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Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship by Scott Aniol

Timothy P. Shafer

Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, by Scott Aniol. BMH Books, Winona Lake, IN, 2009, 281 pages, $17.99, paper.

Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, by Dr. Scott Aniol, was first published in 2009. It is one of many books tackling the controversial subject of musical style as it relates to worship; and perhaps, because of the plethora of available books on the topic, Worship in Song has become somewhat lost in the crowd. But it deserves to be read. There are many excellent insights in the book, with some of the most important being those that concern the wise and biblical assessment of aesthetics in worship. It is eminently readable and characterized by its clarity of expression to laymen in not only theological, but also the poetical and musical issues necessary for the evaluation of song in corporate worship.

There are a couple of reasons for this clarity in Aniol’s writing. The first is that he is a master communicator. Aniol is associate professor and chair of the Department of Worship Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a prolific author, editor-in-chief of Artistic Theologian, and the founder of, a website on religion, aesthetics, and culture. But more importantly, he is uniquely trained as both a theologian and a musician. With advanced degrees in both theology and music, he has expertise in these two principal disciplines that come together in the church’s songbook to pierce the hearts of God’s people, helping the Word to dwell richly in the believer.

Worship in Song divides into three large sections. The first, “Laying the Foundation,” comprises five chapters. These chapters include the establishment of biblical principles by which his assertions and conclusions are made, the definition of biblical worship and its influence, convincing proposals for the importance of sanctification and the affections, the distinction between passions and the affections, and a brief musicological/philosophical tour of the musical characteristics of worship from the early church and its Jewish influences through postmodernism.

The second section, entitled “What Does the Music Mean?” consists of four chapters dealing with musical expression and its relationship to the emotions, definitions of beauty and glory, the sanctification of emotions, and making musical choices. In this reviewer’s opinion, this section contains the meat of what the book has to offer pastors and sessions who may be responsible for choosing what is sung in corporate worship and/or substituting tunes for various hymn texts.

In the third section, “Music in Assembled Worship,” Aniol highlights the need for our worship music to be oriented toward four different categories: God, doctrine, the affections, and the congregation. Also in this section, there are chapters on making sacred musical choices, the “styles” of biblical worship, and preparation for and participation in the worship service. The book closes with a helpful set of practical appendices. 

Far from a dogmatic or legalistic approach toward making musical choices, Aniol instead encourages a wisdom approach based on biblical and aesthetic knowledge. He does this from the perspective of evaluating musical meaning and connecting it to the emotional tenor of the text to which it is attached. According to Aniol (and others, whom he cites), the emotional tone of the text is related not only to the propositional content of the text, but is steered and amplified by the various art forms that are acting upon in it in a given hymn. These arts forms (i.e., poetry and music) magnify the propositional content of the text in a variety of ways. For instance, Aniol posits that the affect of the hymn begins with the poem—from the poet’s choice of specific words and poetic devices, to the poetic meter in which the words are set. He gives many interesting examples of these devices. Beginning with vocabulary, he describes how synonyms, while carrying essentially the same truth content, may carry radically different connotations. He gives as examples: homeless individual/bum; boy/fellow; unkind individual/jerk. Aniol states that for each of these pairs, “The terms mean the same thing propositionally, but they have different connotations. When we evaluate poetry, we cannot stop with looking only at the propositional content. We must also look at how the lyrics express that content” (82). He demonstrates this by comparing two love poems that express the same propositional content but in very different affective manners because of the vocabulary choice.

He continues this exploration by introducing the notion of how the various stress patterns of different poetic meters carry specific emotive content by virtue of how they relate to the motion of human beings when we have specific feelings (sad feelings are manifested with downward, slow motion, often smooth and soft, for example). By using familiar poetry for the examples, he clearly demonstrates how the same propositional content, expressed with different vocabulary and stress patterns, can evoke an entirely different feeling about that truth content. For example, the syllabic stress pattern of a limerick introduces a rhythmic feel that is similar to skipping (long-short-long, along with strong-weak-strong); the natural correlation of this stress pattern to skipping evokes in humans a response that is inherently happy since skipping is an activity of joy. He also elaborates on the use of various phonetic intensifiers in poetry (such as the “fl__” sound communicating motion as in “flutter,” or “flee”) and their use in communicating emotion in the art (85). All of this technical material is explained and exemplified in highly readable and understandable language.

After the evaluation of some of the poetic aspects of a hymn, Aniol presents general samples (not exhaustive) of combinations of musical elements (pitch, rhythm, tempo, mode, texture, volume, etc.,) and corresponding affective suggestions. Without specific musical examples, it is, of course, difficult to create a comprehensive and accurate list of such combinations, but the listing is helpful to gain an idea of the goal. Questions about the emotional tone of specific works should be directed on a case by case basis to a trained musician—one who is skilled in the art of interpreting musical scores. Nevertheless, Aniol gets the reader thinking in the right direction regarding the ability of sound to communicate intrinsically.

Anticipating the likely objections of postmoderns who would argue an individualistic and hence relativistic approach to interpreting meaning, Aniol goes to lengths to distinguish between learned (or associative) meaning and what he calls “intrinsic” meaning. He thus makes a compelling argument for universals in emotional communication, while also allowing for individual differences because of personal associations.

Also compelling is Aniol’s chapter on beauty and glory. Here, he makes strong biblical cases for absolute and objective beauty (found in the being of our Triune God) and the Christian believer’s responsibility for seeking that beauty. He follows this with a chapter on sanctifying the emotions and another containing considerations for choosing worship music. At the end of each chapter in the book, there are a series of thought-provoking questions for discussion for use in small-group or Sunday school format. 

Aniol concludes with a strong chapter entitled, “Making Sacred Musical Choices,” in which he contrasts secular affects with those in the sacred realm, and what questions one should be asking to determine what is appropriate for congregational worship. Here, he makes many logical points directly from Scripture that are thought-provoking and that should lead to careful consideration of our choices. This is no small task given the aligned and seemingly irresistible commercial forces that are attempting to co-opt the Lord’s service on Sunday mornings. The Lord has mandated the use of these art forms in our worship of him, and this requires a knowledgeable and wise use of the forms. Scott Aniol makes an invaluable contribution to our acquisition of both.

Timothy P. Shafer is a ruling elder in Resurrection Orthodox Presbyterian Church in State College, Pennsylvania. He is a performing pianist and professor of piano at Penn State University School of Music. Ordained Servant Online, December 2019

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