WikiAnswers poses the question, “Why does music exist?” then self-replies: “Because it brings happiness to people all over the world.”
We must grant that WikiAnswers is scarcely an authoritative reference source, but it does offer a window on popular culture. It reflects that a common reason (and perhaps the most common reason) for the societal “doing” of music today is to forget the pain, grief, anxiety, dreariness, and simple ennui of life and enter an imaginary world where one can have the emotional experience of his choice—usually a happy one. Ironically, the historically central idea of “music” (fr. the Grk. μοῦσα, to muse, think, remember, or reflect) has been transformed in the last century into its own etymological opposite—an occasion, whether active or passive, for not “musing,” or, supplying the alpha privative, a venue for amusement. This is not to say that music as amusement or as a means of forgetting is always bad (see in principle Prov 31:7), but it does reflect a total reversal of the Western tradition concerning the central purpose of music.
Of course, history only slightly improves on Wiki in terms of warrant. Still it is interesting to know that the perceived function of music from the classical period to the rise of populism was as an aid to musing and remembering, or perhaps better, as a means to creating the affective distance necessary to fostering reflection.
The theme of music as an abstract idea is rare in Scripture. The Greek term μοῦσα appears only once in the NT (Rev 22:18). More common NT terms reflect instantiations of music: ᾄδω (oding), ὑμνεω (hymning), and ψάλλω (psalming). Hebrew is slightly more fruitful—the most common Hebrew word group for music, the שׁיר word group, includes in its scope not only “singing,” “playing,” and “songs,” but also the more abstract idea of “song.” Most of what we know of the purpose for “song,” though, we learn from the songs: they provided a platform for mutual and reflective praise, joy, thanksgiving, lament, hope, victory, and the recollection of the works of God.
Music had a didactic purpose too (so Col 3:16). This is interesting, because nearly all agree that propositional and prosaic forms of communication are more efficient and precise than non-propositional and poetic forms of communication—at least in the transmission of denotative meaning. So why music? Quite simply, because music adds a connotative and rhetorical dimension to communication that mere words cannot, or at least not efficiently. Among these,
Assuming that these are the intended functions of music (and both secular and biblical song prior to the twentieth century seems to bear this out), it follows that we should analyze our songs to discover whether they do these things well. This means more than ascertaining that the denotative propositions that attach to music—the words—are good and true and worthwhile (though we certainly cannot neglect this); it means that we must also consider whether the music that attaches to the words does all that it ought to do. This is an ethical question that we cannot afford to leave unanswered. And so I force myself to answer questions like…
The fact is, God never tells us why he created music, why he made man a musical being, nor why he demands music of us. It is likely that these reasons mirror the reasons why he created ethics, made us ethical beings, and demands ethics from us—to reflect his image! We all know that we should do ethics well and to that end we submit to an endless stream of books and articles that attempt to untangle the gray areas of ethics from the standpoint of both Scripture and natural law. We know that there is a right and a wrong way to do ethics, even when these prove elusive. We know further that public consensus on ethical matters is not wholly trustworthy, and at times is wholly untrustworthy: when waves of ethical novelty shake society, we scrutinize their underpinnings and offer superior alternatives.
But when it comes to aesthetics, discussion of the gray areas is increasingly thought to be off limits. The only aesthetic standard permitted, it seems, is that of contemporaneity. Popular taste and preference prevail, and public consensus can never be wrong. When waves of aesthetic upheaval shake society, we are expected to submit to them without censure or even reflection. I find this perplexing.
It is impossible to escape the fact that the function of music has changed radically in the last century—in ways that have never before been seen in the history of mankind. And the church is understandably having a hard time adjusting. While reflection and resistance have occurred at times in the Christian community, the Church as a whole seems to have reached an alarming watershed—a consensus decision that (1) there is no profit in philosophizing and theologizing about aesthetics, that (2) the threat of being aesthetically “of the world” does not exist, and that (3) the threat of not being aesthetically “in the world” is by far the greater crisis of the evangelical church.
We must be frank in admitting that some who have attempted to parse the paradox of Christ and culture in the aesthetic sphere have done so poorly. But this does not give us a pass, as ministers of the Word, from being proactive in parsing the paradox and thinking meta-musically. And even when we tire of shrill and uninformed voices on both sides of the debate, we surely must not become angry or dismissive toward those who persist in the exercise. We may not all come to common conclusions (like ethics, music can be quite abstract), but we cannot be so foolish and atheological to imagine that aesthetics have at long last been detached from ethics within the Christian worldview.
 Gerald McDermott (Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment, p. 40) summarizes the difference between affections and emotions in the following chart. I would like to suggest that the chart extends beyond the affection/emotion dichotomy to include ministry as vocation/avocation and music as musing/amusement:
Consistent with beliefs
Always result in action
Often fail to produce action
Involve mind, will, feelings
Feelings (often) disconnected from the mind and will
While visiting a church a few weeks back I heard something I’ve not heard in many years: a sermon on predictive prophecy. Not a general sermon on the Second Coming, the final judgment, or the joys of heaven, but a sermon on the grind-it-out details of eschatology from the book of Zechariah.
