Music for the Christian Rock or Not
In February 1995 this magazine printed a feature article on the question “Rock Music: For the Christian or Not,” written by Rev. Clarence Bouwman. The editorial by Allard Gunnink expressed the wish that much discussion would come out of this article, and he was disappointed that it had not happened in response to an article by Brad Davis in April of 1994.
Then the magazine editors place at the centre of Rev. Bouwman's article the open-ended sentence, “This opens a Pandora's box…” Well, according to the myth, there remained one thing at the bottom of Pandora's Box, and that was hope.
With this article I wish to offer some hope that we can come to an understanding of how we as Christians should judge music. We should not judge it according to the wide generalizations which Rev. Bouwman makes. Music should not be broadly judged by categories or roots as we understand them. Rather we can, and should, judge all music in all categories by the fruits as we may see them.
Can We Judge by the Source?
First then, I need to refute some of the points which Rev. Bouwman uses to polarize the music available to us. He deals essentially with two sources of music. There is the primitive music which he gives as the source of the beat of today's “rock music,” and there is the music which he says has been influenced and transformed by the gospel which can be labelled Western classical.
Rev. Bouwman's source for the details of the primitive origin of rock states that “all music was religious” for the natives of Africa. This is an overgeneralization, since there is much more to the music of Africa than religious or ritual use. According to The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, music was also a source of communication and entertainment. Since it was a society without a written language, there were chroniclers whose role it was “to recreate the history of the country… by means of long recitations which (were) either intoned or sung full-throatedly” (p. 24). Furthermore, there were some who had a role of “epic singer, musician, and entertainer, show(ing) a remarkable affinity to those of the medieval European jongleur” (p. 24). The nature of the roots of rock music are not, then, so clearly suspect as Rev. Bouwman leads us to accept.
On the other hand, the source of Western classical music, which he says was transformed “into a genre giving expression to the perception resulting from faith in Jesus Christ,” is more suspect than we are led to believe. Now I, like Rev. Bouwman, must admit to not being an expert on music. However, I did once take a course from an expert, and it is his research which I use to trace the source of Western music. Dr. Robert Walker, in his book Musical Beliefs: Psychoacoustic, Mythical, and Educational Perspectives, traces the source of Western music to the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras.
Now, Pythagoras is most well-known today because of the Pythagorean theorem, still used in mathematics. What is less known is that he was a numerologist who, some 600 years before Christ, “travelled across the ancient world of the Near and Middle East, obtaining an education in the science and mysticism of the times” (Walker, p. 63).
What concerned Pythagoras was “to find the essence of matter, the single force or centre from which all life and matter sprang” (Walker, p. 63). His conclusion was based in numbers, and he formulated a theory of numerology that had “number as the source, the essence, the wellspring of all truth” (Walker, p. 63).
This philosophy was then taken over into music as the “science that dealt with relationships between whole numbers expressed as ratios, or proportions” (Walker, p. 65). Any musician trained in music theory would recognize the ratios he used as the basis for the octave, and the musical tones of the fourth and the fifth intervals.
Now the question is, what was the transformation that made this music acceptable as praise to God? And did not all Western classical music go through this transformation? According the Encyclopedia for Music the most dramatic change was the introduction of more complicated music, or polyphony (p. 65). Now, if this change was such a good thing for music as a form of praise, why was it that the music “very soon grew away from its origins and became the most important single form of musical expression, whether ecclesiastical or secular?” (Encyclopedia of Music, p. 65) It was because the music was suddenly popular as a form of secular entertainment.
The point is that Western classical music has a source that is at least partly suspect. There was even a time shortly after the introduction of the more complicated melodies that the church had to make an attempt to reclaim the music by introducing a Papal Bull in 1326, in which “Pope John XXII fulminated against the introduction of profane words into the church motetus.” (Encyclopedia of Music, p. 67).
Surely then we can find a more reliable way to judge music than by its roots. It cannot be stated that the roots of rock are solely based on demonic worship practices. Nor can it be stated that the music of the Western classical genre is pure in its inception or its uses through musical history. We must find a better way to decide which music we can and cannot listen to.
What about the Beat?
