Music Through the Eyes of Faith | Harold Best.


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Harold Best is arguably the most influential voice on music in the contemporary worship
scene. In a 2008 blog post, Bob Kauflin states about Best’s first book, Music Through the Eyes of
Faith, that he “read it in the mid-90’s and [has not] found anything [else] as insightful, helpful,
and biblically faithful.” Pastor and author Mike Cosper cites Harold Best eight times throughout
his book, Rhythms of Grace.

On the other side of the debate, John Makujina interacts with Best throughout his book Measuring the Music, seeking to disprove the argument in favor of Contemporary Christian Music. Scott Aniol references Best in his book Sound Worship and interacts with his claim of musical relativity. A few searches through other books on worship and music and a scouring of online music and worship blogs turn up abundant quotes from and references to Harold Best.

Best spent many years as dean and professor of music at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. Besides serving on the faculty at Wheaton, Best has served in roles at the National Association of Schools of Music, as a composer, and as a church musician. He has written and spoken extensively about music philosophy, music education, worship, and the arts. Best has influenced many in his areas of expertise; however, his most notable contributions have been in the fields of music philosophy and worship. Best has written two books, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (1993) and Unceasing Worship (2003), as well as numerous articles. He has also frequently been featured as a keynote speaker at worship conferences throughout the country and has been involved in numerous projects toward the advancement of ethno-doxology.

In his initial book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Best gives an account of the well-known hymn tune AUSTRIA and how it has maintained various associations within different contexts. In one conclusive statements he declares, “there is no way to explain this phenomenon other than that music, as music, is completely relative.” This statement is foundational in developing the author’s
philosophy of music as relative and what he calls “musical pluralism.”

Best believes that “art and especially music are morally relative and inherently incapable of articulating, for want of a better term, truth speech.” Likewise, because of music’s inability to contain meaning, he holds that there is no such thing as “Christian music” regarding music alone, apart from words. He believes that Christians should be free to enjoy music of every category under the condition that it is practiced with an aim for quality and excellence.

Music Through the Eyes of Faith serves as Harold Best’s first book and his foremost work on music philosophy for the Christian. This book was published in 1993, just 4 years before Best’s retirement as Dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College. In the introduction he gives an account of the formative years of his life and the musical rearing that taught him to differentiate between good and bad music. He ends the account by making this revealing comment, which helps set the work’s context:

And in these later years of my profession, I find myself laughing and whole again, musically happier than ever, celebrating this vast expanse of sonic creativity, longing with all my heart to be a world musician as a living part of being a world Christian, and delighting in teaching all of this renewed good news.

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Best believes that he has finally discovered a sense of freedom in his experience with music as a Christian. However, Best suggests an important caveat. Despite his understanding that Christians can enjoy a diversity of music, he insists that there is good music and bad music and that “excellence and diversity are compatible.”

The reader begins to see the purpose of the book come into focus. The author resolves to help Christians, and especially Christian musicians, come to terms with what he understands to be a biblically faithful philosophy of music. In this book Best sets out to argue that beauty, and therefore music, is relative within God’s creation, that Christians should hold to the philosophy of what he calls musical pluralism, and that within the world of musical pluralism Christians must pursue musical excellence.

To better understand Best’s philosophy the reader must ask what drives it. The underlying presuppositions of his philosophy must be realized before application of this philosophy is made. Best lays out some of these presuppositions for his audience within the first few chapters of his book. First, Best’s philosophy of music must be differentiated from his application of that philosophy. The philosophy that determines Best’s application of musical pluralism proves to be musical relativism.

Second, what initiates Best’s philosophy of musical relativism is his understanding of musical meaning. Finally, what presupposes the above philosophy and application is Best’s understanding of God’s Creation and General Revelation. Below I will examine what Best says in each of these areas, in reverse order, in an effort to synthesize his philosophy of musical relativism.

Creation and General Revelation

In Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Best’s first chapter expounds the concepts of creation and music making. In this chapter he spends a great deal of time comparing God’s creativity to human creativity. God as creator is above creation and completely separate from it.

Likewise, humans, being made in God’s image, are capable of creating and are completely separate from and above their own creations. Furthermore, in creation God gave mankind the responsibility of having dominion over the creation. As music is a product of human creation we must exercise dominion over it and realize that it cannot have dominion over us.

After setting this foundation Best advances to a discussion that proves to be a little more confusing and a little less circumspect. He concludes this section by questioning whether Christians place too much emphasis on the Fall when it comes to creativity. He suggests that we should consider the following question: “As horrible as the Fall is, do we make too much of it by trying to guess what it is all by itself, instead of talking about how God works within it and helps us overcome it, even while we continue to sin?” In this question Best calls his audience to examine the intrinsic value of the music that we have and how it can be used and enjoyed in this life. On one of his final points of reasoning he states that both Christians and non-Christians are equally capable of producing beautiful or ugly music.

