Cultural Conservatism, Styles and Accidental Meaning

A river in China features a warning sign for visitors. Thoughtfully, the authorities included this helpful English translation: “Take the child. Fall into water carefully.”

It is possible to intend one meaning and yet convey a very different one! In other words, a medium (vehicle of meaning) may “contain” meaning we do not realize is there. And use of that medium may also send a message we do not realize is being sent.

This phenomenon has important implications for the debate over cultural conservatism (“styles” or “forms” of music, dress, speech, etc.) and the sub-debate over the fitness of styles of music for worship. Many involved in the debate seem to reason that since they do not intend any meaning by the style they are using, and they are not aware of any meaning, therefore no meaning exists and none is being conveyed. Are they right?

The case of Corinth

Before we turn our attention to the implications of accidental cultural meaning, we should pause and consider another question: does the Bible teach that styles have meaning—intended or otherwise? It does, and 1 Corinthians 11 contains an example. In this passage, not only does a medium convey meaning, but the meaning conveyed is not what some of those involved intended.

I anticipate two objections. Objection one: “Wait. 1 Corinthians 11 is one of the most famously difficult passages in the NT. You’re going to make your case from there?” Objection two: “There is nothing about styles in 1 Corinthians 11.”

Styles

Taking the second objection first, whether there is anything about styles in the chapter depends on what we mean by “styles.” An artist always works with a medium. Whether it’s clay, stone, paint, words, physical movement, music or a combination of these, most artists believe they are using a medium to carry meaning to a recipient. Language works the same way. In a people group or geographical region, spoken and written word is a medium for communication. People share enough of the same understanding of words and phrases to use them and understand one another.

This is why the river sign in China is a fail for English speakers. Between the sign makers and native English speakers, there is too little shared understanding of the medium. (Interestingly, most would agree that one of the two parties understands the medium incorrectly. It isn’t simply a matter of preference.)

When it comes to “style,” we’re just talking about another medium. Fashion designers have long held that the style of their work conveys meaning (the Wikipedia entry on fashion is interesting on this point). This is the very definition of a medium. In Webster, it’s “a means of effecting or conveying something.” And who can deny that the police officer’s uniform, the clown’s getup, the judge’s robes, the sports-fan’s jersey, and the bride’s gown all convey very different meanings? The fact that styles are mediums of meaning surrounds us every day.

So, while the concept of styles does not appear specifically in 1 Corinthians 11, the category of mediums does, and style is in that category. To say it another way, style is a species of the genus medium. What is true of the genus is true of the species.

Difficulty

The second objection was this: Should we use such a difficult passage to make the point that in Scripture style has meaning? In this case, the difficulty turns out to be irrelevant. Regardless of how one interprets the most difficult parts of the passage, two things are clear:

  1. In Corinth, the presence or absence of a head covering meant something.
  2. Some of the Corinthians were conveying that meaning without realizing it.

These points hold, regardless of whether one understands the head covering to be hair or a veil or something else. The most germane part of the text follows:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man…. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (ESV, 1 Cor. 11:3-7, 10)

Whatever else may have been amiss in Corinth, it’s evident that their problems included misconduct with head coverings, that this misconduct conveyed inappropriate meaning (note the question in 11:13, “Is it proper…?”), and that they were not all aware of the meaning they were conveying (“but I want you to understand,” v.3).

For Paul, the solution to the problem was to make the Corinthians aware of the meaning their head covering, or lack of head covering, conveyed. The medium of the head covering meant something in Corinthian society. In that context, it apparently even meant something to “the angels” (v. 10).

Implications for the cultural conservatism debate

If a medium can contain meaning we’re unaware of and convey that meaning to others, what are the implications for the culture debate in general and music styles in particular?

We don’t have proof here that a blue grass twang conveys important differences in meaning from a pipe organ, that bluesy chord progressions convey important differences in meaning from classical chord progressions or that modern syncopated rhythms convey important differences in meaning from the simpler rhythms of high hymnody.

However, both daily experience and 1 Corinthians 11 reveal that meaning may exist where we think it doesn’t. Whether our convictions lead us toward traditional or more contemporary “styles,” the phenomenon of accidental meaning calls on us to think soberly about our stylistic choices. We really can “say things” through style that we don’t intend to say.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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jcoleman's picture

Quote:
that they were not all aware of the meaning they were conveying (“but I want you to understand,” v.3).

That seems just a bit of a stretch.

But even if it's true that they didn't understand what it was communicating, I don't think that that necessarily proves what you're looking for. Here's why: it's not that far back in the same book in which Paul tells the Corinthians that as long as they haven't been informed that the meat has been offered to idols (even though they could safely assume that it had been) that they should eat it.

So, an application to the music styles debate might be that we can use certain forms--so long as we aren't told by those performing them in a specific context that their motivation/communication is XYZ.

JNoël's picture

jcoleman wrote:

But even if it's true that they didn't understand what it was communicating, I don't think that that necessarily proves what you're looking for. Here's why: it's not that far back in the same book in which Paul tells the Corinthians that as long as they haven't been informed that the meat has been offered to idols (even though they could safely assume that it had been) that they should eat it.

Presumably there was nothing different in taste or appearance about a piece of meat that had been offered to an idol and one that had not. Without knowledge of its origin, the recipient receives no message from the meat - prior use does not change the message it conveys.

Music always conveys some message, whether or not the listener is educated or knows its source.

 

V/r

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

jcoleman's picture

JNoël wrote:

Presumably there was nothing different in taste or appearance about a piece of meat that had been offered to an idol and one that had not. Without knowledge of its origin, the recipient receives no message from the meat - prior use does not change the message it conveys.

Unless virtually all meat came from the temples (which it did.) So one could safely assume that it had been offered to idols. But still Paul made a distinction between when your host/merchant called that fact out and when they didn't.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

JNoël wrote:

Music always conveys some message, whether or not the listener is educated or knows its source.

 

V/r


Even if it's true that music *always* conveys a message, if the listener does not know the source, and is unfamiliar with the cultural connotations of the music (perhaps the listener is from a different culture), the meaning conveyed may be quite different.

