Between Heaven and Earth

Picturing God and Things of the Spirit (5)

Editor’s note: The entire transcript was “tidied up” by ChatGPT, with some minor additional editing by me. 

Donald: In our previous discussion, we delved into the connection between music and spirituality based on Carolyn’s insights. Our inherent need to create music emerges from emotional expression, communication, social ties, creativity, cognitive benefits, and its role in shaping identities. Music is an integral part of human culture.

The Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, frequently references music and sound. For instance, Psalms 95:1-2 states, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord. Let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.” Many such verses from the Psalms, like Psalms 96:1-2 and Psalms 150:3-6, emphasize the importance of singing praises to the Lord using various instruments.

The New Testament also reflects this sentiment. In Ephesians 5:19-20, it says, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” Revelations, too, mentions the significance of songs and instruments in praising God.

Many instruments referenced in the Bible include the harp, trumpet, lyre, tambourine, cymbals, and pipes, among others. Their mention signifies that music has always been a central part of spiritual experiences.

In various traditions, music is pivotal in expressing devotion, celebrating faith, and building community. While the nature of religious music evolves, it continues to be a core mode of spiritual expression.

As we mentioned last week, the cultural context in which music is practiced is crucial. For instance, while we discussed Bach and classical music in our context, such genres might not be the focus in an African setting.

Sharon: The interplay between culture and music in Africa, especially in the context of the Adventist Church, is noteworthy. The influence of Adventist missionaries has been profound in places like Malawi. While the country holds conservative religious views, it’s disheartening to see the same traditional Adventist music you’d encounter in the West being sung in Malawian churches. This music often comes across as monotonous and doesn’t capture the essence of the local spirit.

The significant Adventist influence in Malawi has unfortunately overshadowed our rich indigenous culture. It becomes a point of contention when congregations try to incorporate their local music that resonates deeply with their spirit. It’s sad to see that the Adventist missionary influence has suppressed this cultural expression, leading to a less spirited and engaging church experience.

While this may not be the case in every African country, in Malawi, the legacy of Adventist missionary work has regrettably limited the local expression in religious music. This feels like a significant cultural loss.

Donald: Have you ever engaged with spiritual settings outside of the Adventist Church to experience local cultural music firsthand? Or hasn’t that been within your experiences recently?

Sharon: I’ve witnessed a variety of Christian churches across the country. Most governmental meetings incorporate singing and prayer with a genuine spiritual expression that embraces local elements like drums and other cultural beats. It’s an inclusive approach to music, resonating deeply with local spirit and culture.

The challenge appears unique to the Adventist church in Malawi. While we have many Pentecostal churches with expressive music, even other Protestant denominations don’t seem to strictly confine themselves musically in the pursuit of keeping the sanctity of the church.

A distinct feature of our Adventist Church here is the absence of instruments. We don’t use organs or any instruments, opting for a capella renditions. This decision might stem from the significance harmonies hold for the community. At the university, we boast nearly 40 musical groups, most of which sing in traditional four-part harmonies.

Outside our church, the musical experience feels richer and more aligned with the local culture. Yet, within our worship, music remains paramount. I’d estimate that around a third of our service is dedicated to different musical groups and harmonized singing.

Donald: In my visits to Africa, I observed something similar in Adventist communities. While there seemed to be an attempt to adapt literature to resonate with the local culture, it often felt superficial. The approach mainly involved taking images featuring white individuals and colorizing them to appear more aligned with the local demographic. It raises an intriguing question: Would the church truly embrace and tolerate a more authentic local musical flavor?

Kiran: The Adventist Church in India faces a similar challenge. While many Pentecostal or other Evangelical churches embrace traditional Indian music or contemporary tunes we grew up with, Adventist Church music seems stuck in its Western roots. Denominations like the Baptist or Catholic churches, which have European origins, heavily feature Western musical styles. 

This means instruments like the piano, which few in India play, or the guitar, are emphasized. We have our own instruments like the harmonium, which requires a different technique than the Western keyboard. Similarly, our approach to playing the violin in Indian classical music differs significantly from Western methods. As a result, many Adventist churches resort to hymnals sung without instrumental accompaniment due to a lack of trained musicians. However, when Indian music is performed, the congregation feels invigorated and connected, as it resonates with their cultural identity.

