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Wednesday Word — August 19, 2020

August 19, 2020 | Dr. Jay T. Smith

Faith and the Arts: Music

There has been music in my life as long as I can remember. My mother had been a pianist and my father a trombonist. More important than this pedigree was the fact that music was being listened to and made in our home. My dad played his Glenn Miller, Moody Blues, and bluegrass records, and my mom was singing, playing the piano, or playing her favorite Burt Bacharach discs. I would plink on the piano as a young boy, and later played trombone in junior high, high school, and college. I wasn’t half bad either. I later majored in music in college where I learned to arrange, compose, and conduct music. To this day I continue to arrange, compose, and play music. I appreciate all forms of music, although I have similar affinities as my parents: classic rock, jazz, bluegrass, and classical. When I am in my office, music is playing.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that music is my primary language. I can think in music. I can express myself in music. I can express my emotions and my focus, and describe aspects of life with music. I understand the power and beauty of music. I am not the only one, either. A vast number of human beings around the world have this same understanding. Music-making is a way of life and a means by which human beings communicate their frustrations, hopes, and dreams. Because of this seminal way by which music expresses the orientation of the human soul, it is always an integral part of how human beings worship God. Indeed, one could say that music is not simply the language of the human soul, but also the very language of heaven. Angels sang at the birth of Christ; angels sing around the throne of God astride the glassy sea. I believe we will be a bit surprised to find out that music is the language of heaven.

Music as a Spiritual Discipline

When I was in seminary, the campus spiritual director asked me about my daily “spiritual discipline.” I told her that after I woke up and had a brief prayer, I would then make coffee and prayerfully read Scripture. Following that exercise, I would sit at my keyboard and just play. She asked me why I did that, and I told her that it was through music that I could tell God things from my heart that I could not express through words. Needless to say, she was intrigued!

I realize that music expresses our deepest emotions, whether joyful or angry. Popular music today often expresses infatuation, love, anger, melancholy, disappointment, and hope. I can listen to Bela Fleck and the Flecktone’s rendition of “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” and then listen to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” and be equally moved with joy, thankfulness, and longing. Music is a part of every human being’s life whether it is by listening, tapping a foot, whistling a tune, singing, or playing an instrument. A man once told me that they only thing he blew was his nose! I asked him if he played the radio which, of course, he said “yes.” He said he wasn’t a musician but he liked to whistle tunes while he was working, or sing his favorite songs when no one was listening because he didn’t think he was very good. That is the power of music: we make music, even when we don’t think we are very good at it. It is something we are drawn towards, something we must do because of who and what we are. All of life sings: the animals, the trees, the oceans, the wind, and, of course, the heavens.

Music is an integral means by which people express and learn the objects of faith. The old 19th century hymn writers knew this fact and wrote catchy tunes that carried the truths of the faith. To this day, people are drawn to those powerful songs: “Amazing Grace,” “At the Cross,” “In the Garden,” and my favorite, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” Although I have been focused on music, the arts on the whole reflect the human commission to yearn for, worship, and learn about God. I can be as moved by a great painting in the same fashion that I am moved by a symphony or ballet performance. As Martha Graham once said, when we practice singing, performing, or dancing, we, in some aspect, become “athletes of God.”

YTI and the Arts

YTI seeks to reconnect men and women of faith with the arts—whether visual or musical—simply because their faith and life will become infinitely richer. In addition, we want those men and women who are not necessarily religious to understand that the art they practice can become even better when they realize its power and origin. When I think about art, and specifically music, I always come back to the admonition of Karen Carpenter and Joe Raposo’s wonderful music:

Sing. Sing a song.
Sing out loud, sing out strong.
Sing of good things, not bad.
Sing of happy, not sad.
Sing. Sing a song.
Make it simple to last your whole life long.
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear.
Just sing.
Sing a song.
La La La La La La – La La La La La La – La La La La La La
Sing. Sing a song.
Let the world.
Sing along
Sing of love, there could be.
Sing for you and for me.
Sing a song.
Make it simple to last your whole life long.
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.

© 1971 Jonoco Music

Dr. Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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