence the children of God make tabernacles and psalms, parables and the dance. And in so doing we communicate. Anyone who believes the Bible knows that communication is possible. Our God is a God who speaks, and he made us capable of listening. Human beings have the capacity to reach out to one another. Communication is not merely a form of coercion. At a Christian university students should expect to study something nobler than HBO’s Sex and the City or Eminem. And when they study Beethoven and Cézanne, it will not be merely for the sake of understanding the power structures of culture, it will be because a Christian teacher genuinely believes these artists have something to say to the students, and that they will be richer for having listened.
Aesthetic questions. How do we decide which songs to sing (or play or hear)? And how should we sing (or play or hear) them? Does it matter? Christians today tend to agree with the postmodern world’s truism that beauty is "in the eye of the beholder"—a matter of personal taste that cannot be accounted for—or whatever we are culturally conditioned to think of as beautiful. But we have not always thought this way. Both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, for example, held that beauty is objective. Beauty, they said, was the form of things that enables us to recognize goodness and truth. We make a big deal of the fact that God called what he created "good." But we forget that he said this in response to seeing it. The consensus of Christian orthodoxy holds that God made everything perfectly beautiful in its own way, to imitate his own divine beauty. It is our sin that introduced ugliness to the world and that blinds us to the beauty all around us. And if God made everything beautifully—indeed, if he is beautiful—then there is an objective measure for beauty, and we can think critically about it. But it requires discernment and discipline. The reason individuals and cultures differ in their notions of beauty is not that its essence is up for grabs but that no finite, fallen mind can comprehend it in its fullness.
Ethical questions. Does the work of art have an ethos? Is there a sense in which we are morally responsible for the songs we sing (or play or hear) and the way we sing (or play or hear) them? Christians tend to know that the content of art can have moral implications. I argue that its form does as well. If beauty and goodness have anything to do with each other, then the form of art can shape our character (1 Sam 16:23), and we are called to imagine forms competent to bear the weight of glory. On the other hand, though beauty and goodness be inseparable, they are not the same thing. The historical Christian understanding of beauty is not aestheticist. It is not a sin to be tacky; although it might be, if ugly worship and stammering proclamation are the products of laziness or poor stewardship.