I've used this example before on SI, but I think it's pertinent here. Many fundamental churches use the hymn "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and I'd venture that many singers/listeners unfamiliar with the source of the tune see it as just another hymn tune, and even those that know the source may still think it's just a great tune that works well for a hymn. However, my wife, whose citizenship is in the country that uses that tune as a national anthem, does not think spiritual things when she hears that tune, but rather nationalistic/patriotic things. The message conveyed is quite different to her than to many American churchgoers, and she finds it impossible to sing along with that song in a spiritual context (e.g. a church service).

Dave Barnhart

Karl S's picture

The "style" debate comes down to the old "battle over inherency". Some see "style" as carrying inherent moral communication, and others view it as neutral. Such is the case here.

Aaron, in this article you seemed to skirt the issue of whether style carries inherent traits, rather focusing on the idea that it may communicate "unintentional" meaning. In this sense, it might mean something to someone else that it might not mean to you; or, it might mean something in one culture that it might not mean in another. Taking your analysis only this far, one could conclude that this meaning may or may not carry objective moral weight.

This underlying issue being unsettled, then jcoleman's application of the meat offered to idols scenario gains traction, because there is the plausibility of these two specific issues being resolved using the same underlying principles. If the question is only that of how the style itself is presented, then the principles to consider are only deference to the weaker brother, personal conscience, and/or testimony to the unsaved person looking on (I Cor. 8:9, I Cor. 10:28-29).

In the case of meat offered to idols, Paul has already established that the meat itself carries no inherent moral weight (I Cor. 8:8, 10:26). However in the case of head coverings in I Cor. 11, there is a much different dynamic. If this is an inherently morally "neutral" subject like meat offered to idols, then why is the issue of conscience and weaker brothers not even mentioned (when it was the focal point in the previous passages)?

Paul in this passage clearly establishes that the issue of head coverings does carry inherent moral weight, not only because of the omission of the principles mentioned previously, but due to the fact that he calls "nature" itself as a witness in defense of this principle (I Cor. 11:14). It seems as if he's admonishing them to simply use common sense knowledge of natural revelation to instruct them in the necessity of this matter. God's created order can guide them in this area! In other words, this is an issue which transcends preference or culture.

I Cor. 10:33-11:1-3 is the segway between these two issues. In I Cor. 10:33 he states his goal of "pleasing" (or being agreeable; not causing offense) men in all things (which carry no inherent moral weight)". Here he is giving up his "freedom" for the sake of the weaker brother or Christian testimony.

However, when we come to I Cor. 11:1-3, he states "be ye followers of me" and "keep the ordinances". We are now moving out of the arena of deference, and into areas requiring consistent obedience in adherence to moral principles. He begins his argument by stating a Spiritual law (I Cor. 11:3). The practice of head coverings comes from the Scriptural law of authority and jurisdiction. This is not dependent upon interpretation, preference, or cultural conditioning; it cannot be changed. Therefore, in the issue of hair/head coverings, we must always be acting in a way which accurately reflects and reveals the Spiritual law upon which the idea is based.

In this view, jcoleman's comparison between the two passages fails, because we are dealing with two entirely different types of issues. Therefore, "style" belongs either in the inherently neutral category or inherently moral category. It cannot be both.

Personally, it seems evident to me that because "style" is something derived from man's use/abuse of things which God has created, and not something existing in the primary form in which God created it, it only follows that it carries moral weight, and can be categorized as "good" or "bad".

Karl S's picture

If I can interject a thought here...

dcbii... I don't think that persons on this side of the issue (like JNoel) typically would deny the "cultural conditioning" form of communication that may come across in music, or other areas of style. What we're saying, however, is that apart from any cultural conditioning, there is an additional inherent moral communication which exists independently, and remains the same across cultural boundaries.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Karl S wrote:

If I can interject a thought here...

dcbii... I don't think that persons on this side of the issue (like JNoel) typically would deny the "cultural conditioning" form of communication that may come across in music, or other areas of style. What we're saying, however, is that apart from any cultural conditioning, there is an additional inherent moral communication which exists independently, and remains the same across cultural boundaries.


Assuming what you are saying here is true, then such inherent meaning (if it indeed exists) must be objective, measurable, and something that can clearly and unambiguously be determined, otherwise it's just a conjecture or assumption. Further, all listeners (or readers if seeing it written) should then be able to discern and understand this meaning, if inherent meaning is to be of any value.

If the meaning can't easily be determined by everyone then one of several things must be true:

1. The inherent meaning can be overshadowed completely by cultural meaning, which makes the inherent meaning nearly or completely irrelevant in some or even many contexts.

2. The inherent meaning is not particularly important, since all do not perceive it. If it takes an "expert" to know what the meaning is, it's either not inherent, or it's unimportant, since the average person will not know it.

3. Inherent meaning is a fiction -- all meaning is determined by other factors influencing the listener.

I don't believe that "anything goes" in respect to music. But unless and until someone can show me how to clearly determine the absolute meaning of any piece of music without having to bring it to an "expert" who will somehow determine the meaning for me, instead of explaining how I can know it, I'm not likely to believe in that inherent meaning, or consider it important even if I would believe it exists.

Associational meaning is another thing altogether, but unfortunately, it's not universal, though it can be very helpful.

Dave Barnhart

Karl S's picture

dcbii,

I'm afraid I have to disagree with your whole premise.

Inherent ≠ Explicitly evident

I think I understand the force of your objection; that being, if there is objective meaning, what is the standard by which we determine the meaning? My opinion, your opinion?

The standard would necessarily have to be the Word of God practically applied in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit.

That being said, just because there is inherent meaning, it does not follow that all recipients of the message must clearly and consciously perceive that meaning. There are any number of practical examples which might illustrate this point, but let me point to Scripture. I Cor. 2:11-16 lays down this principle. Spiritual truth cannot be known except through Spirit enlightenment. Without that, truth sounds like foolishness.

This is most directly applicable to the unsaved; however, it should be clear in the life of anyone who has been a Christian for any substantial amount of time that growth has occurred during that time and that now you see Spiritual truth in certain areas more clearly than you did before. You are now aware of certain truths and principles to which you were previously blind.

