The Magic of Music

from Oct 11, 2014 Category: Articles

C.S. Lewis, in his trenchant essay, Myth Made Fact makes much of the fact that our hearts and minds tend to be binary. That is, the more clearly we are thinking the less powerfully we are feeling, while the more powerfully we are feeling the less clearly we are thinking. There is a deep and profound difference, for instance, between thinking about pain and being in pain. Indeed thinking about pain is largely painless and often being in pain leaves us thoughtless. Myth, he argues, is the key to getting both operating at once. Myth, he argues, is not a synonym for false, or lie, but rather is that which is so elemental that as we enter in we think and feel at once. Liturgy, I would argue, works off this same principle. Bread and wine are Christ’s divine appointments by which we both contemplate and enter into His passion, as well as contemplate and enter into His victory.

Music, I believe, has many of the same qualities. I suppose it can trend toward the thinking side. You see this in those songs designed to help us memorize information, the sing-song collections of data bits favored during the grammar stage of a classical education. And certainly there is music that leans more toward emotion with little thinking. Speed metal would be a fine example. I suspect if the “singer” in the speed metal band were to screech through the phone book it would make precious little difference to the experience of the average listener. The music itself says, “Be mad” even when the lyrics might be an ode to a daisy.

The best music, however, strives to inform and inspire. When, for instance, I am listening to Nathan Clark George sing a Psalm I am instructed by the wisdom of the Psalm. But I also, by His grace, enter into the pathos of the Psalm and the psalmist. Each informs the other. The deeper the feeling the more I meditate on the thought. The deeper the thought the more I enter into the feeling. When I listen to Andrew Petersen mourn the loss of childhood innocence I am thinking about what it means to grow old, about what was lost in Eden, about the promises of God in Christ. But I am also entering into that mourning, as well as the hope that comes with it. What a rare and glorious blessing when we find both and.

A song that is merely sound (orthodox) is not a song but a lecture. A song that is merely emotive is not a song but emotional pornography. These temptations often frame the whole of our lives, even in the church. There are elements in the body of Christ that are given to great emotional displays, created by emotional manipulation. There are elements in the body that are given to great theological precision, chained to cold hearts. The solution, however, is never to dial down the care of our thought, nor the fervor of our emotions. Instead we are to think rightly, feel deeply. Perhaps if we gave greater care to the music that enters our ear gates we might do better. Perhaps if we fed our souls nutritious ideas and expressions we would not have such gaunt souls.

R.C. Sproul Jr. is rector and chair of philosophy and theology at Reformation Bible College. Originally published at