A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Although biblical theology must be at the very core of shaping our thoughts about God, the manner through which the church cultivates the imagination through the arts also has a role in forming our conception of God as both affect “what comes into our minds when we think about God.” In our cultivation of music then we should consider Steven Lawson’s thoughts regarding The Attributes of God—
High views of God lead to high and holy living. High views of God lead to exalted transcendent worship of God, but low views of God lead to low and base living. [see Proverbs 9:10 and Psalm 111 for similar thoughts]
R.C. Sproul’s recent musical collaboration with film score composer Jeff Lippencott, Glory to the Holy One, firmly encourages a high view of God. This collection of hymns and choral music effectively awakens the imagination to anticipate the beatific (heavenly) vision that will be the experience of all who are a part of Christ’s kingdom. In this, the collection succeeds as a fine example of worship music that is good, true, and beautiful. These new hymns for the church are a feast for the believer’s heart and mind. Each of the texts are thoughtfully rich and the music is very-well conceived to match. In an effort to demonstrate the music’s potential for the church, the CD is recorded by many excellent musicians, including The Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral, The Phoenix Chorale, and the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra.
In Sproul’s own blog promoting the CD’s release he discusses the state of church music in the past century or so and, notably here, the value of singing Scripture and great hymns in pointing to the transcendent character of God. In this way music has historically been part of the church’s catechism. Sproul’s states that this project “aims for a new reformation in our worship and praise.”
I would encourage you to read Sproul’s blog first and then continue reading here. In writing this review, my desire is to relate some timeless principles of music-making that Sproul and Lippencott are encouraging in the cultivation of God-centered worship. Here are some of the noteworthy tracks:
“1517”—The opening track of the CD orchestrally underscores the familiar voice of “Renewing Your Mind” as he dramatically tells of Martin Luther’s essential contribution to the Protestant Reformation. This track sets the tone for the other pieces on the CD—rich text accompanied by music that beautifully and rhetorically reinforces its meaning. In the way of a modern film-score composer, it recalls the tradition of sacred music that was championed by Luther, himself, as he believed music to be “the handmaiden of theology and second only to theology.” Handmaidens were always subservient to their masters. Their function was to provide what their master needed to function at his best. Until the transformation in Western music during the 18th century (see Worldview and Musical Values), the normative standard in sacred music was for the music to support the text (theology). It worked in every way possible to project the meaning of the text in sound and, thus, never risk competing with the message of the text.
“Glory to the Holy One”—With dramatic reverence this anthem sets the cries of the seraphim from Isaiah 6. What really sets this piece off is its placement on the CD, seamlessly following “1517.” This is no mistake; this is how it should be heard. It should be noted that Isaiah 6 outlines a biblical pattern for worship in revealing the stark contrast between the holiness of God and man’s (Isaiah’s) sinfulness and need for redemption. Appropriately, it begins with the pure and reverent sounds of an a cappella boy choir to introduce the scene:
Seated on the heav’nly throne,
Above all mortal view
The King supreme in glory sat
Bathed in resplendent hue
Then strings and organ enter transitioning to the music of the refrain—boldly proclaiming the cry of the seraphim as sung by the full choir:
“Holy, Holy, Holy”
Cried the seraph throng
Glory to the Holy One
Join in heaven’s song
After two more stanzas and repeats of the refrain, a dramatic cinematic transition ushers in the final stanza incorporating a martial percussion theme—urgently anticipating the wonder of and victory of salvation:
Angel come now, purge my lips
Make pure my soul anew
Now I’ll rise and stand again
In grace to go for you
“The Secret Place” – This wonderful hymn stresses the spiritual relationship that Christ’s disciples have with the living God. In a world of increasing tension, stress, hurry, and antagonism, this hymn offers the church the opportunity to again reclaim Psalm 46:10a, “Be still and know that I am God.”
“Heavy is Our Savior’s Cross” – The Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral sing this a cappella (“for the church”) piece with stunning musicianship. Opening with the boy choir, the mysterious and ominous nature of the refrain penetrates the soul:
Heavy is our Savior’s cross
Weighed down by human sin
His blood so pure, no earthly dross
Is borne by only Him.