Hebrews 5:11-14 further lays out this idea. I believe the "style" issue as it relates to specific examples can definitely be a "meat" thing; I'm chewing on many parts of it.

You said:

If it takes an "expert" to know what the meaning is, it's either not inherent, or it's unimportant, since the average person will not know it.

I believe God would expect us to strive to be "experts" regarding Spiritural truths. I bring this up not to try and make you feel more "immature" (we all have areas of blindness or "milkiness", and those areas my be diverse and varied among Christians; I may be very blind in an area you see clearly), but simply to point out that not all truth has to slap you in the face for it to be valid.

 

Caleb S's picture

However, both daily experience and 1 Corinthians 11 reveal that meaning may exist where we think it doesn’t. Whether our convictions lead us toward traditional or more contemporary “styles,” the phenomenon of accidental meaning calls on us to think soberly about our stylistic choices. We really can “say things” through style that we don’t intend to say.

Quoted from the opening post.  This is exactly why I believe the argument concerning accidental meaning can go both ways.  Some see only sensuality and rebellion in the more contemporary styles, and some see only self-righteous legalism in the more traditional ones.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Karl,

I must say that this is a new (to me) and somewhat unusual take on meaning in music. If I understand your argument, music can have inherent meaning that is only discernable in degrees by someone with increasing levels of some expertise, that you are comparing with spiritual maturity, or maybe you are actually saying determining meaning in music requires spiritual maturity.

If you mean that musical evaluation requires spiritual maturity, I take this to mean you believe you can think that the Holy Spirit has shown you something about the meaning of a piece of music, but that is something you can't demonstrate to someone else, but you just know it. And if I don't see what you see, I haven't yet reached the same level of maturity?

I agree that things that are spiritually discerned work as you (or really, the scriptures) specify above. However, you seem to be arguing that music is spiritually discerned (or are you?). It is clear that the truths that God wants us to know will be clear (if we are regenerate), even if we can eventually get to a fuller understanding through maturity. I don't agree that any of the important truths from God's word necessary for life and godliness are not understandable by the average Christian honestly seeking to know God.

For truths that are not spiritually discerned, i.e. truths that all, including the unregenerate, can see, there still has to be a way to get to this "mastery" level of knowledge, and that way must still be something that can be demonstrated.

I agree that it's not only possible, but likely, that there are certain truths we (humanity) have not discovered, so not all that is true is known, though if I understand you correctly, you believe we have discovered that music has inherent meaning. If that's true, you (or someone) must at least be able to show the meaning for some tune, and explain how that works. Even if you don't know the meaning of some other tune, it should be able to be determined. (Again, I'm not 100% sure if you mean that determining musical meaning requires spiritual maturity, or if you are simply arguing that it requires a certain level of expertise.)

If the latter, there are plenty of truths about, say, particle physics that I don't necessarily understand. However, even if they are beyond me, the papers, research, and methods for understanding this field are available, even if I'm not capable of understanding them without the right education. For so-called inherent musical meaning to be of any use to us, we must be able to determine that meaning. If we can't, it has no value. If someone can, then the method used to do that should be able to be shown.

If you are arguing that the method does indeed require spiritual maturity, and that you can know the value of a piece of music, but you can't explain how to evaluate it, that sounds like some form of gnostic secret knowledge.

Again, though, I'm unclear which way you are arguing. Either way, I still disagree.

Dave Barnhart

Karl S's picture

Wow. That's a lot of analysis and interrogation to respond to! Let me try and simplify what I'm trying to say as much as possible.

"However, you seem to be arguing that music is spiritually discerned (or are you?)"

Absolutely! That is not to say that a newborn Christian (or even someone unsaved) cannot discern anything about music, but understanding the truths about how the music impacts your relationship with God, and the depths to which music communicates in a godly or fleshly manner requires Spiritual discernment. This is true simply because I believe music (the sound) can and does effect us Spiritually. Therefore, to understand it accurately and Biblically requires Spiritual discernment. In my mind that's a pretty simple premise. The same is true with any moral issue.

"...You (or someone) must at least be able to show the meaning for some tune, and explain how that works. Even if you don't know the meaning of some other tune, it should be able to be determined."

Yes, I agree with this. It was not my intent to try and do so (others can and have done it better than I), but yes - I believe that you can evaluate music using Biblical principles and there is much to be discovered in doing so. However, I don't want to make it sound like in practicality we have to scientifically tear apart every song we might hear in order to understand all the moral implications of it. I believe there is a sense in which the Spirit may prompt our hearts, and upon hearing a certain song, something is ill at ease in our soul and we are Spiritually wary of it, although we may not understand all the reasons for that.

Music is a very broad medium, with all types of sounds and mixtures of sounds, changes in mood, tempo, etc. Some songs may communicate certain things very clearly and powerfully, while others might communicate them very subtlely and merely "imply" things with the sound. I believe God would have us test the spirits and seek those things which communicate most wholesomely and Biblically; in music, as well as in other areas of life.

Hopefully this clarifies some of what I was trying to say. Personally, I can just tell you that there is much music which I can hear for just a couple seconds, and immediately identify as "angry", "lustful", "violent", etc. And there are some instances in which I immediately think "peacful", "rejoicing", etc. There are other cases where I have to sit back and analyze it more closely to try and determine what is being communicated. I believe that over time my senses have become more acute by "reason of use" (Heb. 5:14) to discern the good and the evil. However, there is still a long way to go, and my analysis (whether instantaneous, or more cerebral based upon Scriptural principles, etc.) may be wrong or lacking; there is a continual need of further Spiritual maturity.

Caleb S's picture

Karl S wrote:
. . . . Hopefully this clarifies some of what I was trying to say. Personally, I can just tell you that there is much music which I can hear for just a couple seconds, and immediately identify as "angry", "lustful", "violent", etc. And there are some instances in which I immediately think "peacful", "rejoicing", etc. There are other cases where I have to sit back and analyze it more closely to try and determine what is being communicated. I believe that over time my senses have become more acute by "reason of use" (Heb. 5:14) to discern the good and the evil. However, there is still a long way to go, and my analysis (whether instantaneous, or more cerebral based upon Scriptural principles, etc.) may be wrong or lacking; there is a continual need of further Spiritual maturity.

