Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In the Praise of Fine Music

(photo is of some of the original handiwork of Handel in writing his Messiah)

I am actually grateful that I did not come from a musical family. My exposure to music was limited to the role of the superficial radio consumer. I never play an instrument seriously (but a little guitar). I never sang in any choir . . . not even at church or in high school. I did do a solo performance once at a college retreat . . . but that was truly an anomaly.

Now the reason I make such a statement isn't because I don't like music, but because I do. But I the fortunate position of coming to music as a novice, like a babe to milk.

I remember when I was required to take music appreciation to fulfill my undergrad requirements. The class was considered as boring and an easy "A." I chose the 8 AM class, where I thought I could sleep in the large music hall with its soft theater seats. But the professor took us on a philharmonic journey trough places and times. We sat and listen to the high fidelity recordings on the giant speakers in the acoustically correct auditorium. I became consumed with it. As an Appalachian hillbilly, I had never been exposed to opera, save the Grand Ole one. I had never listened to jazz, show tunes nor classical. But the classical possessed my soul like an intrusive spirit.

I briefly started to collect classical LPs until, unfortunately, a fellow Christian told me how bad "non-Christan music" was for me. You know,the heathen's like Bach, Pachelbel, Chopin and of course Handel. So I turned my back on music . . . in exchange for Larry Newman and music from the Maranatha label.

Then there was yesterday. I took my lunch hour, drove down the hill from our little hospital and parked at the marina. In front of my little jeep were a fleet of fishing vessels mixed in with yachts with beautiful lines and shapes. Denise spotted me and pulled up beside me. I jumped into her car. She had a CD of Handel's Messiah playing. I put back my seat, turned up the volume and looked out over the blue water with the snow capped back drop. It was extremely powerful.

The most powerful thing about the Messiah, wasn't necessarily the glorious words, but the complex interactions of he violin strings, the French horns, cello, oboe and harpsichord. What I'm talking about is what was expressed by Beethoven when he said he had to write out the music of the Handel's work for himself so he could get the "feeling of its intricacies and to unravel its complexities." There is something deep within music like that that resonates with something deep within your soul. It is in the same thought that Pythagoras had when he said, "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, music in the spacing of the spheres." From that point, he drew the conclusion that we were not of only material things . . . but of that which supersedes creation. Plato followed his thought and developed it further.

So, what I'm trying to say, is that I consider myself most fortunate to come to music as an outsider. I believe (and many would argue this point) that a castaway rescued from a decade-long imprisonment on a deserted island would have a greater appreciation of fine food than a famous chief, who is in his kitchen every day. I am that castaway.

Once again I must draw from something that Francis Schaeffer has said. He once visited an art museum in Amsterdam (I believe). It was an exhibit of some sort of contemporary (1970s) irrational art. It spoke loudly to a belief that all was chaos and that life had no real meaning. He said by the time he got out and by the time anyone would get out, their faith in a creator would be shaken to some degree.

When I hear the complexities of fine music, resonating in my soul . . . I know that there is something there. There is a piece of a personal universe which can not be explained by time, impersonal mechanics or simple electrons down an axon. That's why listening to fine music, even without words, brings me closer to God.


Wendy said...

What a powerful post. Profound!

Jaimie said...

I so agree. I love that things written hundreds of years ago can move me to tears. Truly there's a powerful thread running through us all.

jmj said...

Thanks for your comments. I know it was on an emotional level, but at the same time a very rational level, that beautiful music is a powerful apologetic. Sitting in that little Honda yesterday, being totally enveloped in the music. . . I had not doubts of God and His character.

Hippimama said...

