The Pursuit of Christian Excellence in Music

Today’s post, the first of my “fifth Friday” posts integrating my interests in music and theology, consists of more or less “recycled” material. The first version of this article was written in 2008, by which time I had firmly embraced Calvinism, was just beginning to encounter and understand other elements of the Reformed faith (particularly the confessions of faith), and was reading a lot of Francis Schaeffer, who I mentioned in last week’s post. In the midst of all of this, I decided to compose a short “position paper” of sorts, outlining how I thought the Christian musician should view and pursue his work.

Encouraged by one of the elders in the church we attended at the time, I decided to submit this article for publication. There are very few publications for which something like this would be appropriate, but during a period of over a year I submitted this to three different publications. One considered it, but the never published it and in fact that publication went out of existence shortly afterward. Another ignored it, and a third considered it, but informed me that it was “sound, but a bit too elementary.” At least they gave me an answer!

In the intervening years, I have come to agree with the editor that judged my work to be elementary. As I have  uncovered an increasing number of books dealing with this subject, books which are perhaps “off the beaten path” a bit and thus unknown to those not looking for them specifically, I have realized that this article offers nothing new. There is nothing here that has not been said before, and said better, by better writers. In a way, this is encouraging—I wrote the major substance of this article with nothing but a Bible and my own memories, experiences, and general musical knowledge. The discovery that I had arrived at more or less the same conclusions as did much more learned authors was actually quite gratifying.

I offer this article as this week’s post for two reasons. First, I said I would use the first posts on this blog to delineate the basic philosophical underpinnings of my thinking, and this article does just that. Secondly, for those that haven’t read or thought on this subject previously, this article will serve as an appropriate introduction. In a future post, perhaps I will provide a short bibliography of good books on the subject.

And now, “without further ado,” here is this week’s article.

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One important aspect of Reformed theology that is often missing in broader evangelicalism is the understanding that the Christian faith informs and permeates every aspect of believers’ lives. While the churches in which I grew up sometimes implied (perhaps unintentionally) that the whole of the Christian faith was to “get saved” and then to “get others saved,” Reformed teaching offers a much fuller understanding of the Christian life, and particularly of how God can and should be glorified in our vocations. Receiving salvation for oneself through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and spreading the gospel through evangelism are, of course, of paramount importance. Still, there is more to the Christian life than one’s initial salvation experience and subsequent evangelism. God calls us to a life of worship, service, and devotion to Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31), and this God-centered life includes learning to pursue our vocations and even our avocations in a God-glorifying way.

In the nearly ten years since I was first introduced to Reformed theology in general and the idea of a “Christian worldview” in particular through the works of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), I have devoted a great deal of time to thinking about how I am to go about my work as a musician and teacher in a decidedly Christian manner. A small but substantial body of literature, including works by both Reformed and by more broadly evangelical authors, has been devoted to the topic of music. Much of this literature addresses the so-called “worship wars,” seeking to answer the question of whether we should employ “traditional” musical forms in corporate worship, allow for more “contemporary” idioms and instrumentation, or somehow try to “blend” the two. There are even debates among proponents of each of these broad categories, such as, in the “traditional” camp, the debate between those that advocate singing psalms and hymns with instrumental accompaniment and those that advocate a cappella exclusive psalmody.

While I do have a settled opinion regarding how music should be employed in corporate worship, that is not the subject of this article. Instead, I wish to address a broader question, which deserves to be asked and answered by every Christian that participates in making music, both amateur and professional, regardless of medium, genre, or venue. That question is this: “What is God-glorifying music making?” There is more to glorifying God through music than simply pursuing whatever music we like best in the way that we like best and then presuming to dedicate that music to the Lord. Indeed, God’s Word provides ample guidance to the musician that seeks to honor our Lord through his work. Here I will explore three principles that should guide the believing musician as he pursues Christian excellence in music, for the glory of God.

Excellence in Work

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:17, 23-24)

The first principle I am calling “Excellence in Work.” In obedience to the commands of Colossians 3, Christians should always be hard-working, never accepting less than their best work in every endeavor. Of course, this does not guarantee that Christian musicians will always give better performances than their unbelieving fellows, or that they will win every audition or competition, or generally that there will not be non-Christian musicians out there that are “better” than us. It does mean, however, that our failures to be the best musicians we can should never occur due to insufficient preparation or otherwise shoddy work. Every performance, audition, and opportunity for teaching requires our best efforts if we are to honor God through music.

There is a tendency among Christians to excuse performances of an inferior quality because the musician’s “heart is in the right place.” Not every Christian involved in music will be a professional-level performer or composer or songwriter—and that is fine—but neither should those giving less than their best be given a “pass” because their motivation is (supposedly) correct. Even when teaching aspiring professional musicians at the university level, I have encountered professing Christians that are remarkably inconsistent regarding individual practice and academic study, and who try to excuse their lack of effort by citing Christian activities to which they devote much of their time. This behavior is contrary to what God’s Word demands of us.

When we give halfhearted effort to our work as musicians—or in any other endeavor—we disobey God, and sully our witness to unbelieving colleagues, teachers, students, and others who might as a result begin to identify Christians as sloppy workers. After all, who wants to serve a god that is supposedly pleased with work that no human audience or employer would accept? When we strive to be our very best we honor our Lord by our obedience and give a positive witness to others of the greatness and worthiness of the God whose we are and whom we serve. As an added blessing, we just might win those auditions and give those great performances!