Hello Karl S,

The point of this post is to point out the good and bad side to the meanings you have introduced.  In the material quoted above, you mentioned "angry," "lustful," "violent," "peaceful," and "rejoicing".  My only point is that there is a flip side to each of those words.  As God's anger often burns exceedingly during the trip from Egypt to the promised land, and as Christians are to have righteous anger against sin, it stands to follow that there is a good side to anger.

To "lust" is to desire in a wrong way what is not allowed.  However, the exact same desire is completely righteous within the bounds of marriage.  Further, the word has a broader range of meaning than the typical association, and so there are bad desires and good desires.  Often, the context is extremely key in discerning when desires are appropriate.  To desire God as your greatest treasure and to live a life in keeping with your love for Him is virtually the essence of the Christian faith.  So there seems to be a good side and bad side to the word.  We are to flee youthful lusts, and at the same time we are to love the LORD with all of our being.

"Violence" is a word that is typically negatively associated in the Bible.  Lovers of violence are a group that is not spoken of highly in God's word.  However, in Romans 8:13 we are encouraged to put to death the deeds of the body.  We are supposed to get violent against sin in our own lives.  You could even say that we are called upon to "murder" the deeds of the body.  Again, it seems that the mere word needs a certain context to be seen properly.

Well if there ever was a word that seems to always have positive connotations, then it may be the word "peaceful".  Peace is often associated with one trusting in the LORD.  The verse presents Jesus calming the storm, as a bunch of awed disciples gape in wonder.  The verse, "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee."  Matthew five says "Blessed are the peacemakers . . ."  Yet at the same time believers are NOT to be at peace with the world; there is most certainly an uphill battle of the Christian against the world.  Fundamentalists of all people know all about false kinds of peace and unity.  And every strong advocate of separation is not going to be at "peace" with that which opposes God.  Again, there is a good and bad connotation to the word.

We are to rejoice in the LORD always, and again I say rejoice.  And we are not encouraged to rejoice when our enemy stumbles.  Sometimes one can rejoice in good things, and sometimes one can rejoice in bad things.

So, the communication of these things in music is not necessarily a bad or good thing.  Again, it depends upon the context.

Andrew K.'s picture

A river in China features a warning sign for visitors. Thoughtfully, the authorities included this helpful English translation: “Take the child. Fall into water carefully.”

It is possible to intend one meaning and yet convey a very different one! In other words, a medium (vehicle of meaning) may “contain” meaning we do not realize is there. And use of that medium may also send a message we do not realize is being sent.

This phenomenon has important implications for the debate over cultural conservatism (“styles” or “forms” of music, dress, speech, etc.) and the sub-debate over the fitness of styles of music for worship. Many involved in the debate seem to reason that since they do not intend any meaning by the style they are using, and they are not aware of any meaning, therefore no meaning exists and none is being conveyed. Are they right?

...

Taking the second objection first, whether there is anything about styles in the chapter depends on what we mean by “styles.” An artist always works with a medium. Whether it’s clay, stone, paint, words, physical movement, music or a combination of these, most artists believe they are using a medium to carry meaning to a recipient. Language works the same way. In a people group or geographical region, spoken and written word is a medium for communication. People share enough of the same understanding of words and phrases to use them and understand one another.

This is why the river sign in China is a fail for English speakers. Between the sign makers and native English speakers, there is too little shared understanding of the medium. (Interestingly, most would agree that one of the two parties understands the medium incorrectly. It isn’t simply a matter of preference.)

 

I'm not sure the analogy works all that well.

What's really going on with those funny signs in China? Is it simply that the sign writers were bad at English? From experience, what is usually happening is a conflict in cultures and the linguistic conventions that grow out of them. Many of the funny signs and T-shirts you see in China, for example, are simply word-for-word translations of the Chinese characters (or, more often these days, simply the Chinese phrase fed into Google Translator). Thus the meaning of the "Chinglish" is often far clearer to those who are familiar with Chinese language conventions. My students generally understood their horrible grammar quite well, for example.

Since the use of language is a matter of social convention (not simply a preference, as you pointed out, but not something completely objective either), then it is knowledge of the culture and conventions that makes language work, not simply "knowledge of the medium," since language is living and constantly in flux. Knowledge of the medium cannot be separated from cultural knowledge.

Therefore, although yes, there is unintended meaning, the unintended meaning is produced due to a cultural ignorance with regard to what is really very much a specific cultural artifact and can only be misunderstood based on the presence of one who is versed in the particular conventions that shape the standard usage of the medium.

So while your point is very correct and appropriate for warning us to be cautious about what kind of meaning we communicate, I cannot see how that connects with a discussion on music styles unless you are making the point that we are somehow "cultural outsiders" to these musical forms and don't really understand what they communicate to the "insiders."

神是爱

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

jcoleman wrote:

Quote:
that they were not all aware of the meaning they were conveying (“but I want you to understand,” v.3).

That seems just a bit of a stretch.

But even if it's true that they didn't understand what it was communicating, I don't think that that necessarily proves what you're looking for. Here's why: it's not that far back in the same book in which Paul tells the Corinthians that as long as they haven't been informed that the meat has been offered to idols (even though they could safely assume that it had been) that they should eat it.

So, an application to the music styles debate might be that we can use certain forms--so long as we aren't told by those performing them in a specific context that their motivation/communication is XYZ.

The problem with this counterargument is that in the case of idols, what's at stake is conscience in reference to what is known to be harmless. So if the subject doesn't come up, go ahead and eat. So you have no medium involved in expressing a message. In chapter 11, it's not about conscience at all, but rather about saying things by our conduct that we should not be saying--things they didn't realize they were saying.

It's evident that the main problem in ch.11 was ignorance because Paul's method of correction is to inform them. They hadn't thought through how the lack of head covering was making a statement.

Taking your analysis only this far, one could conclude that this meaning may or may not carry objective moral weight.

