Archives For The Arts & Culture

How Music Works

Mark Beuving —  April 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

Resonate Mark BeuvingToday Resonate releases. If you’ve missed my almost subtle promotion of the book this month, the book is entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music, and it’s essentially a theological look at and a appreciative exploration of music: what it is, what it does, how it works, what the Bible says about it, etc.

In my experience, just about everyone appreciates music. I know a few who don’t seem to care, but almost everyone knows that music is truly amazing. Why? What makes music so special? How is it that music can sometimes lift our spirits, speak more deeply than a sermon, heal more profoundly than medication, and comfort us in some of life’s most difficult moments? (As an example of that last point, have you ever been to a funeral that hasn’t involved music? I haven’t.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of music is its ability to surprise us with the ordinary. Truly, all music is about being human. All songs are about some aspect of the human experience. Music is a means by which people in all cultures throughout all time (we have yet to find an example to the contrary) have wrestled with what it means to live in this world. By its nature, music takes the ordinary stuff of life and presents it to us in a way that makes it look different so that we can think about and experience it in fresh ways.

This is actually a characteristic of all art. Madeleine L’Engle says,

“Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”

J. R. R. Tolkien said,

“We need…to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

By artistically crafting her reflections on life in this world, a musician shows us the world we’ve always known as we’ve never known it. By embedding these thoughts into carefully crafted poetry and mixing that poetry with complex sounds, the musician speaks beneath the surface of our lives. Music enters through our senses and cuts into our souls.

As a simple example, I love these lines from Death Cab for Cutie’s song “You Can Do Better than Me”:

“I’ve been slipping through the years
My old clothes don’t fit like they once did
So they hang like ghosts of the people I’ve been”

Death Cab 1I’ve always appreciated Death Cab’s ability to turn a phrase that captures something that I take for granted in such a way that I see how significant it truly is. The clothes you don’t wear anymore do stand (or hang) as reminders of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you’ve been like. They are a visual representation of growing up and growing old. For the Christian, a closet can be a reminder of God’s faithfulness through the years. When I first heard this song, Death Cab surprised me by reminding me of something that is happening literally every second of my life: I am growing and changing. This what good music does for us.

Music works by indirection. Rather than giving us a bald statement like, “Feel love,” music miraculously conveys love in tones, sonic textures, chord structure, melodies, lead lines, dissonance, resolution, and poetry. It’s impossible to explain precisely how this works, yet we all know what it’s like to feel love as we listen to music. I’ve felt it through the songs of Norah Jones, Sufjan Stevens, MxPx, Switchfoot, and the Beatles. A love song says less than an essay on the subject of love, but conveys more through poetic phrasing and carefully managed tones and melodies.

One thing we can’t forget as we talk about the power and mystery of music is that this gift comes from God. This unbelievable gift, deeply treasured and skillfully exploited by everyone from Bach to Beck, was thought up, engineered, and made into reality by the Creator. It’s his gift to us. He gave us the capacity to hear music, to enjoy it, to find meaning in it, and he gave us a green light to explore this gift to its fullest potential. All of iTunes is evidence that we have taken God’s gift seriously, and it speaks to the diverse and wonderful nature of this gift.

Music speaks to us because God designed it to. I have spent my life enjoying this gift and contemplating its ability to enrich and challenge, to deepen and soar. Lord willing, I will finish my life with a much greater understanding of and appreciation for this gift, but no closer to a clear explanation for how music does what it does. And I will glorify God because of it.

If you enjoy thinking deeply about this kind of thing, and if you want to grow in your appreciation for music (asking what the Bible says about it, how a Christian can enjoy religious and secular music with discernment, how music ties in with the life and mission of the church, etc.), then I invite you to read Resonate.

Art Night 051This weekend we hosted our annual Art & Music Benefit. You and I both knew I would say this, but it was an amazing night. Many of our students, graduates, and other friends of the school displayed and sold their art for the event. Three great bands featuring some of our students and alumni played. We had great crafts and baked goods. And we had a great turnout!

So I’m posting to thank everyone who took part in the event, because an event like that matters. It matters because art matters. Nothing connects us with our humanity like good art. It reminds us that while we’re on this earth, we find this world meaningful, and we explore that (often elusive) meaning in passionate and creative ways. Art reminds us that others are wrestling with the human experience as well, and it offers us an opportunity to see with their eyes. It allows us to step into their joys, sorrows, and questions. So thank you to all of the musicians, artists, bakers, and crafters who made Friday night a deeply human experience.

Friday night’s event also matters because Eternity Bible College matters. As we shared at the event, our passion is to see this generation trained to discover the riches of biblical truth and to creatively apply that truth in every area of their lives. Art Night 052We saw a taste of this played out in the art on display, and we shared about other students and graduates who are pursuing God’s glory and furthering his kingdom in traditional ministry and in a host of other creative ways. So thank you to everyone who came out to support the school and to affirm that art and music created by Bible students matters! We believe that it matters, and we were encouraged to discover that you think so as well.

