Friday, November 3, 2017

Music, Faith, and the Beauty of Reality

I appreciate a very wide range of music. As I have grown older, I feel like I have become more aware of the enormous variety in musical expression and the world of beauty it embodies. This magnificent art of creating from sound—with all its ways of projecting itself forth and interrelating in the diverse proportions of melody, harmony, and rhythm—has fascinated me all my life.

I hope to write more specifically about music and those who make it in the next couple of months. There are numerous musical artists whose work I value, and whose activity I wish to consider at greater length. Also, a happy feature of my own current research on broader cultural themes is that I continue to discover new artists and learn more about others. And I continue to make my own music.

One of the things that strikes me as important is how many people of faith are involved in musical creativity, using very diverse styles and formats with various purposes. While I have always loved and for many years studied classical music, my attention in writing will mostly be given to more modern musical forms (vocal and instrumental), especially as they have become interrelated with the gigantic expansion of technological power and communications media.

Christians have always made "sacred music" for use in public liturgical prayer. Today we see that Christian-themed songs and music have expanded far beyond the church choir into the large area of contemporary styles including extensive multimedia presentation formats. While the complexity and dynamics of some of this music can clash with formal liturgy and obscure the precise objective gestures of the liturgical rites, contemporary "Christian music" certainly can be helpful in fostering prayer and reflection in other contexts. When done in ways appropriate to the given environment, it can be quite inspiring in the diversely structured and more informal gatherings that come under the heading of "Praise and Worship."

I appreciate the work of Christians in making music on religious themes for prayer gatherings and even for wider listening. Here, of course, it is always important to remember that an inspirational theme cannot substitute for the inherent quality of the music itself. I have been glad to find many proficient creators and performers of contemporary styles of music using Christian themes in recent years.

Of course, I listen to music not only by Christians but also by people of other religions, cultures, and particular modes of grappling with basic human questions. One does not have to be Christian to make great music (obviously).

Not many of those who use contemporary idioms in mainstream ("secular") popular music are well known for their outstanding religious profile. It always seems surprising to find a "pop artist" with a serious faith, and yet there are more such people than we realize. It may not be something they articulate in the content of their music. They don't often (if ever) sing songs about Jesus. Nevertheless faith is what gives deeper shape to the appreciation for humanity that nurtures their creativity and commitment to excellence in their craft.

Faith in the Incarnation existentially affects every aspect of human life and activity, which means art and music too (even that which we consider "entertainment"). The freedom to make music and art of various kinds must be affirmed. True art of whatever kind must be free to aim for beauty, for the expression of the vast array of beauty and the making of beautiful things.

Beauty, moreover, is not the tame and obvious matter we often expect it to be.

Beauty is a transcendental, found in different ways and on different levels throughout the whole range of being. It is in the simple and immediately agreeable places, of course, but it also takes complex forms, searches out subtle correlations, lives within difficulties and paradox, and gives light to tragedy and suffering.

The witness to beauty, like the witness to truth and goodness, always embodies a profound empathy for reality, and thereby probes the depths of human experience. Beauty of any kind points toward the ultimate questions, the drama, the longing, and the fulfillment of all things. For precisely this reason it can often be unpredictable, and it is always mysterious.

There is much for Christians to consider about music and beauty and the surprising possibilities for creativity in our time—possibilities that we must discover and appreciate, and take up according to each one's particular artistic vocation. We need not fear to do this as long as we remain rooted in the love of Christ.

Indeed we must take risks to find and foster and build up the good that grows in so many places, at "the margins" too—all along the roads of the world where God has us travel, where we must trust in Him, take courage, and be creative. It's not easy and we will make mistakes, but if we pray and stay close to Jesus and if we support one another and reflect on these things together, we will have strong roots and our branches will grow in many ways.

We can help one another by finding ways to grow in fellowship, to share the experiences and challenges of a common vocation to follow Jesus Christ using our dispositions and talents as creative artists (even when our art varies widely in its forms, media, and/or themes and proximate purposes).

Along with poetry, music has a particular place in my own vocation both as an artist and as a philosopher. In particular, I perceive how music can awaken the soul to God. Music is such a very special way of making room for the love of God to work in the world—not only by explicitly Christian songs but also by every expression that is true and good and beautiful.

Our songs need to find many ways of addressing themselves to reality, including things that are vulnerable and fragile, unsettling and painful, flawed and seemingly irresolvable. God wants our art in all these places.