Just beautiful. I came to Christ, in part, because of the profound beauty of the Beethoven symphonies I discovered at the age of 12. Though Beethoven himself may not have personally been a Christian, the incredible creativity of his music seemed to me to clearly point to a creator. I later majored in music composition at a conservatory and was amazed when I met Christians who thought that fine-art music was sacreligous. Even more astonishing were the Christians who thought they had a right to dictate to me the sort of music I should write. "Beautiful music" was ok, apparently. Anything with any dissonance or repetition was apparently not. I still struggle with church music. We go to a liturgical church (Episcopalian) with a contemporary service. Sometimes I find the songs inane and simplistic, but i realize I am speaking as someone who has spent a lot of time studying, playing, and writing classical music, so I know I have biases, and that many other people find contemporary worship speaks to them. I much prefer to go to our traditional (with hymns) service when I can. So does my 10 year old son.

Interestingly, my atheist father cannot stand any form of classical music and will turn it off if he comes into a room where it is playing....

jmj said...

I just started to attend a more liturgical church. They have a pipe organ (and a little lady who is a master at playing it) and a great choir. One of the first Sundays, which I attended, they had a chamber orchestra. It was the first time I had liked going to church in years. Each Sunday they have at least one classical (meaning, at least early 19 century, if not early 18th) piece.

I'm glad you are here and can express what I was trying to even better.

Anonymous said...


Sorry to comment on an unrelated matter, but after reading some of your blog entries detailing your struggles with anxiety (linked to strong feelings of guilt), I thought commenting here would be the best place to reach out to you.

Have you ever heard the term "scrupulosity?" It's a basically a religious/moral form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Those who have it are tormented by intrusive, continuous, and anxiety-inducing feelings of guilt, condemnation, and unpleasant, unwanted thoughts.

Some sufferers specifically doubt their salvation or fear that they've committed the "unforgivable sin" (usually, because unwanted, blasphemous thoughts pop into their heads). Others feel guilty for doing things that aren't actually sins by Biblical standards.

It's very important to note two things:

1. Religious belief is NOT the cause of scrupulosity. OCD is medical. So, you need not abandon your faith in order to find relief.

2. Some OCD's are "pure O," which means the obsession IS the compulsion. In other words, instead of turning a doorknob or washing one's hands 50 times, the sufferer just constantly ruminates on the unpleasant, intrusive thoughts (of guilt, blasphemy, anxiety, etc).

The reason I asked you about scrupulosity is because I suffer from it as well, though I have not been officially diagnosed. I was in pain for years, and it culminated in a stress-induced medical condition, and a severe temptation to abandon my faith.

At last, I came across the term, "scrupulosity," and instantly, so much was explained. For me, just having a name for it has gone a very long way in helping me. Perhaps, it will help you as well.

A google search will yield a lot of info. FYI, scrupulosity is aka "the doubting disease." And, here's a support group blog for people who have it:


I enjoy reading your thoughtful blog and appreciate your openness. Blessings on your journey!


Government Funded Blogger said...

Wonderful post! I too found classical music from taking a long ago music appreciation class.

The power and beauty of works by Handel,Beethoven,et al is surely a witness to the infinite glory of God in creating mankind. Music like that created is when man is truly "a little below the angels"

jmj said...

Richard thanks for the comment and idea. I've read carefully about scrupulosity, diagnostic criteria and etc. I'm quite confident that I don't suffer from that. I really don't struggle much with religious guilt. Many accuse me of not having enough guilt. My problem is simple, garden variety anxiety, generalized and social. I had the same before I was a Christian. Of all the "people" in the world, I sense God loves me the most not that I can't please Him. I was involved with a cult for a while that made all of us feel scrupulous, like nothing we could do could ever please God. But I certainly don't feel that way now.

Just like the non-Christian (non-religious) person who struggles with a general anxiety and social anxiety, my greatest fear is people, not God. I have a fear of failure (in this life, not in spiritual things) and I have a dread that I don't fulfill other's expectations (not God's). So, I hope that makes sense. I don't want to dwell too much on my issues. I put in this "tool" on the blog that automatically puts the most read posts on the top right. That's why that old post came up. I may remove that tool so that will go away.