The Worship Wars
“Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy.” (Psalm 33:3).
From Plato’s Republic Book 4
Then to sum up: This is the point to which, above all, the attention of our rulers should be directed, --that music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made. They must do their utmost to maintain them intact. And when any one says that mankind most regard
The newest song which the singers have, they will be afraid that he may be praising, not new songs, but a new kind of song; and this ought not to be praised, or conceived to be the meaning of the poet; for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him;-he says that when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.
Yes, said Adeimantus; and you may add my suffrage to Damon's and your own.
Then, I said, our guardians must lay the foundations of their fortress in music?
Yes, he said; the lawlessness of which you speak too easily steals in.
(Plato’s Republic, Book 4 p. 312)
Plato sees that there is something fundamental and formative about music for a people. He must not allow any new musical fad to come in and take root. New musical modes, new songs, and musical experimentation are dangerous.
And the truth is, many Christians, when they start talking music, jump in with Plato and say, "Yeah! Stick with what is old and traditional. New music gets on my nerves."
But let’s look a little deeper at what Plato means. In The Republic, Plato is arguing about what would make the very best society, what would produce most functional government, and what would lead to the happiest cities. And Book 4, (where our quote is found) is about how to create the kind of citizens that will live in this ideal society.
What will allowing a new kind of music threaten? Socrates has just finished explaining 1) the importance of taking the extra money that the rich have and giving it to the poor. 2) That a good citizen will understand that wife swapping amongst friends is good for the city. (Speaking of wives, he says "Friends have all things in common.") And 3) the police force of the city should be assigning and enforcing whatever labors they see most fit for each person. Taking the strongest at a young age away from their parents in order to be brainwashed into mindless enforcers of the cities bureaucratic educational codes.
He says, if we only allow for certain kinds of music, making sure to never allow for any musical innovation, then we will be able to produce these "well conducted and virtuous citizens" (p. 313).
In fact, he goes so far as to say that such well-educated citizens, so long as the government is paying close attention, will surely breed these good quality citizens. Quality livestock can be produced with careful oversight by the owner and quality citizens can be produced with careful oversight by the state.
Such well bred and managed citizens will even be self-policing. They will produce for themselves an army of bureaucrats that will in turn produce an ever more complex set of rules for themselves. This is why Plato says we have to fill up the city with only thumping and cheerful music.
And there is a very real sense where Plato is right. Music is a powerful, foundational human endeavor that speaks right down to our identity. Music speaks to us in a deeply connective way. As Boethius wrote, “Music is a part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior” (De Institutione Musica).
So when Plato wants to control people, he says, NO NEW MUSIC.
But God who is rich in mercy makes every one of Plato’s nightmares come true. Because when God began converting the Gentiles, he didn't put together a revolutionary political platform on how they were going to make it into the upper courts of the Empire (though they did end up there). He didn’t give them a strategic plan for a military coop. He started a musical war.
He gave us a New Song to sing.
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph. 5:19).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16).
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms (James 5:13).
When God comes to us, he calls us into the choir of the new song. In his commentary on the Psalms, speaking of Psalm 40:3, St. Augustine said: "He put a new song into my mouth. What new song? A hymn to our God. Possibly you were accustomed to sing hymns to other gods, old hymns; it was the old person who sang them, not the new person. Let the new person come to birth and sing a new song; let the renewed person love what has made him or her new. What is more ancient than God, who exists before all things, with no end and no beginning? Yet when you come back to him he is new for you. When you went away from him you grew old....”
By giving us a new heart and a new song to sing, he is laying the foundation of the city that is coming down from heaven to cover the whole earth. One of the great signs of the coming victory of the kingdom of God over all the nations of the earth is that they are a musical people, who always have a new song.
Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy. (Psalm 33:3).
He has put a new song in my mouth— Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, And will trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3).
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1–3).
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! For He has done marvelous things; His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. The Lord has made known His salvation; His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. (Psalm 98:1–3).
I will sing a new song to You, O God; On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You, The One who gives salvation to kings, Who delivers David His servant From the deadly sword (Psalm 144:9–10).
Sing to the Lord a new song, And His praise from the ends of the earth, You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, You coastlands and you inhabitants of them! (Isaiah 42:10).
Music is foundational in the city of God. But the city of God is not static and stationary like Plato’s vision. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is expanding and spreading and filling the earth with fruitfulness and blessings. So the church is always singing new songs. And the old songs of the church are always becoming new again to the people of the world as they are brought into the church.
So as the world comes to the Lord, it is important that we protect and enjoy our musical heritage. Because these new songs, and the ones that are being written now, and the ones that will be written in the future, are the inheritance of the whole world.