Songs in a Pandemic - Part 1, Introduction
It has now been over three months since the word “coronavirus” entered our everyday vocabulary. It has been 20 days since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And it has been 5 days since we here in South Africa went into an unprecedented nation-wide lockdown. Since that microscopic virus jumped from some unnamed animal to the first unsuspecting human in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the illness has spread to almost every country on the globe. Nearly three quarters of a million people have now been infected, with almost 35,000 deaths. If projections of the duration of this virus are correct, the planet could be looking at millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths before the virus has run its course. I doubt there are many people, upon first hearing about a strange sickness (which sounds more like a bad beer advertisement…sorry Corona) way “over there” in China back in December would have ever thought we would be where we are today.
In response to the pandemic, governments at every level are instituting regimes designed to limit the virus’ spread and hence its duration. Some governments are more serious and drastic than others. Travel bans, social distancing, quarantine, lockdown – these are all commonplace in our vocabulary and experience today. From China to Italy, Spain to the US, Australia to South Africa, the freedoms and movements of everyday life have been curtailed to such an extent, that just a matter of weeks ago we would have never thought it possible.
What are Christians to think? What is Christ’s global church supposed to do and be? How should local churches react? These are questions over which I’ve been pondering. There are probably so many ways to correctly answer these questions that we could fill a book. But in this series of blog posts, I want to focus on a specific topic, and I also want to interact with that topic in a unique way. I want to talk about a Christian’s perspective, and use music, actually specific songs, to illuminate and encourage our discussion.
In the media, among the general public, and from medical personnel and political leaders, we are hearing serious and dramatic words on a regular basis: virus, contagion, unprecedented, pandemic, catastrophic, life-altering, devastating. Are all of these terms and descriptors apt for our time? Probably. At least in some sense. These are unique times, we are indeed facing a life-altering situation. Is this an unprecedented response for the global system? Yes indeed.
Yet, in another sense, can we truly call these times “unprecedented?” Christians must be the first to acknowledge that we are indeed in serious times and these times call for serious responses. But we must also be the first to put things into perspective. The Christian worldview demands that we look at our situation with the humility that history demands. We must recognize that humanity has dealt with illnesses, catastrophes, floods, hurricanes, fires, and war since the dawn of time. The biblical story had barely begun before we had murder (Genesis 4), violence (Genesis 6), destruction and death (Genesis 7), pride and the scattering of whole peoples (Genesis 11). We must understand, with the Preacher, that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
But the Christian’s worldview is not fatalistic, believing that since there is nothing new, nothing matters. Rather the Christian worldview is honest, humble, and yet confident. We have a perspective that is not frantic, but calm. Not reactionary, but responsive. Not dismissive either, but serious, knowing that these are indeed serious times. Not fearful, but steadfast. We have a different, other-worldly perspective.
Here C.S. Lewis is very helpful. Writing in 1948 (though specifically about the threat of the atomic bomb, not a virus) he offers a glimpse of the Christian’s perspective in the face of truly disastrous circumstances:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
So that is why I want to discuss the Christian’s perspective, but why through music? Why use specific songs? From a general point of view, music is one of God’s good gifts to His creatures. Indeed, as Martin Luther put it, “[music] is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” The creative generation of music is one of those intangibles that point to the image of God in each person.
Music also has the capacity to speak to the human heart in ways that are powerful and unique. It can lift one’s spirit to the heights of heaven; and it can take one to the lowest depths. We all know this just from our experience of watching movies. Intense scenes would be far less intense if, say, the theme song to Paw Patrol was playing in the background. Scenes intended to show joy and happiness would be far less joyful if backed up by the solemn notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Music connects to our hearts on an emotional level like few other things can. It allows our hearts to express and feel things that mere words often fall far short. As Hans Christian Anderson has famously said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”
But what about when music and words are combined? We all know that there is power in setting words to music. Just think of teaching our children the ABCs. You’re probably already humming the tune in your mind right now. While its not impossible to learn a string of 26 letters consecutively, how much easier is it when set to music! There is something about setting content, text, information to music that causes that content to be impressed on our minds and hearts.
Now lets take this a step further. The bible is full of references to music, but it is particularly insistent on a particular form of music: singing. Why would this be? At least partly, I think this is because to sing is to necessarily speak actual words. In the biblical context, this is words of praise to God. The longest book of the bible is a songbook! The Israelites were commanded to sing; they even had worship leaders (the Levites!). It is no surprise then that some of the instructions to the early church was to sing. Colossian 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
But notice what Paul just said. We sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in order to teach and admonish one another. But what does he say we are to sing? The word of Christ! We are to sing the scriptures. We are to sing biblical truth. We are to sing what is richly dwelling in our hearts, the very word of God.
But I think it also works the other way. We don’t just sing the word of Christ which is dwelling in us. That same word of Christ becomes dwelt in our hearts because of our singing. This is why the bible doesn’t say to simply speak words of praise, but to sing words of praise to God. Don’t just read the word of God, but sing it too! The very act of singing, of putting words to music, drives the content home into our hearts, helps us internalize the words of Christ.
Music has power. Words set to music stick with us. But the Word of God and his Truth, coupled with music that is sung, has the power to transform. To go down deep into our souls. To help us orient our minds to the truths of Christ. To give us a new perspective. A renewed sense of mission. A fresh compassion for the lost and needy. And to help us face the pandemics that this world throws at us with steadfastness, even joy.
I hope that in the course of these blog posts we will come to rest more confidently in the arms of our Creator and Sustainer, that our perspective will be reoriented so that our first reaction when we hear the next news report is to look up rather than out, that we will gain a greater humility in our outlook as we explore God’s sovereignty and providence, that we will be encouraged by excellent and Christ-exalting music, and, ultimately, that we will be renewed and refocused in our task as the church, namely making disciple of all nations.