The Self-Validating Nature of Sacred Music

What's Sacred About Sacred Art?

Through most of the Church's history, Sacred Music was "consecrated," or set aside, for the serious purpose of the Divine Service--this was before the "Jesus is My Friend" ethos that seemed to really gain traction in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s (if you do a Youtube search for "Jesus is my Friend," you'll find some interesting results, including this: ).

The traditional approach was predicated on, and thus reflects, several key teachings of Christianity:

  • The universe is created by God and has a beginning (Genesis) and an end--eschatology from Genesis to Revelation.
  • The central basis of Scripture if the person and work of Jesus Christ
  • The Old Testament chronicles the appearance of sin (Genesis 3:7), God's promise of the Messiah as the Word Incarnate (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14; 49:1, etc), Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection (Genesis 3:14, Psalms 22, Zech. 13:7, Psalms 16:10) and his return (Job 19:15, Psalms 110:6).
  • The New Testament shows the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (Genesis 12:3, 17:17,19; Numbers 24:17 -- Matthew 1:1-2,16; Luke 3:34-38, Micah 5:2 -- Luke 2:4-7, etc.)

Embedded within this structure we have two important philosophical viewpoints:

  1. A central, cohesive purpose:
  • Tension (sin, separation from God)
  • Resolution (Salvation through Faith in Christ)
  • Christ is the central message of Scripture, the purpose of the Bible
  • Scripture is self-authenticating, is inspired, and cannot be broken (2 Peter 1:21, John 10:35)
  1. A teleology, a direction:
  • The arc of history (from the beginning in Genesis to the end in Revelation)
  • Typology -- some ideas are introduced at one point, then revisited or amplified later (types and antitypes)
  • History is the story of God's work in time

Ideas like this spring straight from Scripture, and formed the central basis (or Gestalt) for nearly 2000 years of art and Music. Artists, architects, and composers all drew their inspiration from specific elements of Scripture as well as these deeper truths.

Even the Church Year itself can be understood as a microscopic reflection of the macro-cycle of eternity, a yearlong way of instructing us and reflecting upon the temporality of creation and God's working through time and history.

Cathedral Building

The task of the artist (or architect, or musician) creating sacred works was to convey these fundamental philosophies in an instructive and pleasing way. Because their was was to be consectrated or set aside to God's glory, there was a demand for great skill, thought, and attention. Cathedrals, for example, normally employed a floorplan in the shape of the cross (the "cruciform" floorplan). The dome was to symbolize the heavens, and the artwork displayed thereupon reinforced the notion that the heavens were populated by saints, angels, and of course, the Trinity. Stained-glass windows were carefully designed to instruct and edify (often pre-literate) congregants.

Recent scholarship hints that the proportion of certain architectural structures were derived from descriptions of Solomon's Temple (1. Kings 6) and other significant numbers in the Bible.

Cathedrals were dripping with specific references to events in Scripture (such as a stained-glass window illustrating the Resurrection) as well as symbolic ones that may not be immediately obvious (embedded in a cross-shaped floor plan).

The presence of these surface- and deep- symbols attests to the great care and thought that went into their design.

But What About Music?

The history of Sacred Music shares the same aesthetic, philosophical, and spiritual underpinnings as the cathedral builders. When we analyze the Music of J. S. Bach for example, we must approach the score with the understanding that he intentionally wrote his Music to the Glory of God, and took great pains to use Music as a means of illustrating the deeper truths of Scripture. A superficial hearing of this Music may result in the listener "hearing a bunch of notes," but sophisticated investigation reveals a startling and almost terrifyingly precise logic that mirrors Christian Theology as surely as any cathedral design.

As listeners or analysts, our task is to be aware of the underlying aesthetic that drove the creation of his Music, and observe/receive the message so painstakingly crafted in his art. The deep structures of Scripture (hinted at above) are worked-out by the composer and reflected in the following manners (this is by no means a comprehensive list):

  • Tuning and the construction of chordal structures -- Partially borrowing from the ancient Platonic "Music of the Spheres" ( philosophy but ultimately ascribing the origin of creation's logic to the Triune God
  • The careful introduction of dissonance and its resolution
  • Motivic transformation based on underlying operations -- an underlying cohesion or logic that governs events in time and history
  • Intraconnected motivic references (types, antitypes--see )
  • "Mechanistic," logical structures (e.g. sequence) resonating with the workings of the cosmos
  • Dramatic arc from beginning to climax to resolution (eschatological structure)

The "interesting" things we find in traditional Sacred Music all point to the Cross; the journey through time from creation to judgement day is mirrored in the construction and internal logic present in large-scale sacred works. Separating written or heard Sacred Music from these underlying philosophies does it an injustice. Bach was never far from Christ in his musical works, as his prodigious output in this field (as well as signing manuscripts "S. D. G.") can attest.

Where We Are Now

Unfortunately, the modern "Commercial Worship Music" movement largely rejects the aesthetics that underpinned the great works of Western civilization. Instead of the deep, thoughtful, internally consistent compositions of days of yore, we greedily consume formulaic, prosaic products built from a completely different aesthetic.

It's instructive to compare trends in church building (compare, say, a modern "worship center" to a large church from the 1800s) to trends in Music-making. Utility, commericalism, and transience are the ruling aesthetics of the day, and the notion that our artwork should reflect the deeper truths in Scripture seems to have vanished.

This turn away from the earlier approach initially appeared in denominations that tended to reject the inerrancy of Scripture. The clear teachings and practices of the past were abruptly jettisoned as a new aesthetic (based on subjective, transient sensations with no clear basis in Scripture) took hold. It is dismaying, however, that some of the mainline church bodies that entered the 21th century with several centuries of Sacred Music in their catalog, have rejected their impressive and valuable history and embraced the new aesthetic.

Whether these mainline bodies have also rejected the efficacy of The Word is, of course, up for discussion.