Archives For Leland Ryken

Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.

In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.

Headphones2

Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:

“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”

This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:

Vinyl“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:

“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”

The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):

“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”

I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.

I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

Over the past four posts, I have offered four reasons why Christians should care about the arts. With the exception of my first point, these reasons have focused on the utility of the arts. In other words, I have been arguing that we should care about the arts because of what they can do for us (they teach us about humanity) and how we can use them (they give us the opportunity to test God’s truth and to connect with non-Christians).

But art is not about utility. Art is valuable because of what it is, not just because of what it does. Art is valuable because it is a good gift of God, and we should enjoy it as such.

Francis Schaeffer recognized this in the creativity of art:

“A work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator.” (Art and the Bible in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol 2, 394)

Warner Sallman JesusCan pure creativity really be a good thing in itself? Shouldn’t creativity serve a more useful purpose—like a drama that portrays the gospel or a painting of Jesus? Creativity is great when it is used this way, but we do not have any grounds to say that beauty, creativity, or the arts in general are only valuable if they are useful.

We can take our cue on this point from God. He created a world that was both useful and beautiful: “Out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). A utilitarian God would certainly make trees that were good for food, but pleasant to the sight? Isn’t that a bit extravagant? Or consider the light that God created. God declared the light good, even before there was an eye to see it or a plant to photsynthesize with it. It was just good.

Or take the tabernacle. Without a doubt the tabernacle served many important functions. But God takes up a lot of space in the Pentateuch with describing how the tabernacle should be adorned. Schaeffer brings the implications home:

“Art is not something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content. It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the art work in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty.” (394) (For example, see Ex. 28:2.)

Grace Foretold (Fujimura)Not only did God create a beautiful world—a world so beautiful that poets, artists, and ordinary people over the millennia have not been able to help but exult in its beauty—He also created us with the capacity to enjoy it. God didn’t just create sunsets, He gave us eyes that could see them. He didn’t just create sound waves and the physical properties required to create them, He also gave us ears to hear them. He didn’t just give us beauty, He gave us the aesthetic sensibilities to appreciate beauty for what it is. Art can be useful, but it is still valuable even when it doesn’t do anything.

Leland Ryken says it well:

“When we enjoy the colors and design of a painting, the fictional inventiveness of a novel, the harmonious arrangement of a sonata, we are enjoying a quality of which God is the ultimate source and performing an act similar to God’s enjoyment of the beauty of his own creation. We can participate in the arts to the glory of God by enthusiastically enjoying the arts, recognizing God as the ultimate source of the creativity and beauty that we enjoy. If artistic creativity is, as the Bible claims, a gift of God, we can scarcely demonstrate our gratitude for the gift any more adequately than by using and enjoying it.” (The Liberated Imagination, 88)

There are many reasons that Christians should care about art, but ultimately we don’t need more reasons than this: art is a gift from God, and we should enjoy it for His sake.

The arts should matter to Christians. For one thing, art is all around us, and the way we interact with what is around us is important. In addition to that, the arts give us insight into what our culture cares about. And yesterday I argued that the arts give us an opportunity to test God’s truth in the real world. Today I will add a simple point: The arts establish points of contact with the unbelieving world.

Let’s be honest, many Christians have a tendency to withdraw from the culture around them. In many ways, this impulse is understandable. Without a doubt, our culture produces many things that are indisputably evil. Even those cultural productions that aren’t outright wicked often contain destructive, deceptive, and desensitizing elements. So it makes sense that Christians want to avoid being exposed to these things.

While this is a serious concern (one I dealt with a while ago in two posts on “good” movies and “bad” movies), the answer can’t be to simply run from culture. On the one hand, you can’t escape culture—it is an unavoidable byproduct of human interaction. Even those that try to escape from culture (e.g., the Amish) end up creating their own culture. But there’s another important reason not to run from culture. As Calvin Seerveld put it: any arena from which Christians withdraw simply goes to hell. Or to put it positively:

“If Christians are to be a force in shaping the contours of their society and evangelizing people in it, they will have to come to grips with the culture in which they inevitably live and move and have their being.” (Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination, 11)

In part 2, I mentioned the fact that the arts are a helpful catalog of the way that human beings feel about their existence. As Christians, we can gain insight into the way the unbelieving world views the world, including the way it views us as Christians:

“Christians, especially those called to preach or share the word, should take a special interest when those ‘outside’ the faith are drawn to deal with its mysteries and should listen closely when they tell us what our orthodoxy has sounded like to them.” (Malcom Guite in Beholding the Glory, ed. Jeremy Begbie, 30)

“Angela” on The Office may be an unfair caricature of what Christians are really like, but there is value in knowing that we have a tendency to look that way to the non-Christian world.

Add to that the fact that the arts give us opportunities to connect with people. We all know that we need to be evangelizing, but we tend to approach evangelism through an awkward encounter where we try to convince our non-Christian friends to care about some point of Christian doctrine that matters to us, but doesn’t matter to them. As I’ve said before, this is not all bad. But what if we had the opportunity to bring the truth of God’s word to bear on the things that our friends and neighbors already think and care about?

