From Act 5, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:
Jessica: I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
Lorenzo: The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
Earlier I posted a quote from Jeremy Begbie’s book on music and theology which asserted that the difference between the singing of men and the singing of birds lies in man’s particular gift to sing knowing what he is saying. The heart and the affection follow singing man’s intelligence, and the whole man is engaged in song. And, in the section from The Merchant of Venice above, Lorenzo understands this ability to be engaged with music as a reflection of a man’s character. Orpheus attracts trees, storms and floods to himself with his music, but the man who has no music in himself is dark, dull and not to be trusted.
In other words, the songs a man sings reflect who he is. They reflect where he’s engaged his heart, affection and intelligence, and expose his character. But what about men who have no music in themselves and are not moved with concord of sweet sounds? What do we do with men who don’t sing with their understanding, but insist on beastly singing?
These, I think, are two of the most pressing questions for anyone who is going to express his opinions about the issues of our day–issues like abortion, homosexuality, Islam, justice, beauty and love. The questions are not pressing because we’re currently embroiled in vigorous debates about the nature of music (alas!), but because the issues that are currently stirring up the country aren’t called ‘culture war’ issues for nothing. The particular issues I have in mind are big, thorny, whole person issues, and–just like the songs we sing–our answers to the questions we find each other asking will reflect our characters and where we’ve engaged our hearts, affections and intelligence.
One answer to the questions above is that there were never any men without music who sing beastly songs in the first place. This line of thinking seemed to believe that since we’re all people, then by definition we can’t sing as the beasts sing. In other words, every answer to these cultural questions was said to be equally valid simply because someone held it. Our job was simply to live and let live and to tolerate different viewpoints.
We’ve come to see, though, that this answer was inadequate simply because the beastly singing is getting louder and louder, which makes it hard to pass it off as the songs of men. What am I talking about? We have college students who, when confronted with the reality that in our country it is “constitutionally” permissible to chop babies up into little bits, think that the just and moral response to that reality is to quibble about the manner in which we mark the dead baby’s graves on a display. We have swarms of people singing songs about passing new Jim Crow laws so that where it used to be illegal for a restauranteur to have an integrated dining room (thereby conscientiously refusing to participate in the racism of that day), it would now be illegal for a baker to not glorify something God has said has no glory (thereby conscientiously refusing to participate in the sexual confusion of our day). We have ISIS cutting off people’s heads in the name of their god. And then we have people who claim to follow Christ who say that the answer to militant Islam is a militant Christianity, preaching the gospel of convert or die.
As I’ve said, these are–all of them–beastly songs. And because some of these songs currently have the wind of the Zeitgeist behind their backs, the live-and-let-live world of toleration is crumbling. It’s difficult, after all, to have an absurd culture without also having absurd laws to make it illegal to belly-laugh at the absurdity.
So, then, the question again: what do we do with men who don’t sing with their understanding, but insist on singing as beasts?
We begin by praying Christ’s battle-hymn for the culture wars:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
In one sense, people know that when they get an abortion, they’re killing their baby. They know sodomy is gross. They know it’s wrong to advance their religion by the sword. But in another sense, all these people are acting in just as much ignorance as the Jews and Romans who crucified Christ:
While [a lame man who had just been healed] clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
“And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:11-21)
After beginning by praying as Jesus prayed, we preach repentance in the name of Jesus as the apostles did. Our culture doesn’t know what it’s doing in the same way Paul acted ignorantly in unbelief as he killed and persecuted Christ’s disciples:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)
And be sure to note there the last verse. We learn from Paul’s receiving mercy that salvation for the worst of sinners is no hard thing for God to do.
All this to say: mark the music. Instead of offering each other absurdities as we interact, we must see clearly what we’re doing, what song we’re singing. And, if we do know what we’re saying in our song, instead of being impatient or shrill as the moaning of the beasts reaches new levels of discord, we must remember that grace hits harder than hell. We would have the Father forgive them as he’s forgiven us. When this happens, there is unspeakable joy in heaven (Luke 15:7). That means lots of singing.