Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Music, the Senses and Emotion

A short article by Iain Murray, ‘Sensual Worship – A Sign of Impending Apostasy’ (Banner of Truth Magazine, Nov. 2010) calls to mind a number of issues that I hope are worth airing. I shall not comment on the article any further than is required to touch on these. I ask a few questions:

A question about the senses

Murray contrasts the sensual with the spiritual, as in Jude 19, carrying the distinction over into worship. Music that appeals to the senses is ‘sensual’. But Jude cannot mean that if one is spiritual then one has no senses, or that they are inactive, neutered, or hibernating. ‘Sensual’ in Jude’s sense has to do with excess, with lust, with the fleshly, with the senses being being ill-attuned or ill-directed. The reason why this is so is simple. Whenever we worship, it is inevitable that we see, touch, smell and hear. Our senses are exercised. Each act of worship is, in this sense, sensual.

The question that Murray unavoidably raises, then, is not, is there a place for the senses in worship, but, what is the place of the senses in worship? And It makes no sense to answer ‘none’. There is a similar equivocation over ‘natural'. When (according to Murray) Dr Lloyd-Jones refers to the impression of music on natural feelings, one is tempted to ask: on what other feelings can music impress itself than on the natural feelings? But whether the natural feelings are the feelings of a natural man (in Paul’s sense) or of a spiritual man (in his sense) might make a difference.

Either way, the senses are inevitably involved in worship. So when John Owen (as quoted by Murray) refers to the purity and simplicity of the gospel worship, this is a mode of worship in which the senses are engaged, inevitably so. So our senses will invariably be affected ‘at the natural level’, whether or not they need the Holy Spirit to enable us to engage in true worship. For this reason it is not at all clear that the more the senses are occupied, the less room there is for the action of the soul. Where is that in the New Testament? Jude certainly does not teach it.

So, just as there is an aesthetics of a Roman Catholic Service, and of a modern band-led ‘evangelical’ service, - each of which Iain Murray deplores - there is an aesthetics of the ‘pure and simple gospel worship’ that Iain Murray applauds. Some of its elements are: the central, dominating pulpit, plain glass, whitewashed walls, the absence of ornamentation, hard pews, silence before worship (except for the clock ticking). No incense, but a faint smell of damp, perhaps. No icons, but memorial tablets. No band, no flute or violin, but (perhaps) an organ. There’s no getting away from our senses. (There are some evocative photographs in Donald Davie’s A Gathered Church, (Routledge, 1978)) So the question is not whether our worship is ‘sensual’ (or ‘sensory’) - that’s inevitable - but whether it is sensual in the Jude sense, and that (so it seems to me) cannot be determined by such factors as whether or not, when we sing and pray and listen, we are facing stained glass or a vast Victorian pulpit, or singing with the help of a bass guitar, or a flute, or a pipe organ, or a tuning fork.

A question about music and preaching

At various points Murray contrasts music and preaching. But what applies to music also applies to preaching, or so it seems to me. Preaching also involves our senses, including our emotions – seeing and hearing, at any rate. We watch the preacher's face,his gestures,we hear hisvoice . Thisbodylanguage may raise emotions; and listening to preaching may be an end in itself. (A less popular pastime nowadays, it is true, than in Victorian and Edwardian England). A service of worship, and its various elements, may entertain, like a religious music-hall. So the same problems that Murray identifies with music, though they are problems not with some music only, but all music, also crop up with preaching, not with some preaching only, but all preaching. But I imagine he’d agree with his mentor Dr Lloyd Jones that preaching that does not produce emotionally-charged responses is somewhat lacking. Preaching and emotion, good. Music and emotions, bad. Is that it?

A question about emotion

In church worship there is music. Murray complains, using Dr Lloyd-Jones as an ally, that through music natural feelings may be confused with spiritual truths. So they may. When I wept while singing to the ‘weighty, dignified, majestic and modest’ (Calvin) tones of the organ at Westminster Chapel as it accompanied Cowper’s ‘Oh for a closer walk with God’ (say), did hearing and singing in these tones ensure spirituality? Obviously, they may not have. If I sing a hymn or song with a post-Beatles phrasing, and with the backing of a band, and weep, is my weeping for that reason a spiritual response? Obviously, it may not be. (Perhaps Mr Murray would deplore weeping too, as being also ‘sensual’ in the Jude sense.) Does one make a spiritual response more likely than the other? I think that Murray might agree that attempting to answer such a question would lead us into dangerous territory.

