Archives For Christian Music

In 2012 I began teaching a course called “Christianity & the Arts,” and in 2014 I published a book on the same subject but directed specifically toward music, entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. In the process of researching for both the class and the book, I ended up reading almost every book I could find on Christianity and the arts, and I decided to write a brief review on most of those books here. My hope is that anyone looking to find a good book on some subject related to Christianity and the arts can find the best resources more quickly after scanning the list. And as I read others, I’ll keep adding them here to try to keep the list updated. If you have any questions about any of the books, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help you out.

 

Resonate Mark BeuvingResonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music by Mark Beuving (2014, 224 pages)

I’m listing my book first, not because I’m claiming it’s the best, but because it’s the only one on the list I’ve written. I do think, however, that it’s worth your time. My approach was to first highlight the significance of music, then to explore the biblical and theological basis for listening to music. I addressed questions of why music is so meaningful, what it means for music to be “Christian,” what kinds of music Christians should listen to (spoiler alert: it’s all kinds, but we must be discerning), how music works, the missional opportunities that music offers, and just a bit on music and worship. This is not a book about “Christian music” or about “worship music,” though I do discuss both concepts a bit. If you like music and want to dive deeper into this world, this is the best book you could read on the subject, in my hugely biased opinion. For more on this book, click here.

 

ImagineImagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (2001, 131 pages)

This is my favorite book on the arts overall. Steve Turner is a music journalist, which means that (1) his examples tend to come more from the world of music and (2) he is an excellent writer. Imagine addresses most (perhaps all?) of the pertinent issues related to what art is, what it means for art to be Christian (or not), what it looks like for a Christian to create art, how we can benefit from all types of art (whether created by a Christian or not), etc. His writing style is compelling and he is consistently insightful on this topic. If you’re going to read one book on Christianity and the arts in general, this is where you should start.

 

The Liberated ImaginationThe Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts by Leland Ryken (2005, 284 pages)

This is the most thorough book on arts in general that I’ve found. As I began researching how Christianity should relate to art, I found Ryken’s book addressed every major question I had. As always, Ryken is insightful, compelling, and graceful in his writing. He addresses what art is, how it works, why and how we are affected by it, how we might define “Christian art,” what it means to be a Christian artist, how Christians can be inspired, challenged, and aided by non-Christian artists, and a variety of other important topics. As a professor of literature, the majority of Ryken’s examples come from literature, but he also delves into painting and other art forms. I find this book just as helpful as Imagine (even a bit more so), and the only reason I recommend Imagine over Ryken’s book in some contexts is that Imagine is a bit more concise. If you want to be a bit more thorough, this book is the one you should read.

 

Culture CareCulture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura (2015, 124 pages)

This is an important book. Many books focus on understanding the arts or engaging the arts, but Fujimura’s book focuses on caring for the arts and culture around us. Fujimura is a phenomenal and widely respected artist, and he challenges us to see culture and art, not as a battleground to fight over, but as a rich field to be cultivated. This takes us several steps beyond the critical approach and launches us into the world of actively and lovingly participating in the culture being produced around us. I believe this is an essential concept, and anyone interested in how Christians should think about and engage with the arts needs to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

On Becoming GenerativeOn Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura (2013, 25 pages)

This tiny and inexpensive book was launched by Fujimura in advance of his Culture Care book to introduce the topic. This book is simply the first two chapters of the longer Culture Care.

 

Art and the BibleArt & the Bible by Francis Schaeffer (1973, 95 pages)

This is the book that began my own fascination with the arts. Schaeffer’s insightful approach to Christianity and its relation to the surrounding culture is on display here, as in all of his books. The book is short, but Schaeffer does a masterful job of helping the reader understand what the Bible says about art and to delight in art in the same way that God does. At the same time, Schaeffer offers helpful instructions for being discerning in our approach to art, and aids Christian artists in thinking through their task. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who sense the arts are significant for Christians, but haven’t put their finger on precisely why this is so.

