Preaching Jesus with Our Songs

Great music-makers, in their own way, are like evangelists. They witness to the truth and goodness and transcendental beauty of God.

Renowned composer Hans Zimmer (who wrote the scores to Dark Knight and Inception, among others) responded to sound critics who felt his music in Interstellar overpowered multiple moments of the film and oftentimes prevented the audience from understanding the actor’s words.

Zimmer spoke with director Christopher Nolan on their previous film, Inception,

I want to take you on an adventure. And it’s not a science class. These days we’re being fed nothing but information, but emotionally, I think we get less and less experience in anything because . . . everything is so cleaned up and we’re losing the edge . . . the mystery of things.

The mystery Zimmer is referring to is that spontaneous, unplanned, surprising phenomenon that occurs when a person is opened up by encountering beauty, what theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar called, “inner-worldly beauty.” And I wonder, could the same be said of our church’s services when we gather together — a gathering filled only with information where we’ve cleaned everything up?

Zimmer continues,

When I go and see a great opera, I usually can’t understand the words anyway, but I’m still on this amazing emotional journey. What I’m interested in ultimately is quite simply this: I want to go and write music that announces to you that you can feel something. I don’t want to tell you what to feel, but I want you to have the possibility of feeling something. What you feel is what you bring to it. I want you to be a co-conspirator in the music, and in a funny way, a co-creator in it.

The Danger of Sentimentality

Why are Zimmer’s remarks, edges notwithstanding, relevant for the church, and perhaps especially those of us charged with designing the musical arts to shape a worshiping community week after week? Indeed, Zimmer’s comments may be applicable for song leaders and music pastors. One of the most serious threats to mystery, and a great enemy of the church, is sentimentality. John Witvliet, the director for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship says, “Christian worship is like a magnet for sentimental artwork — melodies, images, metaphors and palettes of color that succeed at making corporate worship pleasant and utterly innocuous.”

Like Zimmer, C.S. Lewis despised sentimental authors who did all the work for the reader, telling them how to feel and what to think. The same should be asked of our song leaders: Are we doing the work of the congregation for the congregation, thus making corporate worship pleasant, but utterly innocuous? Why should we listen to Zimmer when we think about the music we make week in and week out?

Perceiving the Beautiful

First, some of us might have a tendency to value songs for their usefulness rather than their beauty. Balthasar felt that “we no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.” While we rightly elevate theological richness in the songs we sing, we also would do well to appreciate music’s God-given beauty and power to lead people to the Transcendental Beauty himself, our Triune God.

This will require pastors and artists to recapture a vision of beauty that is not at odds with accessibility or practicality, but one that’s mindful of context and insistent on a rich theological aesthetic. We would do well to avoid reducing the role of music entirely to service to the spoken word. It may be that our good desire for right doctrine has so taken priority in our thinking that we’ve diminished the importance and possibilities of aesthetic in our gatherings, let alone our songs.

In discussing the “sound issues” with Interstellar, Nolan said, “It’s not true that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue.” He’s right. We must value and uphold words, sound doctrine, passionate preaching and proclamation, and clear teaching; but the very realities we’re tasked with preaching and teaching are simply too profound, too glorious, and too weighty to remain in the realm of monologue and dialogue. We must sing. These realities are not to be merely analyzed, but they’re to be felt, experienced, enjoyed, and delighted in — all things that music and song serve.

Songs, like a sermon, are vessels of communication, to be sure, but they are vessels made up of more than one layer — tone, melody, meter, lyric, and more. The hazard of linking profound lyrics with forgettable and middle-of-the-road music is a real problem for song leaders — there’s simply not enough time, or it seems the words sufficiently communicate, or the music is good enough, or this go-to progression works. So it might be helpful for us to consider whether we possess a utilitarian view of music and art, and if we do, work hard to rid ourselves of it — perhaps simply by taking extended time to consider the impact and effort of music and song. After all, one of our most beloved books of the Bible, Psalms, is dedicated to this.

Embracing Mystery

Second, we should consider opening ourselves to mystery and spontaneity. Consider Zimmer’s words in the context of the church: “Christian worship is not a science class. These days we’re being fed nothing but information, but emotionally, I think we get less and less experience in our gatherings because our liturgy is so cleaned up and we’re losing the edge, the mystery of things.”

It’s true that gathering together as the church isn’t like a science class where we sit and only take notes; rather it’s where we actually carry out the science experiment and put behaviors and responses and postures to action and open ourselves to the unplanned and surprising work of God’s Spirit in Christ among us. Christian worship free from emotion and mystery produces unexceptional and tame views of God, not to mention ponderous music.

Most of us have come face to face with something truly beautiful — standing before Niagara Falls, an exquisite painting, or a beautiful film. All great beauty opens us up to experience things we otherwise would never experience. It expands the soul. It produces a longing in our hearts for wholeness in a world of brokenness, for something right and ordered in a world of chaos. When we perceive various forms of beauty around us, they have a unique quality of moving us by their beauty toward the glory of our Lord.

Music That Announces

Part of our task as corporate song leaders is not only to think deeply about our lyrics, or the accessibility of the melody, but the beauty of it. Our music should have an announcing quality to it — announcing to our people that they can feel something. Zimmer has this right. Though just feeling anything will not be enough for us. We want them to feel in accordance with the truth announced and sung.

In some sense, then, the song leader and congregation may be said to be co-conspirators, co-creators in the music — together singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, creating in that moment something that could never have been achieved unless they had come together to be shaped by the Spirit of God in Christ through the work of the liturgy. It can’t be experienced in a science class. The musician brings a work of art to be enjoyed, experienced, enacted, and embodied by the congregation in the context of worship. It is a beautiful picture of unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity.

If Ivan Illich’s words are true, “We live in a world that does not carry within itself the reason for its own existence,” then music must play a significant role in our achieving clarity and inspiration. Music can say to the hardened heart, “There is meaning to your existence! There is purpose behind why you are here!”

Music is an ongoing exercise that, at its best, creates channels for the gospel to illuminate our lives in light of who God is. God gave Moses a song in Deuteronomy 31 so that when the children of Israel went through various trials and troubles, the song would confront them as a testimony to whom their God was. This is true of all great music; it speaks with clarity of the God of beauty behind the music.

If our argument week after week before our people is that we are to have our existence storied by the gospel, then beautiful music is intrinsic to the argument we are making. So we aim in our songs for both truth and beauty. We write music that announces and raises the affections of our congregations as high as they can go in proportion to the truth, as Jonathan Edwards might say. We aim not only to proclaim Jesus in our sermons, but also with infectious joy in the beauty of our songs.

(@josephtenney) is the music and arts pastor at Church at the Cross. He lives in Texas with his wife, Kimberly, and their two girls, and is a singer-songwriter in their band March of Morning.