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Music for others: Care, Justice, and Relational Ethics in Christian Music

Nathan Myrick
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

Nathan Myrick begins, as it were, in media res, with interview responses from two Fuller Seminary students. Their conversation took place while attending the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. When asked, “What does music do?” (15), they respond very positively and “…extol the virtues of music…” in many ways. But “…the tone of our conversation shifted drastically…” when asked, “So…what does music do in church?” Both express cynicism about church music, and one describes it as “fakey.” One is more ambivalent about the music, but the other student acknowledges that she tries “…to not show up until after the music is over” (16). The concerns of both appear to center around the lack of authenticity in both the music and its performance (it is “fakey”), and the way it is used to manipulate the congregants into specific emotional states, which now seem inauthentic. One of the students has been a member of many worship teams, but now has such bad memories of this music that she says, “I’d rather not have it” (16).

From this place of cynical devastation Myrick begins to unfold his ethics of Christian music in worship. He acknowledges that in doing so he is bringing together three disciplines—musicology broadly defined, religious studies and theology, and philosophical ethics—and that in doing so he attempts to be true to the conventions of each discipline without alienating the others. His arguments are very theoretical and abstract, so he grounds them in ethnographic studies of three very different Baptist churches in the Waco, Texas area, as well as with his conversations with Fuller Seminary students at the SXSW Music Festival. He wishes to demonstrate that music is inherently relational, and that “…at its best, Christianity is about just relationships” (21). For Myrick, the ethical use of music promotes just relationships among people, while the unethical use of music promotes individual power and control of others.

He begins his argument by looking at musical meaning through the lens of discourse ethics, especially the ethics of style. Musical meaning in this case is not the didactic content of the lyrics, but every aspect of the music performed, including sound, gesture, and environment. Referencing the ethics of style, Myrick argues that the musical meaning of different genres of music are imbued with values and convictions, which are negotiated both around and through the music itself. However, the musical meaning of a genre can become unstable—as contemporary worship music lost its meaning for the Fuller students quoted earlier—and the values and convictions of a genre can be used for control in ways that are unjust. The role of genre in the “worship wars” as different groups gave moral significance to certain genres shows the importance of this area for ethics, but also demonstrates how discourse ethics alone is not enough.

He then considers whether music can play a role in character formation through worship. Many of the people he interviews affirm that music connects people through the emotions, and express the belief that it increases emotional intelligence, that is, the ability to empathize with others. Myrick looks at this through the lens of several different theories of formation, in the end affirming that we are formed as individuals and communities by our affections, by what we love and desire. For congregants, the emotion of the music sung in worship is felt in a physical, embodied way, and is relationally formative. He recognizes the problem of authenticity and asks if emotional authenticity is a valid way to assess musical quality. He concludes that this would require both discourse and formation, thus bringing together musical meaning and discourse with formation through emotion, and giving “meaning to emotion and feeling to reason” (86).

At this point, however, Myrick acknowledges that music can be used to control people in ways that are harmful, and meaning and emotion alone cannot avoid this. To move beyond this problem, he turns to feminist care-based ethics. Having affirmed that music is relationally formative, he moves by way of hospitality to caring for the other in a way that maintains relationship but is also oriented towards restorative justice. This is accomplished through musical activity in a way that promotes human flourishing. Congregational music is ethical when it enables human flourishing for each individual; when it provides space for people to voice needs to each other and God honestly; when it expresses the needs of both the many and the few; and when it does not abandon hope for the “…reconciliation and restoration of ruptured relationships…” (106) which so often result from battles over different types of music.

Thus, music is inherently relational, both as sound to sound and in human ways, and always involves others, so that it can both respond to and disclose ethical responsibilities to others. This insight is then grounded in a theological response ethics, which start from the two great commandments to love God and neighbor, and in which grace frees us to ethical action, so that we can be and live—and make music!—for others.

Such is the outline of Myrick’s argument, and throughout he references all of this to interviews with leaders and members of the three churches he has studied, as well as with Fuller students at the SXSW Music Festival, and also chooses events in all three churches, liturgical and otherwise, that illustrate his ideas. Perhaps his use of one comment by a Fuller student, and of one event at one of the three churches, can demonstrate ways in which he connects his abstract thinking with his field study. The student commented, with laughter, that doing rap in her “old, white” Anglican congregation would only irritate the congregants. Myrick returns to this statement several times during the book, but discusses it at some length near the end, asking if using rap in worship would in any way help restore just relationships among the congregants or help them actively move toward anti-racism. This also leads him to consider “global song,” using songs from other cultures in worship in an effort to gain more inclusivity. He concludes that neither is effective, for many reasons, but perhaps best summarized by his statement that “…treating musical genre in such a morally discursive manner is ineffective at best and destructive at worst” (127).