CJ: It seems that in any country, the dominant culture, often closely tied to wealth, wields significant influence. There’s an unspoken rule: if we finance a church or govern, we get to impose our norms and preferences. While this approach may be a prevalent human tendency, it’s not commendable. Ideally, there should be a multicultural representation. But often, the one who controls the resources dictates the direction.

David: It’s not just “not good”; it’s a tragedy. Churches that force their own musical preferences on African cultures rob the world of something profoundly beautiful. African music stands as one of the continent’s most significant gifts to global culture.

The South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s rendition of Amazing Grace is an example of the God-given beauty that evangelizing churches seem to have failed to appreciate when they imposed their (by and large) insipid hymnal music on Africa. The video takes us through a transition from the Western style of delivery (which LBM have polished to perfection) to the transcendent African style, and back again:

Donald: In fairness to the church, if we reflect on the 1950s and 60s, we recall how the Adventist church mission stories depicted the goal of spreading the gospel globally. Naturally, when venturing out into the world, one brings along their cultural baggage. The real challenge arises in the subsequent response. Once the message is shared, it becomes essential to listen to the local context. It’s about asking, “How would your unique culture interpret and express the beliefs we’ve introduced?”

CJ: This implies a hierarchy — a message of “We’ve arrived, and we know best. We possess the truth and will dictate the terms. While we acknowledge you have something to contribute, it pales in comparison to what we offer.”

Reinhard: In my experience with the Adventist Church in Indonesia, the influence of earlier missionaries is evident. Hymns, primarily of Western origin, are translated into Indonesian. The worship pattern in the church is predictable, with familiar songs marking various stages of the service.

Despite the Western origins of these hymns, they resonate deeply with the congregation, perhaps serving as a familiar touchstone in their worship experience. Special music during worship can be in English or Indonesian, often accompanied by instruments.

For me, worship is not just about rituals. It’s a profound expression of our relationship with God. Psalms, like Psalm 104:33, emphasize the importance of singing praises to God throughout our lives. Singing in a congregation is more than just a ritual; it’s a collective declaration of our love, respect, and reverence for God. It’s a way of shouting our praises and sharing our gratitude. Music thus plays an essential role in our spiritual lives, aligning our hearts and souls to God.

As I’ve grown older, my appreciation for spiritual music has deepened. While I once enjoyed secular music, now I find solace and connection in worship songs. They serve as a prelude to deeper communication with God, setting the tone and preparing our hearts. In essence, music is not just an accompaniment to our worship; it’s an integral part of our spiritual journey.

CJ: For many indigenous communities, accessing external amenities like schools and hospitals comes at a cultural cost. Outwardly, they might conform to the expectations and norms of those providing these facilities. However, within the sanctity of their homes, they fiercely cling to their native practices – be it language, food, or worship. Many refugees I’ve encountered display this dual existence, blending their traditional ways with newly adopted beliefs, striving for a harmonious coexistence of the two.

While this cultural merging can be empowering, it’s also a fragile balance. Over generations, the original traditions often get diluted, especially when external influences continue to dominate essential life aspects. For many, this shift becomes almost unrecognizable by the third generation, particularly if the ‘holders of the purse’ maintain control over critical resources like education and healthcare.

Reinhard: The way the gospel has been delivered to many regions, especially by missionaries, is intrinsically linked with other cultural exports, notably Western spiritual songs. When local populations first learn of teachings from the Bible, it’s often through the lens of these foreign missionaries. For many, there’s no distinction between the religious teachings and the cultural nuances that accompany them, like music. They perceive both as a singular package – a combination of spiritual messages and their cultural presentation. These local communities, unfamiliar with stories of Jesus or God prior to the missionaries, might understandably accept both the religious teachings and the accompanying cultural aspects as one unified message.

Michael: [Inexplicably yet (in my view) wonderfully, ChatGPT started to get creative of its own accord here, expanding on what Michael actually said. In analyzing the Psalms it got a little off track, since this discussion is about music, but still…!—Ed.] It’s true that many people often associate religious music, especially songs derived from the Psalms, with praise and joy. However, the Psalms in the Bible are incredibly diverse in their emotional range. They are a collection of prayers, praises, laments, and reflections that encompass the full range of human emotions.

