Gregg Strawbridge continues his series about contemporary music styles in the church.
Christianity, Culture and Music
The larger issue in the entire discussion of CM is Christ and culture. How are we to see the basic relationship between the people of God and cultures in the world? To put it in Biblical terms, what are the full implications of being “in the world but not of the world” (Joh 17) and doing all things to the glory of God (1Co 10:31). Moreover, where do the Biblical principles of accommodation function - “And to the Jews I became as a Jew … I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” (1Co 9:20-22)?
For my own commitments here, I believe that Christ will largely transform culture. The Biblical support for this Calvinistic view may even be drawn in several distinct categories:
We have both the imperative and prophetic forms of world discipleship which implies that Christ will transform culture to some extent (Mat 28:19-20 (11) & Psa 22:27).
Christ’s second advent is sequenced by reigning at the right hand of God “until He has put all His enemies under His feet,” the last of which is death which is demonstrably overcome at the resurrection (1Co 15:25, 54-55). Hence those of His enemies which have cultural manifestations shall be affected in the present progressive reign of Christ.
The music of the redeemed shall flow from all ethne, loosely stated, from all cultures. For example, Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord saying, “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing His praise from the end of the earth! (Isa 40:10). “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psa 96:1). Notice that “new songs” are being commanded from other nations.
The New Testament indicates that worship from other nations is a climactic hope in the drama of redemption. God desires for “the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, ‘Therefore I will give praise to thee among the gentiles, and I will sing to Thy name’ and again he says… ‘praise the Lord all you gentiles, and let all the peoples praise Him’ ” (Rom 15:9-11). “And they sang a new song …Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation’ ” (Rev 5:9-10). Therefore, we are as much as told that the nations will use their music to glorify God.
Scripture itself recognizes change in cultural mediums of communication and allows for cultural differences and changes within time. Proof of this might be developed from observing the linguistic references throughout Scripture. “And they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh 7:8, see also Mat 1:23, Mar 15:34).
Cultural diversity and change is factually depicted and assumed throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. Moreover, the revelation of the Messiah is brought through the medium of the Greco-Roman language and culture with Judaistic roots rather than the language Abraham, Moses, or David eras - remembering their were vast differences lingustically/culturally between even these patriarchs.
When this is coupled with the “sing a new song” prescriptions, linked to ethnic groups (Psa 96:1-2; Isa 42:10-11) and that redemption is intended for “every tribe and language and people and nation,” the ethnomusical implications are strong. The cultures of the world will and do in fact use their languages and musical expressions for praise! Hallelujah! - this is a universal word of praise.
Culture and the Heart-Language
If music changes interactively with culture, whatever the musical heart-language of people is, is the best for expression of heart-truth. As Chenowith and Bee say, “When a people develops its own hymns with both vernacular words and music, it is good evidence that Christianity has truly taken root” (p. 212). Like it or not, a country bumpkin, harmonically impoverished with the sounds of Nashville, will not sing “I love you” to his fiance in the style of John Dowland’s renaissance Lute songs (a sixteenth century court musician of Queen Elizabeth).
Adequate reflection on the issues here will prevent us from adding to Scripture our pseudo-absolutes. We will not be as quick to condemn the musical mediums of other cultures and subcultures by imposing an ethnocentric standard. Our North American culture certainly is not an authoritative standard by which we can judge other cultures. We have no more right to impose a North American or Western European style of music on other cultures than we do to make them have their services in Latin. (And we’d be probably be better off to impose Latin rather than our current cultural norms.)
As Protestants we all believe “the holy scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages” (Larger Catechism 156) and prayer is to be “if vocal, in a known tongue” (Westminster Confession 21:3). But people also need the “vulgate,” of music in their common tongue, do they not? Some level of intelligibility is required (1Co 14:7-9, observe Paul’s very illustration). The irrelevance and ineffectiveness of the church is often fostered by an unreflective stance against the new. On all sides our shared concern should be for the communication of meaning and truth. Our music styles must comport with this. Calvin Johansson, though no friend of CM, has acknowledged the need for cultural and subcultural relevance in his stimulating book, Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint (1984).
Relevancy in church music is neither a matter of popularity nor of intrinsic worth, but a matter of identification with music. That is to say, the music must have something about it which is recognizable and ordinary, both in the configuration of the various musical elements and in its total impact…One must also pay attention to the peculiar musical culture of the congregation. (p. 39)
Music is a manifestation of culture, like language, which changes. Though we must not fail to distinguish Biblical absolutes from cultural relatives, this is not ethical relativism. The one individual who made the term “absolutes” part of the current Christian vocabulary, Francis Schaeffer (Art and the Bible, 1973) said, “Let me say firmly that there is no such thing as a godly style or an ungodly style” (p. 51). “And as a Christian adopts and adapts various contemporary techniques, he must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt and to not use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a life time, not something he settles once and for all” (p. 55).
Music makers make sounds with the particular instrument-technology available. Further refinements culturally and technologically necessitate different musical sounds. Before the technology to make valves for brass instruments or hinged keys for woodwind instruments was available, wind instruments had a different sound with limitations in range and technique.
It may surprise people who are fond of the “tyranny of the organ” to realize that no Biblical-times music in any recognizable way resembled the sounds they call “sacred.” These sorts of technological changes alone account for vast transformations, much less the profound philosophical, religious, and linguistic changes affecting musical-stylistical developments.
My twentieth century harmony professor, composer Luigi Zaninelli, used to take exception to the idea that music has “progressed.” He would say it has simply “evolved” (i.e., no value judgment). Given the Biblical view of history, though, I would assert that music has progressed in the sense that it is intertwined with the unfolding plan of redemption and the advance of Christ’s kingdom. Moreover, music has become more complex and intricate, being the occupation of the intelligence, feeling, ambition, and purposes of more and more people made in the image of God.
When new sounds are made and development takes place the result is change in some aspect of that music. Eventually such changes make the music different enough to warrant the description that it has become a new style. For a distinctly Christian artist, new musical styles should be molded for the glory of God. As Schaeffer (1973) has said, “To demand the art forms of yesterday in either word systems or art is a bourgeois failure” (p. 49).
This series continues next week.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?