Making a Joyful Noise on the Sabbath: When Noisemaking is Work

Paul Johnston

The following is an article that first appeared in the Summer 1987 issue of IAMA's Newsletters magazine. In 1994, Johnston was approached about reprinting it in a special 10th anniversary issue of IAMA's magazine, now renamed Notes. He gave his consent, observing, "I've made some minor changes, and if I had the time, I'd write a whole new article. That's because my first piece was a specific response to an article by violinist Lyndon Taylor (See The Sabbath a Witness for God). Since then, he's joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I've moved to Pittsburgh, where I'm now manager of community broadcasts for WQED-FM, and Lyndon and I have become brothers-in-law. We are both asking different questions and have different answers than we did when this was first published.

I'm a Seventh-day Adventist. If pedigree matters, I'm a seventh-generation Adventist. I have a music degree from an Adventist university and am a paramusical professional.

I'm one Adventist who frequently works on my Sabbath. I even do it for remuneration. I do what I do when I do because I have no satisfactory reasons not to. That makes me uncomfortable though. In everything, Sabbath observance included, I'd like to act from principles which are firm and positive. But I'm a walking question mark instead.

As a student, I worked Sabbath afternoons at an Adventist classical radio station. I was paid to. As work, it was exactly what I did on weekdays. It was also harder work than what I've done since on Sabbaths.

One quarter during my sophomore year, I withdrew from the college's brass ensemble. I did it because rehearsals were on Friday night. It struck the director as rather hifalutin'. She told me, "You won't get far teaching in our schools or working in our churches if you don't do Friday evening practices. Sometimes that's the only time our people have."

She was right. I eventually took a music directorship at the lab school of my alma mater. What with my own groups, assisting the college organizations, church commitments, and tours, I found Mondays to be a splendid relief from my weekends. Make no mistake - I enjoyed my work. But it was work. Especially on Sabbaths.

Nowadays, I'm sure even my college mentor would be surprised at the work I do on Sabbath. You can see why I might be confused. But I'm not confused. The situation is.

We Adventist musicians are thoughtful, honest, and eager to honor God in a principled way. But most of us have discovered inconsistencies in some of our favorite presuppositions. We've found they can't be universally applied. We've had to make modifications or compromises. The dilemma is that when we derive a specific rule of conduct from one principle, we often violate another.

When I was working for Brigham Young University's broadcasting service, I worked every Sunday while my Mormon colleagues went to church. I had Saturdays off. But one week my car broke down. I couldn't make the one-hour commute to the studios, and in Utah busses take a sabbatical on Sundays. So my program director missed church to work for me.

A week or two later he had an emergency. On Saturday. In all fairness, how then was I to respond when he asked me to substitute? My choice was to violate either the principle of refraining from workaday work on the Sabbath or that of fairness.

It was, I guess, the classic case of lifting the ox out of ditch. But lifting oxen out of ditches isn't always the best way to spend a Sabbath. I've found in my business that an awful lot of oxen (and not a few asses) don't fall into ditches until Saturday.

The pragmatic thing to do is to face each situation as it comes and to make the necessary adjustments. Yet, by most definitions, if a principle has to be compromised, if it can't be used consistently, it isn't a principle after all. It's just a strong preference.

The principle of racial equality, if you subscribe to it, should apply on every continent, today and tomorrow, Sunday through Saturday. On this level, I find it hard to be a principled Sabbath keeper in my work.

Sometimes I wish Adventism had the centuries of tradition and rabbinical dialogue that the Jewish people have. The intellectual tussling of the rabbis, much of it codified by now, helps the Jewish people when the demands of the Law clash with the force of real life in an imperfect world. Adventists, however, don't have a Riverside or Berrien Springs Talmud.

We do have a fair amount of oral tradition. For example, is it lawful to drive one's brass ensemble to a distant place on the Sabbath? Yes, if it is a Sabbath day's journey and if the program is sacred. Is it permissible to travel on the Sabbath for a secular concert? Yes, my son, if you slip a sacred program in before the setting of the sun.

And what is a proper Sabbath day's journey? It is the distance one can drive without buying gasoline on the Sabbath. Can one never go farther? In some places it is allowed to purchase gasoline on the Sabbath if you have first topped the tank late Friday afternoon.

Clearly we Adventists have much to learn.

What is proper music for the Sabbath? Many years ago, in a rabbinical mood, my brother-in-law suggested, "The music itself should be of a serious nature and not intended for mere show or amusement. One should also consider the intention of the composer and the meaning of the message conveyed to the audience."

What if a piece has no meaning? I've written some functional music for use in services. It's not High Art - I'm a piddler next to Bach - and I'm not trying to say anything with it. But it's an honest day's work. It's what I have to offer. Just notes put together in a clever way, much like a well-built pulpit. It may or may not evoke some emotional response or another from the listener.

