What kind of music has a place in Christian education? What kind of music belongs in the school program, in the home, in the church, in the recreational life of Christians? The foundation upon which our thinking about the answers to these questions must rest is this: All truth is of God. Therefore, music that has integrity is part of God’s truth and belongs in Christian education. Truth is not confined to the spoken and written word and to such fields as mathematics and science; it relates to the arts also.

So we consider some implications, or variations, of the theme that music is a valid part of God’s all-embracing truth. Chief among them is the need for breaking down the misleading distinction between sacred and secular music. What, after all, is sacred music? Well, according to common practice, it is music linked either to religious words, or music-written for religious use. Thus there are Christians who, while suspicious of all so-called secular music as worldly, attend with clear conscience performances labelled sacred concerts in which a good deal of third-rate, sentimental music has been baptized, as it were, by association with Christian verse; or in which tawdry, tasteless hymn arrangements, false to any real musical integrity, are deemed religious.

But is the principle of sanctification by association a valid criterion for the distinction, so common in evangelicalism, between sacred or Christian and secular or worldly music? Certainly not. Rather the only defensible criterion of the fitness of music for service as a handmaid of the glorious truths of the Gospel is its own, inherent quality, provided that it meets first of all the test of truth.


“And what,” some one asks, “is truth in music?” Now it would be presumptuous to attempt anything like a comprehensive answer to this question. But we may at least point in the direction of an answer. Consider it negatively, first of all. Music that is pretentious, music that is vulgar, music that reeks with sentimentality, that shows off by resorting to empty, ear-tickling adornment—witness the so-called evangelistic style of piano playing—lacks integrity. As music it is not true, even though doctrinally it may keep the best of company.

Now what, postively considered, are some of the elements of truth in music? Are they not honesty of expression, sincerity in the sense of avoidance of the cheap and contrived? Surely also they include such elements as simplicity and directness. But on the other hand they do not rule out either complexity or sophistications as opposed to artless simplicity. Bach wrote some enormously complex music, yet there is no higher musical truth than his. Honesty and integrity in music are not confined to the simple and naïve.

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In point of fact, there is a vast body of music that has truth and integrity, yet is not fitted for church use, although Christians may enjoy it, because it is part of God’s truth. For example, the Chopin polonaises or mazurkas, beautiful as they are, do not convey religious feeling. They have a place in the Christian’s enjoyment of music but not in church.

Is there, then, music that as music, quite apart from words or religious association, is compatible with spiritual worship? Surely, the answer is a clear “yes.” Music is not spiritual only by association. On the contrary, there is music that is innately uplifting in its appeal. To be sure, it cannot by itself convey doctrine and thus is not specifically sacred or Christian, but in its feeling and in its effect it is spiritually elevating.

Not all of Bach’s religious music was written for church use. Some of the preludes and fugues, such as the great E major Prelude and Fugue in Book II of “The Well-Tempered Clavichord,” are deeply spiritual. Unquestionably many of Beethoven’s slow movements, such as the wonderful Arietta and variations of the last piano sonata (Op. 111), speak with a transcendental, almost heavenly voice. To speak very personally, one of my abiding memories is that of listening after my father’s funeral to the Adagio of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The Scriptures had indeed given me their unique comfort, yet music also spoke its lesser and wordless language of comfort. Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony has its religious moments and not just because of the use of Ein’ Feste Burg. But the César Franck symphony without any such reference is also religious, even mystical, in spirit. The firm majesty of Handel, so compatible with faith, is not confined to The Messiah. Witness the universally familiar Largo which, though composed for secular use, has found such wide religious acceptance. Or take a piece like the brief Mendelssohn song without words, called Consolation, which we have in our hymnals under the name, Communion; or the Schumann Nachtstück, which we know as the hymn tune, Canonbury. Granted that personal taste enters into comments like these, still the point is clear that there is a wealth of absolute music that in itself is conducive to worship.

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My own feeling is that more of this kind of absolute music should be used in our churches, not self-consciously but unobtrusively. The question may sound radical, but is the practice of always printing on our church calendars the names and composers of preludes and postludes and offertories a good thing? Certainly we desire to develop understanding of fine music. But a church service is not a course in music appreciation. We must be careful in reaching out for a higher level of Christian music that we do not foster what Don Hustad calls “spectatorism” in which the people look upon parts of the church musical service as a performance.

