Toward a More Beautiful Music

Over the summer, I was blown away when I listened to Ken Myers’s Epiphany Lectures at New St. Andrews College. (Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve been blown away by Ken Myers lectures. Both times, I wasn’t sure I’d be interested in the subject, but once I heard the lectures they significantly changed the way I think about the world. The first time I heard him speak was when he gave a lecture at the Torrey Honors Institute in which he turned me onto CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book which is easily one of the most influential in my system of thinking.) In these lectures, entitled “Ears to Hear: The Possibilities of Musical Meaning,” Myers lays out the beginnings of an argument for recovering a view of music as objectively good, true, and beautiful. Music has meaning and reflects the world more or less accurately depending on the quality of the music. That is to say, there is such a thing as good music, independent of cultural norms and personal preference. (To be sure, culture and personal preference play an important role in our interaction with music, but they are not the ultimate arbiters of what is good music.) Learning to discern good music from bad is a skill, and it takes training and practice. This is a view which has largely been abandoned in our culture, but it is a biblical view and one which would work wonders for the life of the church if it were recovered by Christians on a large scale. While Myers’s lectures are not exclusively concerned with church music and music in worship, the argument has direct implications for those subjects. The music with which we worship God should be music which is objectively good, true, and beautiful. Sadly, this is not the case in many instances of musical worship today.

Now, what I am going to say is likely to make people angry, so I will try to be as clear as possible in order to avoid unnecessarily stepping on anyone’s toes. I am not saying that contemporary worship music is comprehensively bad. I am not saying that worship experiences including contemporary worship music are invalid, inauthentic, incomplete, or deficient. I am not questioning the motives or intentions of the writers, performers, leaders, or singers of contemporary worship music. I do not doubt that many people worship God with contemporary worship songs, and I do not want to take anything away from their experiences. In fact, I do not have anything against contemporary worship music in as much as it is contemporary. There is a lot of contemporary worship music which is very good. I would much prefer a good contemporary song to a mediocre traditional song. However, I would argue that there is a fair amount of contemporary worship music which is “trite and superficial,” to quote Douglas Wilson in this Credenda/Agenda exchange with Jeffrey Ventrella.

Let me reiterate: in making this claim, I am not trying to invalidate or disparage anyone’s worship experiences, even if those experiences include music which I would consider trite and superficial. This is an objective critique of music, something which is public and corporate, not of anyone’s personal intentions or experiences. Establishing my claim that there is a lot of trite and superficial contemporary worship music is a project which I will not attempt at this time. I believe it could be established, but doing so would require extensive work to recover, develop, and apply the view of music argued for by Myers in the lectures cited above. This is important work which needs to be done, but more important than establishing the fact that there is bad music out there is establishing the fact that there is such a thing as good and bad music. Further, it is more important to work toward the creation of good music and the cultivation of musical ability and discernment in the church than it is to ruminate on how bad some contemporary music is. It is my prayer that we will see a new blossoming of beautiful music in the church. Soli Deo Gloria.

[What follows is a collection of methodological observations about the exchange between Wilson and Ventrella in the Credenda/Agenda article linked to above.]

Wilson is, I believe, making an argument similar to that which I made in the previous paragraph. He is keen to establish the fact that there is such a thing as good and bad music and to encourage us to advocate for good music to be used in worship. However, Ventrella insists on keeping the discussion aggressively technical and antagonistic, with the result that very little is actually said or accomplished in the discussion. He uncharitably exaggerates Wilson’s statements and focuses on details of what Wilson says to the exclusion of the larger point Wilson is trying to make. Wilson is trying to propose the need for a more fully-orbed biblical aesthetic to be developed. Ventrella says that Wilson’s argument has failed because Wilson has not already completed the project he is proposing. Ventrella neither tries to understand and clarify Wilson’s position nor proposes an alternative. Rather, Ventrella attacks aggressively, preventing the discussion from moving forward. The only point that Ventrella seems to be advocating is that Wilson is an incoherent deceiver trying to enforce his own preferences as absolutes. Ventrella’s style may be appropriate for the courtroom, but it is counterproductive for a charitable exchange between two Christian bothers trying to come to a fuller understanding of the truth.

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