The fact that rock music has a beat is the one characteristic which tars all of this genre black, including contemporary Christian music. It is the beat which makes it sound “primitive” and evil, it is the beat which is hypnotic, and it is the beat which works young people into a frenzy. So let's deal with these one at a time.
First, even the reader who will admit that I have raised legitimate questions about the nature of primitive music, may still feel that the beat of rock is bad. After all, do we need it? We praise God without it, don't we? The truth is that we do need beat, and we do praise God with it. There is rhythm in the psalms and hymns we sing in our churches, which can be counted as a beat. In fact, it is not a question of “to beat or not to beat.” Rather, it is a question of degree of the beat. We will deal with this more later.
Another person may say that the problem is with a particular kind of beat, a syncopatic beat, which has a stress on the off beat. If you say, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” out loud with a stress on the word “and” you are producing a syncopatic beat. It is argued that this is an unnatural beat. However, in the Reformed Music Journal of July 1989, an article by Dr. Pierre Pidoux entitled “History of the Genevan Psalter III” informs us that the “melodies of 1562 make use of syncopation as well, but they only occur in connection with masculine rhyme (e.g. Psalm 60, 61, 80, 85, 90, 105).” The same article argues that the syncopatic beat was used inappropriately with feminine rhymes. The question here seems to be about the appropriateness of the beat, not the absence of it.
Second, is the beat hypnotic and mind-numbing? Rev. Bouwman uses the example of a drummer's beat being the reason soldiers marched on and on. I can give examples of marathon runners who cross the finish line in a state which appears to be equally hypnotic. What caused this for them? They do not carry the extra weight of a walkman with them so there is no external beat to induce them into this state.
In fact, there is no scientific proof that a beat alone induces hypnosis. There is, however, scientific proof that the human body produces endorphins and other chemicals which deaden pain and perception. Is it not more likely that this is the cause of the soldier's ability to continue to march? The beat is, then, nothing more than a way to keep everyone marching at the same pace, to keep the troops moving smoothly.
Third, does the beat work young people into a frenzy? I have seen clips of young people, especially young women, acting hysterically and even fainting at the first Beatles' concerts in America. But why doesn't this happen at every rock concert today? Because it is not the beat that causes the frenzy. If it were the beat, then the same reaction would occur today. But, as Steve Lawhead writes, “Put on a stack of old Beatles' records today and you won't get anybody to scream and tear their hair. It's out of style. They don't want to do it.” (Rock of this Age, p. 59).
I realize that I have not fully dealt with the question of beat in rock music, but at this stage I want to at least make the point that beats and rhythms are used in all forms of music, even in our liturgical praise. The sound of the beat can be made much more pronounced, and it can be used in inappropriate ways, but the question should remain one of degree and appropriateness.
What About the Bible?
Now we come to the crunch. What kind of music may we, as Christians, in all faithfulness, listen to? To make a general statement and say we can listen to all Western classical music is too lenient, especially if a person is made aware of some the lifestyles of the classical composers. They were certainly not all godly men.
On the other hand, to say that we may not listen to any other types of music is also too broad a statement. Certainly there is much music about which there is no question that it is wrong for a Christian to listen to. There are groups, as well as individual artists and composers who, by lifestyle and lyrics, show complete and utter contempt for the God of all creation, and they should be avoided without question. But there is other music, such as Christian contemporary music, where the choice is not so clear.
So what can we listen to, and what can we let our children to listen to? We will look at this question by studying the music in the Bible. We will look at the different uses of music, and the ways it was performed. We will also look to the New Testament for the guidelines we should use when we judge all areas of our lives. From this we can find the way to judge music also in the light of the Scriptures.
The goal I have in mind is to prove that we as Christians may listen to all types of music based on the criteria we can find in the Bible for judging all areas of our life. This will include proof that we may allow our children to listen to Christian rock, even if we may not like it ourselves. This is the point to which there will be the greatest resistance. Therefore, while there is much written on the topic of Contemporary Christian Music from which I could quote to build an argument, I will restrict myself to using the Bible as my source. Also, while I hope to keep it interesting, I will try to make the argument detailed enough to convince the most resistant.