The second example comes from an event at Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historic African American congregation. Ebenezer has a tradition of asking visitors to stand and introduce themselves, and on this occasion a young white man introduced himself as “Melchizedek, a high priest of Jehovah most high…” (129) and says that he has a message to deliver. His message reveals “…a deeply disturbed mind.” When he finishes, the music leaders begin the song “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” This is unplanned, but eventually the choir and then the congregation join in. During the song “Melchizedek” leaves the church. This happened shortly after a highly publicized church shooting in central Texas, and for Myrick the choice of song and its driving, upbeat performance both responded to Melchizedek and helped calm and support the congregation, defusing a somewhat tense situation.

Examples such as these help to ground his ideas in reality, but as he says, his approach “. . . is neither purely prescriptive or descriptive, but inscriptive…” (36) and so has application to a variety of settings and contexts. This is surely a great strength of his ideas, that he presents a process rather than a result. In the context of a local church’s music program, it provides a process for making choices about every aspect of the program that are loving, ethical, and just, while still going in a variety of directions based on the needs of the local church.

It is also a strength that after all the abstract thinking about the meaning and practice of music, and how it relates to various approaches to ethics, he concludes with the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor. All music-making is for others to some extent, whether for other participants in the music-making or for an audience of listeners, but it may be ego-driven, with the well-being and flourishing of the other very much a secondary consideration. Perhaps Myrick’s book can be viewed as a meditation on the continuum between these two poles, and ways in which both individuals and communities may move to a healthier place.

It is, however, valid to ask if his conclusion would answer the ambivalent or outright negative attitudes of his Fuller students towards church music with which he begins the book. If implemented, would this inscriptive process of practicing music-making in church that is loving, ethical, and just heal the wounds that gave these students and others such a negative view of church music? Perhaps the best answer is that it could, though there is no guarantee. This book, however, does give a context in which there is hope for restoration and healing, and a way for a church music program to move beyond music that some, like the Fuller students, perceive to be manipulative and false.

Throughout the book Myrick returns many times to the question of authenticity, and whether authenticity is an adequate means for judging quality in music-making. Many of his interviewees used this as a criterion of quality in church music, and it can be seen as the antithesis of music that is manipulative and “fakey.” Myrick further defines authenticity as being vulnerable and honest, in this case vulnerable and honest in music-making, but he also notes that this is an essential ingredient in all relationships. He then makes the interesting observation that “it is precisely at this point that aesthetics and ethics collide” (132). Perhaps the concept of integrity would also be helpful here, integrity both of the music itself (among other things in the integrity and wholeness of the songwriting and composition) and of its performance, so that the performance has both musical quality and communicates in a way that is genuine and not false. Integrity can be an aesthetic principle, while personal integrity is also valuable in maintaining relationships, and authenticity can be viewed as an aspect of integrity. Myrick is rightly concerned about individual taste, or aesthetic preference, achieving ontological status. He says, “I am deeply suspicious of scholars who consider ‘beauty’ to be an objective category. Not that beauty is unimportant. It is deeply important. But it is not a moral category of the senses. The most aesthetically ugly things are sometimes the most morally beautiful—if we are paying attention” (134). He may wish to consider whether the “most morally beautiful” thing, musical or otherwise, has also become aesthetically beautiful because of its integrity. As he only touches on aesthetics briefly, it is to be hoped that he will develop his thinking further in this area.

These thoughts about aesthetics, however, only show how valuable the book is in helping anyone with an interest in church music think through their own participation in that music, and how they can make that participation more loving, caring, and just towards others in their community. In fact, this book will surely be helpful to any musician in any setting who wishes to think deeply about the ethics of their music-making.

Cite this article
Richard Roberson, “Music for Others: Care, Justice, and Relational Ethics in Christian Music”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:1 , 93-96

Richard Roberson

Richard Roberson, Department of Music, Messiah University.