Art and Music: A Student’s Guide

Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, by Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 112 pp. $8.87.

Modern Christians are inundated with art and music, but they rarely know how to think about them from a Christian perspective. In Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake offer a Christian framework for contemplating these aesthetic disciplines. Paul Munson is professor of music and humanities at Grove City College. He received his education from Wheaton College (B.Mus.) and the University of Michigan (M.A. and PhD). Joshua Farris Drake is associate professor of music at Grove City College. He received his education at Union University (B.M.) and University of Glasgow (M.Mus. and PhD). Although their expertise lies more in music than in art, they are qualified to write this work.

The book is part of a series by Crossway titled “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition,” edited by David S. Dockery, formerly president of Union University (1996-2014) and now president of Trinity International University. The goal of the series is “to provide an overview of the distinctive way the church has read the Bible, formulated doctrine, provided education, and engaged the culture” (11). The primary audience for the series (and, thus, this book) are “Christian students and others associated with college and university campuses” (11).

The book is brief—just over one hundred pages—and is divided into five chapters. The first asks the question: “What do we mean by the word beauty?” The authors “begin with beauty because it is what makes art, art” (15). Art is something that is created (i.e., it is not accidental) and that “has the potential to reward those who pay attention to it” (15). In attempting to define beauty, they begin by considering what they call the classical view, noting the importance of order and symmetry and the identification of beauty with goodness. However, they offer two critiques of the classical view. In this view, beauty—the ideal form—becomes an end in itself and leads to idolatry. The classical view also fails to adequately account for all instances of beauty. Although order and symmetry are elements of many beautiful items, they are not always present. This failure to explain all occurrences of beauty is why alternative models to the classical view (e.g., Romanticism) have consistently been offered.

The authors next consider the postmodern view of beauty. In the late twentieth century the wide divergence of opinion about beauty led people to situate beauty in the subject. As is commonly stated, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But the authors push back against this sentiment. If it were true, then any argument over beauty would be pointless. Beauty would be a matter of preference, and postmodernism holds that no preference should be held higher than another. Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this view. “Some [Christians] still fight for goodness and truth; we know that the goodness of God’s will and the truth of his Word are absolute, but the forms they take are said to be culturally determined and morally neutral. Wasn’t it the Pharisees who cared about form? As long as we get the substance of the gospel right, it does not matter how we proclaim it, or so we think” (22–23).

After critiquing the classical and postmodern views, the authors present a Christian view of beauty. While modern Christians may find the notion of God’s concern for beauty strange, Christians have traditionally believed that God cared about matters like form. Since the authors claim that all Christian thinkers have more or less held the view promoted in their book, they are happy to call it the Christian view, offering their own wording of the definition of beauty found in this tradition: “the forms through which we recognize the nature and ways of God” (25). Beauty communicates truth about God in particular forms.

The second chapter tackles the question: “Why should we enjoy art and music?” The broad answer is that God designed His creatures to take joy in the “leisurely contemplation of general revelation” (37). But the authors build on that with four other reasons: (1) artists and musicians expound general revelation in much the same way that preachers expound special revelation; (2) art and music are communication from our fellow man; (3) art and music help us avoid being desensitized; and (4) failure to enjoy art and music invites folly.

Chapter three answers the question: “How do we judge art and music?” They employ C. S. Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism as a guide for evaluating the distinction between high art and popular art. There is a difference between the few, who receive and value great art, and the many, who merely use art for their own purposes. Those who receive the art allow it to challenge their perceptions and ideas, while those who use art look for what they already want in the art. The authors then apply Lewis’s idea to the question at hand, with this conclusion: “A work is ugly to the extent that its form realizes an evil purpose, whether it be an evil ‘use’ or the ‘reception’ of something evil. A work is also ugly to the extent that its form poorly realizes a good purpose, whether it be a good ‘use’ or the ‘reception’ of something good. Obversely, a work is beautiful if its form well realizes a good purpose” (54). They argue that the best works of art are those that can be received and not merely used.

The fourth and fifth chapters address receiving art and music, respectively. In each chapter, some examples of quality art are set forth. The reader is encouraged to take the time to receive the works on his/her own, then the authors discuss what the works are communicating. For art, the key emphasis is to actually gaze at the work of art for an extended period of time, looking for what the image is trying to get one to observe. For music, the listener is urged to “hear what’s happening in the music. Then he must remember what happened earlier so that, third, he can reflect on why the music has unfolded like this” (87), (emphasis original).

