Sufficiency of Scripture: Composition and Aesthetics

Mr. Swanson was one highlight of the conference, here are two more: talking to Ben Botkin about composition, and attending Mr. Phillips’s breakout session on aesthetics. These are probably the two things that are most easily applicable in my life right now, and are things I can get quite passionate about.

I was slightly late to Mr. Phillips’s session, since Luke and I had just met John Moore. I walked in just as Mr. Phillips was reminding us that there is NO neutrality in aesthetics. None at all. Everything, even the way we walk, is determined by our worldview and is either for God’s glory or not (read Isaiah 3 and 4).
With that in mind, Mr. Phillips asked the question: “What principles will guide us in deciding what aesthetics Aesthetics are simply an outward showing of inward religious principles.
As Christians, we are called to glory in the Lord, whatever we do (Jeremiah 9:24, 1 Corinthians 10:31). We glory in our Creator, not what we have made.
If Christ gets the glory, not us, then it changes our methodology. Our aim is not self-expression, but the glory of God.
Our architecture is affected by our worldview. For example, Covenanter aesthetics died during the Enlightenment. When men returned to Greek philosophy, they also returned to Greek architecture – hence a Parthenon in Scotland built in 1820. It remains unfinished.

Mr. Phillips noted a few things about humanistic art. This was followed by the Genesis foundation for a theory of aesthetics.
For the humanist…
– Art is a perversion of the Creator/creature distinction.
– Art is freedom from law and order, self expression.
– Art is the worship of art
– Art becomes mediatorial idolatry (eg, people say “We *need* art to worship God”). This says I need something to help me worship God, and art becomes a means for reaching Christ or becoming worshipful, not worshiping because of God’s greatness and to bring Him glory.

The difference between humanist and Christian aesthetics is not so much the what but the how. It goes beyond the film itself and on to the priorities and people on the screen. Cultures that place a high priority on holiness look different from those that place a high priority on death (eg, the Incans, Modern USA).
BUT – the Christian artist has a mandate before the Lord to show His character in art.
As defined by Rushdoony, “Art is the making well, or properly arranging of anything whatever that needs to be arranged.” Thus, art is organization.
Christian art differs from humanist art because –
– God alone is capable of original creativity. Go to God to be mentored in creativity.
– God communicates truth of vast significance concerning His character and priorities through His design.
– God made things for a reason
– God’s plan for the entire universe is earth – the only place that Christ came.

So how do we emulate that in our earthly disciplines?
– God’s work defines aesthetic perfection. Beauty is objective, preference is subjective. (This is supported by 1 Corinthians 13. A clanging cymbal is used to portray a distasteful sound.)
– Man and his work are purely derivative. (more on this later)

Art and the Bible:
– We need to have dominion in the arts, which are gifts of God (Calvin)
– There was music during Creation week – the morning stars SANG!
– the Great Commission – we are to communicate God’s glory.

We should be the most creative of all peoples because we were redeemed by the Creator.
Art communicates, this is why it is not neutral. The perversion of the modern mind claims to communicate subjectivity.
Bach sought rather to place biblical philosophy of music. Our appreciation of a flower isn’t its complexity but it’s simple beauty. Bach understood this and made his compositions both complex and simple. The reason Bach went so far was because he saw his music not as a hobby but as a calling.
Take every note captive!

Other things of note:
Rome – world conquest does not equal dominion.
Art can be a rebellion because the modern world has made it into expression.

