The bible tells us to sing, repeatedly. Across both Testaments, at home and in exile, before and after Jesus, to God and to one another.
I mean, why sing rather than, for instance, reading the bible out loud, in chorus? We do that sometimes, and it works.
If we are serving each other by reminding each other of God’s Word, and if we are adoring God by rehearsing his acts and promises together, before him, why can’t we do that with speech, merely?
What does music have to do with it?
Let’s start at the most utilitarian level: music makes truth memorable. Last night I sang in church, ‘Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord.’ It’s not exactly a newbie, but it has burned its way into my mind over the years, and is the easiest way I know of remembering Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
But that really is utilitarian. Is there anything more? I mean, if the goal was to be memorable – merely – we could say ‘Tell out my soul’ together couldn’t we?
I think there are four very good reasons, but because of our fallenness, each carries a potential for danger. And there is a fifth, which is wonderful and carries no danger at all.
1. Singing aligns truth with beauty. This is the opposite of utilitarian: beauty is a creation good, and music is, usually, beautiful. Singing, then, help us to appreciate the glory of the truth we’re singing. I don’t particularly like the tune we used last night (it was the one that begins with the silent thump: ‘Pause- Tell out my soul’), but the way each verse ends, on a rising scale, does point us upwards.
The danger of course this in our heart’s corruption we mistake beauty for truth. I remember last summer sitting in a glorious performance of Verdi’s Requiem – and large parts of it were, to my mind, theologically muddled. We must keep our eyes on the words.
2. Singing aligns truth with togetherness. We sing, whether to God or to another, as one. There is power in realising that Im not the only Christian who believes this stuff.
The danger, therefore, is when the togetherness becomes the togetherness of the football terrace: powerful, unified, deep, but actually around something which is not the gospel. I have been in church services like that, and I have had to stop singing, because I know that there are people in the room with whom I most profoundly disagree, and no amount of song should cover that up or claim priority.
3. Singing aligns truth with variety. Some songs and hymns are structured with splits between, say men and women, others allow us to move around and add an improvised line of our own. Sometimes we are actually encouraged to create that harmony, and find beauty in it – I’ve recently discovered Andrew Peterson’s astonishing song, Is he Worthy?’, and I love the richness and simplicity of the congregational echo.
Even better, when we have cultural variety as well. I can’t sing quarter tones, but I love hearing Indian Christians use them.
All of the above on truth, still applies.
But it’s the fourth reason which explains why it’s not hard to find pastors who are uneasy about music.
4. Singing aligns truth with emotion. That is, it manipulates us.
Oh. It’s inherently manipulative.
Well, of course it is. Why else do lovers sing, and armies have bands, and football crowds chant, and festival goers raise their hands and stomp to ‘We will rock you’?
Music is created to be affective. And if it’s any good, it is.
There’s an older hymn that’s started to be sung again recently, with the lovely line, “Tune my heart to sing thy grace.” Exactly. The music is there to make sure our intellect and our emotions are biblically aligned, and that we are attentive, or thankful, or rejoicing, or confessing, or whatever, with our full being.
But… I know that a faster beat gets people more excited, and a key change can cause a catch in the breath. Is that wrong? Necessarily wrong?
A particular kind of Christian is distrustful of emotion (usually described as ‘emotionalism’), and maybe because of education, or background, or personality, we prefer to be happy on the inside, and not to show it. Perhaps we are wary – rightly so – that a tool that can make truth memorable can equally make heresy memorable.
Some of us have had experience of younger Christians being fooled by goose-bumps. Some of us have had goose-bumps of our own.
But, it is an odd view of fallenness that our emotions are inherently more fallen than our minds, and inherently less to be attended to. Now don’t mishear: we are all fallen, and the only way of salvation is to hear and respond to the gospel, verbally explained and rationally understood. Of course. But God intends that gospel to have a rippling effect to the rest of life: it affects my relationships, my pleasures, my hopes and my fears. My rational understanding disciples parts of me that are not rationally accessible.
So with emotions. It cannot be that emotions are in themselves an expression of fallenness. Yes, they express fallenness, as does my hand when it steals or my eye when it looks lustfully. But they are all an aspect of createdness, and therefore part of the redemption/discipleship cycle. So it is right to disciple my emotions. And that means encouraging them to be fully obedient.
Let me be English for a moment – it’s a class issue, isn’t it? Showing emotion takes you down the social register, stiff upper lip takes you up. Ramrod-straight singing hymns is posh, full abandonment in praise is scruffy. Not the done thing. ‘Lost in wonder, love and praise’? I don’t think so. Not unless I can maintain some detachment from that at the same time. Maybe my mouth sings, but my eyes are running over my sermon notes.
Theologically, I’m dipping my pen in the heady ink of Jonathan Edwards, John Piper and Thomas Weinandy here: when we say that God is ‘impassible’, that doesn’t mean he has no feelings or is inert. It would be very odd to think of God’s joy being an abstract, ‘joyless joy’, or his love as a ‘loveless love’. That’s weird. God has a rich, infinitely rich, emotional life, which in his love he shares with us and longs for us to grow in, because it makes us like him.
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17).
Sing. Because it makes you Christ-like.