 

Meaning at the MoviesMeaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner (2010, 224 pages)

This is the best book I’ve read on the intersection of faith and film. The first chapter, which gives a biblical and theological explanation of art and culture, is worth more than the price of the book on its own. Horner uses Romans 1 to explain that all human production is characterized by both a knowledge of God and his truth and also the suppression of that knowledge. For this reason, Horner argues, we must be discerning when we watch movies. We can enjoy them and learn much from them, even when the film has been crafted by a non-Christian. But we also need to be discerning (even when the film has been crafted by a Christian). Horner’s book is well written and his arguments are persuasive. The last half of the book features an insightful look at a handful of important film genres, and in each case Horner gives a wonderful discussion of the genre itself, along with a theological look at why we find that particular genre appealing. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in faith and film, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the arts in general. For more on this book, click here.

 

Mystery and MannersMystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor (1969, 256 pages)

This is one of the most influential books on art that I have read. It has shaped many aspects of my thinking on the arts. The book is a collection of fiction writer Flannery O’Connor’s letters and speeches, published posthumously. There is a fair amount of overlap from essay to essay, but even the repetition is rewarding. She specifically addresses issues of how a person’s faith should affect their art (fiction writing is her focus), and she refuses to validate the view that “Christian art” must focus on Christian subject matter or exposit Christian doctrine. Her craft is more subtle and profound, and she explains how she sees grace operating in even some of her darkest stories. Some readers may be frustrated by wading through a variety of speeches and letters delivered on a variety of occasions, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone.

 

Art for God's SakeArt for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Philip Graham Ryken (2006, 64 pages)

This tiny book is an excellent place to get started in learning about how Christianity and the arts relate. Ryken is a wonderful writer, and this brief treatment of the subject is filled with wisdom and inspiration. The book is probably too short to seriously aid those who have already invested a lot of time into studying the topic, but those who are getting started will find this very helpful and accessible.

 

Walking on WaterWalking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art by Madeleine L’Engle (2001, 256 pages)

This book is a classic on the relationship between faith and art. L’Engle does an excellent job of helping the reader to feel the tension in defining art and in clarifying the role that faith plays in one’s art. She cuts through many of the lame definitions of “Christian art,” insisting that if a person is truly Christian, then their art will be Christian, no matter what the subject matter. She weaves through various proposals for the definition of art and gives helpful statements such as: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in a such a new light that the old becomes new.” Those wanting a straightforward answer to the question of how faith relates to art may be frustrated with L’Engle’s meandering approach. But she writes as an artist (L’Engle was a fiction writer), and her insights have done much to help my understanding of this subject.

 

The Crowd, the Critic, & the MuseThe Crowd, the Critic, & the Muse: A Book for Creators by Michael Gungor (2012, 230 pages)

This book by the popular Christian musician Michael Gungor is a wonderful read. Gungor is passionate, humorous, and insightful in his approach to the subject of how a person’s faith should affect their art. As a musician, the majority of Gungor’s examples are drawn from the world of music, but the implications are clear for every art form. The book includes several powerful quotes, as well as a very helpful discussion on the frustrations inherent in the “Christian Music Industry.” I would highly recommend this book for artist and every art lover. For more on this book, click here.

 

RefractionsRefractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, & Culture by Makoto Fujimura (2009, 176 pages)

This beautiful book consists of refined blog posts written by Fujimura on a number of topics related to faith, art, and culture. Because these chapters started as blogs, the tone is more reflective, which is perfect for a book on art. Readers wanting strong definitions on what art is and straightforward answers about how Christians should relate to art will be frustrated, but I found Refractions to be very helpful for my own understanding of art and culture. Fujimura is a talented and gracious writer, and the book includes photos of some of his artwork.

 

Echoes of EdenEchoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, & the Arts by Jerram Barrs (2013, 208 pages)

This book is excellent on the world of literature. Actually, Barrs’ book gives an excellent approach to the arts in general, but he focuses his examples and attention on literature. His basic argument is that all art (and literature in particular) carries “echoes of Eden.” This is basically a way of talking about the knowledge of God that is ingrained in us all (see Rom. 1:18-25), the “sense of eternity” that God has placed in our hearts (see Eccl. 3). We will find much to disagree with in the world of literature, but we also consistently find human beings (Christian or not) wrestling with God’s truth, God’s world, and what it means to be truly human. Barrs first lays out the theoretical argument of his book, then he tests this theory with several helpful examples, the best of which (in my opinion) is his chapter on Harry Potter (see my post about that chapter here).