Mr. Phillips’s discussion on Bach made me smile. When I’d talked to Ben earlier that morning, that had been mostly what we talked about: Bach. Which is fine by me, I love Bach.
I love Bach even more after SoS.
I was so nervous about talking to Ben, mostly because I had no idea which of the Botkins he was. So I went up to their table and asked the lovely woman behind the table (not a Botkin) which one was him. She pointed him out and asked “So do you like music?” I talked with her for a while, and then she called Ben over and introduced me to him (what a relief. The reason I had so much trouble talking to John Moore was because I had to walk up and say “Hi!” instead of being introduced). She mentioned my interest in composition, which kicked off the conversation.
My main question for him was “Where do you start?”
Here is where Ben is so amazing. He’s completely self-taught, and he taught himself by studying music. That’s it, just studying music. And work. He studied the kind of music he wanted to write. He worked on playing things by ear, to learn which thing sounded good, and helping get things from your head down to your fingers. He studied film scores to figure out what sounds good with regard to length of the melody, chords under the melody… But the two main things that stuck out to me were when we talked about work and emotion.
First of all, work. Ben loves Bach as well, and had a brilliant quote by Bach (which later Mr. Phillips also quoted). When asked why his compositions were so good, Bach replied: “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.” If there’s one thing that characterizes what Ben has done, it is most definitely work. He challenged me to work.
Then we talked about emotion. He told me that you don’t write from emotion. I already somewhat knew that, as if you sit down at the piano whilst feeling sad and hit random notes, it won’t sound any different than any other time you’re hitting random notes. But yes, don’t write by emotion, but write to show emotion. Think about what you want the music to bring, then portray that. Get the listener to where you want them to be.
Ben does a lot of composition for films, like the Mysterious Islands, Homeschool Dropouts, Return of the Daughters, etc., and he was talking later about how in a film, you’re under submission to the director. Take what you need to do and see what other composers did in a similar place. (Eg, if you have an underwater shots, watch underwater scenes in other movies and see what the music is like).
So: study the kind of music you want to write, work hard, and don’t write from emotion, but portray it nevertheless.

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” – Bach

For the glory of the most high God alone,
And for my neighbour to learn from, (also Bach)


2 thoughts on “Sufficiency of Scripture: Composition and Aesthetics

  1. pen2sword says:

    Hang on… I’m confused. I followed you up until the part about art… and organization. Although I must say that I agree that orgnaization is art! But, does that mean that abstract art is inherently bad? Or art at all? I mean, can’t you use art to “show” God to the world and bring Him glory? And abstract art is not all chaotic… some of it, if you think about/look at it, is very organized. Colors express feelings the same way music notes do, etc. I mean, imagine the things you could do with art. If you wanted to, you could do it just the same as you could with music or writing or anything like that. (Music and writin are also art, of course…) What I mean is, art is what you make it. If I am an artist and I do my best to let God guide my work, then it isn’t about art celebrating art or anything else you mentioned, is it? So, for example, writing…. If I constantly pray for God to help me and do my utmost to use my work to give Him glory, then my art is not a bad thing, is it? And what does that mean for me? Does it mean I can only write specifically Christian books, or can I write mainstream books that are just plain good books? As in, they reflect the Christian and (to use a phrase) “godly” way of living/thinking, but they are not specifically allegorical?

    I have a lot to say about this kind of thing, I guess. I just want to make sure I really am glorifying God in my work, because I do want to use this talent I’ve been given– I want it to be my job. And if I can’t do my job right, or if it takes away from my spiritual life, then I have a problem.

    Anyway, if you would attempt to clarify, I would be appreciative. 🙂

    -Hannah W.


    • kyleian says:

      Hannah: I can’t answer you as completely as I’d like, as I don’t wholly know myself.

      To your question of abstract art, I would have to change it a little. I don’t think the question is of abstractness versus concreteness but subjectiveness versus objectiveness. When we seek God as the objective standard for beauty, then our art will glorify Him, whether it’s abstract or concrete. My sister Cait has drawn some of the most beautiful abstract art I’ve ever seen. Abstract art can be objective – modern art is not (my definition of modern art is randomly drawing lines or splattering paint and then figuring out what it is, etc.) If our self is consumed with the gospel of God, then self expression WILL be to His glory.
      Art is what we make it – it’s our decision to make art that says ‘self’ or that says ‘God.’

      The short answer to your question about writing mainstream good books is that although mainstream good books can glorify God, ones that are allegorical or reveal the reason for our striving for (but mostly failing at, and would fail altogether, but for the grace of God) what the world sees as ‘morality’ is for His glory and to live as children of Light – these kinds of books have the potential to glorify God even MORE.

      Does that make sense?


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