Recently my friend Bruce Reyes-Chow suggested I blog “How does music touch your soul?” He left it pretty broad so I’ll have some fun with this. I’m going to unpack the use of music in worship and take it from a systems approach rather than a “everyone should sing because the bible includes songs and faith traditions invite people to sing” approach. Not that I care to disprove the later, just that the former is more interesting to me.
Here are three thoughts on music/soul/worship:
- Beauty saves us
- When we sing we vibrate together
- Our selves are all we have
So First of all, how does beauty save us? I know I’ll get some push back on this but before you do I want you to think of times that a favorite movie, a song, a concert, a painting, an elaborate meal, or the sun’s setting took your breath away. Narrow it down to one example. Can you recreate that moment? Think of the time of day, the season of the year, those who were with you, the smells, the colors, the sounds. What comes to mind? In what ways did your encounter with beauty take your breath away, reorient you, bring you in touch with or help you overcome your fears or anxieties? Did you or those with you try to describe it in the moment, or just let it ring true? If you did give it words, did they measure up to the experience?
Elaine Scarry describes beauty as (among many things) a “quickening” encounter, “it is as though one has suddenly been washed up onto a merciful beach: all unease, aggression, indifference suddenly drop back behind one, like a surf that has for a moment lost its capacity to harm.”(On Beauty and Being Just, pg25). Instead of the mind successfully searching for precedents or names it is too filled with the present, “It is the very way the beautiful thing fills the mind and breaks all frames that gives the ‘never before in the history of the world’ feeling” (OBBJ, 23). Like Isaiah’s response to five chapters of wonder and glory, all of the mind is full and we respond, “Woe is me!” (Is 5.5). Like the woman healed of hemorrhages who told Jesus her whole story, all our reservations are freed up (Mk 5.33). Like the audience of new perceivers at the Church’s first Pentecost, when “Awe came upon everyone” because of signs and wonders, old “frames” are broken and new structures are suddenly created for living in the way of Christ (Ac 2.42-47).
I’m not arguing to replace the “Word made flesh, crucified and risen” notion of salvation. I’m simply suggesting that we see more deeply how God’s accomplishes salvation in the way that beauty does, by drawing us into the new, awakening us to creation’s oldest song.
So music, uniquely pulls us into a place of appreciation, of awe, of love, of health.
Second, when we sing we are moving in a unified field. Music (and most notably music that we can feel coming from our own diaphragm sending air though our busy little larynx) is the travelling of waves. Like we’re learning from quantum physics and theories like string theory, at the subatomic level all material things share properties. We are less separate than we suppose. Concerts of people singing together share a harmonic space. And when a bass drum is beating it is obvious, we’re shaken together as one material field through which the rhythm can travel. Like a rock falling in the pond makes ripples, the music is the rock and the congregation is the pond.
Augustine is credited with saying that “when we sing we pray twice.” Who knows all that he meant by that. But in conventional circles, Christians site this quote to emphasize that the whole self—the whole body joins in the prayer. Similarly to Yoga and other healing arts, song is something that involves more than the recitation of words or the intellectual concept.
When I coach bands and vocalists in leading worship I ask them to imagine an open tuned guitar and an oscillating fan blowing over the strings until they ring in harmony. The musician’s job, and the leader of corporate prayer, is to bring the members of the gathering into harmony with each other, to ring together. Like the spirit of God hovering over the waters, musicians have the responsibility to prepare space, to listen, to watch, and then to stir the winds.
Third, our material selves are all we have. My friend Pete Rollins articulates this as well as any when he says “Christianity is nothing less than a material faith i.e. a mode of being that transforms ones material actuality”. The longer I make music and work with people in community organizing capacities I am coming to believe that the so called “spiritual” world is not somewhere “out there”, but is instead known through the everyday, the here and now, the stuff of life. Walter Brueggemann has written a prayer in which he invites us to be “rooted to earth, and awed by heaven.” By this I think he’s pointing to the deeply integrated Hebrew tradition in which the God of the heavens is in our midst.
God is known, tasted, heard, in this world via material things of this world. At the neurological level, everything ranging from the secret vision of a word from the Lord, to reading a paragraph of scripture, to appreciating a sunrise involves chemicals and electrical impulses travelling through your brain. ‘Not to mention physical eardrums or retinas. Just this morning on Morning Edition, I heard an interview with a neuroscientist whose research concluded that “music has some kind of privileged access to the motor system.” Songs uniquely utilize the senses and material world. And like a familiar smell brings back an old memory, a song is capable of releasing endorphins and serotonins triggering inspiration, grief, or anger, or all these simultaneously.
Since music incorporates the material world, it befits congregations who seek to engage, bless, and transform the material world at their doorsteps. And the breadth of musical tone, genres, and palates your congregation uses, the wider the range of applicability in the missional lives of the congregants.
When Bruce asked me about music and soul, the thought came to mind, “music is a window into soulfulness.” Like the exiled Hebrews who loathed singing the wrong song in the wrong place, music has the unique ability to expose dissonance in any a context. When bands play popular covers at bars that don’t sound like soul-felt words or tones, it leaves the experience wanting. All to often worship music, seeking to “reach out,” to “be relevant” or to “validate” an underrepresented population group can do the same. I think this has to do with the misunderstanding of the physical and somatic connections made with music.
With many of my African American friends, after a great concert someone leaves saying they just "had church." I think this is due to the deep connections our bodies make between song and participation in worshiping God.
So, what do you think? When have you "had church"? And what are some of the best and worst uses of music you’ve seen in faith communities?