Consider an illustration from painting. A distinguished artist had finished a canvas of the Last Supper. All was done with great skill, and the chalice in particular had been portrayed most beautifully. As one after another of the artist’s friends looked at the painting, they said, “What a beautiful cup!” Then the artist realized that he had diverted attention from the Lord. Taking his brush, he painted out the gorgeous chalice and substituted for it a more quietly beautiful but far less obtrusive one. So should it be with music in worship. It should not call attention to itself nor monopolize the center of attraction that belongs to the Lord alone. And it may well be that the use, almost anonymously, of some first-rate music that, while unfamiliar, is in itself spiritual, will help the atmosphere of worship.


“But what about Gospel hymns? Must all of our church music be classical?” The questions come out of a chief point of tension in evangelical Protestant worship today. Surely the answer is that, when it comes to Gospel hymns and their more formal companions, it is not a matter of “either-or” but of “both-and.” For the criterion for Gospel music must be the truth just as the truth is the criterion for theology. Christians ought not to tolerate a double standard in worship—namely, zeal for the truth in doctrine and disregard of the truth in art.

God’s truth is wonderfully comprehensive. Some of the truest music ever written, music of greatest integrity, is folk music. Think, for example, of the nobility of some Negro spirituals. It is a mistake to confine truth in music to the classical, to the sophisticated, or to the old. Christians ought not be suspicious of music just because it is new or unfamiliar. Our respect for the classics must not obscure the fact that good music is being written in our time. And there are Gospel hymns—and the number is not inconsiderable—that in sincere, artless expression are honest music. They belong in our worship and education. Included among them are hymns like “What a Friend We have in Jesus,” “Blessed Assurance,” or “Saviour Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” a tune by the way, that Dvorak wove into the last movement of his Violincello Concerto.

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One gets a little weary of extremists who say, “Away with Gospel music; it’s all trash”; or of those who say, “Away with all the older hymns; they’re all staid, doleful, and joyless.” The antitheses are false. Not all the old, standard hymns are staid and sombre; and even the best denominational hymnals contain some hymns of negligible value, that are hardly ever sung. As for classifying all Gospel music as trash, this is nothing less than obscurantism. It is more difficult to be thoughtfully discriminating than to fall back upon sweeping generalization. Nevertheless, discrimination according to the truth is the only responsible answer to the tension between Gospel hymns and standard hymns.

In point of fact, there is a far greater threat to the musical integrity of our evangelical worship and education than the Gospel hymn. This threat is the invasion of Christian music by certain techniques of the entertainment world. With the almost universal use of TV, radio, and record players, the primary, God-ordained center of education, the home, has been infiltrated by the musical devices of Hollywood and the night club. What does the habitual use of such music do in a home? The plain answer is that it debases taste and cheapens the Gospel. Whoever wrote the editorial in the September 16, 1961, issue of the Sunday School Times was absolutely right in his slashing attack upon the dressing up of Gospel melodies in the garments of show business. If the state of music among evangelicals leaves a great deal to be desired, then records in which the precious doctrines of our redemption are unequally yoked with the movie theatre organ or sung in the mood of cocktail hour ballads has much for which to answer.

As a matter of fact, some forms of jazz may have more musical integrity than this kind of Christian music. As Professor Wilson Wade of Dartmouth says in a recent article, there is a type of jazz that expresses honestly the spiritual lostness and rootlessness of modern man. And while evangelicals would dissent from his conclusion that the integrity of jazz in reflecting the predicament of man today entitles it to a place in worship, there are those who would think its use as a spiritual medium to be less questionable than that of some of the shoddy music that finds acceptance among us. Paul’s exhortation, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold” (Rom. 12:2, Phillips), is an aesthetic as well as moral imperative; and it applies as much to some of the music so popular among many Christians as it does to jazz.

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Now we come to the heart of the matter, which is the formation of musical taste. In his Aims of Education, the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has this noble sentence, “Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” Let us paraphrase it thus, “Musical education is impossible apart from the habitual hearing of greatness.” Here is the key to the place of music in Christian education.

