By Gregg Strawbridge. Posted by permission from the author.
As an analysis of music style, this paper offers a succinct theological synthesis of the Biblical information on music. The writer summarizes a mini-theology of music and addresses a current issue relevant to evangelical worship, ministry programs, missiology, and cultural impact: contemporary music styles. The paper argues that an exegetical and Biblical theology of music and a familiarity with the issues surrounding ethnomusicology are the foundation for any specific musical-genre critique. Moreover, some reflection on the larger issue of the relationship between Christ and culture are a necessary counterpart to this discussion. To accomplish this, the paper is divided into three sections: (1) a Biblical survey of music, (2) a dialogue with current critiques of contemporary music styles, and (3) directions and recommendations for Christian musicians.
“Why should the devil have all the good music?” - Martin Luther
A SURVEY OF BIBLICAL MUSIC
A Brief Biblical Theology of Music
The Scriptures1 recognizes music as a means for praise (Acts 16:25; Rom 15:9 [originally sung]), a means of expressing joy (Jam 5:13), thanksgiving (Psa 92:1-3), sorrow for sin (Is. 16:10), a means of prayer (1Co 14:15; Psa 72:20), and a means of teaching and spiritual communication (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).
Biblical music makers are professional (1Ch 15:22; 25:7; Is. 5:11-12; Ez. 33:32), as well as nonprofessional (Psa 100; 1Ki 1:39-40; 1Co 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). There are those who direct music (Psa 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, etc.; Neh. 12:8) and teach music (1Ch 15:22). The people of the Bible overflow with music in every circumstance, including cultural uses placed in positive (1Sa 18:7) and negative terms (Eze 33:32). Music sounded in every aspect of life—work, play, celebration, and even war (Is. 16:10; Jer 48:33; Mat 11:17; Luk 15:25; Gen 31:27; Exo 32:17-18; Ecc 2:8; Jdg 11:34-35; 2Sa 19:35).
Jewish musicologist Abraham Idelsohn says, “As many references in the Bible to the music performed in secular life testify, Israel enjoyed life through music both vocal and instrumental, and associated music with dance and wine in which men and women participated” (p. 21).
A study of the Psalms alone yield an impressive role for music in the life of Biblical people. The extolling of Yahweh through music is spoken of as congregational (149:1), individual (42:8) and for every situation (74:21). Music is used to praise God joyfully, loudly (47:1), melodically (98:5), and with a variety of instruments (150:3-5), from chordophones (lyres, harps, kinnors), to membranophones (timbrels), to aerophones (flutes, shofars, pipes), to metalophones (cymbals).2
Such praise is associated with bodily movement and common expressions of joy and gladness, such as dancing (30:11, 149:3, 150:4). The psalmists command praise with skill (47:7, 33:3), to “make His praise glorious” (66:2). They frequently call the nations to make the sounds of praise (67:4, 22:27, 117:1, 108:3). A fitting close to the Psalter is the call for all that has breath to hymn the worth of their Maker (150:6).
The use of music in the worship of the New Testament church has indisputable Biblical support (Mat 26:30; 1Co 14:19, 14:26; Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16; Heb 2:12). The primary church music texts in the New Testament (Col 3:16 & Eph 5:19) are commands, not primarily to sing or make music, but to “teach” and “speak” with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
Music and Language
In the Biblical-times music,3 there is no strong dichotomy between speaking and singing. In Scripture language is generally connected to the life of the person. For example, Isaiah confesses sinfulness by saying “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Jesus says, “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Mat 12:34). “Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man… But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man” (Mat 15:11-18).
The concept of the mouth expressing the heart and the words of a person being taken as the essence or heart of a person is ubiquitous in Scripture. Likewise, it is the Word of God which is the instrument of regeneration (1Pe 1:23), the building block of faith (Rom 10:17), and the standard of sanctification (2Ti 3:16). Jesus teaches, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ ” (Mat 4:4; also Psa 19, 119).
