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Music and God’s existence: what’s the connection?


In reflecting on the Unbelievable? discussion between David Robertson and Gordon Livesey, Erik Strandness is struck by the beauty and power of music, and asks how we should use such a gift if it comes from the greatest artist of all: God Himself.

I was fascinated by the recent classic replay Unbelievable? discussion between Christian David Robertson and atheist musician Gordon Livesey about whether or not music points to God. Robertson contends that the joy and meaning we experience in music is a pointer beyond itself to an ultimate source of joy and meaning in God, while Livesey contended that while we all experience emotions and meaning in music, it ultimately can be explained in scientific terms alone. Unbelievable? generally features discussions about Truth and Goodness but doesn’t often delve into the Beautiful, so this episode was a welcome exploration of this often neglected third member of Plato’s trinity of universals.

While Livesey is skeptical about the transcendent nature of music, Robertson contends that music or the arts may in fact be the most persuasive arguments for God’s existence. Eugene Peterson offers an interesting take on the issue.

Plato formulated what he named the ‘universals’ as the True, the Good, and the Beautiful…The American church has deleted beauty from that triad. We are vigorous in contending for the True, thinking rightly about God. We are energetic in insisting on the Good, behaving rightly before God. But Beauty, the forms by which the True and the Good take shape in human life, we pretty much ignore. We delegate Beauty to flower arrangers and interior decorators. (Eugene Peterson)

Life’s Soundtrack

Similar to Robertson, I believe that music is the soundtrack of my life. It hasn’t been background elevator muzak accompanying me on my ascent from childhood to adulthood but rather an accompanying score dotted with soaring melodies accentuating the pivotal moments in my life. Rod Stewart’s Maggie May fed the puppy love of my first significant crush and Robin Trower’s In this Place became our breakup dirge. Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water continues to bring back memories of the Junior High Juke box and Disintegration by The Cure reminds me of the signature sound of the waves of sadness that have periodically crashed on the shores of my despair. Were these moments just emotional drool elicited by the temporal association of events and songs? Or were they profound moments where soul and spirit briefly came together for a family reunion?

Song as Sehnsucht

Looking back over my life, I realize that my obsession with music was really a search for transcendent moments. I would buy new music in hopes that it would give me an emotional “aha” moment, tear an aural rent in the space-time continuum, or briefly pull back the veil in the thin places. I had feelings that needed to be named in order to be claimed and found that my inarticulate sehnsucht could only be adequately articulated in song.

I found myself a musical evangelist and my sermon was the cassette. One of my greatest joys was making mix tapes for friends and family. I wanted to share the transcendental feelings I had experienced because I couldn’t imagine a greater gift than offering those moments of pure joy to others. I now realize that despite being a “Christian” my whole life, my desire to spread musical joy was merely a substitute for introducing people to God. I had known God intellectually but hadn’t realized that my musical obsession was in fact a desire to be embraced by the divine.

Unfinished Symphonies

In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished. (Karl Rahner)

Part of our obsession with music may be related to our desire to finish our life symphonies. We all try to ink the final notes but are disappointed by our amateurish attempts at composing. We hear Mozart’s requiem in our heads but are only capable of penning, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” We then turn to our musical heroes to arrange our nursery rhymes into more compelling pieces but still find them inadequate. Maybe God has the finished score in His hands, and if we just sit still and know Him as the Composer, He may just hum us a few more bars.

Life in a Minor Key

I’m attracted to sad music. It may partly be due to my personality but I think it might also be a response to a church that doesn’t know how to lament. I find myself shielding my worries and cares from the congregation with a smile and a greeting, drowning out the groaning of my soul with a praise song, but then returning home, cranking up the stereo, and lamenting with The Cure.

I find it interesting that the only place we tend to find articulate lamenting is in “secular” music. Robertson expressed his admiration for the music of the Manic Street Preachers because it was “subversive” in a good way. He acknowledged that while their music doesn’t have the answers, it asks really good questions. Questions that Christians often don’t ask for fear of exposing a weak faith.

When we experience moments of melancholy, we need sad music because we know that before we can be filled with joy, we must be emptied of sadness. We must evict the anguish from our house of pain before we can make it a home sweet home. Sad music gives us permission to mimic Jesus’ words on the cross, My God, My God why have you forsaken me, and yet pause long enough to hear Him tell us that today we will be with Him in paradise.

Lessons From Linkin Park

I love the music of Linkin Park because it gives melody to my lament. I have to admit that the suicide of the lead singer Chester Bennington hit me quite hard because I felt we had lost an articulate truth teller of our human situation. Chester clearly knew that the world’s problems originated within the heart of every man. He intimately knew that the first step in healing was to admit that one had a problem, but instead of accepting the fact that he couldn’t fix it without a higher power, he bought into the postmodern delusion that he had to be his own savior. His music allowed me to share a dark emotional space comforted by the knowledge that I was not alone. Unfortunately, while Chester helped us corporately lament through the dark night of the soul, he was unable to see the Light of the world.

He performed public surgery on his emotions and allowed us to see his broken and contrite heart, but instead of allowing the Great Physician to transplant a new heart within him he tried to stop the bleeding with a postmodern Band-Aid. He knew he had offended Someone but was ushered into a cultural confessional booth emptied of any higher power, and as he screamed out his confession, all he heard was the echo of his own voice.

