Live More Musically

The difference between Christian practice and a Starbucks purchase.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, August 2004 (Vol. 48, No. 8), p. 54.

The much-discussed difference between the modern and postmodern eras may come down to this: Modernity will be remembered by the slogans of its philosophers, whereas postmodernity will be remembered by the slogans of its advertisers.

“I think, therefore I am” defined the era of Descartes; “Just Do It” and “Obey Your Thirst” define the era of Nike and Sprite. Descartes’ rallying cry was a declarative statement of proof, but advertisers these days are in an imperative mood, borrowing their tone from the ‘60s bumper sticker that ordered us in no uncertain terms to “Question Authority.”

Starbucks is on to something. Our generation may be living less musically than any other in history.

I started making a list of these exhortations back when Gap insisted “Everybody in Khakis,” and the list keeps getting longer—Nike, for example, has recently instructed us to “Run,” “Live Strong,” and “Make It Personal.” But none has captured my imagination quite like a sign in Starbucks, that laid-back emporium of java and earth tones. Placed under a rack of Starbucks compilation CDs, the sign offered this postmodern commandment: “Live More Musically.”

Maybe the sign caught my eye because a few years ago I decided to return to my own musical roots, revisiting in my 30s the classical music I had practiced as a child. I’ve spent countless hours since working my way through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a beautiful and difficult collection of preludes and fugues that has taught me perseverance, humbled me with my own limitations and laziness, and given me a few glimpses of grace.

But even for nonmusicians, Starbucks’ sign seems to point in the right direction. To live more musically implies having a rhythm, a sense of harmony, a melody that gives shape to life. Who wouldn’t want to live more musically?

As postmodern slogans go, “Live More Musically” even has a certain resonance with the Christian faith. From David’s psalms to the David Crowder Band, music has always flourished among biblical people: Few other activities so perfectly combine heart, mind, soul, and strength. When early theologians were searching for a way to explain the quality of relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they settled on perichoresis, a Greek word suggesting a dance that goes endlessly around, beautiful and balanced. The Trinity itself, you might say, lives musically.

So Starbucks is on to something, and none too soon. For even as iPods proliferate and background music colonizes the last refuges of silence, from delivery rooms to funeral homes, our generation may be living less musically than any other in history.

After all, when was the last time the fans, rather than Beyoncé Knowles or a barbershop quartet, sang the national anthem at a professional baseball game? The last time that Christmas carolers came to your door? The last time you invited friends to take turns playing the piano and singing after dinner? Only a few decades ago these experiences were not uncommon. Now they seem, especially to the young and the urban, faintly absurd. To be sure, music still matters to us. It’s just that we have forgotten how to sing.

The great irony is that music itself has made us forget. Professionally produced music, in all its Starbucks-counter abundance, offers an effortless fidelity that our own music can never achieve. There is a big difference between playing a CD and playing a fugue. One is instantly rewarding, the other takes time and patience. One satisfies, the other requires a sacrifice. One is godlike—Yo-Yo Ma or Radiohead play flawlessly at your command—while the other reminds you just how small a creature you are. One is a purchase, the other is a practice.

For a musician, to live more musically means to embrace practices—disciplines, rewarding only in the long run, that no one would pay for in the short run. But the core doctrine of consumer culture, reinforced a thousand times a day, is the belief that we can satisfy our deepest longings with purchases instead. Want to live more musically? Buy a CD. Want to “live strong”? Nike has a pair of sneakers for you. Purchases are not only instantly satisfying, they also wear out quickly. So they generate an ongoing stream of revenue, supporting the advertising that draws us toward them in the first place.

We postmoderns wear our transcendent aspirations on our sleeves, or at least on our T-shirts. We know we are thirsty. We want to live strong. We want to make it personal. We want to live musically. But how will the church convince anyone that the answer is found in practices, not purchases? When it comes to powers of persuasion, we’ll never be able to match Starbucks’s marketing budget. But maybe we won’t have to if we can learn again, together, how to sing.