For Christians (as for religious people of various sorts), music is a basic human activity. We cannot live without worshiping, and we cannot worship without making music. Smack in the middle of the Bible are the Psalms, the blues and praise songs of the ancient Hebrews. And the earliest confessions of the New Testament may have been lifted directly from hymns that rang out in corporate worship.
Where might a new listener begin? On several recordings still in the catalog the composer himself performs or supervises a performance, including a remarkable DVD combining his own organ improvisations with a performance of the Quartet for the End of Time (Image Entertainment 6305394776).
The late Curtis Mayfield integrated music and message in a way that changed history. Four-plus decades after achieving renown, his talent shines in the film Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (Reelin’ in the Years Productions). More than a documentary, Movin’ On Up presents 22 complete songs, along with interviews.
There can be little doubt that Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is the most profoundly theological composer of the 20th century. Virtually all his pieces bear some form of explicit Christian intent or reference.
The band R.E.M. is easy to love—and hate. In the 1980s the group from Athens, Georgia, defined college and indie rock. It grafted locomotive Rickenbacker guitar and bass onto the no-nonsense beats of Bill Berry and the barely audible but alluring vocals of Michael Stipe.
The singer stood absolutely still. With open-hearted simplicity she crafted each phrase as if she were proclaiming an essential, God-given message. She did not perform the song but gave it as an offering, a gift, an extension of her innermost thoughts. Several worshipers nodded their heads yes with their eyes closed. Others were bent over in prayer; a few were rocking to the music. There was no sound but the singer's voice, yet an eclectic, diverse bunch of people had become one in the Spirit.
Reading Jeremy Begbie’s article on music in this issue reminded me of one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. I took music theory in college because I knew a little bit about music and thought I could get a good grade with a minimum of effort. How difficult could music theory be? It turned out that I knew a lot less about music than I thought I did.