  • Lament and Despair: A significant portion of the Psalms are laments, where the psalmist is crying out to God in despair, anguish, or sorrow. For example, Psalm 22 begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
  • Confession and Repentance: Some psalms express sorrow over personal sin and a plea for God’s forgiveness, like Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”
  • Trust and Confidence: Some psalms express deep trust in God even in the midst of challenging circumstances. Psalm 23 is a classic example: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
  • Wisdom and Meditation: Psalms like Psalm 1 provide reflections on living a righteous life and meditating on God’s law.
  • Praise and Thanksgiving: While many psalms do exude joy and thanksgiving, like Psalm 100 which says, “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.”
  • Imprecatory Psalms: These are psalms that call for judgment on enemies. They can be jarring to some readers, but they reflect the raw emotions of the writers. An example is Psalm 137 which laments the Babylonian exile.
  • Royal Psalms: These psalms are about the monarchy, often celebrating the Davidic line. Psalm 2 is an example.

In terms of preparing missionaries, it’s crucial for them to understand the cultural and emotional depth of the scriptures and how they relate to people’s lived experiences. This would include a thorough understanding of the Psalms and their broad emotional spectrum. The Psalms can be a bridge for missionaries to connect with people at various emotional states and situations in life, not just moments of joy and praise.

Donald: In every religious tradition, music holds significance, serving to express devotion, celebrate faith, and build community. The evolution of religious music, while honoring tradition, renders it an ever-evolving mosaic of spiritual expression. We recognize that many Protestant churches, for instance, now host multiple services, each characterized by distinct musical styles. As times change, so might the cultural nuances of religious music across global regions.

Culture and religious music are intrinsically linked. Religious melodies not only mirror the cultural identity of a community but also act as a conduit for spiritual expression and cultural preservation. Religious music offers a pathway for individuals to connect with the divine and enriches the spiritual ambiance, actively involving the congregation, thereby elevating the worship experience.

These musical compositions, rooted in the traditions of their respective cultures, play a pivotal role in passing down religious wisdom and values through generations. The lyrics of these songs often bear deep spiritual meaning. When believers come together in song, it fortifies the bonds among them and fosters a collective purpose. Songs can offer solace in trying times, evoking peace and joy.

Hymns, a mainstay in religious worship across various faiths, continue to evolve. This evolution sees ancient hymns gain new life in contemporary settings, while new hymns are continually crafted. For regular churchgoers, it’s not uncommon to be introduced to new songs by the leading choir, often with lyrics inspired by the Bible but set to modern melodies. Thus, while the essence of the hymn remains, its presentation is refreshed to resonate with contemporary society.

Did you know that Johann Sebastian Bach faced profound personal tragedy throughout his life? He lost a daughter, followed by three sons, and then his first wife. After remarrying, he and his second wife grieved the loss of four more daughters and three more sons, totaling 11 children. Many ponder how Bach coped with such staggering sorrow. How did he find the will to breathe or the strength to keep his heart beating? Above all, how did he continue to compose some of the most exquisite music the world has ever known?

Bach’s secret might lie in the inscriptions he often penned on his compositions. At the end of his works, he would write “Soli Deo Gloria” – Glory to God Alone. And at the beginning, “Lord, help.” His music, therefore, becomes a prayer, a dialogue between man and the Divine. When we listen to Bach’s compositions, we are privy to this profound conversation. So, when grappling with pain, perhaps worship and turning to a higher power provides the greatest comfort. This isn’t just sentiment; music has been shown to elicit a range of physical and emotional reactions, engaging multiple senses and systems within the brain.

Kiran: I’d like to delve into the neurochemistry and neuroscience behind spiritual music. A quick online search reveals numerous ways music benefits humans, but I’m narrowing it down to the spiritual realm. I’ve skimmed through a couple of seminal books on this subject: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin and Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. These offer valuable insights into the neuroscience of music.

