Musicking in Corona-Time: Reflections from CS Lewis

Tom Chevis 27 Mar 20

The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition: that of being offered to God, of being done humbly "as to the Lord". This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation.

So writes CS Lewis about half-way through his 1939 sermon, Learning in War-Time, which I would recommend you read in its fullness here.

Lewis's chief concern in the sermon is essentially to answer the question 'in a time of international crisis, how can I possibly carry on with my inconsequential day-to-day activity?' In Lewis's sermon, the crisis was the Second World War, and the 'inconsequential day-to-day activity' was simply that of academic study, or learning. For us today, the crisis is the Covid-19 outbreak and our activity is the study and the making of music. Hopefully this overview of Lewis's sermon, and particularly its final section, will help you as you navigate how to live as a faithful Christian musician in this unusual time.

1. On human culture generally

But why ever make music? On culture and human life

In his first section, Lewis addresses the broader, if you like prior, objection that in the face of eternal matters like heaven and hell, how can anyone possibly think or do anything other than 'religious matters'. His answer is at once amusing and insightful:

Whether it ought to happen or not, the thing you are recommending is not going to happen.

Even those who would say that the only worthwhile use of time is evangelism and other overtly religious activities are never themselves ever going to achieve such a notion! Lewis points out that all humans engage in cultural activity (see this book review for a similar point) all the time, and that attempting to cease from cultural activity is a nonsense -

If you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

His point is that whether we wish to direct our activities and attentions exclusively to a worldly concern (in his case, war; in our case, pandemic) or to a religious concern, neither 'will simply cancel or remove from the slate the merely human life which we were leading before we entered them.'

So how to make music? On glorifying God in all things

Lewis continues by exploring what it looks like to 'live for' something, highlighting the dangers of doing so with anything of this world (in his day, the Allied cause; in ours, perhaps music), saying:

It is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.

He contrasts this with the way in which faith calibrates this idea, quoting 1 Corinthians 10:31 - 'So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God', i.e. to 'live for' God is to do everything 'to his glory', saying:

All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not.

He goes on to point out that whilst sometimes this requires a particular activity to be ceased totally, that will only be in 'a given situation' constituting 'special circumstances'. He concludes:

There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such.

So, Lewis at the very least teaches us that human activities such as music should not be 'lived for' in a total (i.e. essentially idolatrous) sense, but that it should be 'offered to God', as should any human activity that need not be ceased in pursuit of His service. Whilst here is not the space to go into further detail as to the nitty-gritty of what that looks like, it is a useful thing to learn and/or be reminded of.

2. On intellectual and aesthetic pursuits specifically

Surely music is just an 'inexcusable frivolity'? On pursuing knowledge and beauty

In his second main section, Lewis moves on to address the more specific objection that 'human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we.' In other words, given all the weighty responsibilities that we bear in life, even if it is possible to engage in aesthetic pursuits 'to the glory of God', how can we really justify it?

After quickly dispelling the riposte occasionally proposed by some that aesthetic pursuits are somehow particularly 'spiritual' and therefore beyond the need of justification (it is here he renders the quote with which I began this article), Lewis maintains that our desire to pursue knowledge and beauty is nevertheless inbuilt, saying:

An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.

He adds the caveat that such pursuit will only be safe 'so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested.' In other words, we must always be alert to the danger whereby our love of the pursuit itself (be that the intellectual pursuit of knowledge, or the aesthetic pursuit of musical skill and execution) comes pridefully to override and displace our love of 'the thing known', or, we may add, 'the piece played', meaning that we, as Lewis puts it,

delight not in the exercise of our talents, but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.

At this point, he says, 'the time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.'

But surely it's still a frivolity? On the necessity of this pursuit

The next section of the sermon contain some of Lewis's most oft-quoted statements on why academic study, in particular, is really necessary, and not just an ivory-towered pursuit for fusty folk retreating from reality. Perhaps most famously, he says:

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

Lewis's chief point here is that not only does academic work honour God in and of itself, it also displays to both the outside world and to our fellow Christians that Christianity has an intellectual credibility to it that stands up to scrutiny and points to the reality of God and the truthfulness of the gospel. Whilst such work is unlikely in and of itself to lead someone to Christ, or to keep a believer from falling away, nevertheless, it acts as a signpost to the unbeliever, and to the wandering believer as a buttress 'against the intellectual attacks of the heathen'. History shows us that if we let such intellectual attacks pass by willy-nilly, with no defence mounted, then sadly many believers begin to lose assurance in their faith, some of them eventually forsaking it altogether. This is why 'good philosophy' is necessary.

So how to do musicology? On what 'good philosophy' may look like

Applying this to musicology for a moment: if ever you find yourself in the library poring over a dusty old tome on some obscure topic which you didn't even know about a week before, still less cared about, remember that your efforts are not in vain. It is, according to Lewis, 'a duty' for the Christian in academia to toil away and to do so consciously to produce work that is 'good', and which will not waste time frittering in the dung of 'bad philosophy'.

You honour God when you take the time to understand the various 'isms' (like modernism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism, and many others 'isms') that underpin contemporary (and in some cases, not-so-contemporary) musicology, so that you will be able to 'chew the meat and spit out the bones' (i.e. find what is good in such 'isms' yet reject what is bad) and so produce work that is in accordance with the truth and reality of this world created by God.

