Music and The Christian Life

July 21, 2011 — 4 Comments

[This post is part of the Reshaping Christian Habits series, it is also to be an article in an upcoming issue of the Dallas Seminary student paper]

As a private music teacher, I have a certain level of knowledge regarding music theory. Most of this was gained alongside 12 years of private piano lessons, and from college level music theory. You would be amazed at what you can do with a basic ability to read music and a general, but growing understanding of how it all fits together theoretically. It is actually quite possible, even easy, to sit down and write music that can be both theoretically correct and in some cases pleasant to listen to. The fact that Beethoven wrote (and conducted!) his Ninth Symphony after he went deaf proves that it is possible to write beautifully moving music without necessarily being able to play it, right?

Well, yes and no. The difference between Beethoven writing a symphony in deafness and someone with a basic knowledge of music theory, notation, and four part harmony sitting down and writing a “song” is this: Beethoven was a musician before he went deaf (and a master at that); someone with an ability to read music and even compose it employing correct music theory, but lacking the ability to play it is not.

Without the ability to play an instrument, one is not a musician, regardless of how well you understand music theory or how good of an ear for music you might have. Generally speaking, that is usually why no one ever learns those activities in isolation. It is always alongside learning an instrument, as this makes the most sense. If all my students were able to do is recite the Circle of 5ths from memory and name that tune, I would have to consider my efforts in teaching them to actually play piano or guitar a failure.

Surprisingly though, it does work the opposite way; one can play and even write brilliant music without a complete understanding of music theory. People who play by ear basically do this and tend to have an intuitive understanding of how music works and fits together, though generally unable to express it with all the correct terminology. In this regard, Exhibit A is The Beatles.

As an upcoming graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, I have certain level of knowledge regarding the Bible and theology. As Dr. Allman says frequently (and facetiously), “I have a doctorate from Dallas Seminary and know many great and wonderful things.” In my case, this knowledge was gained from 4 years of intensive study here at Dallas. You would be amazed what you can do with a basic ability to read the Bible and a general, but growing understanding of how it all fits together theologically. It is actually quite possible, even easy, to sit down and write a paper that can be both theologically correct and in some cases might be enjoyable to read.

But as we’ve hopefully learned while we are here, knowing the Bible and theology and expressing them well on paper is not all there is to being a Christian.

In many ways, playing an instrument is a lot like living the Christian life. Much goes into being a competent musician; much goes into to faithfully living the Christian life. For a musician, you do not need to necessarily know music theory to play great music. For a Christian, you do not necessarily need to have an extensive knowledge of theology in order to follow Christ obediently.

There is however a bottom line necessity for both the Christian and the musician. For a Christian, this might be placing faith in Christ and demonstrating it by living a life of obedience. For the musician, this would be training their hands and demonstrating it by actually playing an instrument. Someone who claims to be a Christian, yet does not demonstrate faith by consistently living a life of obedience is not much different someone claiming to be a musician, but never playing an instrument. In both cases, the claim seems rather dubious.

Further, one could say that the mature musician is the one who is skilled on his instrument, growing in knowledge of music theory and can play by ear. The mature Christian is the one who is living a life of faithful obedience, growing in knowledge of the Bible and theology, and walks by the Spirit. All three are needed at some level for both the Christian and musician.

In the case of the Beatles, they had two components down: great skill on their respective instruments, and great ears for music. They grew in their knowledge of music theory throughout the years, but they never received any kind of formal training. Their theoretical knowledge always lagged a bit behind their other abilities, but their desire to grow in knowledge was subservient to their desire to be better musicians.

For us, it should be much the same way. It is easy (for me at least) to fall into the trap of theological knowledge for knowledge sake. Knowledge puffs up, and upon receiving a Master of Theology, it is easy to look down on others who have a more simple knowledge of things. But while I may soon be a Master of Theology, there will be people I minster to that while not Masters of Theology, might well be Masters of Obedience or a Masters of Walking in the Spirit. Those who are didn’t get there overnight, much less in the span of four years. From them I would have much to learn.

I am thankful for my time at DTS, and for all that I have learned. In a way, I am not leaving here a master of anything. I know much more than I did when I came here, and I have grown as a person. Hopefully too I have grown more Christ-like in the process. But for me it has been important to remember that growing in theological knowledge is not equal to growing more Christ-like any more than knowing more about music theory automatically makes you a better musician. Coupled with practice and developing your ear, it will. In the same way, growing in theological knowledge, alongside obedience and walking by the Spirit, will lead to growing more Christ-like.

In a way, the Christian life is like a song. Because you are not Jesus, your performance will contain mistakes: wrong notes here and there, unnecessary sharps and flats. It is however, what people will remember most. They may not remember how much you knew, but as you minister to them they will remember how well you put it to use.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to Music and The Christian Life

  1. Should I start with a criticism attempt, and end with construction attempt? Beethoven’s 5th starts in a minor key, C minor (GGG|Eb), with horns blazing in C major at the end in the melody: C .E . |G .. F | E D C D | C.

    Aren’t we a little tired of the demonstration analogy as the inclusive metaphor for living as a Christian? Should the whole point be … to demonstrate? Doesn’t God have a better motive for action than to put us like musicians out in Babylon, playing for our captors who are saying “sing us one of the songs of Zion?

    After the demo, I think there’s meaningful work to be done. That’s the C-Major part. “demonostrate that you’re saved”: the C minor part.

    • I think I follow what you’re saying and it does make sense. I wrote this more in response to what the emphasis is in seminary (it was an article that just appeared in the DTS paper) where “knowing” is accentuated and some people forget that that knowing is supposed to translate into Christ-likeness.

      I see where you’re coming from though, and like the extension to the musical analogy.

      • Thanks. I’m also reacting to something, namely my associate / boss who is always telling me that “the point” of Christianity is “to get people to change, isn’t it?”

        He’s got some teenage kids that he’s reacting to, and they’re in turn reacting to … it’s like a contrapuntal Baroque intertwining, all the things we are reacting to!

        Love the fact of your musical side, and am too embarrassed to tell you about mine, just drop hints. Let’s just say I briefly studied under Henri Lazarof, whom you’ve never heard of…

        As far as “demonstration” goes, I realize I’m camping under just one definition of it, the kind that refers to a preparatory act before something else. So I just used the same word you used, without intending to say that you meant it that way.

        But I really do get ticked that everything sometimes get funneled into a behavior criterion. I realize that James says “show me your faith by your works.” But I see a bad use of that verse, in the following way: some systems think that there is a lifetime of showing that is necessary on their part … that unless their successful demo lasts their whole life, Bill Gates will find another software developer. To combat this, I have painted a picture to some people that Jesus never did reach out and save Peter from drowning, but just looked around and said “don’t worry, if he’s saved, he’ll inevitably come up ….”!

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