 

For the Beauty of the ChurchFor the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts ed. by W. David O. Taylor (2010, 208 pages)

This book is a collection of chapters from various authors, all based on a conference on Christianity and the arts. It addresses all of the arts and focuses on how Christians (and more specifically, the church) should relate to the arts. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but this is an excellent book overall. The bright spot for me is the first chapter by Andy Crouch, which I consider to be worth more than the price of the entire book. Other chapters cover helpful areas that many Christians will be wrestling with, such as the role of art in the church’s worship, why and how Christians can be patrons of the arts, and how art functions in relation to pastoral ministry.

 

The Mind of the MakerThe Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (1987, 256 pages)

This book is excellent. Fiction writer Dorothy Sayers is sharp, and her writing is profound. Her arguments are tightly wound and throughout the book I found myself deeply resonating with Sayers’ insights. If every artist would heed Sayers’ wisdom here, the art produced by the church would be deeper and more powerful. As a fiction writer, Sayers primarily focuses on writing and draws her examples from that world. Her practical instruction for writing well is based in and intricately intertwined with Trinitarian theology. And this leads me to a caution: The Mind of the Maker is not for the casual arts tourist. Her arguments are profound, and sometimes tricky to follow. The reader must buckle up and hold on tightly. But any effort you put into understanding this important book will be well rewarded.

 

An Experiment in CriticismAn Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (1961, 152 pages)

As with everything C. S. Lewis has written, this book is powerful. It is not for the faint of heart, however, as Lewis’ skill as a litterateur and critic is in full effect, his arguments are tightly wound, and his examples are drawn from works of literature that most modern readers will not be familiar with. However, for those willing to invest the energy to follow Lewis’ argument, the book will prove rich. The book is on literature, and Lewis’ basic argument is that we should judge books not according to how they are written (a trend in literary criticism that Lewis found disturbing), but more about how they are read. Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.” He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.” The book is full of wisdom and many memorable (and transformational) quotes. Any serious about literature ought to read this book. For more on this book, click here.

 

Every Good EndeavorEvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller (2012, 288 pages)

As with everything Tim Keller writes, this book is amazing. Actually, I think this is one of the most important books Tim Keller has written, and I believe it should be required reading for anyone in the work force and anyone pastoring people in the work force (i.e., everybody). Keller’s contention is that everything we do in life matters, and that even our most “secular” activities can be a means of God spreading his grace and provision throughout his earth. The book is not about art—it’s broader than that—but Keller gives a healthy amount of attention to the arts and any artist will find Keller’s insights helpful and inspiring. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in life, I implore you to read this book for the sake of God’s kingdom.

 

Saving LeonardoSaving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning by Nancy Pearcey (2010, 336 pages)

I found Saving Leonardo to be very helpful in understanding several types of art, and several aspects of art history in particular. Pearcey is a sharp writer, and (in the spirit of her teacher, Francis Schaeffer) she has done much to alert the evangelical world to the dangers of dividing the secular and the sacred. What I love most about this book is its careful discussions on why certain types of art emerged and why styles, themes, and transitions are significant. But I do have one caveat. As the subtitle suggests, Saving Leonardo is a bit defensive: it recognizes an onslaught of secularism, and Pearcey sees that onslaught clearly on many fronts. But I do sense that Pearcey is taking a slightly cynical stance in regards to many works of art, several of which are capable of a more congenial interpretation. I appreciate Pearcey’s concern to induce discernment, but at times one gets the feeling that Pearcey sees all art produced by non-Christians as a massive conspiracy to get Christians to renounce their faith. However, Pearcey ends the book by denying this accusation, and she rightly points out that art—even art made by non-Christians—can be God-glorifying and beneficial to Christians. With that caveat, I would heartily recommend this book.