But this task does take time, and does involve toil - don't think that by rejecting it all outright and instead just shoehorning the gospel into an essay equals 'good philosophy' - it almost certainly doesn't! (For postgraduates especially who are interested in what this looks like for a Christian, check out 'Forming a Christian Mind')

Returning to Lewis's sermon, he expounds this point with two comments, both of which are worth heeding:

(a) First, he exhorts the academic to read much from the past, as a way of guarding against the blind spots of one's own era:

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There is no doubt of the truth of this in musicology, and it is often worth reading around and finding out what the general socio-religious atmosphere was in the place and time you are studying. How pervasive was Christianity in 18th century Austria? What unspoken (Christian) assumptions might then be lurking behind some of the writings from that time and place? How might more modern and less Christian-influenced writings on musical goings-on in that time and place (e.g. Haydn's compositions) fail to take that into account and so reflect their own era more than that to which they are pertaining?

(b) Second, and thankfully perhaps, he notes the apparent 'comic discrepancy' between this high and noble-sounding calling and the immediate task at hand (which for the musicologist might be writing an essay on anything from the notation of musica ficta in medieval music to the influence of queer theory on contemporary composition in 21st century Britain, and everything in between!), consoling us with the reminder that such discrepancy is to be found in every vocation, however lofty or otherwise it may be (think of the international soloist who as part of that still has to undergo the tedious task of filling in a self-assessment tax return, and other such chores).

3. On working in a time of crisis

But why make music in a time of crisis? On working in this present situation

Lewis eventually reaches the immediate question facing his audience: how can I possibly continue to work given the current circumstances? How could those academics possibly justify researching 'Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae' when the rest of the country was preparing itself for a German invasion, and many of the contemporaries were already on the continent, fighting on the front line?

To translate that into our contemporary situation: how can we possibly justify continuing to practise our instrument when thousands are dying of Covid-19, and people all around us may be in need of practical assistance and care?

Lewis's answer is intriguing:

Do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is.

He names three enemies that a crisis 'raises up against the scholar' and three mental exercises which can rebuff them:

Enemy #1: Excitement.

One might also call this 'distraction', as Lewis describes it as 'the tendency to think and feel about the war [read: crisis] when we had intended to think about our work.' For us then, that probably means spending ours on the internet looking up all things coronavirus-related, whether that be updates from the Government on restrictions, or the latest figures on infection statistics and death rates, or whatever. Lewis's suggested mental exercise to rebuff this enemy is as follows:

The best defence is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.  The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.

How true this is! Yes, this lockdown means we live in a strange time, but the strangeness of the time is not the reason why we can't get on with our practice - if we've been thinking this, then we need to be reminded that we've always been liable to distraction! There have always been plenty of things to rival our practice for our attention. The only people who achieve much musically are those who want music so badly that they pursue it while the conditions are still unfavourable. So frankly, if at the end of this crisis, someone showed you a log of how you had used your time during lockdown, how would you feel when comparing the number of hours making music to the number of hours browsing the internet? Let your love of music override your propensity to distraction!

Enemy #2: Frustration

Lewis describes this as 'the feeling that we shall not have time to finish.' For us then, this is the feeling that whilst in lockdown, nothing will reach a proper conclusion and so bring the satisfaction which it was meant to. So the piece we've been practising for months will now never get performed after the recital got cancelled. The ongoing community music project we were involved in will now almost certainly never be resurrected and so completed. The exams for which we'd been preparing will now never be held, and the degree mark we get may feel a little more arbitrary and less-satisfyingly earned. Well, after pointing out that this feeling of frustration is true for all people, in that nobody ever plumbs the depths of anything to its ultimate conclusion, Lewis proposes the rebuttal:

A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God's hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment "as to the Lord". It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

This is wonderful advice. Wonderful advice at any time, for it is absolutely in line with God's Word, particularly the Bible's Wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. However, it is also wonderfully pertinent for our situation now. Your work can be satisfying, even whilst in lockdown, if you work 'from moment to moment "as to the Lord"' - in other words, if you choose simply to enjoy it in the present, giving thanks to God for it and for His grace to you in it. So next time you choose to get on with some practice, why not banish thoughts about future performances and final recitals, and pray a prayer beforehand (say 'grace', if you like), thanking God for the gift of music, for His grace in gifting you with such talent in your instrument, and for the chance to enjoy it (and work hard at it) over the following hour(s)? And then, do your practice! And enjoy it! The present is the only time in which any practice, any music-making, can be done, or any grace received.

Enemy #3: Fear

To the label 'fear', Lewis simply adds that nobody, especially believers as we remember Christ's sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane, 'need try to attain a stoic indifference about' the frightening aspects of our current crisis. Most frightening of all, of course, is the possibility of death. For those listening to Lewis, the risk of death was hightened by the war; for us, that risk is heightened by Covid-19. But in a brilliant extended passage, all of which is worth reading (the bulk of page 11 of this reproduction of the sermon), Lewis highlights the fact that 'it is not a question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or that' - i.e. we will all die at some point, the only question is when:

100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. [War] puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear.

He goes on to propose that perhaps what we fear is a painful death or not 'dying at peace with God', though points out that even these aren't necessarily rational. His conclusion is gold:

Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.  They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

Wise words indeed. And indeed, across the world Christians individually and churches corporately in various places have reported a marked increase in interest from outsiders since the current coronavirus crisis began, as people once again have been confronted with their own mortality, something which they had hitherto been conveniently ignoring. So too, as we take up our instruments for a practice session in this time of lockdown, let us do so increasingly aware of our 'frame', that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14) and that one day, the Lord will draw the curtain on our lives. And that truly should free us to enjoy life, holding all our activities (including our music-making) rather more loosely, within this divine and eternal perspective, and protecting us from placing too much hope in them (for more on this point, see this blog post from Becky Chevis).

Indeed, this is where Lewis concludes, highlighting our human (and indeed idolatrous) propensity to attempt to establish 'a heaven on earth', exhorting us to see the folly of, and so to abandon, such an enterprise, calibrating our cultural activities instead as that which they truly are within God's economy:

one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter

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