From Mere Inkling – Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and music


Today’s post comes from one of my favourite sites: Mere Inkling – a writer who always has much biblical wisdom to share, and many insights into the writings of Lewis and Tolkien. Enjoy!

Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Music

“Have you ever written something that inspired a musician talbumo compose new music? J.R.R. Tolkien hoped to do so one day, and had he lived to hear the scores of the Lord of the Rings trilogy created by Howard Shore, he would have been in awe.

I was reading Tolkien’s correspondence last week and came across a fascinating letter he wrote to a musician who was requesting permission to write a serious composition based on The Hobbit.

This would have been quite different than the quaint “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” made famous by Leonard Nimoy. (I wish their choreographer had read the book, so we could have been spared the tiny T-Rex arms sported during the chorus by the dancers.)

Anyway, returning to more serious musical ventures, in 1964 Tolkien received a request for permission to write a “Hobbit Overture.” It came from British composer Carey Blyton (1932-2002) who would become best known for his song “Bananas in Pyjamas.”

Tolkien’s response to the composer’s query is fascinating, on several levels. First, he is gracious in extending his permission, without any restrictions. And, in 1967 Blyton did compose “The Hobbit” Overture, opus 52a. It appears on the CD, British Light Overtures 3.

Secondly, he shares his unspoken desire that his work might someday inspire music. Then he makes a curious comment about the illustrations of Pauline Baynes, which would similarly grace the work of C.S. Lewis.

After that, Tolkien describes his own, musically impoverished, upbringing. Finally he expresses his deep appreciation for good music, despite his lack of knowledge on the subject.

And Tolkien accomplishes all of this in just a handful of sentences!

You certainly have my permission to compose any work that you wished based on The Hobbit. . . . . As an author I am honoured to hear that I have inspired a composer. I have long hoped to do so, and hoped also that I might perhaps find the result intelligible to me, or feel that it was akin to my own inspiration—as much as are, say, some (but not all) of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. . . . .

I have little musical knowledge. Though I come of a musical family, owing to defects of education and opportunity as an orphan, such music as was in me was submerged (until I married a musician), or transformed into linguistic terms. Music gives me great pleasure and sometimes inspiration, but I remain in the position in reverse of one who likes to read or hear poetry but knows little of its technique or tradition, or of linguistic structure.

It is common for people of sincere Christian devotion, such as Tolkien and Lewis, to express an appreciation for the divine capacity of music to touch the human spirit.

luteMartin Luther, for example, wrote much about music. “Music is God’s greatest gift,” he proclaimed. He was not only a composer of hymns, but also an acceptable player of the lute, which he used to accompany his children during their family devotions.

Music is deeply intertwined with the heart of Christian worship.

C.S. Lewis on the Subject of Music

One of the modest challenges in contrasting fellow Inklings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis results from the significantly different natures of their literary corpora. While they both wrote fantasy, though of a vastly different magnitude, Lewis’ vocation as one of Christianity’s chief modern apologists necessitated that he defend the faith in diverse contexts. Thus, he wrote numerous essays and a number of texts addressing a wide range of considerations that his friend Tolkien never discussed in print.

Because of this distinction, it is relatively simple to discover what Lewis thought about the nature and powers of music. Typical of the man’s practical orientation, Lewis appears little interested in the abstract attributes of music. What interests him is its confluence with human existence. The following profound insight comes from his essay “On Church Music.”

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.

Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

This discussion about church music is particularly interesting due to Lewis’ personal dislike for much of the music used in worship, which I’ve written about before.

Lewis described his own church music pilgrimage in “Answers to Questions on Christianity.”

My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches . . .

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament [holy communion], and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it.

I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis addresses this notion that we must look beyond the music itself, to assess its influence on our humanity.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis recognized the deep influence and mystery with which music communicates and inspires. It is no accident that Narnia’s creation itself comes through Aslan’s song.

The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool.

It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer.

Returning to “On Church Music,” Lewis expands on the importance of our intentions as we approach music.

It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way, or ways, in which music can glorify God. There is . . . a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them. . . . An excellently performed piece of music, as natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with the ‘dragons and great deeps,’ with the ‘frost and snows.’

What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends.

When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall. . . .

We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. To which an answer came, ‘mine are the cattle upon a thousand hills,’ and ‘if I am hungry, I will not tell thee.’ If God (in that sense) wanted music, He would not tell us. For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.

At the outset of this column I declared Tolkien would have been “in awe” of the musical score written to accompany the Lord of the Rings movies. Lewis too, I believe, would have been impressed by the scores composed for the three Chronicles of Narnia films made thus far. We owe a debt of gratitude to three composers: Howard Shore,* Harry Gregson-Williams,** and David Arnold***.

An Historical Postscript

In the spirit of Lewis and Tolkien, who appreciated the importance of music, we’ll close now with another engaging quotation from the wry pen of Doctor Martin Luther.

I wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.

