A friend recently gave me a CD of the Beatles' Love album. There is plenty of interesting innovation in the sound, and in the remix, that I appreciate—like the inclusion of the sitar in some songs, and the merging of one track into the next. When you go from "I Want to Hold Your hand," complete with screaming girls in the background, to the rather inscrutable "Hey Jude," you wonder if this is the same band.

This made me long for more such innovation in contemporary worship. Every week at church, it's the same drums-guitar-keyboard-base combo. With a congregation of 2,000 plus, surely there are some who can play the cello, sax, or trumpet. Or could we just shut off the electricity for a moment and have a trio of trained singers sing "Amazing Grace" a cappella?

I'm reminded of the most concise critique of contemporary worship I've heard—from that great cultural critic and philosopher, Hank Hill, from the TV series King of the Hill. On one show, his son Bobby befriends a Christian rocker, and when Hank hears his band play he says, "Can't you see you're not making Christianity look better? You're just making rock 'n' roll look worse."

But this is less about critiquing worship music than it is about aesthetic experience. The same week my friend gave me the Beatles CD, I bought a Vivaldi CD, specifically for one movement of a concerto that I heard on the radio. It's a four-minute andante from Vivaldi's concerto for violin and two string orchestras in B-flat major (listen here). When I heard it on the radio at work, I was entranced by the beauty of the piece. When I heard it was Vivaldi, I was surprised. No composer's name had entered my mind while I listened, and this is not typical. I know Vivaldi's work fairly well, and this didn't sound like anything I'd heard by him, or by anyone else.

When I bought the CD, my first few listens had an effect on me that no other music has. I laughed and cried at the same time. The piece seemed to pull tears out of my eyes. Other music has had this effect on me, and some pieces have not taken my tears as much as my breath—they're literally "breathtaking." The pianist Alfred Brendel has done this repeatedly with one subtle expressive change of rhythm in a piece by Bach.

But I've never laughed. Smiled, yes. Maybe shaken my head in awe. But with this Vivaldi piece, my eyes teared up, and then I laughed. It was an odd combination of joy and awe, from the experience of intense beauty of a particular character. There is mystery in the music; there are echoes, louder and softer. I can't quite get my ears or mind around it; I'm not sure which instrument is playing which notes. And it opened windows in my mind, through which visions entered—of dazzling, airy, infinite, heavenly places, of flower pedals falling through sunrays in a forest of lofty trees.

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The CD booklet describes the piece as "an emotionally charged andante in the form of a chaconne, its splendid theme, sundrenched, broadly sweeping and no longer specifically Baroque, being among the most beautiful ever written by Vivaldi. It provides the starting point for a set of variations of palpable sensuality, with a long-breathed amplitude …. Never in Vivaldi's works have virtuoso ornaments appeared as intimately integrated into a melodic texture which, with each succeeding variation, gains in expressive tension."

Who would think to describe instrumental music as "sundrenched"? It's perfect. After a few days of listening, I wondered if it had ever been played for a wedding; it sounds perfect for such an occasion. But I wouldn't feel right having it played at my wedding. I wouldn't feel worthy. It's too much for an earthly wedding—or an earthly anything. It may only be fitting for the wedding between Christ and his Bride, at the end of time, when we meet in the air.

So I told my friend on the phone that the Beatles, even at their greatest, didn't hold a candle to Vivaldi. We don't need to mention what this says about today's worship music.

But as rapturous as my experience of Vivaldi's music was, there was also a tinge of something like guilt, expressing itself as a string of questions: What does aesthetic experience do for me? Does it get me closer to Jesus? I've heard non-Christians testify to having the same (and more) intense experiences of art. They seem satisfied by such an experience, as if it's an ultimate goal. It helps them transcend the earthly to the spiritual, perhaps to God as they understand him, not to Jesus. It connects them to a deeper reality that is left unnamed.

I was somewhat bothered by the apparent disconnect between the music and God—between my joyous experience of its beauty and character, and the reality of Jesus in my life and the Holy Spirit in my heart. Why should I be so emotionally affected by a piece of music, especially when there is no clear spiritual advance as a result? If God gave us faculties to be so moved by music, why does the bridge between the two seem invisible?

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I felt guilty that my intense emotional experience did not make me think about God. Was it some sort of artistic gluttony? Aesthetic hedonism? Of course I thought about God later, when I wondered where he was while I was entranced.

Building upon the beauty …

It wasn't long before God started answering my questions—starting the very next morning in church. The first few songs were typical, then the pastor made some announcements and asked us to greet one another. When I sat back down and looked to the stage, I saw a cello. A woman proceeded to play it, accompanying a man singing and playing the keyboard. The drums were silent, the guitars were silent, the electric bass was silent. And there was a cello. I've attended this church for over a year; I have never seen a cello on that stage. But this Sunday, in the immediate wake of my worship complaints, there's a cello in church. I smiled, glanced up to God, and shook my head. What a prankster the Lord is sometimes.

The cellist played a total of three notes over and over again. With about ten minutes of coaching, I probably could have done that. But it was a big first step.

Then I was reminded of what happened those first few times I listened to Vivaldi's andante, when I was transported to some heavenly realm. But I was also inspired to reflect on the earthly realm where I have work to do. I remember an intense longing to build something like Vivaldi's music, to translate that beauty into space and light. Not for just anyone. For the poor.

I began having ideas of practical ways to do this—purchase a small lot, build a small house, or several small houses, then rent or sell them dirt-cheap to low-income people. But could you even call it a house? Would any neighborhood association allow what I might design? Doubtful. That's why the property would have to be mine, and not in a gated community: I would need full creative control. This world doesn't know how to ask for the kind of profound and disturbing beauty that God might put before my eyes. Typically it fights against it tooth and nail.

This idea of showering the less fortunate with God's beauty and truth through building isn't new to me. But listening to that Vivaldi piece accelerated those thoughts, demanding action. By then, I wasn't even really conscious of the music, though it seemed that the music was holding me up. Because when the song was over, I came back down, then hit "repeat" and soared again.

That's mysterious to me, this bridge between God and aesthetic experience. He has given me—all of us—work to do here, on earth, in the trenches. My own divine task is what was advanced in my mind through listening to Vivaldi: that's the bridge between God and art. I was asking the music to take me to God, but God was more interested in taking me to his work. Perhaps he was saying, "You already know me, and an eternity is allotted for you to behold heaven; right now I have something else to show you."

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Finally, I realized why I laughed. I was reminded of a quote from Tom Shadyac, the director of Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty: "Mark Twain said the basis of all humor is tragedy, and that there will be no laughter in heaven. But I disagree; I think there's going to be amazing laughter in heaven, but a different kind—the kind that comes from joy, not from the roots of pain."

Perhaps the basis of all humor is tragedy, but humor is not the basis of all laughter. When I laughed in the middle of Vivaldi's piece, it was one of those rare times when I have laughed when nothing was funny. There was only joy.

Chris Wellman is an architect in Wilmington, NC, who blogs at Church House.