Vinay Samuel has questions about making an idol of emotional authenticity in music

Aretha Franklin died on 16 August 2018, aged 76.

The powerful soul singer will undoubtedly go down in music history. Influenced and inspired by gospel music, Franklin grew up in church. Her father was the minister at New Bethel Baptist Church and this was where Franklin found her God-given gift of singing. This was very important to Franklin so even as she began to develop as an artist, she maintained her gospel roots and influence and never forgot her faith.

Franklin released her first album, Songs of Faith, in 1956. In her 62-year career she earned an incredible ten Top 10 singles, including I Say a Little Prayer and Respect.

According to Business Insider, she was one of the best-selling female artists in history with 75 million records sold worldwide.*

Her passing away enables me to reflect on a neglected dimension of gospel music and moral formation. This is important, as much of today’s praise and worship music, described by some as soft rock, is rooted in the tradition of gospel music. Franklin, celebrated as the ‘queen of soul’, grew up in gospel music and was one of its greatest artistes. Soul and gospel overlap a great deal in singers like Aretha.

Aretha’s rendition of Amazing Grace was my first introduction to her singing. Christian themes dominate gospel music. As I listened to her effortless singing, a pure voice, emotional clarity and gospel sensitivity lifted me into a spiritual world, a transcendent world in which one lingers long after the song ends.

As someone interested in the life of the singer as much as the song, I expected singing with such spiritual depth to be accompanied by moral strength. So I was disturbed that her life was marked by broken marriages and abused relationships. This appeared to be true of many soul and gospel singers. Their singing has many spiritual and transcendent themes. One key theme is the grace of God.

It is understandable that from the deep hurt and brokenness experienced by them, the artist turns to the grace of God, where they find rest, if not wholeness and healing. That experience of God’s grace does not appear to translate into moral formation that builds moral resilience and virtues to address such issues as sexual desire, marriage faithfulness, financial propriety and truth-telling.

Reformers’ differing views
The Protestant Reformation significantly influenced the way music is viewed and understood by the church. There were iconoclastic controversies in the early church and particularly in the eighth century that highlighted the disputes over visual representation of the Divine. The fear of idolatry creeping in and the distraction that art may bring from pure contemplation and worship of the divine were the background to the Reformers’ reflection on the role of music in Christian worship.

Luther appreciated music, as he was a musician himself and included music in worship. He believed in its uplifting power to draw the worshipper close to God and to glorify God.

Calvin viewed music differently. He recognised music’s power, but was very cautious about its use in Christian worship. He believed music was more likely to hinder true worship than enhance it. So plainsong was preferred to complex sacred music. He suggested that melody could arouse both holy and unholy emotions. For Calvin, church music should be fundamentally different from the world’s music. He saw music’s power to sway emotions as dangerous. He also believed that musical instruments corrupted true worship and praise.

Zwingli wanted no music in his church. This Protestant legacy about music in the church is the background to the church’s use of music today.

The art, not the artist
We need to view the Christian use of music in the larger context of the Christian view of art. Here I will draw on Jacques Maritain, considered by many to be the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, who was raised a Protestant. His work Art and Scholastism (1930) had a profound influence on the Christian view of art (music, sculpture, painting, literature and artisans’ work). For him art belongs to the intellect. It is about making, not necessarily creating. The good of the art is in the object itself, not in the maker. Art is intellectual virtue, not moral virtue.

‘The good (virtue) of the art lies in itself quite apart from the artisan.’ Brian Barbour, in his introduction to the 2016 edition of Maritain’s book, concludes that Maritain’s view of art ran counter to the presuppositions of Romanticism which are the presuppositions of contemporary art and music.

T.S. Eliot also views the artist similarly to Maritain. For both, the artist is a maker, a craftsman whose attention is not on himself but on working out the good of, the perfection of, the work of art. The Romantic on the other hand expresses self as Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself: ‘I celebrate myself and sing myself.’

For Maritain and Eliot the emphasis is on the objective nature of art, not the subjective life of the artist. ‘Art in no wise tends to make the artist good in his specifically human conduct’, writes Maritain. ‘The Romantic view of the artist as isolated genius creating out of his originality – a new heaven and a new earth, a world more real than the actual one…’ It is an attempt to be God-like, in some ways expressing human creation as made in God’s image and focused on limitless experience. Isaiah Berlin said: ‘The assumption that there existed a reality, a structure of things, a rerum natura, which the qualified enquirer could see, study and in principle, set right. This was the foundation of belief (Christian belief), which Romanticism attacked and weakened.’

The influence of Romanticism
For Romanticism emotional authenticity becomes true spirituality and even truth itself. It is said that Pietism was influenced by Romanticism, which was itself reacting to Hegel. Evangelicalism’s proneness to seeking emotional authenticity possibly comes from the influence of Pietism on its formation. The importance of authentic experience is visible in the critical role which personal testimonies about answer to prayer and experience of blessings play in evangelical worship.

I will not explore that further except to suggest that much of gospel music, soul and contemporary Christian, praise and worship is shaped by the tradition of Romanticism of the creative artist who creates a world of experience, even transcendent experience. The centrality of experience that comes from Romanticism is at the foundation of contemporary music and I believe shapes even Christian praise and worship. I will develop this further in later writing.

Preparation for the main thing
Alongside contemporary praise and worship, I wish to set the experience of traditional evangelical churches before the dominance of the praise and worship service. Gospel songs were very much a part of worship. But they were a preparation for the main focus of worship – the teaching and preaching from the Bible, the Word of God. Listening to God’s Word was the main activity. Praising him in song prepared you to hear and shaped your emotions to obey the Word. Only gradually, singing times became times of worship that were an end in themselves, lifting one’s experience of praise and prayer to a new level. Whereas the hymns of Watts and Wesley, and Newton’s own Amazing Grace were full of testimony, they were also full of biblically faithful doctrine. Many modern worship songs have no recognisable Christian content at all.

When the balance of praise and prayer with substantial leading was maintained, I believe discipleship formation, particularly ethical formation, was strong. A moving experience of worship does not by itself quicken moral formation in the Christian disciple.

A brilliant book brimming with intellectual virtuosity does not imply that its author is morally virtuous. A beautiful song sung to perfection does not suggest that the singer is a perfect person. It is this we need to consider when we examine the performance of praise and worship. Virtues of performance do not necessarily produce or accompany the virtues of character of the performers and participants.

Troubled relationship
Music and morality is at best an ambiguous and often a troubled relationship. Some Christians feel uncomfortable with praise and worship that appears to suggest that the heart of Christian life is experience. It is not. The heart of Christian life is obedient discipleship, taking up one’s cross, denying oneself and following Christ daily.

Where praise and worship become central, music dominates and the Romantic idea that reality is experience takes over. Virtue formation through education is sidelined.

Vinay Samuel is the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life * Biographical details from