The next section of the author’s argument begins with an exploration of the nature of God’s creating. God created out of nothing, but he also imagined creation out of nothing. Once again referring to the imago Dei, Best insists that humans must also be original in their creativity. This leads him to thoroughly criticize imitation. It also leads to an explanation of what defines a true artist: one who “does not attempt to portray something the way it is but the way he or she sees it to be.”

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The above arguments are like statements that Best makes in later works. His 2003 book Unceasing Worship develops his philosophy of worship. Best spends the eighth chapter of the book discussing creation and “it deals with the relationship of the way God creates to how each of us should do our own daily work, whatever its kind.” Similarly, in what Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition calls a “brilliant and insightful talk” from the Wheaton College artist series of 2015, Best speaks extensively on this idea of God’s creation, human creativity, and relativity and variety. The second half of his video is a “propositionally-laced, time-warped creation parable” that he created to give the listener his impression of what God might have been thinking before creation.

Musical Meaning

Upon establishing his foundation of God’s creation and human creation, Best moves to his exposition of musical meaning. This topic dominates chapter 2 of Music Through the Eyes of Faith. He begins with an anecdote and then gives several examples to support his premise that music should be understood regarding its associative meaning. In one summarizing paragraph the author explains his position concerning music’s meaning and purpose. In short, he believes that music apart from text is totally, morally relative and incapable of expressing “truth speech.”

Additionally, in congruence with his argument from the creation chapter, he asserts that artists must exercise dominion over their “handiwork” while being held accountable for what they create and how it is created. Finally, he concludes that Christians are free to enjoy and use diverse selections of music and art even when said artwork is produced in unbelief by the artist.

Best continues to build on his arguments from his chapter on creation. He seeks to show the incompatibility between the concepts of truth and beauty. He maintains, “to equate them in any way is to commit the same error equating God’s person with the creation.” He explains the difference, that while beauty may have varying degrees, truth does not. Best believes that God’s beauty is moral and ethical, and, by contrast, creation’s beauty is aesthetic. Yet, as Christians we must strive to speak the truth beautifully.

Other claims that Best makes throughout this chapter are imperative to build his argument. He believes that suggesting that music in any way has the ability to shape behaviors and morals is idolatry. In support of this he cites 1 Corinthians 8:4 and Jeremiah 10:5, comparing music both to idols and food offered to idols. Best declares that there is a difference between music’s emotional effects on its listeners and its moral effects. Likewise, he posits that music has no inherent meaning and is therefore the least precise and most flexible artform. He suggests that because music can have associative meanings that differ from one listener to another “there is no way to explain this phenomenon other than that music, as music, is completely relative.” This concept is one of the most significant presuppositional statements of the entire book.

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Best is consistent in maintaining his position on musical meaning in later years. In Unceasing Worship, he argues that music’s only meaning comes from text that is assigned to it and context (association). He states that “music’s capability for union with words is unparalleled in any other art form. This means that the most exact form of communicating truth (words) can be coupled to the most inexact (music) in a completely natural way.” In a 2013 worship conference address, Best proclaims that battling over musical style in worship is idolatry and that “there is no such thing as absolute beauty” and “no such thing as centralized perfection.” In the 2014 Doxology and Theology conference Best criticizes the idea of absolute beauty in music as being “as old as the church.”

Musical Pluralism

In the third and fourth chapters of Music Through the Eyes of Faith Best makes his case for what he calls musical pluralism. He is careful to distinguish between musical and artistic pluralism and the secular concept of moral pluralism. This chapter begins by explaining how creation gives a model and serves as the foundation for the idea of pluralism. This leads to a comparison of humanly composed music with God-created objects, namely, trees and animals.

Best believes that comparisons between created objects are parallel to comparisons of different
types and systems of music. For Best, music can be directly compared to language. In fact, he spends a considerable portion of time discussing the commonly held notion that the account of Pentecost in Acts 2 can be understood as a reversal of the consequences during the Tower of Babel. Best then applies this concept directly to the musical diversity that can be witnessed around the world. He further explains that no one culture has the ability to exhaustively, rightly, and exclusively bring praise to God in their musical language. Best further develops this comparison of music and language with analogies of dividing music into “languages, dialects, and styles.” He insists that only
insiders and those who become “conversant” in the style, dialect, or language of a music are capable of truly making qualified judgments on its worthiness. This analogy of music, language, and Pentecost unfolds as an essential position for Best.

Quality and Excellence

It is imperative to note that despite Best’s insistence on musical relativity and pluralism he often makes impassioned pleas for the necessity of quality and excellence in the arts. He devotes an entire chapter on this very subject in Music Through the Eyes of Faith, criticizing what he believes to be bad forms of music. It is a running theme throughout the second major section of Unceasing Worship, particularly in his criticism of mass culture and “experientialism, self-enclosed shallowness, the forsaking of a truth center and the degradation of language.” In his Think Worship Conference talk from 2013 he addresses “issues of quality and excellence” and states that “quality must be pursued, not as an absolute, but absolutely as a matter of conscience.” Best sees no dichotomy between musical relativity and the pursuit of excellence.