Before the summer is out, the US Supreme Court will hand down a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case. Every other week, ISIS releases a new video of masked fighters beheading Christians, and the rest of the Middle East is in chaos. Boko Haram terrorizes parts of Nigeria, and Somali gunman attack a Christian college in Kenya. US relations with Russia are rocky, as Russian continues to support rebels in eastern Ukraine. The European Union is unsteady.
Meanwhile, in balmy Birmingham, the Theopolis Institute hosts a week of intensive study of music. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Rough beasts slouch toward Bethlehem. And here we are teaching you to sing while the world burns. We claim to be training leaders, but it looks as if the only thing our students lead is a hasty retreat.
In defense, we might offer a variation on CS Lewis’s essay, “On Learning in Wartime.” “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right,” Lewis wrote. “But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never came.”
Lewis is wise as always, but we can make a stronger defense, because in Scripture, music isn’t useless ornamentation. It is integral to warfare and to witness.
To warfare: Because kings make and play musical instruments. Because playing music is an extension of dominion over the world. Because David drove away evil spirits with his harp. Because God trained David’s sword-hand to fight and his harp-fingers for battle. Because David organized Levitical singers and players like an army. Because Jehoshaphat dispersed the Moabites and Ammonites with singers. Because we are filled with the Spirit of power to speak in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Because music disposes the soul to courage. Music makes happy warriors.
To witness: Because Miriam sang the song of the sea, testifying to the Lord. Because Moses sang the Song of Moses, testifying against Israel. Because exiles sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Because David composed the Lord’s songs in a land of strangers. Because we sing to declare the Name of the Lord. Because Paul and Silas sang til midnight in a Philippian jail, singing the jailer into the kingdom. Because Jesus sings in the midst of the congregation.
At the beginning of Revelation 14, John sees the Lamb standing on Zion, surrounded by the 144,000 who have been sealed on the forehead for priestly service. Like Jesus, each is simultaneously priest and sacrifice, each offering himself. Before they shed their blood, they learn the song of heaven. Before they join the company of martyrs, they join the choir of angels. And by shedding their blood, these singer-martyrs seal the doom of Babylon.
When things fall apart, the church needs are courageous witnesses who obey the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus no matter what. As we offer the breath of our bodies to God in music, we are prepared to offer our blood too. As living sacrifices offering our reasonable worship, we are prepared to offer our dying sacrifices, pouring ourselves out as drink offerings on the sacrifice and service of faith.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This was delivered as the “Solemn Charge and Exhortation” to open the Pentecost course on Music in Life and Liturgy.