 

It Was GoodIt Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (2007, 355 pages)

It Was Good is a collection of essays from a lot of great people on a variety of issues surrounding faith and art. As with any compilation, some essays are better than others, but there is a lot of outstanding material here. Some chapters that stood out to me were those written by Tim Keller, Makoto Fujimura, Edward Knippers, Ned Bustard, and Karen Mulder. The collection of essays is impressive, and while some will find specific topics and writing styles more compelling than others, this book has a lot to offer anyone interested in learning more about art and how it relates to faith. If you’re looking for a systematic approach to the subject, however, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you’ve already started down your journey in exploring Christianity and the arts, however, you’re sure to find this book helpful.

 

Resounding TruthResounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music by Jeremy Begbie (2007, 416 pages)

This is one of the first books I read on Christianity and the arts, and I found it very helpful. Jeremy Begbie explores the world of music and covers a lot of ground. He discusses the power of music and its important role in our daily lives. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the history of music and to the history of music theory. From the ancient Greeks to Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Bach, the book traces the prevailing theories regarding what music is and how it works. This includes both philosophy and theology. Begbie also discusses some intriguing facets of music that can aid us in the way we think about God (and the Trinity in particular). I would caution the average reader that this book is written at the scholarly level, which means that it’s well researched and carefully nuanced, but this will likely be a barrier for most readers.

 

Music, Modernity, and GodMusic, Modernity, & God: Essays in Listening by Jeremy Begbie (2014, 272 pages)

This is another scholarly work by Jeremy Begbie, and it offers a handful of essays that engage the modernist worldview, how it has affected our music, and how music might offer some paths leading beyond the stalemate that modernist philosophy and theology have left us with. Most readers will find this book overly scholarly (too nuanced, too sparse on explanations of philosophers and philosophical concepts, too lacking in passionate appeals), so I would only recommend this book to those deeply interested in both modernity and music. However, Begbie’s collection of essays here are insightful into the nature of music, and he offers some profound analogies from the world of music that can aid our thinking and discussions about several areas of theology and philosophy, not to mention music itself. For more on this book, see my review on Themelios.

 

Beholding the GloryBeholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts ed. by Jeremy Begbie (2000, 159 pages)

This is a compilation, edited by Jeremy Begbie, focusing on how the concept of Incarnation relates to the arts. First, the concept of incarnation (of God taking on flesh in Jesus) is explained and compared to the process of incarnating through the arts—taking a concept and then giving it “flesh” through paint, sound, words, etc. This is an essential concept for the arts, and for the Christian life in general, and Beholding the Glory does an excellent job of explaining its significance. Subsequent chapters explain how incarnation works in specific art forms: poetry, music, dance, sculpture, icons, etc. As with any compilation, some chapters are better than others, but I found this book helpful and insightful overall.

 

God in the GalleryGod in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art by Daniel Siedell (2008, 192 pages)

As the name suggests, Siedell’s focus is visual art in general, and modern art in particular. This is a helpful book for those who have trouble understanding modern art, and especially for those who wonder if there is any point in a Christian engaging modern art. Siedell is knowledgeable (he has worked as a curator) and gracious. This book is part of Baker’s Cultural Exegesis series, which means that it is more on the scholarly side. The average reader will struggle a bit, but I would still recommend this book for those wanting to understand modern art.

 

Visual FaithVisual Faith: Art, Theology, & Worship in Dialogue by William Dyrness (2001, 190 pages)

Dyrness focuses on visual art. The book offers a history of the visual arts, an exploration of what the Bible says about art, and an overview of the contemporary art scene. Dyrness’ book is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, which means it is a scholarly work and therefore more heavily nuanced and technical than most readers will want. Nevertheless, the book would be very helpful for those hoping to understand the visual arts better, particularly in conjunction with a Christian worldview.