One thing I will not do is label the music with a name that is easier to swallow. Rev. Bouwman in his article, “Rock Music: For the Christian or Not?” classifies a wide range of music as rock, and includes any thing derivative of it as wrong, including Contemporary Christian Music. I will not argue with the classification. After all, I am arguing that music should not even be judged by categories.
Instruments in the Bible
To decide how we should approach music we should first look at the uses of music in the Bible. One of the first things we notice is that the Bible offers no guidelines on the instruments or styles of music we should use as praise today. Or, if it does, we will have to admit that we are not following these guidelines.
Dealing with instruments first, we see that the instruments are not the same as what we use in worship today. In fact, many of us would protest today if someone started using some of them in the worship service. In places too numerous to quote we are told that the instruments used were the timbrel, harp, lyre, trumpet, and cymbals. I am not trying to be cheeky when I remark that nowhere is there a mention of an orchestra, or a pipe organ.
Looking at what the Bible says about instruments, we need to learn something else. There is a strong argument that rock music cannot be used as praise because it is a source of rebellion, and it cannot therefore be considered proper to use it for praise. I think, however, that it can be argued biblically that the music can be reclaimed, and that the source itself is not reason to keep away from it.
I base this argument on the first mention we ever see in the Bible about musical instruments, Genesis 4:21, where we can read about Jubal who “was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” This is part of the genealogy of Cain, which is in contrast to the genealogy of Adam in the next chapter.
These genealogies are considered by many to be parallel in form, to clarify the antithesis between the seed of the serpent and the line of Christ. This would mean that the first instruments are from the line which represents the seed of the serpent. In order to use these instruments then, there had to have been a time when they were reclaimed for use for the worship of God. It is possible, by the grace of God, to reclaim something that either began or became wrong, and to use it again in God's service.
Style of Praise
Next, dealing with the style of the music described in the Bible, we will see that this style would not be easily accepted in a church service today either. Ezra 3:10-13 gives us an excellent example of praise in the Old Testament:
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD according to the directions of David king of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD… And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD.
Now, there is more to this text than I have quoted, but relevant to the style of praise is that we are told that the instruments, (cymbals and trumpets) were played by the priests and Levites and the Israelites sang responsively. Second, we may note the great noise which the Israelites praised with, and that they actually shouted their praise. There were also shouts of weeping from those who remembered the first temple, and the result was that “… the sound was heard afar” (verse 13).
It should be stressed that the praise in the Bible was very often loud. 2 Chronicles 5:11-13 mentions the use of 120 trumpets along with cymbals, harps and lyres. In Matthew 21:16 we read of children crying out (in the NIV “shouting”) praise to Christ. Christ quotes, for those who complain, from Psalm 8:2, and compares the children's song to perfect praise. Yet, biblical though they are, these forms of praise would certainly not be welcomed in our church today.
It is important to note also that there is diversity in praise. In the book of Psalms there are psalms written to the choirmaster and others which are not. There are psalms intended to be sung by many, and some which could just as easily be sung by an individual. Finally, there is Psalm 150, which lists all the following ways to praise: the trumpet sound, lute and harp, timbre' and dance, strings and pipe, and the sound of loud clashing cymbals.
To repeat an earlier point, if these are biblical guidelines for praise, why are we not using them in our church services in order to praise God? It is of course because there is a cultural difference, which is understood and accepted, between our form of praise today, and the praise spoken of in Bible times. We are not expected to remain with those old forms of praise.
We can learn from the Bible then that praise does not have to be uniform in style or instrumentation; there may be diversity in praise. Since we do not expect ourselves to be limited to the instruments or the styles of music described in the Bible, then we must look elsewhere for the prescription of how to approach praise.
Lyrics of Praise in the Bible
It is in the lyrics of praise that we can begin to see the way to approach the question of music. We can certainly agree that we should limit the music we listen by its topics. But what is it about a song that makes it a song of praise? Is it unceasing adoration only? Certainly not, if one looks at the lyrics of the Psalms.
The psalmists write in many different ways on many different topics. For some, the main intent was to express praise to God, but many others express cries for deliverance, or offer prayers of thankfulness. There are psalms such as Psalm 37 which are in the line of Proverbs. There are Psalms such as Psalm 105 which preserve and pass on the history of Israel and the history of God's work among His people.
