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On Being Alive to the Arts and Religion: Music

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Of all the arts, music is the most available and the most universal. It springs out of the very speech and soul of a person or a community. It uses the most universal instrument, the human voice, and sounds created by earthy things like catgut and skin and wood and brass. Its tenderness and its profundity begin with the songs for infants sung by parents, and its power is manifested in the chants of priests of all cults and sects incanting prayers for the benefits of the gods.

The ancient Greeks understood music as something related to tie very structure of the universe. The "music of the spheres" was literally thought to be the sounds that were created when the concentric spheres of the universe rubbed against each other, and the music thus created was thought to be almost unbearable in its beauty and purity. Plato commented on this in The Republic, and the idea is perpetuated in the popular Christian hymn, "This Is My Father's World," in the stanza, "All nature sings and around me rings/The music of the spheres." As far as we can tell, music has always been an important element in religion, and for basic reasons such as this sense of its cosmic authority.

But what is religious music? We have the same problem here that we have when we try to understand the relationship of religion to any art form. Is there something that makes an art form, religious? As Paul Tillich used to suggest, a work of art may have religious content or subject matter and be quite irreligious in its form. Or the reverse may be true. A work of art may have no apparent formal religious content, but its style may be unmistakably religious. So we are forced to deal with the impact and force of what is, rather than with a preconception of what ought to be, in describing religious music.

It is clear that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is religious music of extraordinary power. Bach (1685-1750) was a deeply pious person, informed by Lutheran theology, and professionally involved in the production of weekly church services based on the lectionary of the church year. His integration of text and music is as perfect as one can imagine. To those who love Bach, all religious experience ultimately is mediated by his genius. Alec Robertson once said, "To sing the chorales of Bach is for the disbeliever to experience the suspension of disbelief." I remember a fellow college student who was converted to Christianity during the singing of the St. Matthew Passion in the college glee club. It is ironic that Bach's music, so completely biblical and evangelical, is now performed in secular environments such as concert halls. It is evidence of the fact that God is not left without a witness in the world even if the church itself has turned to another evangelistic agenda and style.

Most of us today are primarily aware of the hymn as the dominant form of music in religious life. But this has not always been so. As a matter of fact, the hymn as we know it is a fairly recent element in piety and worship in the church. While it was prominent in German pietism in the post-Reformation period, and was particularly important in the Calvinist Reformation (where Psalm texts dominated), the modern hymn book is heavily influenced by the 19th-century tradition of the English hymn. There were earlier forms of congregational singing. We know, for example, that there were hymns and spiritual songs in the biblical church, and later, the rich traditions of chanting and polyphony developed. But the phenomenon of the rather exclusive use of the hymn book is a recent development.

The hymn book has tended to be an official collection of all right religious songs. Like the New Testament, it has something of the authority of a canon, a collection of acceptable writings.

But, alongside the hymn book, there is an important movement of more popular religious songs, echoing the musical styles and themes of the present, and not the metaphors and rhythms of an earlier century. Some church musicians are attempting to open up the church to these more contemporary sounds and songs. They sense that the church is the place where the fresh air of religious experimentation and vitality ought to be present, alongside the more acceptable and more traditional. Since much traditional hymnody is based upon paraphrases of great biblical texts, the power of those hymns is somewhat lost on a generation that is unfamiliar with those texts. But the symbols of power and human aspiration that move our society today may be available for religious music, especially for the young. In the troubled sixties, some powerful folk songs emerged into the religious vocabulary of church music. The great song of protest, "We Shall Overcome," is now well established as a powerful religious statement. Others you may remember include "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," "Gentle : On My Mind," and "Suzanne." It was in this period that some fine old evangelical songs caught the imagination of young persons: "Amazing Grace" and "Ain't Goin' to Study War No More." The black gospel style of music represents new vitality that is seeking a place in the life of worship of the church.

Being alive to music in the church means being willing to risk change. But we are cautious about changing our comfortable ways of understanding life. While we may have an intellectual grasp of the gospel, we may have an emotional problem about allowing its style to overcome our comfortable prejudices. We know what religious art is, what religious music is, what religious architecture is. But our problem is simply this: What we deem religious is our taste or our historically conditioned understanding. To stand exclusively on that understanding is to deprive ourselves of a whole new world of religious experience.

Tradition in religion is a formidable force. One recalls the fact that when Beethoven's First Symphony was first performed, a Vienna critic wrote imperiously, "This will never do!" Today Beethoven is still vital and fresh, but also familiar. Our critical problem is similar. Can we be open to the new, the vital, the fresh in music, and let it have a chance to become the familiar?

If we were to take an imaginary tour through church history and visit pious worshiping communities all the way back to the New Testament times, the overwhelming impression we would have would be the awareness of the incredible diversity and infinite variety of styles and customs. Because religion has to do with ultimate and basic issues—life, death, hope, love, community, family, and God—religion's language and symbols tend to be unshakable and timeless. But these issues are also issues of extraordinary vitality. They do not change, but our ways of perceiving and talking about them change. The theology and arts of the church are the changing speech about unchanging issues. For that speech to be useful for evangelism and outreach, it must somehow share in and appropriate the art forms of the culture in which it finds itself. So we celebrate the diversity and complexity of church life through the arts even as we celebrate its unity in diversity by keeping our attention fixed on our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Being alive to music in religion is one of the most important elements of a sensitive Christian experience. Because musical experience is so available to us in our culture, we ought to have a wider and more rich encounter with music than we now have. What can you and your church do to invite this power into your experience?


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