A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

_____

* Howard Shore has nearly a hundred credits as a composer, conductor and orchestrator on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In addition to the Tolkien cinema projects, he has also worked on a number of other very successful films and ninety-six episodes of Saturday Night Live. Shore won three Oscars for his work on Lord of the Rings.

** Harry Gregson-Williams has nearly a hundred credits on the IMDb, including a number of box office successes, a variety of popular video games, and several productions in the Shrek series. He won awards for his work on the Chronicles of Narnia series and another of my favorite films, Kingdom of Heaven.

*** David Arnold, wrote the score for the third Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has seventy-three credits listed on IMDb, ranging from this year’s Independence Day: Resurgence, all the way back to a BBC made for tv picture entitled Mr. Stink.

https://mereinkling.net/2016/08/02/tolkien-c-s-lewis-and-music/

 

Hymn books: what we’ve lost and gained.

blue hymn booksI’ve really enjoyed following some blog discussions about hymnals in recent weeks (which you can find at the end of this post). In the space of around 30 years most church congregations have moved away from using them at all. Those piles of well-thumbed and well-sung collections of hymns have disappeared from church foyers and from the experience of many church-goers. In fact, if you are under the age of twenty you may have no memories at all of singing from a hymn book.

Last night I pulled out my little, moth-eaten, blue hymnal at the dinner table.  My ‘elderly’ teenagers and twenty-year-old were bemused by the little tome. And while not entirely oblivious to the contents, they did find my rendition of the drawn out and repetitive phrase from “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” quite amusing: ‘And Crow… ow.. ow.. own Him! Crown Him! Crown Him! Crown Him and Crown Him Lord of All’. (Who said hymns were easy to sing, and not repetitive?)

Whenever there is a great cultural shift in the way something is done there will naturally be losses, and gains. (The internet itself is one giant case in point. While it allows me the opportunity to write and share with people on the other side of the world it can also distract me from giving good attention to the people under my roof!)

And of course we shouldn’t forget two things: the church has done without hymn books before – when people repeated or memorised the lyrics; and, the collection of hymns we have used in church in the last few hundred years are not actually the ones referred to in the Bible, in Ephesians 5:18-19. Those hymns and spiritual songs have been lost forever.

For me, the move away from hymn books has meant the loss of something tangible, a bound book of songs for the church, which have been agreed on and published for their value in helping us praise God, in spirit and truth. People could own or borrow a hymn book and look up songs and reflect on the lyrics. As a child who loved words, I spent many a Sunday service pouring over the hymn book (especially if the sermon was very long or over my head). I devoured both the poetry and theology they contained. They challenged me to learn new words and concepts about God. I was also fascinated by the names of the hymn writers and the years they lived, and wrote, as well as the number of hymns written by each person. This little blue book was something of a little Blue Box, bigger on the inside, and a portal to the rich history of the church for the past few centuries. (If you understand this Doctor Who reference, you may like to visit my old Blue Box Parables blog, on finding Christ in popular culture.)

While I have been brought up on hymns, (and learned to sing harmony because of them, and probably learned to read music from the hymn book on the piano at home) I am not mourning their loss. I have been part of the movement of change, and spent the last few decades looking for spiritual songs and hymns which will edify and teach us well. Alongside this new body of songs, most churches retain the ‘good old hymns’ in their repertoire, hymns that are biblical and continue to encourage people today. Modern adaptations of hymns also help keep the ones worth singing alive (while those full of obscurities and archaic phrases are happily shelved for good).

The authors of the following posts have explored these losses and gains in much more detail and you can read them at your leisure. But to close, I will quote myself for a change, and refer you back to a post written in the defense of new songs in 2012.

In a nutshell, I argued that new songs say that God is doing something here and now, not just a few hundred years ago: “. . . it also comes down to the concept of “renewing our minds”. By hearing the gospel explained in new and fresh ways, our understanding of God and the gospel of His grace is strengthened and deepened. That has got to be a good thing.” 

You will find that Tim Challies also picks up this point in the third post below (which is his own response to his first post about things we lost when hymn books were set aside). The second and fourth links below are other people’s responses to Challies’ original post.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please comment below. Blessings!

https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-lost-when-we-lost-hymnals

https://gregoryktyree.wordpress.com/2017/04/06/what-we-gained-when-we-gave-up-our-hymnals/

https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-gained-when-we-lost-the-hymnal

https://chrislinzey.com/2017/04/09/hymnals-we-dont-need-no-stinkin-hymnals/

https://sevennotesofgrace.com/2012/07/31/new-songs-say-god-is-doing-something-now/

His Glory shown in our praise

"The Bible is replete with commands to praise God. God commands it because this is the ultimate goal of all He does—'to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed' (2 Thessalonians 1:10). Three times in Ephesians 1 this great aim is proclaimed: 'In love He predestined us to adoption as sons…to the praise of the glory of His grace' (vv. 4–6, NASB); we have been predestined and appointed to 'be to the praise of His glory' (v. 12, NASB); the Holy Spirit 'is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory' (v. 14). All the different ways God has chosen to display His glory in creation and redemption seem to reach their culmination in the praises of His redeemed people. God governs the world with glory precisely that He might be admired, marveled at, exalted, and praised. The climax of His happiness is the delight He takes in the echoes of His excellence in the praises of the saints. But again and again I have found that people stumble over this truth. People do not like to hear that God is uppermost in His own affections, or that He does all things for His own glory, or that He exalts Himself and seeks the praise of men. Why? There are at least two reasons. One is that we just don’t like people who are like that. The other is that the Bible teaches us not to be like that." Read more at desiringGod.org // Link in profile.