Yes. This essay had a pretty modest goal: to go after the dismissive attitude that reasons "I don't mean any meaning and I'm not aware of any meaning, therefore there is no meaning." So I didn't aim here to make a case that unknown meaning always exists or that any meaning conveyed is moral. Something for another day, though I'll note that I don't think accidental meaning always happens but I do think meaning is always moral. At the very least, we are conveying something true or false. It's probably impossible to communicate amorally. But whether the morality is discernable is another question. (If I say "Hi, how are you? To a passing stranger, I believe this is a moral act. But can I prove it was morally good or that remaining silent would have been morally bad? ... It's another topic and a big one, but I think we have to concede that acts can be moral even though the moral significance isn't discernable with any certainty.)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

What we're saying, however, is that apart from any cultural conditioning, there is an additional inherent moral communication which exists independently, and remains the same across cultural boundaries.

This one, again, is outside the scope of the essay, but FWIW, I don't think there is much meaning in musical styles/forms that transcends the cultural context. I'm open to the possibility that there could be some--especially at the margins, the extremes. It's pretty hard to imagine that there could be a culture where really hard heavy metal would be associated with peace, gentleness, etc.  But again, what sort of "emotions" and values are conveyed is one question, the morality of conveying them is another.  (It never made sense to me to argue that if music makes you sad or happy, it is therefore moral. How so? Is it moral to be sad? Arguably... but it's not obvious. It would be immoral to be happy in response to another's misfortune and moral to be sad instead. But listening to music and feeling "feelings"? Similarly, the argument that hard music is morally evil because it speaks of violence and anger--both of these have their place. So the question of morality in this case has to do with results and use, it seems to me.)

I'm not sure the analogy works all that well.

What's really going on with those funny signs in China? Is it simply that the sign writers were bad at English? From experience, what is usually happening is a conflict in cultures and the linguistic conventions that grow out of them

This is why the argument does work. It's not an analogy though. A sign that conveys meaning through symbols is not really a different thing from a fashion design or architectural design or musical form that conveys meaning. They are all mediums. Though some mediums can't convey with precision as verbal language does, they are still different species of genus medium.

Andrew K.'s picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

What we're saying, however, is that apart from any cultural conditioning, there is an additional inherent moral communication which exists independently, and remains the same across cultural boundaries.

This one, again, is outside the scope of the essay, but FWIW, I don't think there is much meaning in musical styles/forms that transcends the cultural context. I'm open to the possibility that there could be some--especially at the margins, the extremes. It's pretty hard to imagine that there could be a culture where really hard heavy metal would be associated with peace, gentleness, etc.  But again, what sort of "emotions" and values are conveyed is one question, the morality of conveying them is another.  (It never made sense to me to argue that if music makes you sad or happy, it is therefore moral. How so? Is it moral to be sad? Arguably... but it's not obvious. It would be immoral to be happy in response to another's misfortune and moral to be sad instead. But listening to music and feeling "feelings"? Similarly, the argument that hard music is morally evil because it speaks of violence and anger--both of these have their place. So the question of morality in this case has to do with results and use, it seems to me.)

I'm not sure the analogy works all that well.

What's really going on with those funny signs in China? Is it simply that the sign writers were bad at English? From experience, what is usually happening is a conflict in cultures and the linguistic conventions that grow out of them

This is why the argument does work. It's not an analogy though. A sign that conveys meaning through symbols is not really a different thing from a fashion design or architectural design or musical form that conveys meaning. They are all mediums. Though some mediums can't convey with precision as verbal language does, they are still different species of genus medium.


Hmm... I guess I'm still trying to get where you're coming down on this issue.

I agree with this first paragraph completely. Those are precisely my thoughts : Music does have a universal, biological meaning. It can and does affect our emotions, mood, even thinking processes (think all those Bach studies on the brain and whatnot). It also has a specific cultural meaning that can be moral. But I simply do not see how we can make the biological component moral, in the way that Scott Aniol and others seem to do. If the moral comes through the biological, then we should be able to recognize that it's moral in the same way that we recognize when music makes us excited. If the moral is cultural, then it simply can't be universal by definition.

神是爱

Jay's picture

Karl S wrote:
Absolutely! That is not to say that a newborn Christian (or even someone unsaved) cannot discern anything about music, but understanding the truths about how the music impacts your relationship with God, and the depths to which music communicates in a godly or fleshly manner requires Spiritual discernment. This is true simply because I believe music (the sound) can and does effect us Spiritually. Therefore, to understand it accurately and Biblically requires Spiritual discernment. In my mind that's a pretty simple premise. The same is true with any moral issue.

Hi Karl-

So what do you do with standard hymns that are set to updated musical 'tunes' that some tell you are affecting your relationship negatively when you believe it impacts you positively?

I ask because I listened to the CD "Jesus, Firm Foundation" this week on Spotify while at work.  I greatly enjoyed and was blessed by several of the songs, and skipped over a few of the others quickly.  Some of them had tunes that I enjoyed and found upbeat, encouraging, meditative, or the like.  Yet I (as someone who listens) is in a position where because of associations or instrumentation, some would argue that the CD is 'unclean' (to borrow from the OT) and, not only that, that I'm either damaging my own walk with God by listening to it or I'm hindering others' walks with the Lord by playing it / sharing it with them. 

So while I think we all agree that there must be some degree of objectivity - God cannot possibly approve of all music - I'd like to know where you think it becomes 'safe' to speak of a subjective nature when it comes to matters of discernment.  That's why guys like Greg Long and myself in other threads continually circle back to Romans 14, Colossians 3, and Ephesians 5.

Dave made a good point when he asked you about this:

Assuming what you are saying here is true, then such inherent meaning (if it indeed exists) must be objective, measurable, and something that can clearly and unambiguously be determined, otherwise it's just a conjecture or assumption. Further, all listeners (or readers if seeing it written) should then be able to discern and understand this meaning, if inherent meaning is to be of any value.

