Ken Myers encourages us to recover the ancient truth that music reflects the order of Creation.
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In the early 1960s, Flannery O’Connor addressed a group of English teachers concerning the aims and methods
of teaching fiction. She said that she (as a novelist) and the teachers “should be able to find ourselves enjoying a mutual concern, which would be a love of the language and what can be done with it in the interests of dramatic truth.” Having rejected a view of literature which was moralistic or utilitarian, she declared: “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”

O’Connor assumed that the teachers she was addressing were eager that their students not be captive to the prejudices of the modern mind. After all, she knew (as expressed in one of her letters) that “if you live today you breathe in nihilism.” Since the modern mind was disoriented, popular fashions and fads in literature and typical habits of reading were disordered. So the challenge facing the teacher of literature was a great one. “I don’t know whether I am setting the aims of the teacher of English too high or too low when I suggest that it is, partly at least, his business to change the face of the best-seller list.” Teachers could effect such a change by instructing their students to attend to the form of literary works, since “the form of a story gives it meaning which any other form would change, and unless the student is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work, except what is extrinsic to it as literature.”

In an essay written at about the same time, O’Connor offered advice for the selection of fiction to be taught in high-school classes. She concluded her brief remarks by anticipating an objection: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

The work of teaching everything, not just literature, is about forming taste, about guiding the loves of students. The modern mind, as Miss O’Connor knew, finds such a task uncongenial. Modern men and women resent the idea that their emotional responses need to be trained, since modern thought has taught us that our instinctive, untrained desires are the most honest, the most sacred part of our being. We have come very far from a Christian, or indeed, a classical anthropology and psychology.

The classical tradition—reaffirmed by the Christian tradition—insists that education is nothing if not the training of the affections. As C. S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man (his most important book), “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it— believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.” Lewis also noted that St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. “Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

It is heartening that a growing number of Christian educators are recovering an understanding for the lost goals of teaching. But there is a great deal of ground to be retaken. The most challenging recovery involves our perception of music. As is well-known among the readers of this journal, music—along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy—was one of the four disciplines included in the quadrivium, the “four ways” which completed the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and which together comprised the seven liberal arts. If you wanted to prepare to study theology and philosophy in a medieval university, you had to study music first. Music was the experience of the numeric realities of the cosmos, in time, through the senses. Even today, people describe music as a way of ordering time, or a way of perceiving the order that is time. One of the manuscripts in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach was a treatise on counterpoint written in 1725 in which the author, Johann Joseph Fux, referred to “art which imitates and perfects nature, but never destroys it.” This idea, first articulated in Aristotle, was one that the very Lutheran Bach also embraced. As Bach scholar Christoph Wolff argues, “For Bach, art lay between the reality of the world—nature—and God, who ordered this reality.” In Bach’s thinking and in his compositional efforts, musical structure—harmonia, in the Latin terminology of the day—ultimately refers to the order of nature and to its divine cause. Or, as one of Bach’s students wrote, “Music is a mixed mathematical science that concerns the origins, attributes, and distinctions of sound, out of which a cultivated and lovely melody and harmony are made, so that God is honored and praised but mankind is moved to devotion, virtue, joy, and sorrow.”

In his biography of Bach, subtitled The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff presents Bach as a musical Newton, as a man consciously committed to discovery of and delight in the ways of God in creation, specifically as those ways could be known in musical form.

Bach believed that there was a perceptible order in the universe, an order that should serve as a model for human making and doing, for art, as well as for science, for our relationships, for law, for agriculture, for politics, and, perhaps most importantly, for the life of the Church. In other words, in this older way of perceiving reality, cultural institutions and forms were not to be arbitrarily or capriciously or willfully engineered and selected, but developed and approved in faithful resonance with the order God has established in the cosmos. The goal of education was to help the student perceive and delight in that order.