Look again at the home. And permit me a bit of autobiography. It is my privilege to be the son of a great Bible teacher, one who stood firmly upon the Word of God and who preached the Gospel fearlessly wherever he went. Why am I a Christian today? Because of God’s grace in using the witness of my parents in my home, the place where, as a small boy, I received Christ as my Saviour. And why am I a musical person today? Again, because of my home. Among my earliest memories is that of hearing my father and my oldest brother playing Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in a four-hand piano arrangement. Or I recall waking up on one of the Sunday mornings when my father was not out preaching and hearing him play Mendelssohn. This was long before the day of radio and record players. Yet we had music in our home. My father and brother were not fine pianists, but they loved and played good music. Yes, musical education is impossible apart from the habitual hearing of greatness—not necessarily in great performance, for that was not nearly so available in my boyhood as it is now, thanks to long-playing records, but in constant hearing of even unskilled performance of great music.

What of musical education in school and college? Here too the same principle holds. Whatever else we do, we must expose youth to greatness in music. Moreover, we need to tell them the difference between the good and the bad, between the worthy and the unworthy. Today one of the watchwords in education is the pursuit of excellence. Christian education, committed to that which is most excellent of all, the truth incarnate in Him who is altogether lovely, can do no less than seek excellence in music, as in everything else.

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As headmaster of a school that stresses academic standards and college preparation in these competitive days, I deplore the imbalance of the curriculum in most of our schools. Music ought to be a major subject like English and mathematics. Yet even with the little time at our disposal, some real exposure to greatness is still possible. At Stony Brook, aside from such activities as the chapel choir (which is one of our most respected extra curricular activities), the usual class in music appreciation, private lessons on various instruments, and a rudimentary band, we try to give all our boys some personal exposure to musical greatness. Each year the whole school of 200 plus the faculty is organized for part singing. Through weekly rehearsals, we learn some great music and sing it at public occasions such as the annual academic convocation or the baccalaureate service. Thus we have learned choruses from The Messiah, a Gloria from one of Mozart’s Masses, some Bach, and this year we are working on a chorus from Haydn’s Creation. It is refreshing to hear adolescent boys humming or singing Mozart or Handel as they walk about the campus. Again, there is regular exposure to music of truth and beauty through daily and Sunday chapel, not only in singing of fine hymns but also through the organ. Concerts for the whole school at which distinguished artists perform fine music are a part of our program. But one speaks of these things with humility, realizing how much more should be done.

The principle remains unchanged, whatever our situation. The key to better things in Christian music is the habitual hearing of greatness in music not only in the day or boarding school, not only in college and Bible institute, but in Sunday School also. For the music that younger children hear exercises a formative influence on their taste. Not even the smallest child may safely be fed a diet of musical trash.


Consideration of our subject would be incomplete without a final look at ourselves. The great principle, no Christian education without Christian teachers, applies just as much to the school musician as it does to the academic teacher. No one who does not love music and know it at first hand can teach it with full effectiveness. No teacher of music in a Christian school or college, Bible institute, seminary, or church who is not himself a regenerated person, knowing through commitment of heart and life the living Lord, can teach music as an integral part of God’s truth. Music is a demanding art. To achieve excellence in it requires hard discipline and unremitting work. Yet with all his devotion to it, a Christian musician must keep his priorities clear. God is the source of all talent. When He gives talent, including musical talent, He gives it, not to be made an idol of, but to be used to His glory. You may remember how humbly Haydn summed up his musical life. “I know”, he said, “that God appointed me a task. I acknowledge it with thanks and hope and believe I have done my duty and have been useful to the world.” Music is indeed a great gift; but it is the Giver, not the gift, who must have the first place in the teaching and practice of music in Christian education.

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In his own account of his conversion, the church father, Jerome, who made the Latin translation of the Bible, tells of a dream that led to his conversion. He dreamed, he says, that he appeared before the judgment seat of the Judge. Asked who and what he was, he replied, “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero, not of Christ.” For Jerome was a rhetorician and his consuming interest and first love was his study of Cicero.

So the Christian musician must take care that the art to which he is devoted does not usurp the place that belongs to the Lord alone. He must be a Christian first, which means that everything without exception must be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, who in all things, music among them, must have the preeminence.


The Stony Brook School Headmaster

Stony Brook, New York

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