In our last post, we examined the musical perspective that dominates our age: what we called musical relativism. This view holds that music is entirely personal; there is no objective basis for determining whether one kind or form of music is ‘better’ than another. We found that this view was profoundly flawed, in that it reduced music to a mere commodification. It has nevertheless soaked deeply into the worship life of the church, advocated by church-growth leaders such as Rick Warren. The problem we found is that if Beauty is robbed of its transcendent nature and relocated solely to cultural and private psychological processes, then Truth and Goodness are sure to follow.

We shall now explore the origins of this relativism and contrast it with the Hebraic vision of music.

From Creation to Nature

The relativist view of music is rooted in the assumptions about the world that were forged in the fires of the Enlightenment. It was within this eighteenth-century movement that the world transformed from divine creation to impersonal nature. Mediated no longer by the pastor but now the scientist, the world changed from an arena of divine agency and meaning to one governed by chemical, biological, and physical causal laws.

It is here, with this shift from divine creation to impersonal nature, that you begin to see the categories of art and beauty relocated from the objective world to the subjective mind. What we see in the writings of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and others, with all their variations, basically boils down to this: we know the world through ideas, and ideas come into the mind through sense perception which is itself a product of the mind. And one of these ideas that the mind produces is the idea of Beauty. Thus, aesthetic taste is part of an overall internal subjective interpretation of an external world that can only be known by the ideas generated through sense perception. Music and art are thereby transformed into a completely subjective, that is, person-relative category of interpretation.

The Music of Creation

The biblical vision of music stands in stark contrast to this relativistic view. Scripture begins with God as creator and the cosmos as creation. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, explicitly links this creative process with Beauty. In the original Hebraic version of the Genesis creation account, a responsive refrain accompanies each one of God’s creative actions: ‘and it was good.’ The word there for ‘good’ is the Hebrew, tov. However, when it was translated into the Greek in the third century before Christ, the translators rendered the term for ‘good’ as kallos, which not only means ‘beautiful,’ but is related etymologically to kalein, ‘to call.’

It is this interpretation of Genesis that overlapped with other passages of Scripture to inspire both Jewish and Christian traditions to see God as creating the world as a grand symphony. The Book of Job describes how the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy as the world was created (38:7). In the Septuagint version of Proverbs, Wisdom was with God holding all things together in harmony (8:30).[1] This vision of the world created through heavenly song captured the imagination of C.S. Lewis when he wrote The Magician’s Nephew, where Aslan sings the world of Narnia into being, creating Narnia through song.

Throughout the Old Testament, the creation itself is depicted as a great Temple in which worship is to be done: God sets the foundations, he stretches the heavens as a canopy, and we are here to pick up on that song of creation and make it manifest, make it audible in the world (cf. Psalm 104). The ‘new song’ (cf. Psalms 93, 96, 98) that resounded in the House of the Lord echoed the heavenly song that awakened the world into being, and thus perpetuated the life of creation.

Music for the Jewish imagination thus revealed the world to be an arena of divine creation. Indeed, it could be viewed that music was itself a manifestation of the presence of God. Upon the return of the ark of the covenant to the tabernacle, the Chronicler describes how David appointed musicians to “invoke, to thank and to praise the Lord the God of Israel” (1 Chron 16:4). They praised and thanked the Lord ‘with one voice,’ and then the glory of the Lord filled the temple (2 Chron 5:11-14). The connection between music and the presence of God may be found in the Hebrew term for ‘praise,’ hll, which also means ‘shine.’[2] Music thus seems to have invoked the radiance of the presence of God.

In our next post, we will explore the Greek conception of the ‘music of the spheres’ and its Christian re-appropriation. Until then, how do you understand music in the Old Testament? Are there any passages that you are drawn to? How was the music of the Temple different from the Tabernacle?

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[1] http://tandtclark.typepad.com/ttc/2009/06/margaret-barker-on-temple-music.html.

[2] Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship, 142.

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