Music and Religious Experience

The Seventh-day Adventist church is an evangelical church, believing that its prime objective is the proclaiming of the gospel in the world and the winning of souls to the kingdom of God. This means that our music should be evangelical in its objective. But evangelical suggests different meanings to various peo­ple. It is a word that embraces many kinds of missionary work and many kinds of mu­sic.

Professor of Music, la Sierra College

THE Seventh-day Adventist church is an evangelical church, believing that its prime objective is the proclaiming of the gospel in the world and the winning of souls to the kingdom of God. This is and should be the pur­pose of the church, and this spirit of evan­gelism should permeate every feature of our church services.

This means that our music should be evangelical in its objective. But evangelical suggests different meanings to various peo­ple. It is a word that embraces many kinds of missionary work and many kinds of mu­sic. We should recognize that evangelical is a broad term.

To some it means the extensive use of what is known as the "gospel song." This is a type of folk music, melodious and catchy, sometimes even sentimental and emotional to a large degree. It makes a quick appeal to the masses. To some it has a strong spir­itual appeal. Many workers find this music very effective in reaching people. Solos, duets, quartets, and other arrangements of gospel songs have a great appeal to many people.

An evangelist or a singer who knows this type of music and who finds it effective should use it to the best of his ability. And he may be able to bring a spiritual mes­sage to many through this medium.

But while this music has an extensive ap­peal, it is not acceptable to all people. Some of it, well liked by many, cannot even be considered as artistic or well-writ­ten music. The musical or artistic quality is often rather low. There are artistic or cultured people whose taste in music is such that they cannot recognize anything of value in this "gospel" music. To people of this training and culture, gospel music makes no "evangelistic" appeal, but rather repels them and causes them to associate "evangelism" with a low type of music.

While this class may not represent the majority of the population, there is an in­creasing number of people who appreciate a different type of religious music. They have learned great religious music in choral or­ganizations in secondary school and col­lege, and they will not accept "gospel mu­sic" as the standard for either evangelistic or church services. And they are finding in the popular churches an increasing em­phasis on better choral and congregational music. The recent hymnals of the Method­ists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Luther­ans, and Baptists reflect this emphasis upon the best hymns and tunes, and there is an absence of the once-familiar gospel song.

In view of this situation it would be wise for our evangelists to recognize that there are evangelical possibilities in the best hymns, the so-called church hymns, and in the finest sacred choral music. The appeal of this music may not reach everyone, but there are many who sincerely desire this type of sacred music.

Sometimes evangelism and emotionalism become closely associated in the minds of many. Too often popular evangelism does lay greater stress on emotional elements, and this is frequently felt in the music. To some the emotional drive of the gospel song is meaningful and effective. But we are warned not to make this the only means of evangelism:

"Let not your efforts be to follow the world's way but to follow God's way. Outward display will not do the work the Lord desires to have done to arouse the higher classes to a conviction that they have heard the truth. Do not divest the truth of its dignity and impressiveness by preliminaries that are more after the order of the world than after the order of heaven. Let your hearers understand that you do not hold Sunday evening meetings to charm their senses with music and other things, but to preach the truth in all its solemnity, that it may come to them as a warning, arousing them from their death­like sleep of self-indulgence. It is the naked truth that, like a sharp, two-edged sword, cuts both ways."—Evangelism, p. 148.

There is a danger that we confuse emo­tionalism and spiritual impressions. True emotion is needed and will accompany a true spiritual experience, but this is not to be confused with emotionalism, or an over­emphasis upon feelings and emotions. It is possible for certain types of music to con­tribute strongly to emotionalism.

Nor should we confuse artistic enjoy­ment, or what is sometimes called "an aes­thetic experience," with true spirituality and worship. Some have said that they get as much from the enjoyment of sacred music as they do from a sermon or reading the Bible. This is obviously a confusing of aesthetic enjoyment, or the thrill that comes from hearing beautiful music, with the true religious experience that is the unfolding of the heart to God and the submitting of our wills to His will. The two experiences should not be put on the same level.