What stands out from these texts is that every culture has its unique music. Intriguingly, until the 17th or 18th century, in most cultures, music’s creation and consumption were intertwined. It’s only recently that these processes have bifurcated. Regardless of geography, music remains closely tied to culture, evoking a myriad of emotions and fostering a sense of belonging. One universal observation is the similarity of lullabies across cultures. Be it the robust sounds of Russian or the melodious strains of French, the core essence of lullabies remains consistent. This suggests that music is an innate, perhaps even divinely gifted, aspect of humanity.

Neurologically, music is a marvel. Though we often compartmentalize the left brain as logical and the right as emotional, music straddles both hemispheres. While speech predominantly engages the left side and creativity the right, music uniquely engages extensive regions of the brain, underscoring its distinctive nature.

Spiritual music offers ten specific benefits:

  1. Expression of devotion
  2. Fostering community bonds
  3. Aiding meditation and contemplation
  4. Facilitating scriptural learning, where repetition aids not just memory but comprehension
  5. Providing inspiration and encouragement in times of strife or challenge
  6. Facilitating emotional healing, as exemplified in texts like Lamentations
  7. Promoting transcendence of ego, encouraging selflessness and a focus on others
  8. Connecting with the divine and feeling a sense of oneness with both God and nature
  9. Preserving cultural and historical links
  10. Enhancing celebration, festivity, and mindfulness

Spiritual music, distinct from other genres, plays an invaluable role in our spiritual and emotional well-being. It impacts our brain chemistry in several significant ways. Firstly, it aids emotional processing by activating the amygdala and the limbic system, two areas in the brain associated with managing emotions. The integration of music with words can stimulate the emotional part of our brain, resulting in an emotional response. Furthermore, it triggers the release of dopamine, which induces feelings of pleasure.

Listening to spiritual music is not merely a pleasure-generating activity. It is also associated with improved memory and learning capabilities, stress reduction, and enhanced social bonding. This last aspect is facilitated by the activation of mirror neurons when we sing spiritual music, aiding in empathy and fostering a sense of community.

The ability of music to foster social bonds extends beyond spiritual contexts. For example, national anthems are designed to promote a sense of national unity and belonging. My personal experience as an Indian immigrant in America supports this. Despite growing up singing the Indian national anthem, I now feel a strong connection when I listen to the American national anthem. Similarly, I have an out-of-body experience enjoying songs like Sweet Caroline or Chevy to the Metal, which represent a culture I wasn’t born into but have come to appreciate.

In addition to these benefits, spiritual music supports neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Repeatedly learning spiritual content can reinforce certain beliefs and grow the brain in specific ways.

One of the most profound impacts of spiritual music is the experience of transcendence —feeling one with the divine. This feeling is linked to a decrease in the activity of a network of neurons known as the default mode network (DMN), which typically activates during rest and is associated with self-centered thinking. When the DMN is deactivated, such as when listening to specific genres of music, it can lead to a sense of self-transcendence, or feeling connected with something greater than oneself.

Genres of music like nature sounds, classical music, and ambient music, along with practices like prayer and meditation, have been found to reduce DMN activity. The science of music is now even exploring new genres like binaural beats and brainwave entrainment to deliberately synchronize brainwaves and induce altered states of consciousness.

Despite these many benefits, it is essential to remember that not all music is considered “good” within a religious context. The desirable type of music is one that reduces DMN activity, fostering a sense of connection with others and God, and counteracting selfish tendencies. This type of music is seen as beneficial to society and communities.

Finally, the power of music extends to our understanding of negative emotions. While dopamine release typically associated with music listening makes us feel happy, sad music can have therapeutic effects on those feeling depressed. Rather than feeling misunderstood by happy music, individuals can connect with the melancholic tunes, feel understood and gradually alleviate their depression. Hence, even sad spiritual music holds an essential place in religious practices.

Donald: When my father passed away, I had a unique experience. At church, I found myself unable to sing. This continued for a year; while I could listen to music, I couldn’t bring myself to sing. This experience might be connected to the concept you mentioned earlier—while others were uplifting their spirits through song, I felt down. Your insights might help explain my feelings during that time.