I grew up with a steady diet of biblical prophecy. The books of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation were perennial favorites. The late 1970s and early 1980s, as I remember them, were troubled times, and as Stan Gundry aptly pointed out back then, this kind of climate had a tendency to make believers long for a day when God will bring this troubled world to its conclusion and flex the muscles of his sovereignty to set things straight. So, we got a lot of preaching on prophecy when I was a youth.
Now, it seems, we are paying penance for the excesses of previous generations, with the result that preaching on prophecy has all but disappeared. Part of this neglect is due to our aversion to controversy and speculation, both of which featured fairly prominently in the glory days of the biblical prophecy movement. But neglect is still neglect, and for those of us charged with preaching the whole counsel of God, it behooves us to reconsider the value of preaching predictive prophecy. It is, after all, a substantial block of the biblical record. And so, in no special order, let me offer a few positive reasons for dusting off those neglected sections of Scripture and carving out a few new sermons from their depths:
And don’t just preach in vague generalizations about eternity, sovereignty, and judgment. Preach the details too. Tell the story. Better, paint the story in vivid relief and give stamp that image upon the imaginations of your listeners. Do this successfully, and it will remain there forever. And the benefits of that practice will be substantial.
I just began my second time through an introductory course on the Gospels. The very first assignment I have my students do is to read and respond to an article Scot McKnight wrote in CT back in 2010 titled “The Jesus We’ll Never Know,” in which he argues that evangelicals should abandon the quest for the historical Jesus. (If you’re unfamiliar with this topic, here’s an introductory talk I gave on it last year at our seminary’s conference on preaching.) To help point my students in the right direction, I also have them read two responses CT published alongside McKnight’s piece, one by N. T. Wright titled “We Need History” and the other by Craig Keener titled “Jesus Studies Matter.” The point of the assignment is simply to get students thinking about the place of history and historical work—like the quest—in studying the Gospels. After we survey the quest and discuss the articles and their responses, I then offer two of my own reasons for why I think McKnight overstates his case, for why I think he’s too pessimistic about the quest and its work. I suggest, first, that history is necessary and, second, that for this reason the quest for the historical Jesus matters. Here I’ll briefly reprise the first argument, saving the second for a subsequent post.
History is necessary and it’s necessary for two reasons. First, it’s necessary because Christianity depends on historical events. In one sense, at least, Christianity is nothing more than an (the) interpretation of historical events. Here it may help us to remember that many of Jesus’ Jewish peers didn’t deny the historicity of his works; rather, they simply gave them alternative explanations (see, e.g., Mark 3:20-27; Matthew 9:27-34; Matthew 12:22-29; Luke 11:14-22; John 8:48-59; John 10:1-21) Christianity, to say it again, is an explanation of historical data, which is, in fact, one of the things that sets it apart from nearly every other religion. Christianity depends on history in a way, e.g., that Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Islam do not. Take away Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, take away history, and Christianity, with its interpretation of that event (e.g., Romans 4:25), becomes not only wrong, but meaningless. The interpretation, the faith, requires the event.
Second, history is necessary for understanding Christianity; it’s necessary for interpreting the Christian Scriptures. If we hope, e.g., to understand the Gospels in any sufficiently thorough sense, then we’ve got to understand the context in which they were produced and in which the events they narrate took place. This is what we mean, isn’t it, when we say we’re committed to historical-grammatical exegesis? History helps fill in much of what the Gospel writers simply assumed. It explains, e.g., (1) why Pilate was so worried about his status as Caesar’s friend and thus so ready to convict an innocent man; (2) why Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans (cf. John 4:9); (3) why the Sanhedrin didn’t have the authority to execute Jesus (John 18:31) but had the authority to execute his brother (Jos., Ant. 20.197–203); (4) who the chief priests or the Pharisees were; (5) how much, if at all, Jesus’ interpretation of the OT (e.g., his idea of ‘Christ’ or ‘son of man’) differed from his opponents or his disciples; (6) why Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender. In fact, more basic than all of this is the fact that without history most of us wouldn’t have access to the Scriptures, since most of us aren’t native Hebrew, Aramaic, or (Koine) Greek speakers. Every time we use a modern English version or look up a word in BDAG, we admit the necessity of history and acknowledge our dependence on it.*
Wright sums all this up nicely in his response to McKnight, saying, history “is necessary—not to construct a ‘fifth gospel,’ but rather to understand the four we already have. History confounds not only the skeptic who says ‘Jesus never existed’ or ‘Jesus couldn’t have thought or said this or that,’ but also the shallow would-be ‘orthodox’ Christian who, misreading the texts, marginalizes Jesus’ first-century Jewish humanity.”
