“A New Song for an Old World” (excerpt 4)

More excerpts from Calvin R. Stapert’s book, A New Song for an Old World. Previous excerpts: OneTwoThree

“The church fathers recognized music’s power to calm the passions (negative sense). But Evagrius meant something more profound than what ‘easy-listening’ or dentist-office music calls to mind when he said, ‘Psalmody lays the passions to rest and causes the stirrings of the body to be stilled . . . . ‘ ‘Easy listening’ could not be further from what the church fathers had in mind.

Psalmody, the music that ‘lays the passions to rest,’ achieves its results by conveying truth—for example, ‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth,’ ‘God is our refuge and strength,’ ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,’ ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.’ The calming effect of dentist-office music and easy listening radio is an opiate that dulls one’s perception, bringing one to a sub-passionate level. Psalmody raises one above the passions (negative sense).

The church fathers knew of music’s power to excite and inflame the passions, as well as its power to calm them; and this power made them wary of music and the other arts. In their wariness they joined a long tradition that went back to Plato. One of Plato’s objections to the arts (see Republic X) ‘is their tendency to water the passions and make the less stable part of human nature prevail over the rational virtues.’ Though the church fathers were similarly offended, there was a different reason behind it: they ‘prized not so much the rational virtues as the habit of gentleness. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, meekness, temperance, long-suffering, kindness. Christians found the opposite emotional habit in the pagan secular arts.’ The wild, intoxicating excitement generated by the music of pagan cults and the public spectacles was a constant target of their vehement denunciation. The church fathers would have no part of that kind of excitement. But that does not mean they denounced all moving music or failed to appreciate its beneficial uses. Chysostom spoke // appreciatively about music’s power to arouse the soul:’[N]othing so arouses the soul, gives it wing, sets it free form the earth . . . As concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.’ Ambrose boasted about the power of his hymns to move people from heresy. . . . Augustine attested to the beneficial power of those same hymns.”

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World (Eerdmans, 2007), 90-91.