I’m holding on
So much more than I can carry
I keep dragging around what’s bringing me down
If I just let go, I’d be set free
Holding on
Why is everything so heavy? (Linkin Park -Heavy)

Chester ended his life on July 20, 2017.

One of the reasons I was so saddened by his death was because I felt that he was so close to the truth. He knew he was sick but was unable to hear the voice of the One who asked if he wanted to be healed. Listening to his music was like hearing an unfinished Psalm. Chester knew the opening lines all too well but was unable to hear the last stanza.

If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. (Walker Percy)

Chester’s band mates inked an open letter to him after his passing, which I think, sums up his impact very well:

“We’re trying to remind ourselves that the demons that took you away from us were always part of the deal. After all, it was the way you sang about those demons that made everyone fall in love with you in the first place. You fearlessly put them on display, and in doing so, brought us together and taught us to be more human. You had the biggest heart and managed to wear it on your sleeve.” (Linkin Park in Rolling Stone)

The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1)

Every generation has its “tortured artists,” people incredibly gifted and yet monstrously afflicted. Unable to see the “Face of God” and live, they end up taking their own lives. Why are they so sad? Maybe they have soared to the artistic heights, peeked behind the veil, and caught a glimpse of the Creator and then, humbled to the point of death by their creative inferiority, crashed back to earth in heap of unfulfilled promise. Perhaps they were personally convicted by the unclean use of this most divine talent, an “abomination of desolation” in their own Holy of Holies, or maybe our culture reduced their divine encounter to simple neurochemicals firing in their brains.

The artist whose mind can’t help but explore the heavens has his or her creative spaceship grounded because of cultural technical difficulties. Their limitless imagination is placed in a material box and they spend the rest of their lives banging their heads against the side in the hope that it will be freed. Our culture then tries to pacify them by giving them an evolutionary pat on the back, handing them two Tylenol, and then instructing them to call them in the morning if their divine fever hasn’t broken.

The majority of artists began their craft, poor but passionate, indigent but inspired. People relate to their work because it has a genuine “lived in” quality that cannot be faked. The artist’s ability to convey truth then takes them to the heights of popularity and their couch surfing is replaced by a mansion, their broken-down van by a chauffeured limo. They relish their success until the record executive tells them to create another masterpiece just like the first. Their initial CD, book, or painting, which originated from a very personal place in their soul, must be replicated.

They are faced with the pressure of creating a new work to rival their first, but their creative gift has now been saddled with the heavy weight of monetary adulation. Their priceless God inspired creative gift cannot soar because it has been tethered to the ground by the smothering weight of mammon. They are then labeled a “sell out” because their work feels like it was produced in an impersonal hit factory and not in a dark, drafty emotional garage.

What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. (Soren Kierkegaard)

Musical High Priests

Human creativity may be the ultimate act of worship. Ask yourself why we hold artists in such high esteem? Most of them are probably not good foragers or warriors, yet we make them some of the highest paid human beings on the planet. We are so enamored with our musical heroes that we give them divine designations and scribble, “Clapton is God,” on the side of buildings. We treat them like multi-media messiahs nailing our pain onto their cross-shaped guitars in the hopes that our guilt and angst will be taken away.

We flock around them as if gathering around a High Priest who directs our inarticulate spiritual longings heavenward. Legend has it that the Jewish High Priest would tie a rope around his ankle when he entered the Holy of Holies so that he could be pulled out in the event that he was found unworthy and died during his encounter with God. How many musicians, artists, and poets have entered that Holy of Holies, thinking they had found the god within but instead encountered the Great I AM and died unprepared? How many more will we have to pull out by a rope before we honor the sanctity of creativity as one of the most powerful attributes of the image of God?

Bridging the Mystery

There will always be a gulf between our knowledge of God and the reality of God. A sea of mystery separating the earthly lounge chairs of reason and the divine mystical shores beyond the horizon. We are blessed, however, to have a special group of certified spiritual deep-sea divers outfitted with brushes, guitars, and pens plumbing the depths of the mystery rather than foolishly trying to bridge it with syllogisms. How often do we add one more apologetic section to the overpass in an attempt to span that enigmatic sea, instead of standing on the edge, taking a deep breath, and with fear and trembling, jumping in and swimming the mystery?

Art or Scream

We need to admire the power of creativity but must carefully discern how it should be properly expressed. While we recognize that much of what our culture calls art is sacrilegious, we need to remember that artists are often the barometers of the health of our cultural souls. We ignore their musical screams at our own peril.

Just like the Master who entrusted varying talents to his servants, we too will be called to account for how we used our creative gifts. God gave us a world with all the raw material we will ever need, cows for Lattes, wind for sailboats, and pigments for paint. I can’t help but think that God gives a little smile every time humans exercise their creative potential, whether it be painting a picture, sculpting a bust, or writing a song, but I also see the grief on His face when that gift is used for an unholy task. Will we honor this sacred endowment or cast our pearls before swine?

God may reduce you
On judgment day
To tears of shame,
Reciting by heart
The poems you would have written,
Had your life been good. (W.H. Auden)

(1) The title of an album by my favorite musical artist Todd Rundgren

Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.

Listen to the episode: Does Music Point to God?

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