Awakening to Spiritual Battle Means Awakening First to Spiritual Beauty

By Tom Gilson Published on April 14, 2021

Here’s a mystery I might be able to solve for you, if you’ve ever asked yourself this question. How do trombone players know exactly where to move their arms? My first career was as a professional trombonist, and I can tell you that muscle memory is pretty amazing. I’d guess it gets an accomplished player to within maybe an eighth or a quarter of an inch of the right position every time.

The thing is, though, that’s not good enough. And the rest of the answer turns out to be exactly the same same for every vocalist and every string or wind instrumentalist. You can’t sing or play in tune unless you know what “in tune” sounds like. That knowledge is the musician’s great blessing. It can also be the musician’s great curse.

“A curse?” you ask? Yes, it can be. Like vocalists and orchestral string players, trombonists have no keys to press on our instruments to get us to the right notes, so we tend to develop an extra fine sense of pitch. Unfortunately, though, knowing what’s in tune also means knowing what isn’t. So I’ve had to walk right out of rooms where supposedly professional musicians were playing out of tune. Others in the audience were having a good time, and I wished I could, too, but I couldn’t. That’s the curse of a good ear: Bad music is a lot easier to enjoy when you don’t know anything’s wrong.

The Noise Around Us Is Finally Getting the Church’s Attention

That thought leapt to mind while I was reading Dudley Hall’s Monday Stream article, Awakening to the War. He wrote, “It is seldom pleasant to be awakened abruptly. We are at first disoriented and even resentful. After all, we were enjoying the sleep. But, to be awakened to the reality that we are in a war is even more disturbing.” Something’s badly out of tune in our world, but not so bad that we’d let it keep us from enjoying life anyway. We all ought to be musicians, alert to both beauty and ugliness. We’ve been snoozing through it instead.

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It reminds me of a church I was visiting one Sunday. A young woman came out on the platform with an electric guitar to lead us in worship. She played her first chord, and it was so out of tune it didn’t sound like a guitar. I mean, it really didn’t sound like a guitar. It was so bad that even though I was watching as she strummed it, I still jerked my head, looked left and right, and asked myself, “What was that? What made that noise?!” No one could have slept through that.

Western culture has been out of tune for a very long time, but it’s finally getting so bad the Church can’t sleep through it any longer. I’m noticing more and more Christians catching on to it. Too bad for them, in a way. Dudley Hall said it well: Waking up to the reality of war is disturbing. It’s so much easier not noticing anything’s wrong.

The Beauty Ought to Grab Our Attention, Too

But ignoring the discord gains us nothing. Having a good ear can be a musician’s curse at times, but more often it’s a blessing. Good music may be good music for everyone, and I wouldn’t take that from anybody, but there’s no doubt that musically trained ears hear more of the goodness that’s there. There are realities to classical symphonies, for example, that you’ll simply never know if you can’t hear the keys shifting in the middle of a movement.

And even though I’m not a violinist or a singer, I can tell the great ones from the good ones because I know what to listen for, and when I hear it, I really appreciate it. The best part of all is when you know someone’s not just playing notes, he’s playing music. I’ve played Bach’s D Minor Cello Suite on my trombone a thousand times, I love it that much, but honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually played the music in it. I have no idea how to explain that difference in words. It isn’t about words; it’s about music.

So the blessing far outweighs the curse, for having a good ear opens up whole new realities in music. That blessing comes in proportion to knowing what’s right and true and beautiful. Strangely, that’s exactly the same skill that informs a musician when something isn’t right or true or beautiful. That knowledge isn’t built primarily upon knowing what’s wrong, though, but on being able to hear what’s right. It comes first from knowing musical beauty, not ugliness.

Now That We’re Awake, What Do We Focus On?

To be a musician is to pursue beauty first of all. No one ever excelled just by stomping out ugliness. Yet there’s a contrast there that never goes away. Conductors still stop rehearsals, point at sections or individuals, and say, “That wasn’t right. You need to play that differently.” Musicians playing alone in practice rooms stop and tell themselves the same thing. The quest to produce the kind of beauty all can enjoy requires recognizing and addressing ugliness no one wants to experience.

We could easily get confused among all this noise, and think we’ve been awakened mostly to stomp it out. No, we’re here above all to display the love and grace and goodness of Jesus Christ.

And I think this contrast defines the Church’s challenge today. The cacophony around us is rousing us awake. That’s great! You can’t snore your way to enjoying good music, either. The battle has been rising, and we’re finally waking up to that. It really is war, just as Dudley Hall said. There are evils to eradicate, conflicts to engage in. The danger in that, though (as Dudley has also said in many times and ways), is that having been awakened by a cacophonous culture, we’ll think our job now is mostly to attend to that noise. As if our goal were simply … silence. The absence of noise. So we can get back to sleep.

Keep Pursuing Beauty

That’s wrong. (I’m preaching to myself now.) Yes, we have to address the noise, sometimes in ourselves, like the musician alone in the practice room, sometimes in others, like the conductor in front of the symphony. The analogy starts breaking down there, I know, but what I really want to get across is this: We could easily get confused among all this noise, and think we’ve been awakened to stomp it out. No, we’re here above all to display the love and grace and goodness of Jesus Christ.

We do have to do some stomping. To catch and correct error is both crucial and unavoidable. Just as with the musician correcting her own mistakes or others’, though, it’s not the point of the pursuit. The point is to display the glory of God. One way to do that (there are many) is to strive to show not only that the way of Christ is true, but that it’s good that it’s true — good for all, not just for Christians, because God loves us, and His instructions are for our good.

To do that, we really need to get in tune ourselves. We’ve got to learn what God’s beauty “sounds like.” We must know His truths well enough to stay on pitch with them. It’ll make us wince all the more when others stray off pitch, but it’ll also equip us all the better to bring them back in tune.

And finally, just as musicians can experience a reality in music that others may not hear, even more so can followers of Christ experience a reality that others cannot — as long as we’re not snoozing. So yes, let’s wake up. Please! Let the noise out there rouse the Church at last! But let’s not think we’re waking up only to noise. We’re waking up to the joy of God through Jesus Christ. Let’s be alive to that joy, even as we fight the battles we must fight. Martial music has beauty, too. Remembering that might just help us invite others to tune up and tune in, to hear and enjoy God’s beauty along with us.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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