Music is a great gift…but a lousy god.
Many books extol the wonders of music. Leonard Bernstein wrote The Joy of Music. Igor Stravinsky helped us see The Poetics of Music. Aaron Copeland instructed us on What to Listen for in Music. Aided by the recent advances in neuroscience, Oliver Sacks wrote Musicophilia and Daniel Levitan offered The Science of a Human Obsession. Duke Ellington even boasted that Music is My Mistress. The list goes on.
And why not? Music moves us in ways that no other art form can. At bare minimum we observe that music involves our minds, our emotions, and our physical bodies. For those of us who employ music in our worship, we experience unique modes of connection that differ from reading, studying, listening to sermons, and fellowship. (Note: I am not saying that music is better than these crucial means of spiritual growth. But music is qualitatively different than them). When we sing songs of praise, we reach out to God with thought, words, ears, and breath, connecting in holistic ways.
Music is a great gift. But it’s a lousy god. When we remember to keep music second, our first priority (God) blesses it in remarkable ways. When we make music primary or ultimate, it disappoints profoundly. I know. For years, I worshipped music. As a music student, I looked to it for sustenance, meaning, joy, and fulfillment. At one stage, I woke up every morning and listened to a recording of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps as a kind of devotional. As I look back, those times strike me as my first earnest attempts at daily worship. Self-centeredly, I thought that if I listened intently, regularly, and consistently enough, I would one day be able to play the great tune the way “Trane” did. (That wish was never fulfilled).
When God showed me what (or who) I was really longing for (Him!), music ceased to take center stage. But it never went outside my spiritual peripheral vision and I’m thankful that it did not. I find music to be a delight now that I don’t look to it as a deity.
And so I am always a bit saddened when I meet or hear of musicians and others who look to music for more than it can provide. I recently read Oxford emeritus professor Anthony Storr’s Music and the Mind and found it to be both enlightening and sad. Storr is no lightweight when it comes to scholarship. He has held academic positions in psychiatry and literature at Oxford and other prestigious institutions. His book examines music from psychological, philosophical, historical, aesthetic, and other vantage points. At points his prose is glorious and at other times he digs into the depths of science with the precision of a surgeon.
At places in the book that came close to considering any supernatural or religious connections to music, Storr resisted the lure. Commenting on some of Leonard Bernstein’s doxologies of music (e.g. “I believe that from the Earth emerges a musical poetry…”), Storr wrote, “Bernstein was a religiously inclined romantic…” Opportunities to identify something as higher or more ultimate than music were passed by or discredited.
And thus, for Storr, music is ultimate. Consider these statements from his final two paragraphs:
“Some people find that one or other of the great religions provides them with a belief system which makes sense out of the world and their place in it. Religions order existence in that they issue prescriptions for behavior, provide a hierarchy culminating in a deity, and give the individual, however humble, a sense that he or she is participating in a divinely-inspired plan. Religions differ widely from one another; but they all seem to be attempts of the human mind to impose some kind of order on the chaos of existence. Life itself may continue to be arbitrary, unpredictable, unjust, and disorderly; but believers find comfort in supposing that God meant there to be order, and assume that sinful human beings have frustrated his intention.” (Note his use of the word “supposing.”)
He goes on to argue that music also provides a sense of order in our chaotic world. He praises music because it “…exalts life, enhances life, and gives it meaning.” I wonder how music can give an otherwise meaningless, chaotic life meaning but I’ll hold my greatest concerns for what follows. He concludes his book with, “Music is a source of reconciliation, exhilaration, and hope which never fails…[and] something for the sake of which it is worthwhile to live on earth.”
I am reminded of the observations many have made that people are incurably religious. If they do not worship God, they will find something to worship. For some, it’s music. For others, it’s pleasure. For many, it’s themselves. But contrary to Storr’s hopes, these idols ultimately disappoint. They offer hope…but cannot deliver “a hope that never fails.”
I finished Storr’s book and immediately reached for C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory and searched out one of my favorite passages: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past— are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”