Music That Edifies, and Music That Doesn’t

by Matthew Raley

The word edify seems to be out of favor. It has the feel of an antique, and the stigma of obscure religiosity. When reaching for an equivalent, evangelicals often use encourage, and the substitution tells a story.

The words are similar.

To encourage is to hearten or animate — to give an emotional uplift when someone is down. Though one can encourage a group, we usually think of encouraging an individual, someone who needs a pat on the back.

Edification, like encouragement, has an emotional impact but is more specific about the purpose. To edify is to build, as both the Latin and Greek roots attest. Edification speaks of joining, cementing, adding, raising. It refers particularly to moral and spiritual improvement.

This is how Paul uses the Greek term (1 Corinthians 8.1): “Knowledge inflates, but love builds.”

Throughout the history of Western culture, sacred music has embraced the mission to edify. Congregations expected their music to cement them together in the praise of God, not just with people of one class but all classes, not just people of one generation but many generations. In the experience of being built together with other Christians, they expected to be improved. Music in worship was viewed as a corporate matter, as participation in a common sound.

This mission of connecting generations and classes was artistic. To achieve its goals, sacred music had tools to draw people in, like using familiar tunes from hymns and folk songs. It had other tools to propel people out of the familiar, not merely repeating tunes week after week, but resetting and combining them so that the folk elements acquired symbolic meanings. Until the late 1700s this music was not sold or performed outside the context of worship, and so had no commercial value.

It was crafted to evoke the spiritual zone where Christ’s people of all times and nations live.

Johann Sebastian Bach had a theology for this art — a view of how God uses music. He believed that the glory of God came upon his people whenever the congregation made music, a belief he based on the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 5.11-14. But for this art, Bach also had a cosmology — a view of how music operates in the physical universe. He believed that the planets and stars made literal music that human beings could join with their own sounds, all to God’s praise.

Bach’s music expresses this worldview. In the motet Jesu, Meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy), for instance, he takes a hymn that was familiar to his people, intersperses its stanzas with quotes from Romans 8, a familiar passage, and then propels the worshipers into God’s cosmos.

Notice that at the beginning the hymn is sung in ordinary chorale style (familiar), but that the second stanza (movement 3, 3:55) is more complex. The hymn tune is set in even more complex ways toward the middle of the motet. Notice also that the words from Romans 8.1 are set with five intricate, mutually-imitating lines. This counterpoint evokes the universe’s singing, the “music of the spheres.” (English translation below.)

Jesus, my joy,
pasture of my heart,
Jesus, my adornment
ah how long, how long
is my heart filled with anxiety
and longing for you!
Lamb of God, my bridegroom,
apart from you on the earth
there is nothing dearer to me.

There is therefore now no
condemnation to them
who are in Christ Jesus,
who wander not after the flesh,
but after the Spirit. (Romans 8, V. 1)

Beneath your protection
I am free from the attacks
of all my enemies.
Let Satan track me down,
let my enemy be exasperated —
Jesus stands by me.
Even if there is thunder and lightning,
even if sin and hell spread terror
Jesus will protect me .

This music doesn’t leave a worshiper in a familiar world. It connects worshipers to each other, to past generations of Christians, to the apostle Paul, to the physical universe (as they believed), and to God. It uses the familiar as a doorway into God’s larger world. It edifies. The music is powerful enough to connect with people today.

It is hardly news that contemporary evangelical music does not have a mission to edify. Evangelicals use commercialized pop modes almost exclusively, and the mission of this music is merely to encourage individuals.

Pop music certainly succeeds in its mission. But it has little communal value, since pop audiences have become narrower and narrower, representing the divisions of demographics rather than the unity of Christ’s Church throughout time and space. Some churches do well by singing a broad selection of pop styles, and there are possibilities for unity by using pop tools.

But there are two things evangelicals need to face about music. First, music has been given a spiritual mission by God, a mission that requires it do go further than encouragement. Second, the category of “what I like” will never edify. Giving people only what is familiar will make them smaller.

Sacred music needs to embrace its mission of love.

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8 thoughts on “Music That Edifies, and Music That Doesn’t

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  1. Man, this is so good, Pastor Raley. Thank you for this. As a non-musician, but as a lover of Bach, Telemann, and Handel, it frustrates me that other Christians just reduce music to a matter of preferences; and that you are dismissed as an elitist high-brow if you question the value of pop culture and its music. It would be great if you could recommend resources for us–I already subscribe to Mars Hill Audio, and have gone through “All God’s Children and Blue-Sued Shoes.” Anything else out there?

  2. Can I mention one other reason Bach is so good, Pastor Raley? It’s the words in his church cantatas–as well as his other music. Just today, I listened intently to his church cantata written for this day in the Lutheran church calendar, “Ich hatte viel Bekummernis” (“I had much affliction”). Instead of reflecting the typical sappy “Jesus is my boyfriend, life is so good” of evangelical pop Christian music, it showed the whole range of real emotions of a Christian in pain and doubt who nevertheless is told to look to his Saviour; in other words, it reflected the real life of a believer. Would that we could sing with such honesty. And it concludes with glory and honor and praise to God.

  3. Richard,

    I think you’re absolutely right about the emotional range and honesty. I think our worship services have a range that is far too narrow, which means that we can’t minister to people fully. Bach was capable of expressing everything from death to ecstasy.

    I wish I had other resources on this issue to offer you, but at the moment I don’t. If I find any, I’ll let you know! Listening to Bach has been one my main resources, actually.

    Thanks for writing!

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