Excellence in Works

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Secondly, “Excellence in Works.” Whereas in the first principle we determined that God would have us work diligently at producing and performing great music, here we shall seek to identify what music—which “works”—are best and most God-honoring. Should Christians use the same criteria as unbelievers when creating or selecting music to perform, or does God’s Word require that our criteria be different? If we are to best glorify God through music, we must seek the guidance of His Word not only in preparing performances, but even in choosing the repertoire for those performances. The Apostle Paul provides some guidance for us in his letter to the Philippians.

In Philippians 4:8 Christians are encouraged to consider things that are “lovely.” Granted, the perception of beauty is rather subjective, and I am not suggesting that, for example, only Western tonal music satisfies this criterion. However, some composers seem to have turned ugliness into a primary motivation behind their work. Having rejected Christianity in favor of godless philosophies, and therefore left without the glorification of God and the edification of others as motivations behind their work, they have only the pursuit of “shock value” remaining as an objective, and the resulting works display an ever-increasing deviancy. Much modern “art” music demonstrates this trend, and while we should not reject all modern music (or that of any genre) without giving due consideration to the merits of each work, works that are self-consciously ugly are incompatible with a Christian approach to music.

Another characteristic prescribed in this passage is truth. The music that best glorifies God is that which most accurately reflects His character, as revealed both in His Word and in His world. Loveliness, discussed above, is an aspect of this character, as is orderliness. God is a God of order, not chaos, a trait He demonstrated in the act of creation when, after bringing light, life, and order to the “formless and void” earth, He pronounced it “very good” (Genesis 1:1-31). Christian musicians should prefer music that honors God by imitating the order and structure, as well as the beauty, of His creation. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), perhaps the best example of conscientiously Christian musicianship among the old masters, was conscious of this necessity, and the result was music marked by multileveled structural consistency and simultaneous beauty. Bach’s successors, particularly from the nineteenth century onward and as Christianity was displaced as the ideological foundation of Western culture, were less attentive to this principle, and the ultimate result has been music that is intentionally chaotic. We need not reject all music written during the past two centuries and perform only the highly structured works of Bach and other like-minded composers, but we should prefer music that is orderly to that which serves primarily as a vehicle for the chaotic, self-indulgent emotional expression of the composer or performer, or even worse, the exaltation of chance and randomness for their own sakes. Instead, we should whenever possible choose those works in every genre that best reflect both the beauty and the orderliness of God and His creation.

Other traits discussed in Philippians 4 include “honorable,” “commendable,” “excellent,” and “worthy of praise.” These indicate that Christian musicians should choose only music that is of the highest and most enduring quality, rejecting those works that are fleeting and ephemeral. Music designed to evoke only a base emotional response, lacking the sublime qualities of great music, has no place in the Christian musician’s work. The same might be said regarding music that displays only a dry intellectualism, making no attempt to engage the listener emotionally or spiritually. We must direct our energies toward performing and creating the very best music that exists, for the glory of God and the edification of others.

Excellence in Service

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

The first of these verses applies primarily to music employed in corporate worship, and dictates that this music must be useful for instructing and admonishing the church. Sadly, this command forms an indictment against much of the music used in worship today, both “traditional” and “contemporary.”

The second of these verses, combined with the first, helps to define a principle that applies to all music performed by Christians: we must seek to edify (or “build up”) others. Ask yourself: “Do audiences leave my performances lifted up intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, or do they sometimes leave distraught, disengaged, confused, unhappy, angry, or at best intrigued?” Then ask: “Is the music I choose to perform the reason for this?” Music has a profound effect on people intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and we must endeavor to choose music that edifies listeners in these ways—to pursue Christian excellence in service to others.

To illustrate this principle by way of example, several years ago I attended a ten-day brass festival in Europe. While I gladly heard much outstanding brass playing and teaching, some concerts were so filled with “modern” works (some of which seemed to be designed to offend rather than to uplift) that some audience members either left early or seemed unhappy and confused when the concerts ended. By contrast, one of the concerts, entitled “Amazing Grace,” seemed to be deliberately programmed with the edification of the listener in mind, featuring a variety of hymn and folksong arrangements as well as “classical” works written throughout the past four centuries. Every work possessed the beautiful, orderly, God-honoring qualities discussed above, and it was a joy to be present at this concert. I do not know if the performers were Christians, but I do know (both from my own observations and reports heard after the performance) that practically everyone present left that concert happy, content, and at peace, having been intellectually engaged as well as emotionally and spiritually uplifted—and, whether they knew it or not, pointed in a small way toward the character and attributes of their Creator. That is how we as Christian musicians must seek to leave our audiences.

Music which glorifies God and edifies the listener will be beautiful yet not overly simplistic or kitschy, ordered yet not emotionally dry, expressive yet not emotionally self-indulgent, and generally possessed of an enduring, excellent quality. When we perform such music to the best of our abilities and with the glorification of God as our primary aim we can be confident that our Creator will be honored and that our hearers—including ourselves—will be edified. Our great God and Redeemer is deserving of no less from us!

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, and Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Micah Everett, and are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which he is associated.
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