Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Augustine, Luther, and the National Guard

I went to see the film "Avatar" the other day. (As an aside: It was quite good, though I found it to paint quite a bleak picture of humanity.) Before the movie, though, there was a fascinating ad from the National Guard.

In many ways, it was the typical military recruitment sequence: men and women in various inspiring situations, from climbing mountains to crawling through mud, from flying planes to working at a computer. What I found fascinating was the background music. It was neither a military march nor a patriotic tune. It was a large orchestral and choral work that could only summon the opening strains of Carmina Burana to my mind. It gave the message a unique power to capture my attention during previews I would typically ignore. Yet the incongruence of the music and the images unsettled me and made me marvel at the choice.

The issue of that contrast reminded me of the contrasting philosophies of church music of Augustine and Luther. Augustine largely argued against music in church, viewing it as a distraction from the theological message. In his "Confessions," he wrote, "Yet when it happens to me that the music movesme more than the subject of the song, I confess myself to commit a sin deserving punishment, and then I would prefer not to have heard the singer." By contrast, Luther said "Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us."

They both have a point. Music is powerful, and that power can be used to enhance a message, but it can sometimes distract us from a true understanding. It's always good to be reminded of the true purpose of worship and music, even when the source is an unorthodox reminder.

1 comment:

  1. The whole question of music is quite interesting - are all styles appropiate, does excessive rhythm interfere, what about language? I would go along with the psalmist who call for a joyful noise with cymbals and bells, along with the singing and organ of course!