I contend that this is exactly the opportunity the arts give us. When my friends listen to Death Cab for Cutie singing about what comes (or doesn’t come) after death, I get an opportunity to engage them in a conversation on eternity. When a runaway bestseller raises the issue of who human beings are at the core (whether that bestseller is written as fiction or nonfiction), we get the opportunity to bring a biblical worldview into a discussion that our friends and coworkers are already interested in.

By avoiding the arts, we are passing up these opportunities. I think that is a mistake. It doesn’t mean that we should listen to, watch, or read everything on the market. But if your friends are interested in some form of art or culture, take the time to check it out. You might be surprised at how easy it is to talk about God’s truth in the context of the things that people are already thinking through.

Yesterday I argued that you should care about the arts because art is unavoidable—we can’t escape it, and the way we interact with art matters. In this post, I want to give another important reason for caring about the arts: The arts serve as a cultural barometer.

If you want to find out what’s going on in the world, you check a newspaper or turn on the tv news. If you want to find out what has happened in the past, you read a history book.

Right?

It’s true that newspapers and history books tell us about what has taken place. But the arts add an important dimension: They tell us how people feel about the events that occur. The news relays events, but the arts interpret those events.

Leland Ryken says:

“The media claim to tell us what is happening in our culture, but they are terribly superficial. They bombard us with facts but ignore the meaning of those facts. By contrast, the arts lay bare the inner movements of our own time” (The Liberated Imagination, 251).

The arts function as a cultural barometer. They tell us at a deep level what is going on in the thoughts, emotions, and lives of the people around us. Mankind has always used art as a means of dealing with existence. This is where people grapple with reality. So if you want to know what people care about, turn to the movies, songs, paintings, poems, and stories that they create:

“The arts are humankind’s most accurate record of their affirmations and denials, their longings and fears. The arts are a picture of the kind of world people aspire to create and of the fallen realities that keep thwarting those aspirations.” (Ryken, 265)

We can see human depravity in the images of warfare, murder, and scandal that flash across the tv news. But we get a sense of the frustration and fragmentation that this depravity causes when Radiohead sings, “How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong? …You used to be all right, what happened? …One by one it comes to us all.”

Some would argue that you can understand humanity better by talking to biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. There is much to be learned in each of these spheres, but we may have more to learn about human nature by watching Spielberg than by reading Freud:

“The arts deal with the same subjects (God, people, and nature) as the natural and social sciences do. But the arts differ from the sciences by focusing on the human response to those subjects. The arts express how the human race has felt about the facts of existence. Art is the record of people’s involvement with life. It deals not simply with the facts of life but with things as they matter to people.” (Ryken, 266)

So if you care about people—if your mission is focused on understanding and speaking into the lives of the people around you—then you should care about the arts.

In the next post, I’ll argue that the arts give us the opportunity to test God’s truth in the real world.

Christians tend to be suspicious of the arts. It hasn’t always been that way, but the Protestant tradition in particular has always had an awkward relationship to artistic expression (as opposed to propositional statements). Some key figures in the Reformation responded to the idolatry they saw in the artistry of the Catholic Church. They weren’t rejecting art as art, just art at that particular moment as an expression of idolatry. Even so, art has remained suspect. We distrust it because it is not propositional.

But art matters. And I’m going to do a series of posts to convince you.

In this post, I want to make a simple point: art is unavoidable. It is all around us. You may not like art, but it is an inescapable part of your life. I’m not necessarily talking about fine art: pretty much everything around you has been designed by someone. For example, take the computer you’re using to read this post. Someone decided on the shape and colors of the physical construction. Someone else designed the menus and interface. They may not have thought of themselves primarily as artists, but they were making artistic decisions as they created your computer. Or consider the clothes you’re wearing. The designer made artistic decisions in cutting and stitching the fabric, and you made an artistic decision in choosing which shirt to wear with which pants and which shoes. The same types of decisions went into every other man-made object around you.

All I’m trying to say here is that we can’t escape aesthetics. Here’s how Makoto Fujimura puts it:

“I encourage people not to segment art into an ‘extra’ sphere of life or to see art as mere decorations. Why? Because art is everywhere and has already taken root in our lives. Therefore, the question is not so much ‘why art?’ but ‘which art?’ In other words, our worlds are filled with art that we have already chosen for our walls, our iPods, and our bookshelves. We become patrons of the arts by going to see movies, plays and concerts or by watching television. We are presented with a choice, and this choice is a responsibility of cultural stewardship.” (Refractions, 111)

Or listen to Leland Ryken:

“People were created by God as aesthetic creatures possessed of a capacity for beauty, craving the expression of their experiences and insights…Everyone in our culture indulges his or her artistic sense, even if it consists simply of painting the walls of a room or listening to popular music or singing hymns. The question is not whether we need the arts but rather what the quality of our artistic experiences will be.” (The Liberated Imagination, 60)

You can’t escape art, so why not give it some thought? Beauty is an intentional part of the world God created, so why would we be suspicious of it? It’s true that art has been used to convey some distorted and evil realities, but does that mean that we should only trust propositions? Have not propositions been put to use for distorted and evil purposes as well?

If this is God’s world, and if He is indeed King over every aspect of our existence, then we should take every aspect of life seriously. That includes art. And as I’ll argue in future posts, art has incredible value—partially because it can be useful, and partially because it can be useless.