If you’d like to see photos from the night, including some of the art on display, click on the images in the gallery below. If you’d like to see the videos we played during the event, scroll to the bottom of the page. And if you would like to invest in what we are doing with Eternity Bible College, click here. We charge our students roughly half of what it costs us to train them because an essential part of our mission is sending them out into the world without the shackles of student debt. To make up the rest of the cost of fulfilling our mission, we depend on the sacrificial investments of people who are also committed to the mission.

 

John Piper PreachingChristians—evangelical Christians—are those who have a sense of urgency about spreading the gospel. So when a Christian is handed a microphone, he or she knows what to do with it. That microphone, that platform, that position of influence, is to be used for the sake of the gospel.

That’s as it should be. You might say that we know what a microphone is for. And yet, unless we ask how a microphone is to be used, we could be making a big mistake in our zeal for witnessing. In fact, I think we do this very often, and it’s the Christian musicians among us who suffer, it’s their witness that gets restricted and/or diminished, and it’s their place in the mission of the church that gets called into question. All because we don’t know how to use a microphone.

If you’re handed a mic, and God has gifted and called you to preach, then you’d better preach. Speak the work of God clearly. Proclaim it with passion. Too much preaching today skirts the real issues, shrinks back from declaring the full character of God, and minimizes Jesus’ call to die to self, take up one’s cross, and follow. Preach it like it is.

But if you’re handed a mic, and God has gifted you as a musician and called you to glorify him through your music, how do you use that mic? Do you act as a musical preacher, laying your three-point sermon atop four chords? Many Christian musicians have taken a route similar to this, and some have been effective. But is this the only way our Christian musicians can use their God-given gifts to his glory?

How do we ask other types of Christian professionals to use their crafts in their Christian witness? Dorothy Sayers challenges the typical approach:

“The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”

If you want to serve God in your carpentry, then make excellent tables. That’s the first step toward honoring God with the skills he has given us. Yet for many Christians, the first demand we make of Christians with musical skill is that they function as preachers.

Joylissa

Joylissa.com

Truly, the first step toward honoring God as a Christian musician is to make great music. This is an overgeneralization, but too often Christian musicians have sacrificed the quality of the music for the sake of more preachy lyrics. I have seen many great examples of excellent music paired with deeply religious lyrics (here and here, for example). But I have also seen Christian musicians badgered, rebuked, even accused regarding their devotion to Christ—all because they skillfully crafted songs about many important aspects of God’s world; they simply fell short on the “Jesus” quota.

Nobody is questioning the salvation of Christian police officers who don’t insert the Apostles’ Creed as they read a criminal their rights. Nobody is questioning the devotion of a plumber who falls short of his quota of cross-shaped pipe junctions. Yet the presence of a microphone causes us to misunderstand the nature of music and to hold our musicians to the same standard as our preachers.

Music isn’t preaching; it’s art. Preaching is about clarity and conviction. Art is about seeing the world in fresh, challenging, and inspiring ways. It intentionally and powerfully works through indirection. Obviously there is an overlap between these two forms of communication, but until we are ready to appreciate the true artistic nature and value of music, we’re missing the point.

If God has gifted and called you to be a preacher, be a good one. Preach passionately and clearly. If God has gifted and called you to be a musician, be a good one. Stretch your creativity to the limits of God’s gift. Explore his world and the people he made with joy and sorrow. If you’re ashamed of Jesus, that needs to change. If your only goal is to gain popularity, that needs to change. But if you’re singing to God’s glory regardless of the subject matter you believe you should explore, then don’t listen to those who think they know how to use a microphone. Glorify the Giver by enjoying his gift to the fullest and helping others do the same.

And if you find this kind of thing interesting, you might want to check out Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music, which releases next week:

 

BenefitEver since we started Eternity Bible College in 2004, we have been training students to understand deeply the biblical view of the world and to apply that truth in every area of their lives. And we mean every area. While we have proudly sent many of our graduates into the world as pastors, youth pastors, worship pastors, and missionaries, full-time vocational ministry is not our only focus. We have also proudly sent many of our graduates into the world as teachers, musicians, paramedics, youth workers, and a host of other professions.

With that second category of graduates (those working in non-vocational ministry), it’s not that we trained them in the technical side of their field. We offer no classes in music theory, medicine, etc. Yet these students who are leaving Eternity with a degree in Bible are walking into these professions and feeling well equipped. Why? Because we are teaching them how to pursue God’s mission in every area of life. We are helping them see the implications of the gospel for everything they do. So while they still need to learn to teach world history and treat trauma wounds, they’re ready to bring God’s truth to bear in their unique part of the world.

Truly, the gospel speaks to everything we encounter in this world. It transforms every aspect of our lives. The mission of Eternity Bible College is to saturate this generation in biblical truth and give them the tools to change every aspect of the world.