The listener should notice throughout this piece how the elements of the music (including style, form, meter, rhythm, melodic shape, use of harmony, and the selection and interaction of voices) work together to piercingly communicate the text.
“Viam Dei” (Way of God) – This piece intensely portrays through solely instrumental music “the struggles, the push and pull, the pain and peace that the Christian encounters on the road on which God has placed each of His beloved—the path toward sanctification” (CD liner notes). This is essentially accomplished through the creative use of a two-chord progression, which gives a clear sense of stress and release. This is an exceptionally poignant piece to worship with in times of deep, searching prayer. The final chords of the piece resolve to depict the completion of the Christian life—“the Christians faith, having been tested, is now made complete in the sight of the Savior face-to-face.” (CD notes)
“No More the Grave,” “Clothed in the Righteousness,” and “These Great Things” – These form a trio of hymns contemplating the Christ’s wondrous gifts promised to his church of immortality, righteousness, and glorification. The orchestral accompaniment for each of these tracks is suitably noble and majestic, reinforcing the wondrous propositions of the text.
All of the music on this CD is very good and the order of the tracks forms a biblically-theological arc throughout, a strength that I am sure is playing out wonderfully in the national tour of this music, which began in California on May 1.
The only real deficiency on this recording is that the words that the choir sings are difficult to understand on many of the tracks. Fortunately all of the text is included in a booklet with the CD, but for text of this caliber this is very unfortunate. Wonderfully, the sheet music is available for each of these tracks from Ligonier so choirs can recreate these works and improve this element. In order for music to be “the handmaiden of theology” the choir’s diction simply must be clear. How else can text and music formed together to stimulate the imagination regarding the things of God have its intended impact? The legendary Robert Shaw (who still, 16 years after his death, is thought of as the dean of American choral conductors) said regarding his craft, “I am amazed again and again how the mastery of successive minute technical details releases floods of spiritual understanding.” Nowhere is this statement truer than in the case of words sung. Shaw employed a marvelous technique with all of his choirs to achieve excellent diction. His recordings stun the listener with the clarity of the text. Conductors—to learn about his golden technique see here .
Nevertheless, this music is among the best of American twenty-first century sacred music for the church, and it succeeds brilliantly in calling us back to biblical values in the composition of music for the glory of God in corporate worship. King David’s musicians, as well as the artisans that crafted the temple of Solomon, including its articles and decoration, were highly skilled and produced works of the highest standards. They were of the very best the Israelites had to offer. Following this pattern, Glory to the Holy One calls us back to the standard of God’s Word to guide us in the appreciation of all that is good, true and beautiful, values that our post-modern culture desperately needs to regain.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness. (Psalm 29:2)
Click here to hear recordings and order the CD or sheet music: Glory to the Holy One
Bauder, Kevin T.; Aniol, Scott; De Bruyn, David; Riley, Michael; Martin, Michael J.; Parker, Jason. A Conservative Christian Declaration. Religious Affections Ministries, 2014.
Jones, Paul S. Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006. For those who have heard the rumor that Luther’s hymns were based upon beer hall tunes, please see here how Paul Jones has cleared this up.
Lawson, Steven. “Introduction to the Attributes of God.” In The Attributes of God. [on-line]. Accessed on May 18, 2015. Available from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/attributes-of-god-downloads/introduction-attributes-of-god/?; Internet.
Lippencott, Jeff and Sproul, R.C.. Glory to the Holy One: Sacred Music for the People of God. Ligonier Ministries, 2014, compact disc.
“Music as Servant of the Word” [on-line]. Accessed on May 18, 2015. Available from http://www.ctsfw.edu/page.aspx?pid=413; Internet.
“Robert Shaw: 1916-1999” [on-line]. Accessed on May 18, 2015. Available from http://www.metanoia.org/martha/shaw.htm; Internet. See program notes under “Concerning Missa Solemnis, May 16, 1972.”
Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: HarperCollins, 1961.