 

Reel SpiritualityReel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue by Robert Johnston (2006, 352 pages)

Johnston provides a helpful explanation of how film works and how our faith informs our experience with film. Johnston challenges Christians to go beyond the rating system to decide which movies are helpful and/or redemptive. One of Johnston’s key concerns is that many people today go to the theatre as a worshipful experience, as a sort of replacement for church and traditional spirituality. One of his key arguments is that we will often find God in the theatre. I would personally side more with Grant Horner’s contention that what we find in the theatre is humanity, but I would still affirm Johnston’s writing because human beings are made in God’s image, and God is reflected in the things we make, often in surprising ways. Once again, Reel Spirituality is in Baker’s Engaging Culture series, and the scholarly style will make this work more inaccessible to the average reader, but it is worth the time for those who want to learn more about a Christian approach to film and want to go deeper than Horner’s book (Meaning at the Movies).

 

Personal JesusPersonal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls by Clive Marsh & Vaughan Roberts (2013, 256 pages)

Marsh and Roberts examine pop music and the modern person’s listening habits in an attempt to discover how our experience with pop music shapes us. The subject matter is fascinating, and Marsh and Roberts incorporate theology, psychology, and a wonderful knowledge of pop music into their text. I will say, however, that I found this book to be a bit disappointing, mostly because the writing style was so technical and every point so carefully nuanced that I felt an absence of firm conviction (this book is also in Baker’s Engaging Culture series). The scholarly approach gives the book lasting value, and many writers will want to build on what the authors have put together here, but when an author is working so hard to avoid making assertions beyond what their research will allow, the book often becomes tedious. For me personally, the scholarly strength of the book made it fall flat, aside from a few wonderful insights that I took away. I hope other readers will disagree.

 

Outreach and the ArtistOutreach & the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts by Con Campbell (2013, 128 pages)

As the title of this book suggests, Campbell focuses on the arts as a means of sharing one’s faith. Campbell is a jazz musician, so many of his examples are about music in general, and jazz in particular. Outreach and the Artist provides a fairly robust vision for what it means to incorporate the arts into outreach. At times, I felt as though Campbell was recommending the bait and switch: throw a jazz concert, and once you’ve got people there for the fun event, hit them with the gospel. But in the end Campbell’s approach was much more robust, and he does address how art itself, communicating as art can be an outreach opportunity. The book is more specifically focused than most readers will want, but for those wanting to do outreach, this will be a helpful read.

 

Imagination RedeemedImagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Matthew Ristuccia (2014, 176 pages)

Imagination Redeemed is not primarily about art. As the title suggests, the book is about the imagination in general. Each chapter follows the same structure: Veith writes some on the importance of the imagination for life and art, then Ristuccia writes about some appeal to the imagination in the book of Ezekiel. In one sense, the book is broad because it addresses imagination for all of life, but the book is also oddly narrow in that most of the application focuses on the book of Ezekiel. It’s part encomium to imagination and part commentary on Ezekiel. The strength is that the sections on Ezekiel show how powerfully the Bible makes use of the imagination. The weakness is that those less interested in the background and text of Ezekiel will find the book difficult to finish. The book is full of insights on the imagination, however, and the sections on Ezekiel are also insightful.

 

How to Read SlowlyHow to Read Slowly by James Sire (2000, 192 pages)

This is not a book about art, it’s a book about reading well. But I’m including it here because Sire gives a significant amount of attention to reading poetry and fiction. The book as a whole is helpful and definitely worth reading, and those interested in fiction and poetry will find much help in reading, understanding, and enjoying these art forms. Sire is a great teacher, he uses many excellent examples, and he is always clear in explaining why it matters.

 

Lit!Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke (2011, 202 pages)

Reinke’s book is about reading—all types of reading, including literature. Overall, this book is very helpful. Reinke orients the reader to the challenges and possibilities of reading various genres and provides discussions about important topics such as whether or not a Christian can benefit from reading books written by non-Christians. My only concern with Lit! is that Reinke seems (to me) to view written words as inherently better (or more powerful, or more beneficial) than images, which he says are more ambiguous and more prone to corruption. I disagree with that sentiment, especially when it comes to thinking about art, and especially when considering the massively corrupting purposes to which language has been directed, but I suppose I shouldn’t fault a literary enthusiast for loving his own art form.