*Wayne Grudem’s attempt in a recent article (“The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Them 34/4 :297) to distinguish between “lexicographical resources” and “historical background information” seems artificial to me. For example, which is at play when trying to understand the titles used of Jesus in the Gospels, spec. “Christ” and “son of man”?
In 1768 the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Voltaire was not trying to denigrate Christianity. Rather, he was arguing for the social benefit of belief in God. He thought that belief in God helped provide incentive to people to live morally and helped establish social order and justice. Thus, if God did not exist, it would be better for society to convince people that God did exist.
There are a growing number of atheists in our day who are clamoring for the abolishment of religion. The late Christopher Hitchens was a leading voice in this movement, and he did not hide his contempt for Voltaire’s sentiment. “Though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with” (God is Not Great, 96).
In response to these calls for the abolishment of religion, some are continuing to argue that religion, though perhaps (likely?) false, is still good. Thus, much of the discussion has moved past the question of whether or not Christianity is true to whether or not Christianity (and religion more broadly) is beneficial. Where should Christians side in this debate? Should we tout the idea that religion has tangible benefits even if it is false?
One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus is alive today—He rose from the dead. This historical event has been both questioned and affirmed for centuries. A couple of years ago, we held a lecture for our campus ministry at Wayne State University on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. During the Q&A session afterward, a young lady—after stating that she was a Christian—asked whether or not it really mattered. Is anything changed if Jesus did not rise from the dead? Even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, isn’t Christianity still good?
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses an issue related to that question. Some in Corinth were denying the Apostolic teaching of the resurrection of the dead. In confronting this error, Paul considers the consequences if Jesus did not rise from the dead.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14–19)
What if Jesus did not rise from the dead?
The first consequence Paul mentions is that the preaching of the gospel would be empty. If Paul were to talk with the preachers in churches all over America who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead but still “preach” each Sunday, he would tell them it would be better if they just went fishing or golfing on Sundays. There is no truth to the message being preached if Jesus did not rise.
Some in our day might respond that the objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection is insignificant. What really matters is that we believe he is alive in our hearts! But Paul next states that our faith is empty if Jesus did not rise. The Christian faith is not about wishful thinking. It’s not hoping something is true in spite of the fact that it probably isn’t. It’s about trust in a person and what that person did. If that person did not do what he claimed, then the faith is empty.
Many today would point to the value of moral instruction that religion provides. But Paul next states that he and the other apostles are liars if Jesus did not rise from the dead. He and the other apostles have been preaching that God raised Christ from the dead, and if He did not then they have been lying about God. They have been testifying falsely against him. If they’ve been lying about God, why would we trust them on what they have to say about moral issues? (Or why would we trust Jesus on moral issues when He said He would rise from the dead?) Here’s some valuable advice you may want to tuck away: you don’t want to get your ethical instruction from someone who has been lying about the central part of their message!
But isn’t there still a personal, psychological benefit from believing in Christianity even if it is not true? Paul points out that our faith is of no value if Jesus is still dead. Whereas before Paul says our faith is empty, here he says it is futile or worthless. It’s incapable of accomplishing anything for us.
The reason our faith is futile is because it is not intended to provide a psychological benefit but to deal with our problem of sin. Jesus, as a sinless person, died to pay the penalty for our sins. The resurrection is God’s public display of approval of Christ’s payment for sin. But without the resurrection the payment was not accepted. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then his death was simply for his own sin—just like everyone else who has ever died.
If our sin has not been dealt with, then there is no hope of escaping death. If we are still in our sins, death is not simply falling asleep in Christ, but is really the end—eternal separation from God.
Paul concludes by declaring that if Christ is not raised, Christians are the most to be pitied. He is not simply saying that Christians are to be pitied because they expected heaven but didn’t get it. Christ’s resurrection has bearing on our current lives. It frees us to willingly sacrifice for the sake of God and others (cf. 1 Cor 15:30–32). But if Christ is not alive, there is no point in living a sacrificial life for others. We might as well simply live for ourselves.
Paul does not believe that the Christian life has meaning in itself if Christ is not risen. Christians are a bunch of fools if Christ has not risen! But as Paul points out in the next verse: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20). Christianity is worthless if it is not true. But Christianity is true, and the truth of Christianity is infinitely good.
Theologically Driven features insight on Scripture, the church, and contemporary culture from faculty and staff at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. DBTS has faithfully prepared men for gospel ministry since its founding in 1976. As a ministry of the Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan, it provides graduate level training with a balance between strong academics and a heart for local church ministry.
Contributors to the blog include:
John Aloisi, Assistant Professor of Church History
Bill Combs, Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament
Bruce Compton, Professor of Biblical Languages and Exposition
Jared Compton, Assistant Professor of New Testament
Sam Dawson, Professor of Systematic Theology
Dave Doran, President and Professor of Pastoral Theology
Pearson Johnson, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
Bob McCabe, Professor of Old Testament
Mark Snoeberger, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
To find out more, visit Theologically Driven.