Ramblings on Music and Worship

Some of you may be coming here from Gavin Rumney’s blog.  Gavin referred to my recent write-up about the Book of Mormon.  You can read my post about the Book of Mormon here.

Now for my church write-up!  I attend church every Sunday, and, each week, I write a post about something that I got out of the service.

Warning: scattered ramblings ahead!

At church last week, the pastor in his sermon was talking about how he and his wife were watching The Voice on TV.  On that show, a woman was singing on stage, and the people in the audience were waving their hands.  Some were closing their eyes and enjoying the music.  That reminded the pastor of church.

The pastor was drawing some conclusions from this.  One question he asked was why people cannot be as excited about God, as they are about a singer who does not even know them!  The pastor made clear that he does not want us to wave our hands in worship just to please him, but he asked us to consider his question.

That got me thinking about music.  Here are some thoughts:

A.  I do not think that The Voice was counterfeiting the church.  Rather, I think that music is a powerful force, and that is why it has been incorporated into worship throughout history.

This is not an absolute statement, for some biblical scholars have noticed that there is no reference to musical accompaniment in the priestly sections of the Torah.  Biblical scholar Israel Knohl wrote a book entitled The Sanctuary of Silence.  I say in my post here, as I interact with Knohl’s book: “For Knohl, the priest’s ideal was for people to be silent before a majestic God.  Knohl cites Psalm 65:2: to you (God), silence is praise.”

But there is a lot in the Bible about praising God with music!  To quote Psalm 150:4: “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs” (Psalm 150).  King David in I Chronicles 25 is credited with establishing Temple musicians, but the Bible depicts music in worship before then: in Exodus 15, the Israelites sing after their Egyptian adversaries are thrown into the sea, and Moses’ sister Miriam plays the timbrel.

Music is a way for people to express their happiness and their longings.  The church uses music so that people can express their happiness and longings towards God, in the context of worship.

B.  The Church of Christ does not include musical instruments in its worship.  The people sing at Church of Christ services, but without accompaniment by musical instruments.  There were church fathers and Christian thinkers who were likewise critical of using musical instruments in worship.  See here for some passages that are critical of musical instruments, but also here for patristic passages that are more supportive of them.

A criticism that some Christians have employed against using musical instruments in worship is that instruments appeal to the flesh.  Their argument is that Old Testament religion was very physical and thus incorporated musical accompaniment to appeal to worshipers, whereas New Testament religion is supposed to be spiritual.  Yet, even those who use this argument seem to acknowledge a place for music in worship, so long as it is sung vocally.  Ephesians 5:19, after all, encourages “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (KJV).

Personally, I do not see what the big deal is when it comes to using musical instruments in worship.  If we are allowed to enhance or manifest our appreciation of God with singing, why not add instrumental accompaniment to the mix?  And is it so wrong to appeal to the physical senses in worship?  Nowadays, many Christian thinkers are rejecting the anti-physical, ultra-spiritual orientation that has characterized elements of Christianity throughout history, noting that God loves God’s physical creation and plans to renew it and dwell in it.

C.  A while back, I was reading Dan Barker’s deconversion testimony.  I cannot find what exactly I read, but here is wikipedia’s page about Dan Barker, in case you want to know more about him.  Essentially, Dan Barker was an evangelical musician who became an atheist.  And my understanding is that there was a season in which he was still singing Christian music, even though he was no longer a believer.

When Dan came out as an atheist, many of his Christian friends and acquaintances were shocked.  One friend asked Dan how Dan made such beautiful, heart-felt music, without believing a word that he was singing.  Dan replied that it was the music that was making him happy, not the words to the songs.

I can somewhat identify with this.  One of the things that I especially like about the church that I attend is its music.  The church is an African-American church, but there are people of other ethnicities and races who attend, as well.  The music is a force of nature!  And, in contrast to some of the other churches that I have visited, the congregation at this church actively participates in the singing: they clap, they wave their hands.  I have visited other churches, and I often feel unsatisfied with the music at these places: perhaps I want to hear more, or I wish that I could display enthusiasm without being looked upon as a nut.  At the church that I am currently attending, I feel fed by the music, and I leave the services feeling full.

But here is a question: am I excited by the music, or by the God towards whom that music is directed?  I cannot deny that I love the music.  I like to clap my hands and sing and bop my head, even when there are times that I am not sure what I believe or feel about God.  I don’t think that is horrible.  I just hope to feel good about God, too.

Whether I display that sort of enthusiasm at secular concerts or when I am listening to secular music, that is a good question.  I suppose that it depends on whether I like the music!  I one time attended a secular concert and I did not care for the music.  But I will say this: I do like art that actually makes a valuable or an edifying point, and that is one reason that I tend to gravitate towards worship music, or Christian music.  I still enjoy the secular stuff, but its lyrics do not edify me that much.  If I were to go to church, and the music there lacked any reference to God, I would be disappointed.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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