Both chapters end with a counterexample from popular culture, where the authors attempt to receive the work and, thereby, demonstrate the practical meaninglessness of the work. In the discussion of art, they conclude that “ugly leisure”—the kind that utilizes popular art—is mostly designed to have the participant unengaged and oblivious to the wasted time being spent. In music, they conclude that that “part of the attraction of such a song [as “The Cave” by Mumford and Sons]—and, by extension, of popular culture—is that it says almost nothing. It’s a way of filling one’s free time with sensation without meaning” (99-100). They end the book with a challenge to pursue fruitful and godly leisure that properly delights in God’s glory rather than allowing one’s time to be wasted or pursuing mere sensation. The book also includes some questions for reflection, a glossary of terms, and suggested resources for further study.

There is much to commend in the book. It consistently avoids the error of aesthetic relativism, even attacking the error head on. After offering the Christian understanding of beauty, they defend it against the postmodern objection that objective beauty requires a uniform approach to beauty. Beauty can be diverse, they say, because it reflects an infinite and transcendent reality that no finite being or object could ever fully capture. They then take the offensive against aesthetic relativism, arguing that it does not lead to tolerance but indifference—if it were true, there would be no difference between a child’s drawing and a Rembrandt. They also challenge the common evangelical idea that form is meaningless, even emphasizing—counter to prevailing evangelical sentiment—that the clothing one wears communicates.

The authors work hard to communicate on a level that can connect with most Christians. They explain things simply and utilize a variety of examples to clarify and illustrate what they mean. They emphasize their belief that anyone can learn to receive good art, noting that the difference between great music and popular music is not about intellectual capacity, since “a thoughtful child” can appreciate the most important parts of great music (99).

The authors also write as Christians for Christians. They work to ground their ideas within a biblical framework. They close the first chapter with a discussion of how sin is at the root of our aesthetic differences in judgment—a sin that requires repentance. Although some conflicts come as a result of not understanding the purpose of an object, others result from a sinful failure to cultivate aesthetic wisdom:

Once we have agreed on a common purpose, however, it should be a fairly straightforward—even scientific—process to determine what form can most effectively realize that purpose. If both parties do in fact share a common purpose but cannot resolve their conflict, it can only be that one or both lack aesthetic discernment. We are not born aesthetically wise. It is something we must learn through diligent study and repentance (28-29).

In the second chapter, they suggest that idleness (a sin warned against in Scripture) is “enjoying oneself or the pleasures themselves” while recreation is “enjoyment of God, which is part of our chief end” (36). Thus, they call Christians to repent of idleness and move toward godly recreation.

There are some weaknesses in the work, however. The authors are rather scathing in their review of popular culture, even unfairly at times. For example, they decry the chorus of “The Cave” as “the stuff of madness and erratic nightmares, not articulate speech” in part for referring to a rope around a person’s neck that he/she is in danger of choking on (96). They state that the rope must be simultaneously around the person’s neck and in the person’s mouth if the person is in danger of choking on it, but they do not consider that a person can choke on something around one’s neck (e.g., a choke hold).

Further, the authors seem unaware of their allegiance to an understanding of high art that was only formed in the last few centuries—one that understands the best art as having no purpose other than being seen or heard for its own sake. For example, the authors illustrate the difference between receiving and using art by contrasting the crucifixes used to decorate “countless places of worship” that are meant to be used and, therefore, are rightly non-descript and generic with The Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, which communicates and, thus, is meant to be received (55). Yet they never acknowledge that fact that The Mond Crucifixion was originally an altarpiece in the church of San Domenico and is now stripped from its original context in order for us to receive it. In fact, it is difficult to determine what kinds of art the authors would want to be used for worship. Is the believer only to pursue the best forms of art for his leisure, or should he also pursue them in his worship? Would the best forms of art distract the believer from his purpose of worship? If the authors are offering the Christian view of beauty, one would expect more clarity on this matter.

The book is a helpful introduction to the concept of art and beauty for the Christian, but it is only an introduction. It is a good resource to encourage Christians to begin to consider the study of art and music. However, those who want a more nuanced and fuller understanding of a Christian view of the arts will need to supplement their study.

 

Benjamin Edwards

Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

Allen Park, MI

Posted in Book Reviews

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