And this, in my opinion, is where the argument for 'conservative' music begins to fall apart; it's where I started running into problems agreeing with it when I was in my conservative music days.  Either we have an objective measure or we don't - but let's not argue that we do have an objective measure and then find ourselves unable to define or defend that objective measure.  Dr. Aniol makes an attempt, as others noted, to equate 'moralness' with 'biologicalness', but that simply raises more questions, most of which eventually boil down to matters of authority for the believer.

You replied:

Yes, I agree with this. It was not my intent to try and do so (others can and have done it better than I), but yes - I believe that you can evaluate music using Biblical principles and there is much to be discovered in doing so. However, I don't want to make it sound like in practicality we have to scientifically tear apart every song we might hear in order to understand all the moral implications of it. I believe there is a sense in which the Spirit may prompt our hearts, and upon hearing a certain song, something is ill at ease in our soul and we are Spiritually wary of it, although we may not understand all the reasons for that.

Which is why I asked about the "Jesus Firm Foundation" CD.  I find some of the arrangements - particularly the title track, "Be Still My Soul", and "It Is Well" to prompt my spirit for rest or praise.  Others would find those same songs problematic at a minimum or fleshly at worst.  I reconcile the disconnect with the passages I cited above, but others seem to have either ignored those arguments or missed my point (not sure which, but do not intend to imply maliciousness on their part).

Can you elaborate some more?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Music does have a universal, biological meaning.

I really don't know anything about biological meaning. This is a part of the debate I'm not at all familiar with. As far as my own experience with music goes... the biological factors have never seemed important.  I've apparently missed that in Aniol et. al. as well.

In any case, there is quite a lot to think through just considering meaning and affections.

Seems to me there are two major categories of concerns: meaning and results.

Jay (previous post) is focused on results, and as Americans, we have a strong tilt toward results arguments. We're all pretty pragmatic. I'm more interested in meaning (which has some relationship to results, but is a concern apart from them).

To relate Jay's question to 1 Cor 11, we don't have anything in the text on this but it's quite posible that for the Corinthians the personal results of their head covering misconduct were probably quite positive. There must have been some reason for what they were doing. But Paul's point is that quite apart from personal, subjective results, it is possible to be conveying meaning w/o intending to or realizing you are. And that can be a problem even with personal benefit among the results.

Greg Long's picture

Aaron, I'm simply asking this question out of curiosity and trying to understand your position better.

Does your wife wear a head covering? Did you as a pastor teach the women in your church to wear head coverings?

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Jay's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Jay (previous post) is focused on results, and as Americans, we have a strong tilt toward results arguments. We're all pretty pragmatic. I'm more interested in meaning (which has some relationship to results, but is a concern apart from them).

To relate Jay's question to 1 Cor 11, we don't have anything in the text on this but it's quite possible that for the Corinthians the personal results of their head covering misconduct were probably quite positive. There must have been some reason for what they were doing. But Paul's point is that quite apart from personal, subjective results, it is possible to be conveying meaning w/o intending to or realizing you are. And that can be a problem even with personal benefit among the results.

Aaron,

That's why I asked the question I did.  The music that I referenced above conveys meaning that is spiritually edifying-

Fear not, He is with us, oh be not dismayed
For He is our God, our sustainer and strength
He'll be our defender and cause us to stand
Upheld by His merciful, almighty hand

How firm our foundation
How sure our salvation
And we will not be shaken
Jesus, firm foundation

The soul that is trusting in Jesus as Lord
Will press on enduring the darkest of storms
And though even hell should endeavor to shake
He'll never, no never, no never forsake
He'll never, no never, no never forsake

Age to age He stands
Faithful to the end
All may fade away
But He will remain
He will remain

is part of the song.  So I find it difficult to believe that there are impersonal or negative results communicated from that song - maybe detrimental to the Adversary or his work, but not for believers.  I find it even more of a stretch that the song communicates something other than what it's talking about (especially when most of the detractors haven't actually heard the song that is 'fleshly', etc).

The counterargument, of course, is that it's the music underlying those lyrics (they use drums and electric guitars).  So by what means do we know (to borrow from my Greek classes - not the 'knowing of experience' (ginoskw) but the '“to know without a doubt, to know for certain [knowledge]” (oida, B. 9) ) that x style music is sinful, fleshly, etc.

That's where I think the conservative side runs into issues.  I don't think that they can argue for an oida standard.  They argue for a ginoskw standard.  Then they want to teach that their ginoskw standards should be treated as oida standards.

Furthermore, I think we have to talk about results - because all of this discussion does, ultimately, have to affect the way we live.  If I believed in a conservative music standard but taught a more progressive standard, I'd be a hypocrite, right? Smile

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

jcoleman's picture

Karl S wrote:

Personally, I can just tell you that there is much music which I can hear for just a couple seconds, and immediately identify as "angry", "lustful", "violent", etc. And there are some instances in which I immediately think "peacful", "rejoicing", etc. There are other cases where I have to sit back and analyze it more closely to try and determine what is being communicated. I believe that over time my senses have become more acute by "reason of use" (Heb. 5:14) to discern the good and the evil. However, there is still a long way to go, and my analysis (whether instantaneous, or more cerebral based upon Scriptural principles, etc.) may be wrong or lacking; there is a continual need of further Spiritual maturity.

But see we're right back at the beginning here again. All you've done is beg the question--you haven't presented any objective measure of how you "immediately identify" certain things. It's entirely subjective. Other Christians who've spent as much time in the faith (and by their fruit--excepting music of course since that's the topic of debate there--demonstrate it) identify quite the opposite. Who should be trust? Given that the scripture doesn't identify particular styles in the way you do, then we're left to either 1.) allow it to be a matter of personal conscience and discernment of 2.) trust the mystical "higher knowledge" that you seem to have. Since the second idea is obviously unbiblical, I'd take the first.

jcoleman's picture

Karl S wrote:

Paul in this passage clearly establishes that the issue of head coverings does carry inherent moral weight, not only because of the omission of the principles mentioned previously, but due to the fact that he calls "nature" itself as a witness in defense of this principle (I Cor. 11:14). It seems as if he's admonishing them to simply use common sense knowledge of natural revelation to instruct them in the necessity of this matter. God's created order can guide them in this area! In other words, this is an issue which transcends preference or culture.

...