(Certainly there are legitimate questions to be asked about the commercialisation of Christian music, about its decibel level, as well as levels of intelligibility, and the dominance of services of worship by a menu of ‘songs’. But Mr Murray does not raise any of these.)

Using Dr Lloyd-Jones (not perhaps quoting him, but paraphrasing him) Murray refers to music producing emotion. But if the melody-line and the beat produce bodily effects - raising one's voice, tapping one’s feet, jumping up and down, beating time, hand-clapping, a headache, or whatever - why dignify that reaction with the word ‘emotion’? These seem to be purely physical effects. Perhaps ‘enthusiasm’, in its original 18th century sense, would be better. Certainly the ‘emotion’, if we allow that word, is in this usage mindless, in rather the way in which a human reflex, like a cry of pain , or a parrot's mimickry, are mindless

Emotion is a good word, though sometimes its use narrowed to refer exclusively to what is violent and disruptive. Sometimes it is utterly appropriate to be scared, or joyous, or exultant. And there are also calm emotions, as David Hume reminded us. It is possible to be calmly impassioned. If our response in worship is emotional in such good senses, then it will contain two elements: correct beliefs, which are what give our emotions their intellectual content; and our desires, which produce feelings of attraction or aversion regarding what we believe. So the callings out of the crowd at Pentecost, or of the Philippian gaoler, are laden with emotion. Or affection. It is surprising that Murray says nothing about the content of the words of the music he is so dismissive of.

An Edwardsean epilogue

Mentioning ‘affection’ inclines one very naturally to think of Jonathan Edwards.

Obviously music can supplant preaching and prayer. Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ can get in the way, as can the seemingly endless repetitions of modern Christian songs, reminiscent of a pub singalong. I suppose that one crucial test is whether in such singing it is possible also to make melody in our hearts to the Lord. But whether or not we can do that, or think that we can do it, is a matter, generally speaking, of the singer’s self-knowledge, and (to put it bluntly) not anyone else’s business.

We may think that it’s a pity that we cannot be more hard and fast. The New Testament is not much help over music and singing, is it? Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, decency and orderliness, making melody in your hearts. Apart from that, nothing much. Is that an accident? Some may still hope (as many have hoped) that the Puritan experiment with the regulative principle would help, but it’s surely an experiment which failed, largely because of the difficulty of determining what is intrinsic to worship and what is a circumstance. Mr Murray wisely refrains from playing that particular card. In fact the use of musical ‘accompaniment’ seems neither here nor there, as regards singing. It has never been an exclusive feature of Protestant psalm and hymn singing, as the tradition of Gregorian or Taize chant shows.

But I digress. Earlier I mentioned affection. ‘Affection’ suggests Jonathan Edwards. And if we find the key to this business about music, the senses and emotion, anywhere at all, we shall find it in his Religious Affections, in the very structure of the work, which has three Parts:

Part I Concerning the Nature of the Affections, and Their Importance in Religion

Part II Shewing What Are No Certain Signs That Religious Affections Are Truly Gracious, or That They Are Not

Part III Shewing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections

Besides recording the importance that Edwards attaches to emotion in religion, note particularly what he says about the signs that he discusses in Part II – in his judgment the signs that he lists are neither certain signs of truly gracious affections, nor certain signs that they are not truly gracious. Among the twelve signs discussed in Part II are ‘great effects on the body’; fluent talk; sudden and surprising experiences; and zealous engagement in the external duties of worship. The occurrence of such phenomena is, strictly speaking, neutral on the question of whether they are caused by, or accompanied by, gracious affections. He then proceeds (in Part III) to tell us what in his opinion are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections.

Had he been with us today, I can imagine that Edwards might well have added two more signs which do not provide any certainty that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not: ‘playing in the band’ and ‘not being prepared to tolerate the band’.