 

The Artisan SoulThe Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin McManus (2014, 208 pages)

McManus writes as a pastor of a highly artist-saturated congregation. In other words, he knows what it means to be a shepherd to artists. The book includes helpful discussions on the nature of art, the importance of craftsmanship, and the importance of the imagination. While the book continually interacts with the world of art, the book is not about art, strictly speaking. McManus uses art as an analogy for life: you want your life to be a work of art. So while I would recommend this book, if you are looking for a book specifically on art or what it means to be an artist, I’d start elsewhere. If you enjoy art and want to be a better person, this would be a great book for you.

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.

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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:

 

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.

This entry is part 20 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

This great quote is attributed to Elvis Costello: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Indeed.

That’s one of art’s greatest characteristics. It defies description. It resists paraphrase. So when it comes to writing about something as complex, subtly nuanced, and experience-driven as music, you may as well be using a waltz to explain the Eifel Tower. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Resonate Mark BeuvingAt the end of this month, I’m releasing a book through Zondervan entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. It’s essentially a music lover’s approach to the topic. I have always loved music. Always. I still remember the time my dad came home with a new boom box and a cassette tape of the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl album. Music has been a constant part of my life since that moment.

And that’s exactly where the description-defying nature of music comes in to play. I can’t tell you exactly what music has done for me. Inspired me? Deepened my emotional life? Helped me to contemplate key aspects of human existence? Enlarged my being (to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis)? Yes. All of those. But what do these grandiose claims mean precisely? As an educator, a book lover, and a writer, I spend a lot of time around intellectual types who would rather be reading commentaries than listening to Radiohead. That type of person gets suspicious when you talk about an “enlargement of being” in connection with melodies and tones. Yet I am convinced that all of us need to embrace the gift of music more deeply.

In my experience, we tend to take music for granted. It’s everywhere. Many of us pursue it eagerly, but even those who don’t care much about music are exposed to it constantly. The trouble is, we rarely think about the music we hear. Is music actually good for us? How so? Can it be harmful to our souls? If so, how? And how do we guard against the harmful affect? What kind of music should we be listening to? Is it okay for a serious Christian to listen to “secular music”? Should we be primarily focused on “Christian music”? And what does “Christian music” mean, anyway?

These are all questions that I’ve had throughout my music-loving life. I haven’t always had good answers to those types of questions. To be honest, I went through many years without even considering them. And yet music has always remained with me—affecting me in ways I didn’t understand, attracting me in ways I can’t articulate, even leading me into worship in the oddest of situations (a concept that I was not entirely comfortable with).

So while writing about something as mysterious as music is inherently difficult, I felt compelled to explore this gift from God. Anytime we find one of God’s gifts going unappreciated, or we find the gift being used but the Giver going unacknowledged, we need to think more deeply. If you’ve never felt awe at how unbelievable the gift of music is—if that gift has never left you in awe of the Giver—then you need to think more deeply about music.

That’s what I hope to offer readers through Resonate: the opportunity to think more deeply about music. In the first half, I explore a theology of music. What does the Bible say about it? How do we explain the universal fascination with music (there has never been a culture that has gone without music)? How should we as God’s image bearers relate to music? How should we think about the distinction between secular and Christian music? Then in the second half, I explore ways that we dive in and interact with music. How should we listen to it? How should we create it? How should we share it? How does music relate the worship and mission of the church?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll keep posting about music here and there. That’s partly to promote the book (what’s the point in writing it if no one reads it, right?). But I also genuinely care about music, and I sincerely want you to see the beauty, brilliance, and mystery of music as you’ve never seen it before. And my prayer is that you would see the beauty, brilliance, and mystery of God as your grow in your enjoyment of his gift of music.