But even by Bach’s day, the apparent glimpses of the transcendent in music and in other forms of artistic expression were coming to be regarded by many as wishful thinking—not so much because their view of music was more modest, but because their view of the cosmos was changing. In our time, that transition has long been complete. “Nowadays,” writes Jamie James, “most scientists would accept the thesis that the cosmos has no underlying logic in the classical sense, but is rather a confluence of accidents, which are governed by laws. However, the laws themselves are irrational and do not arise from any fundamental orderliness. The concept of the universe as a random, meaningless place was expressed on the earthly level by the theory of evolution: the mutations that determine the course of life on earth, and indeed the very creation of humankind, were revealed to be largely fortuitous events.”

Since the modern mind denies an underlying cosmic order—denies, that is, that the world is a Creation of a Creator—artistic forms are regarded as arbitrary and capricious expressions of entirely personal imaginations. Any effort by teachers, parents, or church leaders to train the taste—especially musical taste—can only be understood as an unwarranted exercise of power. “Elitism” is the charge commonly leveled at such efforts, since, as music critic Julian Johnson has observed, in our day, “in matters of musical judgment, the individual can be the only authority.”

Christian educators, indeed all Christians , need to examine more critically this assumption of the modern mind. As Johnson explains, the view that musical taste is purely private and subjective is a peculiarly modern assumption.

This is in sharp contrast to the relatively minor status of individual ‘taste’ in Western musical practice and aesthetics from the ancient Greeks until the late eighteenth century. To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism
in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about music than about science. Music was no more ‘a matter of taste’ than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form. Its success was no more a matter of subjective judgment than the laws themselves.

Our belief about making judgments about quality in any art form is now captive to what art critic Jed Perl has called “laissez-faire aesthetics,” which, he writes, “has left us with a weakening of all conviction, an unwillingness to take stands, a reluctance to champion, or surrender to, any first principle.” This relativism in aesthetic judgment is simply a part of a larger modern suspicion about all value judgments, a suspicion that has been described by Alasdair MacIntyre and others as “emotivism,” “the doctrine,” as MacIntyre explains, “that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.”

The displacement of many of our society’s artistic standards by the enchantments of entertainment is an indication of cultural decline with a complicated set of causes. Among them is an ever-more radical celebration of the autonomy of the individual self and a hostility toward authority; an increasing suspicion that the past has anything useful or instructive to offer us; a growing impatience with cultural pursuits that are demanding on our time or intellectual effort; an aversion to the idea of cultivation and a celebration of forms of expression that are untutored, instinctual, and allegedly “authentic”; and a fascination with anything “transgressive” coupled with cynicism toward the maintenance of a tradition.

It is the flourishing of these mentalities that has led to “laissez-faire aesthetics,” and to the indifference within our society to the greatest achievements of the Western cultural tradition. In his 2007 commencement address at Stanford, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia commented on this forfeiting of artistic opportunities: “I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life.”

And it is happening in our churches as well. The Church once assumed a role of cultural leadership, believing that it should set a good example for her neighbors, not just in morality and theology, but in forms of aesthetic expression: in architecture, in poetry, in art, and in music. Today, it is a rare congregation in America that assumes that responsibility.

This negligence has very sad consequences for the Church’s testimony. If we add momentum to the prevailing assumption in our culture that our engagement with Creation—including the sonic order in which music resides—is to be defined only by personal preference, and not by something actually residing in the nature of things, how can we hope to bear witness to a Sovereign Creator who ordered all of reality, and who stands in judgment against those who reject his ordering of things?

Music is a great and unique gift from God, and the Western musical tradition that developed into what we commonly call classical music was in significant ways shaped by the influence of the Church in its desire to cultivate the full and remarkable capacities of this gift. By failing to sustain a mature appreciation for the capacities of music within the Christian community, we lose one of the greatest resources God has given us to assist in bearing witness to his glory and to something of the glorious order he has imparted to Creation. Christian students are in need of the training of affections with regard to beauty no less than with truth or goodness, although they are culturally disposed to resent it even more. But particularly with regard to music: if music really is the unique merging of spiritual and material, of temporal and eternal, of intellectual and emotional realities, if it is the perpetual activity of angels and the eternal destiny of the redeemed, then its capacities shouldn’t suffer from neglect or carelessness or expediency or impatience. Like the Kingdom to which it bears witness, it is a pearl of great price, worthy of sacrifice, diligence, and joyous discovery.