Progressive Truth and Progressive Art: A Reflection on Music Ministry as an Evolving Art

Adriana.png
Music.jpg

Presented at the 2018 Andrews University Music & Worship Conference

“I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you.But we must hold on to the progress we have already made” (Philippians 3:12-15 NLT).

“The way of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, which shines ever brighter until the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18 NLT).

Our journey with God is described in Scripture as a progressive experience, a path in which our understanding, our perception of ourselves and the reality around us, keep changing, keep being transformed and renewed on a daily basis. (“I die every day,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:31 NCV). The spiritual experience is not static but dynamic.

The way we perceive ourselves changes our perception of everything else. As the well-known maxim goes, “We don’t see things as theyare; we see them as weare.” 

When it comes to art—and music is a fine art—the way we internalize it has a lot to do with perception. Sound is not decoded by our ears, but by our brains. We listen with our brains. Therefore, music perception is highly subjective. Music therapy and psychoacoustics are relatively new fields in music focused on music and the brain. And although we now know more than we used to about how our brain decodes music, we still know very little. But one thing we know is that we listen with everything we are. 

Progressive Art

As a musician, I would like to share some thoughts on how our progressive spiritual journey—our progressive understanding of God’s truth—is also related to our craft, to the music we perform, compose, arrange, play, or conduct. 

Art could be described as the expression of human creative skill and imagination. Throughout the history of humanity some artists have created art works that aimed to mirror society in an expected manner. Other artists have raised questions that challenged the social status quoand political reality through their art works. Pablo Picasso was one of these artists who made political statements and denounced social injustice through his art. He never enrolled in the army—in fact, he was against war—but he fought through art. His weapons were pencils, brushes, and canvas. Art and social justice can be a powerful combination. 

Picasso’s progression as an artist was exhibited in different periods, each one exploring original viewpoints that challenged conventional ways of perceiving and expressing the truth he wanted to convey in his art. A progressive artist is constantly evolving and connected to other expressions of art and fields of knowledge. Evolution and progression are essential to an artist’s life journey.

When Christian artists come before God in worship, we bring our musical journeys with us. We bring what we have learned: our spiritual gifts and how we have developed them through long hours of practice, study, and reflection. We explore new repertoire, learn new chord progressions, listen to new artists in order to expand our musical horizons, read books, etc. All of us—composers, singers, instrumentalists, conductors, sound engineers, and music ministers—are called to somehow make progress, to keep growing in our musical journeys. We make progress through practice and by remaining truthful to our craft. Being progressive implies being creative, getting excited about what we do, and following our passion. But in worship our primary focus is on God and on facilitating a collective practice through which people can open their hearts and minds and come boldly into God’s presence. For this reason, our own spiritual journey also plays an important role.

Jesus and the Arts

Music ministry is a very particular art form that integrates multiple disciplines, but especially, music and theology. 

How do we combine music and theology? What does a productive conversation between these two seemingly divergent fields look and sound like?

As Christian artists, we are called to be like Jesus. What was the relationship between Jesus and the arts? And specifically, how did Jesus relate to music when he was here on earth? What did Jesus say in the context of music and worship?

Roberto Farrar Capon writes, “Jesus is a living parable. If you want to understand Jesus keep your eyes and ears open to what he says through what he does.”[1]

In the Gospel narratives, we cannot find any words by Jesus directly related to music or music and worship. However, we see Jesus saying remarkable statements about music and the arts through what he does. One of Jesus’ boldest declarations is found in Matthew 21:12-16, when Jesus cleanses the Temple a second time.  

We have two groups of worshippers in this story. First, there are the professional worshippers who lead worship in the Temple (at that time, you could not get a more elevated position as a worship leader). They think they know how to lead worship. They are highly trained in music and worship; they have extensively memorized the Scriptures; they know everything about sizes, measurements, Sabbath observance, proper times and manners for all the rites, and each feast. They are full of knowledge. 

But when the children and those Jesus heals jump for joy and shout with passion and enthusiasm, the professionals get upset. And they ask Jesus, “Jesus, do you hear what they are saying?”

Jesus responds, “Yes. Haven’t you ever read the Scriptures? For they say (and then he quotes David words from Psalm 8:1) ‘You have taught children and infants to give you praise.”

Jesus knows that these Jewish worship leaders had memorized the 150 Psalms. Biblical scholars tell us that an Israelite who had attended the synagogue would have known many portions of the Hebrew Scriptures by memory, including all of the Psalms. By the age of 13, all male Israelites had memorized the 150 Psalms. 

So when the worship leaders say, “Jesus, look what is happening! These kids are being inappropriate and irreverent!” Jesus responds with Scripture that they know well. And when Jesus asks them, “Haven’t you ever read the Scriptures? For they say, ‘You have taught children and infants to give you perfect praise,” he knows that these worship leaders are familiar with the rest of the Psalm: 

O Lord our God, the majesty and glory of your name fills all the earth and overflows the heavens.You have taught the little children to praise you perfectly. May their example shame and silence your enemies (Psalm 8:1, 2 TLB).

Who are the enemies of worship in this present story? They are not the children but the worship leaders. In this biblical narrative, we get a glimpse of Jesus being in total control of the situation. When the Pharisees and governors of the Temple accuse the supposedly irreverent worshipers, Jesus rebukes them with words they know by heart.

It’s important in considering the account recorded in Matthew 21 to remember why the children and those who were “blind” and “lame” are singing and jumping for joy. They are celebrating the fact that Jesus has come to them, touched them, healed them, and set them free. Perfect praise, for God, comes from a heart that has come face to face with the forgiveness, grace, and healing of Jesus. 

The religious leaders did not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. During Jesus’ ministry, they continually attacked him, questioning his authority and his provenance (John 8:13-19).

Sadly, worship leaders in Jesus time were not ready to see beyond their traditions and own expectations of how the Messiah was supposed to look and act. These notions and concepts had repercussions for how they understood and led worship. Their perceptions were so distorted that they perceived reality not from God’s perspective but through a lenses of self-centeredness and traditionalism.

As worship leaders today, our vision can be easily narrowed and skewed by similar lenses. Such lenses can narrow our perspectives to such a degree that we miss the progressive, creative, and often unexpected redemptive and healing work of Jesus—a work in which we are invited to artistically contribute as we serve God and our neighbors.

I would like to end with some words from Paul Hamel’s book Ellen White and Music: Background and Principles:

The importance of religious music in the life of early XIX C. Seventh-day Adventists is clearly indicated by the fact that between 1849—publication of the first Adventist Hymnal—and 1900—when Christ in Song was published—the White family had published 23 hymnals.[2]

The prodigious composition and promulgation of hymnody among early Adventists reflected a broader active, dynamic, and progressive ethos. As can happen with any movement, once creative expressions have become too often routinized, and a yearning to learn and grow has given in to the allure of more rigid and defensive postures. But the God who created us invites to creatively respond in worship, engaging imaginatively with our church community and neighbors. May we not only revive songs from our roots but also bear the fruit of new worship expressions, preparing for the day we will sing songs—old and new—together in unity before the throne of God.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 53.

[2] Paul Hamel, Ellen White and Music: Background and Principles (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1976), 26.