This being our mission, we are pleased to announce our third annual Art & Music Benefit. This year’s benefit will take place:

This Friday, April 25 @ 7pm

Hosted by Cornerstone Church in Moorpark
379 Science Drive, Moorpark, Ca

Jon Kim Painting

One of the paintings we’ll be selling at the event. I’ll let the artist, Jon Kim, explain his heart in making this painting, including the theological significance. We’ll also be selling a series of paintings on the book of Revelation and many other inspiring pieces.

The Art & Music Benefit will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about Eternity Bible College, our students, and our mission. On Friday night, we will highlight some of the art and music that some of our students are creating. These students are thinking through all of life at a deep level, and their biblical worldview shows up in their creativity. We will also be sharing the heart and vision of Eternity Bible College.

If you are anywhere near Simi Valley / Moorpark, we invite you to come spend an inspiring evening with us. Come and learn about what God is doing through Eternity and learn how you can partner with us in our mission. Come ready to enjoy the music some of our students are making, to appreciate and even purchase some of the art, crafts, and baked goods that our students are creating, and to celebrate the vision and mission of Eternity together with us.

If you’re too far away to join us in person, please consider praying for the event. And we also invite you to partner with the school in some way. You can learn more about partnership opportunities here.

 

The following video is from one of our students who will be playing at the event:

To hear music from the other bands performing (also featuring students and graduates) click here (Rosie Harlow & the Tall Tale Boys) or here (Big Flambeau).

Music is unquestionably a gift from God. He didn’t have to create us with the ability to hear, much less to hear sounds so exquisite that we’re moved to tears. And yet he created the complex physics of sound and enabled our brains to interpret all of the beauty that eardrum vibrations can convey.

Christians, who should be the most attuned to God’s gifts, often find ways to limit our exposure to the depth and potency of music. For example, we like to limit our enjoyment of music to a specific subgenre we call “Christian music.” I’ve written on this before, and I also discuss it in Resonate (so, you know, you should probably buy a copy for everyone you’ve ever met…). My goal is not to degrade the music coming out of the Christian Music Industry, but to call us to engage with the wonder of God’s gift beyond this small marketing demographic.

Arcade FireIn this post, I’ll explore one brilliant piece of music that those who remain within the confines of the Christian Music Industry will never experience: the song “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire. (I wrote about Arcade Fire a bit in Resonate, but this song released after the manuscript was submitted, and I’ve fallen in love with it.)

Though Arcade Fire is not a “Christian band” by any definition I’ve heard, they frequently explore religious themes. In fact, they even purchased an abandoned church for rehearsals and recording and to give themselves access to an ultra-churchy pipe organ. So I wasn’t a bit surprised when their latest album, Reflektor, spoke of searching for the “Resurrector,” exposed the harmful effects of pornography, and meandered through other religious concepts. But I was surprised at the hopeful wrestling of “Afterlife.”

The song begins with a start: “Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word.” As Christians, we long for the afterlife. But Arcade Fire made me think here. After. Life. That is pretty crazy. The hope we have for the future comes after life. As the song puts it,

“After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt…
After all this time, after all the ambulances go
After all the hangers-on are done hanging on
In the dead lights of the afterglow”

It reminds me of how odd our hope for the future must sound, of how odd it truly is that Paul would tell us not to “mourn as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

The song also asks, “When love is gone, where does it go?” What a question! When we lose someone we truly and deeply and actively love, what becomes of that love? This question is followed by the related question, “Where do we go?” This has got me thinking so much about the ache of love in the absence of a loved one. It raises the question typically asked only at funerals, and then only briefly. And the question of where love goes leads me straight to this profound passage in the New Testament:

“Love never ends…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13)

Arcade Fire 2The song never answers the question, but it does not shy away. The repeated refrain is:

“Can we work it out?
Scream and shout till we work it out.”

That’s as good a summary of the human experience as I’ve heard. We’re asking where we go, and our lives are a series of screams and shouts directed toward finding the meaning to our existence, the meaning that we know exists but remains just beyond our grasp. As the Preacher said,

“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Best of all, the music is incredible. Mysterious, hopeful, inspiring, exultant, beautiful. Hardcore music asks some of the same questions, but something about the way Arcade Fire explores the issue in the actual music, not just in the lyrics, strikes me as compassionate, honest, and full of longing.

It’s not that Arcade Fire is teaching me about the afterlife. It’s not that I’m ready to add their song to the end of my Bible, or even my theology books. But their creative approach to these concepts has pushed me to think and feel my way through these all-important issues with a greater sensitivity and some fresh thoughts. And I’m deeply indebted to them for it.

So to those who would appreciate God’s gift in its fullness I say: Enjoy every ounce of musical beauty that Chris Tomlin conveys in his music, but don’t turn up your nose at Arcade Fire. The gift of music is being joyfully explored in many “secular” places.

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