However, when we come to I Cor. 11:1-3, he states "be ye followers of me" and "keep the ordinances". We are now moving out of the arena of deference, and into areas requiring consistent obedience in adherence to moral principles. He begins his argument by stating a Spiritual law (I Cor. 11:3). The practice of head coverings comes from the Scriptural law of authority and jurisdiction. This is not dependent upon interpretation, preference, or cultural conditioning; it cannot be changed. Therefore, in the issue of hair/head coverings, we must always be acting in a way which accurately reflects and reveals the Spiritual law upon which the idea is based.

Are you saying that even in our culture today that to wear a head covering or not is a moral issue?

I do not believe that Paul is communicating that there is inherent moral weight to head coverings. Rather, he's saying that there's a timeless moral principle that we shouldn't dress in a way that causes confusion between the genders--for nature itself teaches us that there is a difference.

An application of that principle in the Corinthian's culture was that of head coverings: and so Paul makes the application--strongly so. But the act/item itself (head coverings) is still analogous to the meat offered to idols because the it is not moral in and of itself. It is moral because of what it communicates in a culture.

Which is why to Aaron's main point I say in one sense, so what? I think we could all agree that things can communicate something other than what we intend. That happens in practically every area of our life--and probably fairly frequently too. So nothing's really been proved by just going that far. It just brings us right back to the beginning of asking the question if a certain style of music (intentionally or unintentionally) communicates something immoral. And so far that remains a subjective question. Karl S. claims he knows it does. How? By reason of the fact that he feels it to be so. I and others claim that it does not communicate that at all to us. So unless there's an objective standard, then we're left at a stalemate--at which point I would suggest the biblical response would be that in light of Romans 14 it would be a sin for me to force/cause Karl S. to listen to something against his conscience, and it would also be a sin for Karl S. to bind my conscience with what binds his.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Jay, it's clear that the relationship between conveying meaning and "results" is an overlapping one. "Edification" is a result, though. People being built up. So what I'm arguing on that subpoint is that it is possible for people to experience the result of being built up in one way and at the same time be doing something that is damaging/wrong in another way

  • Think of it as sort of like running for exercise. It's helping your heart and lungs etc but slowly damaging your knees.

In this case, though, I'm talking mainly about conveying meaning as something morally and spiritually important whether it has any negative results or not. Just as it's theoretically possible to do something that produces both benefit A and harm B, it's possible to do something that produces benefit A and is itself wrong in way C.... without producing any "harm."

In other words, in addition to the "How does this impact people?" question, there is the "How does God view this?" question. In 1Cor.11, Paul does not seem to be interested in results on a human level mainly, though I suppose the conveying of meaning is conveying it mainly to people. But the angels are also involved and what should we infer about how God sees it? There seems to be some indication there that the authority, glory and headship messages we convey are of great importance to God Himself... independently of any impact on the people involved.

Of course, none of this proves that music style B (or maybe "R" Biggrin ) conveys meaning in a way that offends God. All I'm aiming for here is the idea that there can be important meaning we are not aware of.

Once we accept this premise, there are several necessary implications for how we approach decisions about style.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Greg asked upthread about my view of hats/veils, etc. My answer on that is that I'm truly not sure. What I have taught on that is that there seemed to be meaning in the head covering that was specific to the cultural setting and that the application for us is to ask "How do we convey that meaning in our setting?"

On practical grounds... to get pragmatic again, I often think we would do well in our times to raise our families with some visible signs of authority and glory. Growing up with this kind of instructional tool could be quite helpful. And we really are at a point where, as Christians, we have to get used to not fitting in to our culture... in increasingly conspicuous ways.

But to return to my original thesis, even if the specific message of head coverings in 1 Cor 11 was bound to that culture, my point stands. In their setting they were conveying meaning through the head-covering medium and were not fully aware of what meaning they were conveying.

DavidO's picture

dcbii wrote:

If the meaning can't easily be determined by everyone then one of several things must be true:

1. The inherent meaning can be overshadowed completely by cultural meaning, which makes the inherent meaning nearly or completely irrelevant in some or even many contexts.

2. The inherent meaning is not particularly important, since all do not perceive it. If it takes an "expert" to know what the meaning is, it's either not inherent, or it's unimportant, since the average person will not know it.

3. Inherent meaning is a fiction -- all meaning is determined by other factors influencing the listener.

I don't believe that "anything goes" in respect to music. But unless and until someone can show me how to clearly determine the absolute meaning of any piece of music without having to bring it to an "expert" who will somehow determine the meaning for me, instead of explaining how I can know it, I'm not likely to believe in that inherent meaning, or consider it important even if I would believe it exists.

I think 10 minutes spent in any college literary criticism class listening to students attempting to get at the meaning of a poem (which is art made of words rather than notes) would reveal the assertions above to be overstated at best.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

DavidO wrote:

I think 10 minutes spent in any college literary criticism class listening to students attempting to get at the meaning of a poem (which is art made of words rather than notes) would reveal the assertions above to be overstated at best.

Actually, I had to take a bit of that myself, and I think you actually make my point for me, though I have no claim to being a literary expert. The way I see it, the various interpretations of different pieces of literature run far afield from one another, because it's rarely clear to the reader *exactly* what the piece means, or even is intended to mean, unless it's completely literal with no symbolism at all. Obviously, you can get closer the less symbolism is used. However, even if the author gives an interpretation of what he *intended* it to mean, if the work is couched in such literary form that the meaning is not universal to the reader, I would argue that the meaning is not inherent to the piece at all, or if it is, it's an insignificant meaning, even if the author intended it to be clear.

I don't recall hearing one of my professors who could be 100% clear on what the meaning of a literary work is when they didn't have the author's comments in front of them. The professors tended to speak as we do about the scriptures. I.e. such-and-such a critic says this, or the majority of literary critics think this because of these reasons, etc. But if you try to pin them down and ask what *proof* they have that it absolutely means whatever, they can only guess (even if they are highly educated guesses), not speak with 100% clarity. Of course, my professors were an insignificant sampling of the literary field, but they were referring to the whole body of critical work in the field.