Take Bach. Unless you're a numerologist, how much intended meaning do his preludes, toccatas, or fugues have? Simply dedicating something to the glory of God doesn't make it sacred. Or does it? Still, to talk of "meaning" and "message" is to romanticize Bach's instrumental works. It would have amused him.

I think many of the rabbis and cantors of Adventism suppose that music is the "language of the emotions." It's a popular saying. But music is not the language of the emotions. It's not even a language. Like speech, it's a medium. Its applications, its evocations, when there are any, are varied.

So I'm arguing that meaning needn't be a prerequisite for a composition's propriety on the Sabbath. That goes as well for the playing of that music. Your Sabbath dinner has no inherent meaning, although much of it is nourishing. And I'm sure you recognize its Source at least once. But I suspect your greatest pleasure is found in devouring it. Is it wrong to take music the same way?

Just how warm can I get at a warm-up rehearsal before violating a principle?

I know, that's a trick question. I've tried answering it yes and I've tried answering it no. The implications of either option are a challenge.

I've known Adventist musicians who distinguish between rehearsals on Sabbath and performances. I've heard distinctions made between one kind of performance and another. (Competitions are often a no-no for Adventist performers.) And where rehearsals are deemed inappropriate, warm-ups are certainly justified. (Just how warm can I get at a warm-up rehearsal before violating a principle? I recall when I toured with Adventist collegiate ensembles, we had some lengthy warm-up sessions.)

I've designed a quiz to make discussion vigorous.

1. Is it lawful on the Sabbath . . .

a. for a medical professional to perform life-saving work?

b. for a medical professional to perform work which will not save a life, but which will nevertheless enhance it?

c. for a medical professional to perform this service for remuneration.

2. Is it lawful on the Sabbath . . .

a. for a minister to perform work which will save a life or a soul?

b. for a minister to perform work which will not save a life or a soul, but which will nevertheless edify the lives and souls of others?

c. for a minister to perform his service for remuneration?

d. for a salaried SDA minister to withhold his services until the Sabbath sun sets?

3. Is it lawful on the Sabbath . . .

a. for a musical professional to perform unnecessary work which will neverthesless edify the lives of others?

b. for a musical professional to perform unnecessary work which will nevertheless enhance the lives of others?

c. for a musical professional to perform his service for remuneration?

d. for a musical professional to withhold his service until the Sabbath sun sets?

4. Is it lawful on the Sabbath . . .

a. for an Adventist musician to withhold his talent for a church service?

b. for an Adventist professional musician to withhold his talent for a church service?

c. for an Adventist professional musician to withhold his talent for a church wedding?

d. for an Adventist professional musician to withhold his talent for a concert or oratorio? of symphonies? of patriotic music? of well-crafted and edifying music for entertainment?

5. Is it lawful to . . .

a. perform good sacred music on the Sabbath to the glory of God?

b. perform good music on the Sabbath to the glory of God?

c. perform music which does not glorify God on the Sabbath?

d. perform music which does not glorify God on Monday?

e. perform any music, which on Monday glorifies God, on the Sabbath?

6. Which of the following are sacred:

a. Handel's Messiah?

b. Handel's Concerti a due cori (which shares some of Messiah's melodies)?

c. Bizet's Agnus Dei?

d. the intermezzo from L'Arlesienne (which gives the solo from Agnus Dei to a saxophone)?

7. Would you perform Schoenberg's Transrigured Night on the Sabbath . . .

a. at all?

b. in a concert?

c. as the prelude for a church wedding?

d. during communion?

Assume that music is, as Herbert Blomstedt puts it, "all that is most holy in humankind. It is creativeness." Or as Dr. Luther claimed, God's greatest gift next to theology.

8. Can . . .

a. a Sabbath concert of such music be a holy moment and a celebration of creativity?

b. a Sabbath rehearsal of the same music be a holy moment and a celebration of creativity?

c. the study of the score to such music on the Sabbath be a holy moment and a revelation of creativity though, of course, not as rewarding as theology?

9. Should . . .

a. an Adventist conductor participate in such a holy moment?

b. an Adventist violinist participate in such a holy moment?

c. an Adventist broadcaster participate in such a holy moment?

d. an Adventist stagehand participate in such a holy moment?

10. Is it lawful for . . .

a. say, Israelites to march around a place like Jericho blowing trumpets on the Sabbath?

b. say, Adventists to perform in wartime with military bands on the Sabbath?

is this beginning to sound silly? On the surface, yes. But the issues which underlie these questions are close to all of us. They are close to our dogma, our livelihood, and our consciences. Our theology of the Sabbath and the definitions of sacred and secular, religious and profane, are tangled together. What's more, each of us wants to do what's right and what we want to do.

My favorite rabbi is one who taught in the First Century A.D. His name was Joshua, son of Joseph - a radical and a revisionist. His students often called him Master, and we call him Jesus. He taught that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Is this the overriding principle for Sabbath keepers? Maybe. I'm simply asking.