A number of years ago I decided to embark on a study of angels in the Judeo-Christian (and surrounding) traditions. It was a fascinating and entertaining topic to explore, but the more I delved into the subject the more I started noticing a peculiar trend in the way angels were being described.
To me, angels had always been kind of synonymous with the idea of a song, and when I thought of angels I thought of the “chorus” of an angelic presence or a picture of trumpets helping them to set their heavenly voices on display.
But where was the singing?
A discussion of angels is far more complex than this, of course, but in terms of challenging my very base level assumptions regarding what angels “should” be doing (how dare you!), it seemed nearly every time I encountered a story or a picture of an angel, especially when it came to the context of Scripture, they were either “shouting” or “speaking”, or generally doing something other than singing. And the few examples that did connect them to song appeared to vary in translation.
So I started to dig deeper, to see if there was anything more to this theory that angels did not, in fact, sing as I once assumed they did. Of course, coming to terms with this working theory involved a rather delicate dance through the richness of the Hebrew language and tradition, through which certain words might or might not denote a sense of musicality and where the influence of surrounding cultures complicated the picture even further. My efforts ultimately proved inconclusive, however, I did come to realize I was not the only one asking this same question. And there seemed to be enough compelling evidence out there to at least cause me to wonder, what if “song” in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a distinctly “human” discourse? What if music, in this specific tradition anyways, was recognized as a uniquely human gift?
My first thought? What does this mean for a voice like mine? You know, the kind of voice that appears more in line with fingers scraping down a chalkboard? Perhaps I am better suited for shouting along with the angels. After all, I did marry into a good Ukrainian family. Angelic praise in its finest form.
And good thing I have the drums to hide behind. Making a joyful noise is easier when no one can really see me… or at least making some kind of noise anyways.
But then I remembered something my pastor said a few years back that happened to stick with me (look at me paying attention). Finding himself one Sunday morning sitting in his customary seat in the front row where his back is always towards the congregation, he started to think about his experience of hearing our voices being sung over him instead of actually seeing us sing. And since our Church is very good at showing up fashionably late (or right on time depending on who you ask), oftentimes it would be the sound of the voices that was his first indication that the empty sanctuary he had entered minutes ago was now being filled by people.
And what struck him, according to his eventual confession, was that in singing we have a reflection of a true community. Where a single voice by itself may or may not hit the necessary notes, as a chorus even the most unlikely voice is able to find a melody.
Singing as an expression of community. We are stronger together, stronger in the places where we allow ourselves to lift one another up, and to be lifted up, in the context of our strengths and our weakness. Stronger in the places where we are able to recognize what we share as sons and daughters of God regardless of how well we can hit the right note on our own.
In this sense, if a song is truly a distinct human discourse, music then becomes the language of relationship. Relationship to God and relationship to one another.
In an interview from years back, Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman once described this same idea in the following words:
“As a musician, when I am singing, I always think of it as co-signing God’s blank checks. That there’s this currency that I’ve been given to operate with—notes and words—and I can pay them however I want.”
The cheque is the gift of the Spirit empowering our souls to create and to sing, and using this currency is our way of becoming “musicians”, of participating in the spirit’s moving in our world and in our lives as we sing and play “together” in a community.
And here is what is most incredible to me about this thought. The true power of community flows from the reality of our cultural diversity. And where is this diversity more properly expressed than through our music? A momentary glance through this list of musical regions and genres-
proves just how important music is to building cultural diversity. It is a humbling thought to consider the sheer expanse of this universal language at work in our world, bringing definition to neighborhoods, cities, regions, and Countries.
But before you find yourself thinking, “yeah, this is all good for those who can actually sing or play, but what about the rest of us? Are we then left to fend for ourselves?” The truth about making music, the reason why it is an expression of true community, is that it is about more than just creating. It is also about hearing. When we discover music that speaks to us, speaks to our spirit, we are being moved by the Spirit to listen to the story that music is sharing and expressing. And in hearing that story, the invitation is for us to enter into that story, that melody, by harmonizing our own story with the one that we are now hearing. This is how music brings us together. This is what makes music meaningful and expressive, the idea that music is primarily a “relational” or social function rather than a solitary one.
A final and important learning for me through all of this “wondering” has been the idea that this sort of approach to musical expression, musical community if you will, is indiscriminate by nature. It does not draw lines between what is godly and what is not. It does not draw lines between who is good and who is not, or what kind of song is worthy of hearing and which kind of song is not. It simply expresses. It creates. And then it invites us to participate. It is human. And the great truth is that out of this humanity we are able to gain a better picture of who God is in the rawness and in the honesty of our human experience as well.
If music truly is a distinct human discourse, a gift of the spirit, then it remains a visible representation of God no matter what form it takes in our personal expression. God is being made known in the songs of our doubts and our questions as much as He is through our songs of intentional worship. God is being made known through a bad note as much as he is in the beauty of a perfectly constructed melody.
But most important, God is being made known in our willingness to enter into, to listen and to hear and to participate with, the songs that others are singing. This is where we are free to join in the chorus, to join in the dance even when we feel we don’t have a good note to bring to the table. And when we do this, we might just find ourselves surprised by the strength and beauty of the melody that follows.