A post shared by Desiring God (@desiringgod) on

Homeless man’s surprise role in Carlos Whittaker’s music video

The recording of this music video took a turn for the amazing when a homeless man (Danny) kneels in worship and adds his powerful impromptu vocals to those of Carlos Whittaker. This is the power of music and the love of Christ is rolled into one! The praise of our great God is unstoppable!

Read the full story behind the event here: http://ragamuffinsoul.com/2013/11/dannygod/
If you would like to hear more from this singer, find his album here.

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Praising God makes our joy complete

made-to-praise_tWe all know that self-praise is no praise at all – and seeking the praise of others is even worse. Nothing sounds so bad as someone describing or complaining about all their great efforts and actions simply so we can praise them for it!

So why then does God so eagerly and perhaps egotistically command us to praise Him? The pages of Scripture (which are in fact ‘God-breathed’ – 2Tim3:16) constantly direct and urge us to praise God. So basically he is asking for it. He created us for His pleasure and he does delight in our praise. Yet he doesn’t need our praise, surely? He is not insecure like us!  On the other hand, yes he does deserve praise, so why shouldn’t we praise Him?

Perhaps the short answer to this dilemma is that praising God is good for us! God knows this, so directs us to praise Him. But let me direct you to some relevant discussion from C.S Lewis and John Piper to explain:

“Just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” . . . The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. . . I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. . .  If we were not allowed to speak of what we value and celebrate what we love and praise what we admire, our joy could not be full.”
(C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms)

“So if God loves us enough to make our joy full, he must not only give us himself; he must also win from us the praise of our hearts — not because he needs to shore up some weakness in himself or compensate for some deficiency, but because he loves us and seeks the fullness of our joy that can be found only in knowing and praising him, the most magnificent of all beings. . . . God is the one Being in all the universe for whom seeking his own praise is the ultimately loving act. For him, self-exaltation is the highest virtue. When he does all things “for the praise of his glory,” he preserves for us and offers to us the only thing in all the world that can satisfy our longings.”
(John Piper. Desiring God, pages 48–49)

So praising God completes our joyful experience of his good and gracious character. How important it is then to see our music ministry as providing an opportunity to do just that – to bring people to praise God, even when they don’t “feel” like it or sing with trepidation because they sing ‘out of tune’.
People need to praise God. Praising God not only completes our joyful experience of his love, it also takes our eyes from ourselves and our problems to the One who holds us together, who has moved towards us with compassion in Christ.
Let’s keep doing all we can to bring people to the place of praise!

(And this may be the topic for another blog post but I’ll mention it anyway: God sings over us!
“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17 – almost a Three Sixteen!))

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New songs say ‘God is doing something now’!

music_is_nature__silhouette_by_sammy3773-1Sometimes change can make us very uncomfortable. It can make us feel totally out of control, it can rob us of things to which we feel entitled. Let’s explore this for a moment in terms of church music.
We Christians develop a real attachment to the songs of our faith. They become associated with the ups and downs we have been through, or the exciting time of our youth, or the time we first came to faith. When we sing them the songs instantly conjure the emotions of those times. This is why some people just can’t sing songs from the funerals of dearly departed friends and family, without being overwhelmed by sadness.

So should we learn new hymns and spiritual songs, especially when such change can cause great angst?  I had a conversation with a lovely friend over the weekend who was frustrated with a lack of interest for changing and updating the songs they sing in their church. Many of her congregation are still attached to the ‘Scripture in Song’ repertoire which became popular in the 70s and 80s. The musical style of these choruses hark back to this era . . . and make some people really cringe!

I have found a great rationale for new songs from Rick Warren, author of the “Purpose Driven Church” (1995). If you study church history you’ll discover that every genuine revival has always been accompanied by new music. New songs say ‘God is doing something here and now, not just a hundred years ago’. Every generation needs new songs to express its faith“.

Another great insight comes from a Presbyterian minister Rowland Lowther (2002). He says that his favourite Christian song is “When I survey the Wondrous Cross”, to the old hymn tune, . . . but for the sake of the Gospel I would be willing to change the musical style so that those wonderful lyrics could impact on the next generation. . . What matters to me more is not that I be moved, but those in the next generation has those wonderful old lyrics to a music format that can lift their spirits to worship the same living God that the writer of this hymn worshipped hundreds of years ago”.

Great point. I think it also comes down to the concept of “renewing our minds”. By hearing the gospel explained by new people, in new and fresh ways, our understanding of God and the gospel of His grace is strengthened and deepened. That has got to be a good thing.

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