Art To the Church; Art From the Church; Art Facing the Church

Harold Best

Harold M. Best is a musician, composer, and was for more than twenty-five years the dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College. He is the author of two important books: Music Through the Eyes of Faith (1993) and Unceasing Worship (2003).

Best explains the three postures of Christians and art in his lecture “Arts and Christianity,” using a triad I find helpful.

1: Art to the Church (artist as servant).

These are the Christian artists called to produce simple, accessible liturgical art. It is art humbled low, to wash the feet of Christ and congregants to the point that art becomes part of a synthesis, a servant of the Word aiming for robust corporate worship.

“Art for the church does not just mean art made expressly for use in corporate worship,” he clarified to me in a later email, “but for the church, individual by individual, at all times and all places, in its continuing worship.” This first category expands to include non-congregational music, like worship concerts and Christian radio.

2: Art from the Church (artist as prophet).

This is Christian art made for the unconverted. The Christian artist goes out into culture “as a rampant outspoken prophetic invader,” so loaded with creativity, she breaks out into the world, pushing herself to the edge of her imaginative originality, and with the expectation that such art will lead to getting knocked around a bit.

In this category, Best told me, Christians “should be more cutting-edge evangelistic in their public work instead of replicating or paralleling the stuff that is regularly experienced in corporate worship.”

3: Art facing the Church (artist as steward).

Just as the Church produces music for the unconverted, the world produces music facing Christians. This inescapable reality does not call for retreat but for Christian engagement, for believers to face culture squarely in order to learn and to appreciate art from non-Christians, “to learn, to copy, to adapt, to paraphrase, to reject, to debate with, and above all, to understand the difference between content and intent.” We debate the intent of the world’s art, while at the same time celebrating and learning from the artistic products themselves.*

“Christians should not keep soaking up Christian music all the time,” says Best, “they should be engaging in all kinds of music, for this is their responsibility in entering into that last part of the triad.” In fact, he divulged, “I tire a little of Christians being hooked on Christian radio, when they should be engaging with the world in what it is thinking, saying, singing, and promoting.”

Art to the church, art from the church, art facing the church — a helpful triad to distinguishing art forms, and what Christians are to do with them.

Sources and notes:

Harold Best, lecture, “Arts and Christianity” (MP3).

Harold Best, email to the author (May 25, 2016).

* Best’s neutrality of art form, here assumed, has been disputed by Ken Myers in “Music and Meaning: Some Forms Are Better than Others,” (April 23, 2014).

The Sublime Song of the Universe

From Augustine’s letter to Jerome (AD 415), as translated and quoted in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1:527–528:

Not in vain has the prophet, taught by divine inspiration, declared concerning God, “He bringeth forth in measured harmonies the course of time” [Isa. 40:26]. For which reason music, the science or capacity of correct harmony, has been given also by the kindness of God to mortals having reasonable souls, with a view to keep them in mind of this great truth. For if a man, when composing a song which is to suit a particular melody, knows how to distribute the length of time allowed to each word so as to make the song flow and pass on in most beautiful adaptation to the ever changing notes of the melody, how much more shall God, whose wisdom is to be esteemed as infinitely transcending human arts, make infallible provision that not one of the spaces of time alloted to natures that are born and die — spaces which are like the words and syllables of the successive epochs of the course of time — shall have, in what we may call the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world, a duration either more brief or more protracted than the foreknown and predetermined harmony requires! For when I may speak thus with reference even to the leaves of every tree, and the number of the hairs upon our heads, how much more may I say it regarding the birth and death of men, seeing that every man’s life on earth continues for a time, which is neither longer nor shorter than God knows to be in harmony with the plan according to which He rules the universe.

On My iPod

A few of the albums currently streaming through the ‘buds:

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (2011). An album that grew on me after about the third or fourth play. [Amazon | iTunes]
  • Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between (2011). Apart from one or two songs that grate on me, I like this album a lot. Don’t miss his track “Farther Along.” Crank it and sing along! Garrels recently told CT, “We were so provided for during the making of this album, by both God and men, that it seems appropriate to give away as freely as we received.” In that spirit, you can download the album for free here.
  • Sovereign Grace Music, Risen (2011). I’ve been listening to this album since before Easter. Why stop now? [Amazon | iTunes]
  • Sigur Rós, Takk… (2005). Because my playlist is always flavored with a little Sigur. [Amazon | iTunes]
  • Glenn Gould, Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1955). It’s unclear if Gould was autistic or just eccentric but it’s obvious he was a prodigy. The energy he brings to the piano in this recording is impressive. [Amazon | iTunes]

What albums currently flavor your life?

Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat

The new album from Sojourn Music is very good, especially the opening song that was inspired by an old hymn written by John Newton. The original hymn lyrics were tweaked and then recorded and released by Jamie Barnes. The song is titled “Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat” and it was released online on JT’s blog this past week (where you can download the mp3 for free). I find myself listening to it over and over again.

You can listen to the beautiful hymn here:

Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat

Approach my soul, the mercy seat
Where Holy One and helpless meet
There fall before my Judges’ feet
Thy promise is my only plea, O God

Send wings to lift the clutch of sin
You who dwell between the cherubim
From war without and fear within
Relieve the grief from the shoulders of crumbling men

O God—Pour out your mercy to me
My God, Oh what striking love to bleed.

Fashion my heart in your alchemy
With the brass to front the devil’s perjury
And surefire grace my Jesus speaks
I must. I will. I do believe. O Lord.

Handel’s Messiah

In December I plan to take the family downtown to see Handel’s Messiah performed at the Washington National Cathedral. To prepare for the event, I recently read the excellent new book Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People by Calvin Stapert (Eerdmans, 2010). Stapert, a professor of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, explains the musical and historical background of Handel’s oratorio. But he also provides a very helpful theological commentary on the narrative that traces Jesus’ birth (act 1), suffering, death, resurrection (act 2), and His eternal reign (act 3). Messiah is the gospel set to 2.5 hours of music, complete with a personal invitation (part 1, scene 5).

To enjoy Messiah is—in the words of one friend—to be washed with the Gospel.

The musical score was written, of course, by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759). The narrative (or libretto), is a carefully woven mix of biblical passages, the work of Charles Jennens (1700–1773). Stapert does a fine job explaining how these men worked together to produce the masterpiece. But here is what I find most interesting: Messiah, first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, was intended to be something of an apologetic, according to Stapert. He explains on pages 75–76 in an excerpt worth quoting at length:

Messiah tells a deliverance story—the story of God’s ultimate deliverance of his people from bondage to sin and death. But it is a story that increasing numbers of Europeans were disbelieving, and therein lies the motivation behind Jennens’s compilation of the Scripture passages that constitute the libretto for Messiah.

The Enlightenment was in full swing, and the church was severely threatened by those who denied that Christ was the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah who would deliver his people from bondage to sin and death. Of course the church had always faced threats to the faith from unbelievers. But the number of unbelievers in Europe increased significantly during the Enlightenment, a movement that fostered “natural” religion that proclaimed a commonsense social morality and an optimistic view of human nature. Typically it took the form of Deism.

Deism did not deny the existence of a Supreme Being who created all things but claimed that after creation that Being left humans to themselves. According to Deists, humans had no need of a god because they were innately good and had the resources to solve their own problems. Human perfectibility could be achieved by human resources without divine intervention. Thus Deism was fundamentally at odds with Christian beliefs that humans are basically sinful, that they are incapable of saving themselves, and therefore that they need a Savior. In other words, Deists did not believe in the need for a Messiah.

Messiah was born into this world of growing Deistic threat to the church. It was not only that Deism added substantially to the number of Europeans who didn’t believe Jesus to be the Messiah, but also that unlike other disbelievers (Jews, Muslims, atheists), Deists were often within the church, even among the clergy—”profane scoffers among our selves,” as Richard Kidder called them. Committed orthodox Christians like Jennens had reason to be concerned, and that concern spawned an outpouring of works that reaffirmed the historic Christian beliefs, the chief among them being that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah. Jennens’s libretto for Messiah joined a host of writings on the subject. Treatises and tracts, poems and periodical articles were written to prove that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

Stapert makes an interesting point. We can pray that the Lord will use the many performances of Messiah this winter for that very same purpose—to open the eyes of sinners to see their need for a messiah, and to see the sufficiency and suitability of Jesus Christ to be the very Messiah for which the weight of our eternity rests.

Note: you can listen to a recording of Messiah online via NPR here.