© 2017 Robert Osburn
I never took a music appreciation course, but, with carols playing in our family room this Christmas Eve, something is very clear: Christmas music is beautiful.
Where else in the pantheon of the world’s great religions and philosophies is there anything that rivals this aural beauty? Could it be that not only has the Gospel produced unparalleled masterpieces that are feasts for the eyes and ears, but that Christianity is the only plausible explanation for beauty itself?
Whether Handel’s Messiah or hymns like Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, or It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, the musical articulation of the Incarnation (God becoming man in order to rescue men and women out of our miserable state) bursts with grandiose joy. Though we may lack the technical vocabulary, something inside us glows at the glorious marriage of music and words.
I often think about one of our earliest Chinese student converts. He said that before he came to study in the United States in 1987, he noted that Western classical music was extraordinarily beautiful compared with that produced by Chinese Buddhists. These markers of beauty in Western classical music were, in the words of the late sociologist Peter Berger, “signals of transcendence.”
It’s not only Chinese Buddhism, but the musical progeny of all other world religions (with some exceptions in Judaism) simply leave us flat and hollow. I do not doubt that some of this music evokes warm and pleasant feelings in those raised in Islamic or Hindu or Buddhists societies, but little of it generates the universal accolades accorded the works of Christians like Bach, Beethoven, and so forth.
Not only does the qualitatively greater beauty of Christian music (understood in the classical/traditional, not the contemporary sense) argue for the truth of our faith, but the best explanation for beauty itself is grounded in Christianity.
To understand why this is true, you have to understand what happened when, in the 18th century, a few philosophers began to claim that God is an illusion and that matter is all there is. Once you throw God out the window, you are left with pure matter (the philosophy we call naturalism, or materialism), which excludes intelligence, morality, meaning, and music.
If you doubt me, tell me how a rock on its own can generate language, morality, meaning, and music. Not only is a rational basis for rationality imperiled by the rejection of God, but so is the possibility of beauty. Formerly, the only rational reason for confidence in human rationality was the belief that humans are made in the image of a rational God. Likewise, the only reason that beauty exists (as opposed to not existing) is because God is beautiful and has made the world “good” (Genesis 1), that is, the world was made aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and to the tongue and, we can imagine, to the ears (Genesis 3:6).
I am not saying that non-Christians cannot produce beauty. To the contraire. But, they have no good reason why beauty exists. If you argue that there is majestic beauty in pure matter (mountains, seas, the universe as seen through telescopes), then I simply ask: If we humans are pure matter, as must be argued by the pure naturalist, then who is there to make the judgment that these natural phenomena are beautiful? Can rocks make such judgments? If you respond by saying that the human response to beauty is merely the firing of neurons dually connected to visual and auditory nerves as well as to whatever gives us the sensation of happiness, then I challenge again: Have you not merely described a God-designed process for ensuring that our brains (the biochemical and cellular structures that house our minds) serve our minds (the place where we make judgments about the good, the true, and, yes, the beautiful)?
My simple “beauty-based” argument for the truth of Christian faith is not only that God is the reason beauty exists and that we humans can appreciate beauty, but that there is also a unique and spectacular beauty generated by those shaped by Christ, whether in pre-Reformation cathedrals or post-Reformation era music.
During this postmodern era where rational arguments are accorded so little value, humans cannot escape beauty. It is roped to our feelings, that dimension we call the affective domain, that is all the rage amongst our postmodern colleagues. 21st century doors can open for a gospel that is inexplicably radiant and gorgeous, just as they did for many of us who (in the 20th century) were enraptured as much by Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s Christian community in the Swiss Alps (L’Abri) as we were by his rational Christian apologetic. Even while we welcome broken sinners, our churches, likewise, need to be centers of dazzling beauty, artistically, relationally, and organizationally. I call this elsewhere “the church as a model nation.”
So, this Christmas, as your local public broadcasting station airs Christmas concerts by local choirs (our particular local favorite is the St. Olaf College Choir), give thanks that, for a few days, secular broadcasters are unknowingly making great room for an apologetic that says, “Christianity is true because it produces beauty and is the only explanation for beauty.”