Music in the Bible and the Contemporary Music Styles Debate (Part 3)

Gregg Strawbridge continues his series about contemporary music styles in the church. Here, he discusses critical arguments against contemporary music styles.

The Origin of the Beat

If the reader tends to agree with the premise that rhythm dominant music is inherently sinful, the implications are grave - since, the music of many cultures (Latin America, Caribbean, African) is “rhythm-dominant.” Perhaps someone will even be willing to argue that the “beat” is evil because it was derived from pagan tribalism and brought to America via slavery. This is what some call the African Connection. One proponent of this view says,

It is irrefutable that rock and roll music owes some of its roots to the tribes of Africa….To declare that these are the only roots of rock music is to mislead and to be less than honest. A careful study of rock music reveals it to be more complex than that; however, to deny that an African connection to the rock rhythms of our day does not exist, is to be equally misleading and dishonest. To declare that a certain rhythm or beat is ‘evil’ cannot be proved entirely. What is far more important is the historical revelation that demonic activity has been observed in connection with rituals where drums and rhythmic beats have been the catalyst. (Leonard J. Seidel, Face the Music: Contemporary Church Music on Trial, 1988, p. 41)

I appreciate the understated, but fatal admission, “To declare that a certain rhythm or beat is ‘evil’ cannot be proved entirely.” In response:

1. The historical evidence that the “beat” came via demonic Africa is quite dubious.

Steve Lawhead has argued the point strongly. Most were from areas where the drum (and therefore, “the beat”) was not a significant instrument. After all, “Drums were almost never heard in black American music until well into the twentieth century.” The rock beat actually developed more from country-western music, “The Saddlemen.” “As for the charge that rock’s rhythm is demon inspired, most people overlook the fact that in other places where New World slaves landed (Jamaica, Haiti, the islands of the West Indies) nothing close to rock ever evolved” (1981, pp. 57-58).

2. Unless someone can first show that the “beat” is evil, a proponent of the African Connection is simply committing the genetic fallacy.

A bad origin for something does not necessarily make it bad. The devil can make a cogent argument. In music, arguing from origins is problematic since “Jubal..was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Gen 4:21). And Jubal was in the ungodly line of Cain. In fact, the reveller, Lamech was Jubal’s father.

3. If music origins are translated into ethical norms, even the music of the Bible cannot clear itself from charges.

Old Testament scholar Ronald B. Allen has rightly noted the Biblical use “the devil’s instruments.” He explains, such instruments have “a long history of (mis)use in pagan circles before it became so dearly associated with the making of music to the Lord in ancient Israel.” (7) Psalm 93 was “written with a conscious attempt both to glorify God and to debunk Baal. The manner of singing would be very similar to the manner of singing in the worship of Baal. But the point of the song was opposed to all that Baal was supposed to represent.”1

Aesthetic Standards and Music

When a CM critic develops criteria for “good music,” what is its basis? In what sense can it be Biblical? The description of good music in Garlock and Woetzel, Cannon and Cannon, and the Gothard ministry generally clearly reads Common Practice Period (1600-1900) Western art music (hereafter, WCPP) back into the Bible. It is, thus, anachronistic. This can be illustrated from the often used threefold division of music (e.g. Garlock and Woetzel, p. 55): “Music is also considered to have three primary parts: melody, harmony, and rhythm.”

Perhaps a starting place for evaluation is to see whether Biblical-times music could even be identified with the features of WCPP music. Certainly the descriptions of Biblical-times musical style, given by learned experts, cannot be understood as depicting “godly music,” according to the standard of the authors (see the Appendix: Ancient Near Eastern Music). Consider what Vida Chenoweth and Darlene Bee explain,

Christianity has certainly influenced the course of Western musical development; some of our greatest music has been inspired by a strong Christian faith. Nevertheless, we cannot say that our Western musical tradition is the same as the Christian musical tradition. It is not the musical idiom of the New Testament; the founders of our faith would have been ill-at-ease in it. There was no musical notation at the time of Christ so we will never know what melodies were sung by Jesus and His disciples. What we do know about their musical style is that it was Near Eastern. Our modern hymns are also different from Hebrew and Greek music, even though the gospel reached us through the cultural matrix of these societies. Our Western hymns are a heritage which we rightly cherish, but they belong to our faith through our culture. (1968, see pp. 211-212).2

The music which emerged in the WCPP, though grand and beautiful to us, is anachronistic to Biblical-times music.

Garlock and Woetzel, et al (above) go further though. Their aesthetic turns out to be a metaphysic. They describe godly music as a hierarchy of melody, harmony, rhythm with a steady pulse (pp. 64-66). They relate their anachronistic standard, metaphysically, to a trichotomist anthropology (man is body, soul, spirit). “The part of music to which the spirit responds is the melody” (p. 57). “The part of music to which your mind responds is the harmony” (p. 58). “The part of music to which your body responds is the rhythm” (p. 59). The fact that the Bible does not teach this musical metaphysic (exegesis will not yield anything like these claims) in no way impedes the critics from developing an entire musical ethic. What follows from this? No rock, no jazz, no beat, no back beat, and I guess dancing is out too.

Even apart from the fact that Biblical-times music does not correspond to their description of Biblical music, there are more difficulties. For example, if it is true that the spirit of man (assuming the trichotomist’s view of man) - responds to the melody, what are we to say for the music of percussion instruments?3 Is it metaphysically possible to praise Him with timbrels, loud cymbals, and resounding cymbals (Psa 150) since those percussion instruments make no melody (and God is a spirit)? Percussionists are apparently doomed to the basement of the physical, sub-spiritual? I am only hinting at the ridiculous nature of these criticisms of CM. It has been said, “A little clarity goes a long way.” And a little knowledge of Biblical-times music would prevent an ethnocentric standard from being disguised as a Biblical standard.

This series continues next week.


1 Worship Leader, No. 3, 5.

2 The authors are ethnomusicologists associated with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

3 It goes without saying, of course, that many of the church’s greatest theologians have denied the trichotomist view, preferring for a body/soul, material/spiritual dichotomy.

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