In a March 1956 letter to Mrs. R.E. Halvorson, Lewis writes:
“I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so. When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural. That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better). So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same – do they make one more obedient, more God-centered, and neighbour-centered and less self-centered? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!”
I’ve been pondering Lewis’s words for a few weeks. I’ve been pondering the subject of music, in the above context, for a few years. As a young follower of Jesus I loved the music and lyrics of hymns. Then I came to love “Gospel” music. Then came what was then known as “Contemporary Christian” music – and I loved that too. Then came “Praise and Worship” music and I loved that. Since then I haven’t been able to keep up with, nor have I tried, with the Christian music “scene”, for I suppose it is a “scene” in the popular sense of the word. I don’t listen to “Christian” radio for a number of reasons, one reason is that popular Christian music can be more cacophony to me than anything else – but I do still love music, and I especially love music that proclaims the Gospel and exalts the Trinity.
There is faulty theology surrounding music. One area of faulty thinking is associated with the term, “Praise and Worship Music”, and another is contained in the idea that musicians and singers function as a type of singing Levitical ministry which is called to lead God’s people into His presence.
How many times have I heard someone say, “Now we’ll enter into worship as our praise team comes to lead us”, or the equivalent? It is as if all that transpired up until that time on a Sunday morning was something less than worship. There has been Scripture reading, prayer, financial giving, and announcements having to do with church life – none of these seem to constitute worship. It is only when the music starts and the songs begin that we have “worship” and that we enter into the presence of God. I see music advertised as bringing the presence of God to the listener – whether in a car, a home, or on a picnic. Just pop the CD or DVD into the player and Wham-O!!! The Presence of God arrives via electronics. Why didn’t Jesus wait until the 21st Century and simply send a DVD to us?
If we take the language that is used surrounding Praise & Worship music to its logical conclusion we end up in the absurd; not to mention far afield from the Bible.
Often those who raise such issues and questions are accused of being anti-emotion or anti-feeling or even anti-Holy Spirit. But I write as one who loves to play a tambourine, who has danced in worship, who knows how to give a good shout, and who is pretty comfortable in boisterous cultural settings; but I see a difference between the cultural expression of music, which is organic, and expressions that may be propelled by attempts to generate church growth, play on emotions, make people feel good, and take center stage from the Biblical Gospel. Music (or anything else) must not be a substitute for obedience to Jesus Christ and growth in Him.
And so I ask myself, “Where is the substance in the lives of those who are enthralled by popular Christian music? Is the emotion a reflection of spiritual substance or is it simply a reflection of singing lyrics that are attractive and engaging in music that is appealing?”
(I am compelled to include this parenthetical paragraph. I write as one who has experienced the “presence” of Christian music in his life without having a life of much spiritual substance. I am also aware that what I’m writing about popular Christian music can be said in some times and some places about other genres of Christian music – or at least about attitudes that some hold toward other genres of Christian music. Folks who love hymns and/or classical Christian music but who belittle choruses might be uncomfortable in a Throne Room in which Holy, Holy, Holy is sung day and night.)
Now I don’t for one minute think that I have an answer to my question about “substance”. But I do think this is something worth wrestling with. And again, I love music, and I love Christian music and lyrics that have been composed during my lifetime – from choruses to cantatas to hymns to Gospel songs.
As to the idea that musical teams in church are the equivalent of musical Levites, I have a hard Biblical time with that idea. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we all have unhindered access to the Holy of Holies through Jesus Christ, and we all constitute (in Christ) a holy priesthood. We no more need musical mediators than we need clergy mediators. This is not to say that Christians ought not to use their musical and lyrical gifts for the edification of the Body of Christ, but it is to say that we should strive to be clear about what we do and why we do it.
I have experienced some of the most beautiful expressions of song and music in small groups, small churches, and among folks who were not first-rate musicians or singers; just as I have experienced beautiful expressions in larger settings.
It can be easy to mistake emotion for spirituality and the presence of God; it can be especially easy to mistake the emotion evoked by music for the presence of God and spirituality. Is it possible to be reflective regarding emotion? Is it possible to be reflective regarding the emotion evoked by music? Is it possible to consider that unless the musical experience translates into obedience to Jesus Christ that perhaps we mistake the musical experience for more than it actually is?
How can we explain the disconnect between a professing church so into music and yet which lacks a distinctive obedient witness to Christ in its generation? As said above, I don’t have the answers but I think we should ask the questions.