If you’re so inclined, you can pre-order it here:

A while back, Billy Corgan, rock legend and frontman of the band The Smashing Pumpkins, gave an interview in which he said that God is the future of rock n’ roll and acknowledges that this is what he has been exploring in his music lately. See the interview below:

Those are pretty big statements from someone who once sang, “God is empty just like me.” But ever since his 2003 album with the band Zwan, Billy Corgan has indeed been singing about God. His lyrics won’t always make evangelicals feel comfortable with his orthodoxy (e.g., his most recent Smashing Pumpkin release begins by addressing God alongside Hindu gods), but he also has some startlingly Christian lyrics. On that Zwan album, he comes out and sings “I declare myself of faith” (on the song “Declarations of Faith”) and ends the album by covering a hymn—yes, a hymn—“Jesus I’ve taken my cross, all to leave and follow Thee.”

All that to say, Corgan was doing more than stirring the pot in that interview. He has indeed been exploring God in his music over the last decade. None of us will feel comfortable enough with his formulations of Christian doctrine to make him our pastor, but through his music he has jumped headlong into life’s most important questions and is addressing the concepts that mean most to us Christians.

When the interviewer asks Corgan what he would say to Christian rockers, he says, “make better music.” Now, my guess is that about half of my readers will burst out laughing at that and the other half will be offended. But here’s the thing. Corgan is giving a sound bite, he’s not taking the time to qualify his statement. But he does offer some explanation. He basically says that U2 has a great sound, and that tons of Christian bands are trying to sound a lot like U2. And he’s right. To an extent.

Corgan also tells Christian musicians that Jesus would want them to make better music. Again, half are laughing, half are irritated. But think about it. Would Jesus be condescending and tell Christians their music is not as cool as The Smashing Pumpkins? Probably not. But would Jesus want every Christian to whom he has given musical abilities to make the best music they possibly can? Of course. Would he want every Christian musician to follow the same musical template? Of course not. So add a bit of salt and Corgan’s got a great point.

But here’s where I’ll add a touch of encouragement. I think many Christians are “making better music.” Sure, there are plenty of worship bands that want nothing more than to sound exactly like Hillsong and plenty of Christian musicians who want to sound just like this or that band (U2, most typically). But I’ve been encouraged recently as I’ve found several bands that I think are making more than good Christian music—they’re making good music. We’ll all disagree on which bands fall into this category, but I’m telling you they’re out there. And there are other Christians making great music that have never been invited (or have simply chosen not to enter) into the world of Christian music.

Here are some that I appreciate:

Valley Maker – This band isn’t a part of the Christian music scene, but their first (self-titled) album sings through the narratives of Genesis. Their second album also explores some great Christian themes, among other things. Both albums are very good musically.

The Welcome WagonI’ve written on these guys in the past. It’s a Presbyterian minister and his wife singing hymns, and yet they’re not a part of the Christian music community. But they do have a significant following in the broader music world because their music is honest, creative, and oddly compelling.

Gungor – Gungor has been around for a while, and they refuse to fit into the mold of what Christian music is supposed to sound like. I’ve enjoyed their music, but what I’d consider to be their best album just came out a few weeks ago, and I think it’s excellent.

Josh Garrels – A lot of people I know LOVE Garrels. I like him, and I genuinely enjoy his music, but I haven’t been able to get myself to love it yet (though many whose musical taste I respect do). But without a doubt, Garrels is rejecting common templates for Christian music and making some very cool music.

Future of Forestry – This band has a long history with the Christian music world. They continue to explore and evolve musically, and in my opinion, each release gets stronger. This is just my judgment, of course, but I’d say that everything since the Travel EPs has been excellent.

Neulore – I’ve only heard their first EP, but it’s songs from the Garden of Eden as Adam sings to Eve. It’s pretty cool. I don’t believe they’re part of the Christian music community, but there’s something Christian going on there.

And then there are the many Christians who are making music in the broader music scene, who are being faithful to Jesus and diligently creative in their music, but whose lyrics don’t include the word “Jesus” enough to get them a consideration under the heading “Christian music.” That’s ok.I’ve explained in the past that “Christian music” is difficult to define and that based on current definitions, many Christians will need to make music outside of that arena. But we need to acknowledge that solid Christians are out there making solid music, and have been doing so for a long time.

That list could go on, but you get the idea. We could all point to several Christian musicians who are doing what Billy Corgan challenges Christian musicians to do. Good for Corgan for calling us out, and good for many of our musicians for beating him to the punch.

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