Music has always been a matter of contention in the church. We’ve been talking about that with regard to current “worship wars” and “revolutions” in church music. That is NOT what this post is about.
No, I want us to think about another conflict with regard to music in the church, one about which I hear little. It is the conflict within the individual about what music does to him or her and whether or not it is leading a person toward or away from God. Somehow this discussion has gotten lost as we’ve been preoccupied with the other battles.
Oh sure, there are those voices out there that rail against certain styles of music, warning Christians that we are opening the door to the devil if we listen to music with a backbeat. But rarely do we hear people ask the question, “Is my relationship with music itself good for me?”
What does music do to us? for us? Is there any way in which it acts against our best interests when it comes to our spiritual formation and relationship with God?
Music was not always as ubiquitous as it is now. Music is with us today from morning until night, a constant soundtrack, either in the background or accessed by us through a plethora of media devices. It is all music all the time, and this is made possible by our technology. Many have commented on the loss of silence in our modern lives. There is a steady background noise even when we don’t facilitate it and beyond that, a seeming commitment to constant sonic stimulation that has even infiltrated and taken over our approach to Christian devotion and worship.
St. Augustine (AD 354-430) long ago, in a much quieter age, pondered the place of music in his life. In his classic Confessions, he meditates on “the delights of the ear” as he considers the various “lusts of the flesh” and how he deals with them. I would like us to read this passage today and discuss our responses to it.
Book 10, chapter 33
I used to be much more fascinated by the pleasures of sound than the pleasures of smell. I was enthralled by them, but you broke my bonds and set me free. I admit that I still find some enjoyment in the music of hymns, which are alive with your praises, when I hear them sung by well-trained melodious voices. But I do not enjoy it so much that I cannot tear myself away. I can leave it when I wish. But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music, which is the setting for the words which give it life, I must allow it a position of some honor in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honor than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two. But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralysed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place. Simply because I allow them their due, as adjuncts to reason, they attempt to take precedence and forge ahead of it, with the result that I sometimes sin in this way but am not aware of it until later.
Sometimes, too, from over-anxiety to avoid this particular trap I make the mistake of being too strict. When this happens, I have no wish but to exclude from my ears, and from the ears of the Church as well, all the melody of those lovely chants to which the Psalms of David are habitually sung; and it seems safer to me to follow the precepts which I remember often having heard ascribed to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who used to oblige the lectors to recite the psalms with such slight modulation of the voice that they seemed to be speaking rather than chanting. But when I remember the tears that I shed on hearing the songs of the Church in the early days, soon after I had recovered my faith, and when I realize that nowadays it is not the singing that moves me but the meaning of the words when they are sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune, I again acknowledge the great value of this practice. So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.
This, then is my present state. Let those of my readers whose hearts are filled with charity, from which good actions spring, weep with me and weep for me. Those who feel no charity in themselves will not be moved with my words. But I beg you, O Lord my God, to look upon me and listen to me. Have pity on me and heal me, for you see that I have become a problem to myself, and this is the ailment from which I suffer.
â€¢ from Saint Augustine, Confessions, trs. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, 1961) 238-239.
To summarize, in this confession Augustine says:
- He once enjoyed music so much that it might be said he was beguiled by the beauty of music, almost addicted to it.
- God set him free from that, however, he continues to enjoy music, especially hymns because these texts, mixed with music, increase his devotion.
- Nevertheless, as a Christian, he finds it hard to find the “proper place” for music in his life.
- He recognizes that it helps him have greater devotion when God’s words are sung, but he also recognizes that certain forms of music simply stir him up emotionally and “gratify his senses.”
- He also recognizes the tendency, on the other hand, to overreact to that and to be overly strict with himself, denying himself the pleasures of music.
- He concludes that there is a legitimate place for music in the church and expresses his longing to always delight more in the truth that the music conveys than in the mere stimulation which music itself gives him.
Is he just being too, well, Augustinian? too introspective? overly scrupulous and too strict with himself? too worried about “the pleasures of the flesh” and not recognizing a proper place for true enjoyment of sensuous (in this case musical) pleasures? Is he over-thinking this? being too prudish?
Or is he right to maintain some caution with regard to music? Is it recommended for us to likewise evaluate what a sensuous experience like music does to us, our spiritual formation, and our relationship with God? Are Augustine’s thoughts here an example of how the Spirit guides and trains us to use our freedom wisely?
Finally, how do Augustine’s thoughts apply (or not apply) in our ongoing discussion of worship music in today’s church?