Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
Playing an instrument means I hardly know the words to anything. Take hymns, for example. I can rattle off chord progressions and play fancy descants all day long, but if I find myself singing in a congregation, I can only get through about a verse and a half of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” before I start eyeing the hymnal.
The problem’s even worse with choral/orchestral music or—God forbid—musical theater. I’ve played for seven performances of a show in a row and still been unable to piece together the story. And from the middle of a crowded string section, even the most beautifully produced choral consonants could be in English or Latin or Tagalog for all I know.
Case in point: In 2014, I played in the first violin section for a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, a cantata for baritone, chorus, and orchestra that tells the “writing on the wall” story from Daniel 5. Halfway through the piece, the soloist and then the choir erupt in a glorious hymn: Praise ye! Praise ye the God of Gold! (just listen to the first minute).
Distracted by the complicated mental and physiological task of tapping my fingers on an expensive piece of curvy wood, I assumed that this was the Israelities singing praise to their God. There’s a similar passage later in the piece sung to “the God of Jacob,” and with a minimal grasp on the narrative arc, I figured this was the same thing. Sure, there’s some weird stuff about silver (1:15) and iron (1:35) and wood (1:53), but that must have been about God as ruler of creation or something. I don’t know, I had notes to play, dammit!
It was months or maybe years later when I realized this hymn of praise was directed not at Yahweh but at Belshazzar’s pagan pantheon. Not at a God who made gold, silver, and iron, but at gods made of them.
It’s a bit on-the-nose, but I can’t resist the metaphor: How many times have Christians, distracted by their frantic, sixteenth-note lives, mistaken idolatry for piety? Particularly the idolatry of gold?
But that’s too easy. Why did Belshazzar’s idolatrous musical extravaganza sound so much like monotheistic praise to me? Because it sounds right. It has the bold choral harmonies and festive trumpets of Händel’s “Worthy is the Lamb” or the “Gloria” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. To my ear, saturated in the traditions of Christian sacred music, those sounds say “worship!” Walton tricked me on purpose.
And boy, are our own gods of gold good at sounding right. All around us, the language of devotion is used to worship profit and growth:
“Time theft”? Stay away, because God says “do not steal.” Protest, strikes, and dissent? Un-Christian, because God says “love your enemies.” The obscene profits of wealthy investors? They’re just reaping what they sowed. The systemically poor? They shouldn’t have buried that one single talent. A life of wealth and comfort? A blessing from God.
Like Walton’s deceptive trumpets, the familiar strains of Christian language baptize the worship of gold. They make serving corporate interests feel and sound like serving God. And many of us are too busy sawing away at our first violin parts to notice.
Belshazzar’s idols disappear from Walton’s piece after the king’s death. But our golden gods are more resilient. They’ll survive the downfall of a tyrant. They’ll follow us home from exile, demanding our praise until we learn to listen better.
We can’t afford to stay behind our music stands and let the idolatry of capitalism wash over us without notice. We must use every resource we have—research, tradition, each other—to distinguish godly songs from golden ones.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.
Well done Josh. Excellent analogy.
This is so good! It reminds me of something like what Rachel Held Evans says at the end of “Inspired” (paraphrasing since I don’t have it with me now) that with any twisted ideology you come to scripture looking to justify, you can probably find something to validate it. That’s why humility and honest attention are such important prerequisites.
Love this. The solution, of course, is to play viola. Then you have plenty time while playing whole notes or off beats to look around, listen, and discern the spirits.
I sang Belshazzar’s Feast in campus choir in 2013! I remembered every note from the video you shared, but I must admit that repeating even the lyrics over and over in rehearsal numbed me to their meaning. Love your unpacking of the experience.
It’s definitely a heart thing. When the gold is being loved more than the God is where the problems start.
I also love how as a instrumentalist lyrics are difficult for you. It’s not something I tend to think about, but that’s the beauty of perspectives.