CJ: Thank you for sharing your perspective. Your description of the app “Calm“ and its varied soundscapes is intriguing. While the “pink“ sound doesn’t resonate with you and the “green“ evokes nature, it’s the “brown“ that truly captures your attention, albeit in a somewhat unsettling manner. It’s fascinating how different sounds can deeply affect our emotions, drawing us in or even alarming us.

Your observations on music and its powerful role in our well-being, both mentally and socially, are insightful. In a world teeming with challenges—from environmental concerns and political instability to crises in religious institutions and educational frameworks—the therapeutic potential of music can’t be underestimated.

The evolving science on brain chemistry and its influence on our well-being is a testament to the importance of holistic approaches to mental health. In an era of rapid change and escalating stress, it’s imperative to find sustainable, non-pharmacological strategies for fostering resilience and well-being. We must teach individuals to harness their intrinsic strengths and the healing powers of their environment.

Reinhard: Dopamine is often referred to as the “happy hormone” due to its role in pleasure and reward pathways in the brain. Alongside adrenaline, which can influence our emotions and reactions, these chemicals can greatly shape our experiences. In many war movies, soldiers about to face battle often turn to hymns like the Battle Hymn of the Republic for solace and courage. Similarly, in the movie Titanic, passengers left on deck sang hymns during their dire circumstances. Such songs likely provided comfort and helped individuals come to terms with their reality. This soothing effect can be attributed to the biological response triggered by music and its interaction with our hormones.

Donald: Music truly is a multifaceted experience, encompassing a wide spectrum of emotions and expressions. This conversation has indeed reinforced that sentiment. Music can induce smiles and laughter, and joyful tunes can spur people to dance. It’s intriguing to consider how some church guidelines might have inadvertently deprived individuals of integrating dance into their worship or spiritual experiences. Singing collectively can foster camaraderie, as Reinhard pointed out. Moreover, the act of clapping and providing enthusiastic applause in response to music is another aspect to explore. Kiran, it might be interesting to delve into whether such reactions are universally shared across cultures and communities.

Kiran: Clapping in response to music is a fascinating phenomenon. Music is processed by motor nerves that are linked to rhythmic actions, such as walking or even the steady beat of our heart. As we engage with music, our bodies often respond in rhythm; this might manifest as tapping our fingers, nodding our head, or swaying our body. One universally recognized expression of this is clapping. When we clap in sync with music, it not only allows us to connect with the rhythm but also facilitates the processing of music by our motor neurons. Interestingly, this act of moving our hands and clapping can be viewed as a side effect, yet it undeniably aids in our engagement with the musical experience.

Donald: Engaging with music often elicits deep emotions, and it’s not uncommon for even the most joyful melodies to move listeners to tears. Such powerful musical experiences can stir feelings of gratitude and appreciation. Immersing oneself in musical activities, be it singing in a choir or playing in a band, fosters a sense of belonging, echoing sentiments shared by many.

To wrap up, many cherish religious music for its authenticity and sincerity, reflecting the songwriter’s genuine faith journey. However, it’s paramount to acknowledge that musical appreciation, like all art forms, is subjective. What deeply resonates with one might not strike the same chord with another. Thus, individual interpretations of “right” or “wrong” in religious music are deeply personal, molded by unique experiences and perspectives.

Pivotal questions arise when reflecting on religious or spiritual music: Is it traditional or contemporary? Does it align with spiritual values? Is its theology sound? How culturally relevant is it? And while musical excellence is subjective, it’s undoubtedly a consideration.

As we approach the end of this discussion, I invite you to reflect on a few questions:

  • Is music essential to your personal spirituality? If so, why?
  • How does religious music’s impact differ when experienced privately versus publicly?
  • How do we define “appropriate” religious music?
  • What does it mean to have a relationship with God?

Throughout our conversations, we’ve identified various pathways to God, from technology to imagery, music, prayer, and Bible study. These tools and methods guide our understanding and relationship with the divine. But at the heart of it all lies an even more profound question: What does having a relationship with God truly mean?

Don: Next week, we’ll explore another avenue of understanding God through nature and the natural world. It will be enlightening to delve into how the natural world shapes our perspectives on God. Donald, your guidance on the subject of music has been invaluable. This topic resonates deeply and personally with all of us. Thank you for leading us through it.

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