Naturally, the fact that there are various interpretations doesn't prove there isn't inherent meaning there, but we also cannot assume there must be, unless it's so obvious it can't be missed. A characteristic of something that is inherent is a natural quality of that thing. It may be something hard to see, or easy to see, but "inherent" quality that is completely hidden is then not of any use to us, because we can't perceive it, and then it's much more useful to talk in terms of qualities that actually affect us. Karl speaks of the inherent qualities of the music actually communicating to us. If we can't pick up that communication, then I would argue it's not really communicating to us. If we can pick it up, even in the smallest amount, then that amount is measurable and definitive if it is truly inherent.

More to the point of the OP, if the meaning picked up by the reader is quite different from the intended meaning (assuming we know what that is), then it's hard to say the intended meaning is inherent, especially when the majority of readers see something else, because they don't have the thoughts the author did when he wrote it.

I think your analogy is pretty good, though. Music is a lot more like literature than it is like physics. Since the listener thinks and feels various things as he listens to the music, a lot of which may have been influenced by factors not even in the conception of the composer, it may have a completely unintended meaning to the listener, just as literary pieces can speak completely different things to different readers.

Dave Barnhart

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Karl S wrote:

I believe there is a sense in which the Spirit may prompt our hearts, and upon hearing a certain song, something is ill at ease in our soul and we are Spiritually wary of it, although we may not understand all the reasons for that.


Actually, I completely agree with this, but in no way does the prompting of the spirit make that meaning inherent to the music. It could be, but it could also be something that the Spirit is convicting you of that may in fact be a Rom. 14 issue, or something in between. There is plenty of music I would not want to use in a worship service for just this reason. I could also say things about the association, appropriateness, etc. If the Spirit makes me this uncomfortable about something, I would be unwise (at best) to go against His prompting. However, the very fact that people can come to strong convictions that oppose one another as in Romans makes me want to be very careful in trying to make my conviction into something inherent, simply because I feel or believe so strongly about it. I believe that if we try to make something that came from the prompting of the Spirit into an absolute without clear scriptural proof, then we are in fact claiming "hidden" knowledge from the Spirit, something Paul specifically disavows.

Quote:

I believe God would have us test the spirits and seek those things which communicate most wholesomely and Biblically; in music, as well as in other areas of life.


I don't disagree with this either, but when we do this, different men all seeking God's will in this area can come to different conclusions. If that's true, can this perceived communication truly be considered inherent, or is it perhaps something that comes from factors like cultural conditioning, upbringing, etc.? If any Romans 14 issues can exist (and I'm not saying music must be one of those), then things can be truly wrong in one context that are not in another, and according to the scriptures, this is something God allows in his sovereignty.

I can't say that music is simply a Romans 14 issue, but neither do I see it's meaning in an inherent sense. If music has inherent meaning, that must be proved, not assumed. But even if it is proved, if that inherent meaning is unclear, or not easily perceivable by most, then we need to use other criteria to evaluate that music or anything else for how we use it/them.

Dave Barnhart

DavidO's picture

dcbii wrote:
I think you actually make my point for me, though I have no claim to being a literary expert. The way I see it, the various interpretations of different pieces of literature run far afield from one another, because it's rarely clear to the reader *exactly* what the piece means, or even is intended to mean, unless it's completely literal with no symbolism at all. Obviously, you can get closer the less symbolism is used. However, even if the author gives an interpretation of what he *intended* it to mean, if the work is couched in such literary form that the meaning is not universal to the reader, I would argue that the meaning is not inherent to the piece at all, or if it is, it's an insignificant meaning, even if the author intended it to be clear. . . Naturally, the fact that there are various interpretations doesn't prove there isn't inherent meaning there, but we also cannot assume there must be, unless it's so obvious it can't be missed.

Actually, I think you make Aaron's point for him--the reality of both intended meaning and perceived meaning(s).   We must indeed assume there is intended meaning when someone puts pen to paper/pixels to screen or else why would they ever bother to do it?  Even lack of apparent meaning is its own sort of meaning, as critic William Logan asserts of the poet John Ashberry's work. 

Or am I seeing meaning in the words you bothered to type out where you intended none?  Biggrin

Seriously, don't you think most people, without consciously doing so, look to artistic expressions as instances of human communication.  That, it seems to me, is the basic assumption.   Let us not be so agnostic about it. 

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Maybe I'm just overanalyzing this, but I see artistic communication as something that does have an intent, but not one that is supposed to be as clear as a technical paper, or even a blog/forum post, and may in fact be intended to communicate something different to each viewer/listener.

We could ask all day what Michelangelo was attempting to communicate with his statue of David, but absent an explanation from him, maybe he intended nothing more than for us to consider David's person and life, and that consideration could end up being quite different for each of us. I would bet that many miss even that and see no more than the skillful shaping of marble.

Maybe it would be really cool if I could attach some musical sounds to the bottom of each of my posts and see if the users can guess what I'm trying to communicate! Smile

Or maybe I should just post different musical sounds in response to each post I'm answering. If the meaning is unambiguous and taken exactly as I intend, no one would be confused with what they are hearing, right?

I get your point (I think) that artistic expression is intended to communicate something. I just don't necessarily agree that even intended meaning is inherent -- the meaning could simply be assigned or attached, or something culturally understood. Maybe it could even be something only a particular listener gets.

Dave Barnhart

DavidO's picture

Well I think we're getting somewhere.

dcbii wrote:
We could ask all day what Michelangelo was attempting to communicate with his statue of David, but absent an explanation from him, maybe he intended nothing more than for us to consider David's person and life, and that consideration could end up being quite different for each of us. . .

I get your point (I think) that artistic expression is intended to communicate something. I just don't necessarily agree that even intended meaning is inherent -- the meaning could simply be assigned or attached, or something culturally understood. Maybe it could even be something only a particular listener gets.

I suspect an expert in Renaissance art might have a better idea about what David means than your average Precious Moments collector (no offense if any such collectors are in the room).

As for inherent/intended/universal muscial meanings, this is an interesting read.  Not definitive by any stretch, but demonstrates the notion is not merely a fringe Christian conservative one. 

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