It is possible for one to enjoy the best of sacred music and at the same time enter into a sincere spiritual experience of true worship and submission to God. But there are nonreligious individuals who are highly cultured and refined and who truly receive a tremendous artistic or aesthetic experi­ence from great religious music. It makes a strong appeal to their highly developed artistic natures. This is not the same as a religious experience. On the other hand, there are pious, spiritual individuals who love God deeply, yet who receive no artistic or spiritual enjoyment from great works of music. This does not mean that the music itself is of no value either spiritually or artistically. Then again, there are spiritual individuals who gain both spiritual and artistic ecstasy from the great masterpieces of religious music. Unfortunately, some have not understood these differences be­tween artistic or musical values and true spiritual experiences.

In our work as an evangelical denomi­nation we need to keep in mind the com­plexity of this matter and not confuse our thinking. We need to recognize the place for every type of musical expression. We need to remember that art and religion are not the same. The experience of conversion is not the same as an aesthetic experience. The appeal of music is not the same as the appeal of the Holy Spirit. Music is desir­able and helpful, but it should never dis­place the position of Christ or the Word of God. We need to be on the alert, that we shall not depend upon music to do the work in evangelism that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

We also need to be on our guard against a wrong attitude toward beauty and artistic music in our church services. In The Great Controversy, pages 566, 567, we have these statements concerning the services of the Catholic Church:

"Many Protestants suppose that the Cath­olic religion is unattractive, and that its worship is a dull, meaningless round of cere­mony. Here they mistake. While Romanism is based upon deception, it is not a coarse and clumsy imposture. The religious serv­ice of the Roman Church is a most im­pressive ceremonial. Its gorgeous display and solemn rites fascinate the senses of the people, and silence the voice of reason and of conscience. The eye is charmed. Magnifi­cent churches, imposing processions, golden altars, jeweled shrines, choice paintings, and exquisite sculpture appeal to the love of beauty. The ear also is captivated. The music is unsurpassed. The rich notes of the deep-toned organ, blending with the melody of many voices as it swells through the lofty domes and pillared aislesof her grand cathedrals, cannot fail to im­press the mind with awe and reverence.

"This outward splendor, pomp, and cer­emony, that only mocks the longings of the sin-sick soul, is an evidence of inward cor­ruption. The religion of Christ needs not such attractions to recommend it. In the light shining from the cross, true Christian­ity appears so pure and lovely that no ex­ternal decorations can enhance its true worth. It is the beauty of holiness, a meek and quiet spirit, which is of value with God.

"Brilliancy of style is not necessarily an index of pure, elevated thought. High con­ceptions of art, delicate refinement of taste, often exist in minds that are earthly and sensual. They are often employed by Satan to lead men to forget the necessities of the soul, to lose sight of the future, immortal life, to turn away from their infinite Helper, and to live for this world alone.

"A religion of externals is attractive to the unrenewed heart. The pomp and cere­mony of the Catholic worship has a seduc­tive, bewitching power, by which many are deceived; and they come to look upon the Roman Church as the very gate of heaven. None but those who have planted their feet firmly upon the foundation of truth, and whose hearts are renewed by the Spirit of God, are proof against her influence. Thousands who have not an experimental knowledge of Christ will be led to accept the forms of godliness without the power. Such a religion is just what the multitudes desire."

These paragraphs clearly set forth prin­ciples that will help us think straight as to the relation between the arts and religion. Good art and music are highly desirable provided they do not detract from true emphasis on Christ our Saviour. It is not the love of beauty and art and music that is wrong, but the neglect to point the soul to Christ.

The Puritans and some religious groups have felt that all art was inimical to the gospel, but this need not be so. God is a lover of the beautiful, and He may be served through the avenues of artistic beauty provided we remember the things of greatest importance—Jesus Christ and His gospel of salvation.

It is unfortunate that beauty in music and art are associated at times with barren­ness and emptiness in religion, and it is equally unfortunate that triviality in music and art are at times associated with warmth and meaning in religion. This is no argu­ment against striving to improve our tastes in music and art, nor is it a justi­fication for a continued use of unworthy material, when we are able to make im­provements. The evangelistic and spiritual power of the church cannot be hindered by forward steps in the arts and music as the servants of the church.


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Professor of Music, la Sierra College

September 1960

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