On the basis of what Scripture teaches about the words of man and the words of God, it is not surprising that there are no strict separations between praise and prayer which is spoken, sung, and shouted. All verbal activity manifests the heart and the Word of God changes the heart. The fruit of the lips is the result.4
Therefore, the “redeemed of the Lord” “say so” in a continuum of verbal expression from simply speaking, to speaking loudly, to singing, to shouting. In fact in some cases it is difficult to tell exactly what act the words are referring to (merely speaking, or singing, chanting, speaking loudly, etc.). Consider the Biblical parallels:
- Psalm 33:3 Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
- Psalm 65:13 The meadows are clothed with flocks, And the valleys are covered with grain; They shout for joy, yes, they sing.
- Psalm 95:2 Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
- Psalm 71:23 My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee; And my soul, which Thou hast redeemed.
- Psalm 75:9 But as for me, I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.
- Psalm 81:1 (For the choir director; on the Gittith) Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
- Psalm 95:1 O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord ; Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.
- Psalm 96:2 Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
- Psalm 98:4 Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
- Psalm 105:2 Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders.
The rigid distinction between singing and other verbal activity in our Western contemporary use of language was not so distinct to the people of the Bible.
CRITICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC STYLES
Having briefly considered the representative Biblical data regarding music. Now we shall consider the current debate. Is music style neutral? Are musical compositions and styles inherently good or bad? This issue is addressed in terms of the “neutrality of music.”
- Popular preacher John Blanchard (1983) says, “When music is composed, it is not composed into a neutral nothing, but into a positive something—a form that is definite and meaningful, with colour and character.” (p. 81). Blanchard goes on to cite an impressive number of thinkers to support the contention that “music has moved man in a hundred different ways” (p. 83).
- Leonard Seidel says, “The evidence is clear from history, music theory and Biblical examples-music is not neutral.
- Cynthia Maus has said it so eloquently: ‘Music soothes us, stirs us up; it puts noble feelings into us; it melts us to tears, we know not how. It is a language by itself just as perfect in its way of speech, as words; just as divine, just as blessed.’” (p. 27)
It will be important here to define the question more sharply. The status questionis (state of the question) is not whether music, given certain conditions, “moves us” or “soothes us,” - rather, the question is whether a particular music style or genre (such as rock, country, rhythm-and-blues) is intrinsically good, bad, or neutral.5 There is no question that music creates powerful connotations, a reality continually exploited in advertising. The issue I am seeking to address is not one of connotations or associations, but of the ontology of music.
Two primary types of arguments emerge against contemporary music styles (hereafter, CM): aesthetic arguments and ethical-metaphysical arguments. Aesthetic arguments focus on the quality of the music and dismiss it as bad art, though not necessarily inherently evil. Though I will touch on this, my main concern is the ethical-metaphysical arguments. Ethical-metaphysical arguments focus on the inherent qualities of particular music genres. I am limiting my analysis to the style-genre, not the typical lyric content. The critical arguments cited have been addressed toward all forms of CM (including country and jazz genres), but especially popular rock styles.
The article continues next week.
1 My presupposition throughout is that Scripture is unified in all it teaches, including that which it teaches about music.
2 For more discussion on Biblical instruments see the classic, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development, Abraham Z. Idelsohn.
3 ”Biblical-times music” is intended to designate music that is Ancient Near-Eastern, Israelite, and spanning the (written) OT to NT time period (ca 1500 B.C. to 100 A.D.).
4 I am indebted to J. Frame’s lecture, “Music and Salvation” for many of these concepts. See also V. Poythress, “Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody,” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXVII, 1974-75, pp. 74-94-218-235.
5 Granted, one could define genres more sharply. However, my aim is primarily to address the popular issue (e.g., “rock music” is of the devil) and the basic issues will, be applicable to more creative, less popular, genres too.
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D., is the pastor of All Saints Church in Lancaster, PA. He became a committed follower of Jesus Christ at age 20, discipled in the context of a University Navigator Ministry. As a result of personal discipleship he went on to study at Columbia Biblical Seminary (M.A., Columbia, SC, 1990), as well as receive a Ph.D. in education and philosophy (USM, 1994).