Is good art good religion?

Madeline L’Engle has stated that bad art is bad religion.

I disagree.

What makes art “good” is subjective, and differs from culture to culture, while what makes religion “good” is an objective absolute, doctrinal fidelity to Scripture.

That’s the doctrine side of the issue; as for the art side (and here most particularly the music side) of the equation, I see two Biblical requirements for good music.

First, it has to be from the heart. There are many references in the Psalms to making a joyful noise, among them Psalm 98:4: “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” (Also see Psalm 66:1, 81:1, 95:1, 95:2, 98:6, and 100:1).

People in other countries and cultures use different musical tonal systems than we do, or even perhaps sometimes an atonal system. While I may not personally enjoy it, I am convinced that in God’s eyes, that’s just as much good art as the finest examples of Southern Gospel I can point out.

Second, it has to be done to the best of our abilities. Colossians 3:32 says to do what we do “heartily” (or “with all your heart”), “as to the Lord, and not unto men.”

The Bible says to make a joyful noise, and do what we do to the best of our abilities. Adding a requirement that it has to fit a certain tonal system, a certain style within that system, or a certain level of musical quality within that style, (here’s a phrase for you, Doug) is superimposing the practices of men on the precepts of God.

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10 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. It is nice to see some spiritual application in our discussion.
    I am sure folks from another viewpoint can find applications from the Bible to support their way of thinking.
    I just wonder what the words in the song “give up your best to the Master” means give your best or be the best. I do not mean do the best you can but be the best.

  2. I know that I will never be the best vocalist out there. But I am still to do the best I can, and that is what all of us are commanded to do. There is nothing in the Bible that says we have to be “the” best musically, we just have to do our best (like you were saying).

  3. I agree with you on this. The argument Doug Harrison put forth implies that unskilled people have no business participating in art at all. This notion would rule out congregational singing in 99% of our churches.

    Of course, I’ve heard a few who can’t carry a tune at all, and in those cases, maybe it would be better if they just listened.

    That being said, at the professional level, there must be standards of quality. Bad art has no business posing as professional or top tier art, and people who know better shouldn’t assign that status to bad art.

  4. David,

    I actually fully agree with your last paragraph. Anyone who wants to sing in a quartet can do so…in their living room, and if they can carry a tune and a part well enough, in their home church. They should do their best, even if they will only do that song once for that one audience. That, incidentally, is the way I’ve done most of my singing…just at my home church, no more, no less.

  5. Now a majority of us are on the same page on this subject.
    Thank you for clarification.
    Job well done.

  6. The parable of the talents, Matt 25:15 “To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability;–clearly shows that it wasn’t how many or how great the talents, but what we do with them that the Lord was interested in. Although I think many times Biblical applications are not “seen” by Avery…

  7. Phil, I believe I can safely say that you have come up with a better example to illustrate my point than the ones I came up with. Good job, and thank you!

  8. I think it would also be a good sign of faithfulness for one to try to improve one’s abilities, as well…for many, their individual best has not been reached. There is a great potential untapped and shapeless. Perhaps one’s current best is not as good as it could be with a little practice or seeking some assistance.

  9. Daniel,
    You are right in that we can’t imply our standard of style, type, genre or whatever term you want to use should be the standard for everyone. Yes, the music of other countries is good in it’s own way and should not be judged by the criteria we set for SG. However, I think you need to come and hear some of our “local” people who are claiming a public ministry. We are members of two smaller organizations. One does not have criteria for involvement, one does. The one that doesn’t has members who aren’t on beat, are out of tune with the music-from an artistic level just plain bad. I have seen countless people, saved and unsaved, get up and walk out on these groups. These same groups are booked into churches and events once, then those churches will not book another artist labeling themselves as SG because they have seen these groups and solists and think we are all like that.
    I love SG, and even tried to sing it a few times in my church. I won’t do that again, I am not very good. But I know that the Lord has a place for me in our ministry, it just isn’t singing. Instead I run the sound, drive us to the next event, design and maintain the website, book the hotels, keep up the schedule book, and do anything else necessary to furthering what we do.
    Would this be a major issue if churches and events only booked the professionals and no one else? No. But most churches can’t afford to book only the professionals and need a viable option for their congregations. These churches want their congregation to get the message, and that isn’t going to happen if they can’t get past how awful it sounds. Like it or not, we are ministering to humans with all of their prejudices and fleshly ideas.
    It isn’t fair to compare what this discussion is about to the music of other countries of the world, because the discussion is about Americans and SG. I enjoy and appreciate the music of other countries for the art that it is, but it is SG that speaks to my heart and it is SG that needs to raise its standards at various levels.

  10. Rhonda hit the ‘nail on the head’. Southern Gospel has gained a very bad reputation, especially in my area of travel, because of those who can’t carry a tune in a 10 gallon bucket. I’ve seen many local ministries get kicked out of doing sing in public facilities (malls, resturants, ect.) because of the lack of quality and professionalism in the talent they selected.
    Which leads me to agree with LSJ (Greetings Levi!) that one needs to actively seek to improve their abilities before they ruin their ministry’s reputation and loose opportunities to sing.