Beauty in Music for Worship

The monthly music column.

Professor of Organ and Theory La Sierra College California

"Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering and come before him: worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (1 Chron. 16:29).

A careful study of the directions for the building of the sanctuary and the Temple of Solomon will show that the element of beauty was found in the worship of God. Some Christians place great em­phasis upon truth, the correctness of the doctrines, and goodness—the righteousness that comes from living ac­cording to the moral law. But very little is sometimes said about beauty, the pleas­ant appeal to the senses that comes through the arts of music, poetry, painting, and ar­chitecture as well as through nature.

Because great importance is placed on the life of the spirit, and rightly so, some Christians come to suspect anything that has to do with the life of the flesh. The apostle Paul warns decidedly against the temptations of the flesh, the lusts of the flesh, and the evils of the carnal mind. In the history of the church this has meant to some the ruling out of the arts from the service of God, especially the arts of music and architecture. While music and poetry have been associated with religious worship through the years, the type of musical expression has sometimes been of a low quality, and the church still has much doggerel in verse in the hymnal.

Confused thinking and prejudice can ac­count for this attitude. Some think that goodness is equivalent to beauty, or that beauty, truth, and goodness are always syn­onymous. In the regenerated new earth such a condition might prevail, but the presence of evil in this world causes no end of perplexity. There is confusion in all three areas of beauty, truth, and good­ness, so that it takes careful and critical thinking to arrive at right conclusions. A pagan ritual may be beautiful but not good. A book may have a good moral lesson but at the same time not be beauti­fully written. Again a painting may be a beautiful work of art and not be true to historical fact.

This need not perplex us if we remem­ber that Lucifer is described as "perfect in beauty," and yet he can by no means be considered as perfect in either goodness or truth. In fact, he is called the father of lies.

Some Christians who have not made a careful study of the arts are in danger of setting up their own tastes or likes as the standard as to what is beautiful in music or painting or any of the other arts. Here again, one must recognize his limitations. A deep spiritual experience does not qual­ify one to design a church building in the best of taste. Spirituality does not give one equal skill in matters of beauty in architecture. The same might be said for music. A pious Christian does not have some unique power to determine beauty in music unless he makes a careful study in the area of music. He may know what pleases him and what he likes, but this is not equivalent to valid criticism as to musi­cal values. So also the person skilled in logic and reasoning so that he can detect truth in science is not qualified by this fact to know musical values.

The ministry receives considerable train­ing in the Bible and kindred subjects so that they are able to speak authoritatively on matters of Christian living and the doc­trines of the church. Their field is religious truth and goodness. Often they neglect to make a study of the field of the arts, so that their choice of literature and music is some­times not too reliable. It reflects their per­sonal taste and not a critical judgment.

This may explain why the church does not use more effectively the fine arts in the act of worship. The music of the church in particular could be effectively improved if the ministry and the laity were more sensi­tive to the values of beauty in music. Much of the instrumental and vocal music used in our churches and much of the congre­gational music represents too low a level. The sentiment expressed in the words may be true, and the congregation may en­joy it and say it pleases them. But these are not criteria for the judgment of artistic worth in sacred music.

In addition to being true and pleasing, great religious music has artistic qualities of unity and variety, balance and propor­tion, harmony and rhythm, restraint and a sense of the inevitable, that sets it high above the commonplace. Too much of this great music is being neglected by our churches in favor of trivial and sentimental music of little enduring value.

Much of the music of Bach, for exam­ple, should be used by our churches be­cause it is so much more meaningful, pro­found, dignified, and filled with religious emotion than less worthy music. The use of good religious music is justified because this music really is better and means more than inferior music. A congregation that honestly puts forth the effort to get ac­customed to this music will always prefer it to any other.

This is true also of hymns. Hymns such as "Before Jehovah's Awful Throne," "Now Thank We All Our God," and "0 God, Our Help in Ages Past," all have such tremendous meaning and perfection in both words and music that these hymns come to mean much to the worshiper. The average gospel song cannot compare in value with these great hymns.

We do not arrive at truth or goodness without considerable effort and a long pe­riod of training. It takes effort to rise above the level of the average. It also takes effort and time to climb the heights where beauty is found. We are not born with a taste for the best in music. This must be cultivated by hard work. But it is worth the effort. The church should seek to raise its level of appreciation of the beautiful as it has done in matters of truth and goodness.

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Professor of Organ and Theory La Sierra College California

January 1964

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