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There's Power in the Song

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By now, most people have at least heard of Susan Boyle, the unlikely vocal sensation who stole the show on the April 11th broadcast of Britain's Got Talent. If you haven't seen the YouTube clip of Susan's performance, you need to click here and watch it. Take note of the almost immediate change in the attitude of the audience once Susan begins to sing. This clip is on pace to be the most-watched video clip EVER on the internet. There is something purely magical about the whole scenario that clearly illustrates the power of music. Susan's song in the auditorium that night transcended everything else that might have been on people's minds. A thousand mockers and skeptics were instantly transformed into fans, and it made no difference that the majority of those people probably weren't even familiar with the song or the play from which it came. Susan Boyle became an instant celebrity and a roomful of strangers became a community because of one simple song.

It should come as no surprise to Christians that music is an integral part of God's created order. Thirty years ago, Douglas Hofstadter wrote his much celebrated book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, where he attempted to explain the symbiosis between math, art, and music in terms of patterns and sequences. In the Preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition of the book, Hofstadter writes this: "In a word, [this book] is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter." While Hofstadter was convinced that his quest for meaning would have a materialistic answer, he was never able to explain how or why these patterns emerge.

A natural and fundamental question to ask, on learning of these incredibly intricately interlocking pieces of software and hardware is: "How did they ever get started in the first place?" It is a truly baffling thing....For the moment, we will have to content ourselves with a sense of wonder and awe, rather than with an answer. And perhaps experiencing that sense of wonder and awe is more satisfying than having an answer—at least for a while. [1]

Hofstadter never seems to be bothered by the limits of his religious commitments and never even asks the question of why evolutionary materialism should even make "a sense of wonder and awe." If humans are just as much a product of the evolutionary process as are trees and rocks, why should anything in the material world inspire or impress us? How does a notion of transcendence arise in a purely materialistic world? Hofstadter never tells us because he doesn't have an answer—and never will. His materialism can only take him so far.

Music has been a part of the human experience from the very beginning. Early theologians likened the story of creation in Genesis to a song being sung by a Master Songwriter. Gregory of Nyssa described creation as "a wonderfully wrought hymn to the power of the Almighty: the order of the universe is a kind of musical harmony, richly and multifariously toned, guided by an inward rhythm and accord, pervaded by an essential 'symphony'; the melody and cadence of the cosmic elements in their intermingling sing of God's glory, as does the interrelation of motion and rest within created things; and in this sympathy of all things one with the other, music in its truest and most perfect form is bodied forth."[2] Song in Scripture is the language of celebration and deliverance for God's people. Moses, Miriam, and the sons of Israel sing after they cross the Red Sea; Moses teaches Israel a new song before his death and before they cross over the Jordan into the promised land; David writes Israel's history into song in his Psalms; Mary's Magnificat is a song of the covenantal faithfulness of God; Jesus sings with His disciples; Paul sings in chains; multitudes sing in the new heaven and earth. Is it any wonder that music is such an important component of the Christian worship service?

The image of cosmic music is an especially happy way of describing the analogy of creation to the trinitarian life. Creation is not, that is, a music that explicates some prior and undifferentiated content within the divine, nor the composite order that is, of necessity, imposed upon some intractable substrate so as to bring it into imperfect conformity with an ideal harmony; it is simply another expression or inflection of the music that eternally belongs to God, to the dance and difference, address and response, of the Trinity.[3]

In other words, true music is not an escape from the world, but a reflection of it. We do not impose order on otherwise random notes of sound, the sound flows from the Creator to His people. Music is a gift from a God, and a confirmation of His power and glory. We sing because God sings.

It is for this reason that we can begin to understand why music has such a powerful hold over us. As I watched the crowd leap to their feet after Susan Boyle began to sing, I was reminded of a scene from the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous. Crowe's movies are always powerful and memorable because he understands people. Somewhat autobiographical of Crowe himself, Almost Famous is the story of a young kid who gets a job as a reporter for Rolling Stone. The scene that most people remember from the movie is the one from the tour bus, when Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" is playing on the radio (click here to view the clip). Just as Susan Boyle moved people through her performance, Elton John's song is able to cut the tour bus tension. But unlike Boyle, where the audience is mostly passive, the tour bus is active, with everyone joining in on the song. It is nearly impossible to remain upset when a song is being shared. And this is the true power of music: bringing continuity out of discontinuity, encouraging community by discouraging individuality. Music is a tool of reconciliation invented by the Master Songwriter Himself.

There is a standard operating notion, when the subject is discussed, that classical music is the "high art" of the music world. We tend to easily dismiss the new in favor of the old, simply because it's new. While many churches are guilty of this belief, many others are also guilty of the opposite extreme: ignoring the old in favor of the new, simply because it is old. While it is beyond dispute that each individual in the Church has personal tastes and preferences that are unique to him, we must be acutely aware of these subjective inclinations when it comes to worshiping the triune God. How often have you heard someone say (or maybe even said it yourself!) that they "got nothing out of the church service." This simple declaration betrays a backwards understanding of why we gather together as a church body. If we get nothing out of a worship service, perhaps it was because we put nothing into it. Worship is not about us, it is about Him, and we must be constantly reminding ourselves of this basic fact. "Christianity is an embodied faith, not a mere collection of ideas and beliefs. While the gospel creates communities, its music helps knit those communities together.”[4] Singing together builds and strengthens a church community. A church that fails to sing together will seldom do anything else together.

We need to sing for the sake of a world that has the lost the ability even to dream that the Christian vision might be true. Disbelief today is not a function of logic; it stems from a loss of imagination. When a college student is told by her professor that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John cannot be read as literal truth anymore, it's not the supporting evidence he offers that does her in. Nobody has found Jesus's bones in a tomb. No scandalous news bulletin is "just in" on the apostles . It's the professor's imperious tone of voice—and the fact that when our student looks around the classroom she sees no hands raised in dissent. She doesn't know anybody whose life is governed by the Gospels. Her soul has been shaped entirely outside the reach of places or people of soulcraft, like churches or ministers. Arguably the chief icon-maker of her day, Walt Disney, taught her to "wish upon a star" but not to pray to a living God...The facts haven't changed. The things that make the Christian hope thinkable have changed.[5]

If the visible church isn't singing the Song of Jesus, who else will? If we won't allow the music to unite us, we will show ourselves as a divided body to the outside world. Christianity alone holds the keys to the Kingdom, but we weren't told to lock ourselves in the castle. Our song is our witness—our proclamation that the Father is still working, that Christ is still King, and the Spirit is alive and well—and that with God all things are possible.

Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1999 [1979]), 548.
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 275.
Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 276.
Reggie Kidd, With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in our Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 156.
5 Kidd, With One Voice, 22-23.

Article posted May 7, 2009

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