Music Through the Eyes of Faith

    -- by Harold Best, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993, 225 pages.

This book is meant to challenge you, and may well change you (or your music). Harold Best, retired dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College, has done a remarkable job of combining closely-reasoned logic, knowledge of the Scriptures, and decades of love for diverse musics into an interesting and well-written study. It is almost impossible to skim; every page is meant to cause the reader to interact with ideas and decide “what do I believe about this?” Although dealing in depth with meaty issues, the writing is clear and arguments follow logically upon one another.

One of the most refreshing elements present, sorely lacking in most books on this topic, is Best’s obvious love and respect for the world’s musics in all their diversity. Shape-note hymns, cantatas, gamelan ensembles, rock and roll: all are invited to proclaim God’s glory! There is no single musical culture or musical style that can, better than all others, capture and repeat back the fullness of God’s glory. God does not want to hear only Beethoven, or Ken Medema, or Christian rap, or Cameroonian drums, or Pakistani chant. “God wants to hear the whole world in its countless tongues and amazingly diverse musics making praise after praise. God accepts not only the offerings of a highly trained choir, but also the song of the arrow maker in Brazil.... God awaits entirely new songs for the first time from a tribe in Cambodia, a Mexican barrio, and a Scottish hamlet.” And Best gives full biblical justification for this perspective. He makes a solid case for wide-ranging musical pluralism, using Creation and Pentecost as models for God’s love of diversity.

Best points to the heart of the musician as being of primary importance in real worship, with the specific sound being secondary. “Because true Christianity cannot be thought of apart from new creation, there should be no kind of music, however radical, however new, however strange, that is out of place in Christian worship, as long as it is faithfully offered.”

The book further makes a case for the three broad themes of musical pluralism, excellence, and creativity within the church, but covers a large amount of ground in dealing with these topics. The issues raised are plentiful and too deep to discuss in a review, so I will whet your appetite by giving some of the questions which I found most interesting (you’ll have to read the book for the answers!).

As can be gleaned from the above questions, the book considers topics which are of primary concern to all people working to properly relate faith to music in any culture.

Though the book is very useful for Christian ethno-musicologists, it must be remembered that it is addressed primarily to American Christian musicians, and should not necessarily be taken as setting standards for Christian music worldwide. For example, Best feels that congregational song should be central in worship; music literacy is important; and that newness in music is a high value. These presuppositions do not hold true for indigenous hymnody in all cultures. He does rightly emphasize that most musical value judgments are best made by “musical insiders.”

The main point is that within any music system the church is to make music recognized by local standards as good, and to go even further. “While the world might simply make good music, the church rises above this and makes good music for the glory of God, for the edification of those who are right side up, and for the re-creation of those who are upside down.”

Best points out that before evangelizing with an art form in another culture (such as through indigenous music with Christian text), one should study the art to determine how closely tied are the artifacts and beliefs, the form and content, so that a false world view is not simply given a syncretistic veneer. One cannot willy-nilly sing Christian lyrics to every possible type of music without immediately running into cultural implications and interference for the insiders.

The book addresses issues pertinent to individual musicians (such as quality and heart attitude), the culture at large (such as electronic media), and church congregations. For an example of the last, what is “musically appropriate” for a local body can be understood as determining what music is best for the particular worshipping community at the time, with knowledge that the times and community itself change. Best suggests five principles found in Scripture about making music which can serve as guides for churches.

This book should be standard reading for all people who are serious about making music for God and for God’s people. While I didn’t agree with everything, I thought about things I had never been challenged to think about before. The book is first a call to think differently, then to create and receive music in a different way from before.

In closing, Best issues this challenge to the contemporary church: someone will always be creatively authentic—why shouldn’t it be the church first? He speaks of the prophetic role of music, a prophecy toward new birth in the church and toward reformation in the wider culture. “It is from within the church that word and deed disturb and transform culture,” and these words and deeds are to be accompanied by excellent music in the church’s “many-tongued creativities.” Best has a vision of how excellent, creative music made by Christians of many cultures can change the world. He has clearly communicated this vision in his book. Now it is up to us all to act on it.

For educators: to see a list of assignments based on this book, go to: http://www.cccu.org/resourcecenter/rc_detail.asp?resID=849&parentCatID=38

    -- reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in the Sample Issue of

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