Furthermore, we are certainly not limited to the Psalms when we look for examples of praise in the Bible. There are songs throughout the Bible, and they clearly continue into the New Testament. We have the song of Deborah in Judges 5, the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, and the songs of Moses in Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 31 and 32, just to name a few in the Old Testament. Then there are the songs of Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and the multitudes of angels in the New Testament. These songs also cover varied topics.
What is the common thread to all these songs then? It is that they are written with the intent of in some way acknowledging and praising the power, glory and majesty of to LORD God who created and sustains the world by His word, who saves, protects and defends His chosen people, and who will continue to do so from everlasting to everlasting. Is each point raised in each song? No. But the author of the song of praise is aware of these things as much as imperfect man can be.
On this common thread of all praise we also base our selection of hymns. The hymns in our Book of Praise are all either rhymed versions of Scripture, or indisputably scripturally and doctrinally based. These two factors make them suitable for worship services, and I will never argue that anything else should be sung in the church. On the other hand, neither can it be argued that every song of praise we sing or listen to has already been written. As new topics arose in the Bible and in the history of the church, new songs were written. The celebration of the Lord's Supper is the theme of Hymn 42, for example. Lord's Day One of the Heidelberg Catechism became the theme for Hymn 49.
At this point I wish to clarify the role of the Psalms in the worship service. There is a special character to the Psalms requiring that they all be sung so that we may completely receive what God has given us in them. As stated earlier, the Psalms cover all the topics of life. More importantly, they are the inspired Word of God. They should be used fully in the worship services and recognized and appreciated as the gifts they are. They should not be overtaken by other songs which are not the inspired Word of God.
The Call for a New Song
Now readers may ask, then why should we make any more songs? If the Psalms address all the issues, why not just use them all the time? The answer is that in the Bible there is a call to sing a new song. We see it the Psalms themselves, looking at Psalms 96 and 98 which open with the words “O sing to the LORD a new song.”
In Revelation 5:9-10 we can read that “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song…”
We too may sing a new song. We do not have to stay with only the Psalms and songs written in the Bible, and in fact we have not. We have written and accepted new songs. And we should continue to write and accept new songs.
Paul, too, gives us reasons and uses for praise that show we should use new songs. In Ephesians 5:19 he tells the people of Ephesus they should be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart…” Singing is a way to address one another, to talk to one another. It is a way to give a fresh point of view to the Scriptures. How often has it not happened to you that someone says something, or you read something that gives you cause to stop and think about an old topic in a new way? This is what a new song may be used for as well. You may hear a song that causes you to stop and think in a fresh way about the Lord. Hymns through the ages have done this, and should continue to do so.
The Way to Judge the New Song
Arguments have been used that any music performed with the intent of using the talents we have been given by God can be considered worth performing and listening to. This leaves the door wide open to all sorts of music. A more scriptural view is given by Brad Davis, in his article titled “Hot Pink Refrigerators” when he says, “Whatever your choice of music… let the Spirit guide you and let the song of the Lord lift you up” (Reformed Perspective, April 1994). However, the best way to judge music is to go further yet and allow the Spirit of the Lord to guide you by the Word He has given.
First of all we must remember, as Paul wrote in Colossians 4:17, we must “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Everything! It is a strong word, and a very difficult requirement. It is also an excellent biblical guide for what we can listen to in music, as it is for what we watch, read, say and do. The music we listen to is part of “everything” which must be intended to give thanks to God. It should honour Him. For Christians, this rules out any music not intended to praise God. Can we always know the intentions of an artist/composer? No, but when it is obvious then we should make the obvious choice.
The lyrics of the song and the lifestyle of the artist are both good ways to judge intent. In nearly all cases of popular music it is easy to determine whether or not a person intends to praise God with his music. And there are fewer grey areas when we remember that word “everything” Paul instructed us with. An up-to-date example of the care we should be taking in what we listen to is the song “The Circle of Life” which is the theme of the extremely popular children's movie The Lion King. This song is performed by Elton John, an admitted homosexual. He obviously does not have a lifestyle displaying a desire to serve and praise God. To not listen to Elton John's work should be the obvious choice.
On the other hand, we should go beyond the intentions which may be judged by lyrics and lifestyle when making a judgement about appropriate praise. For more guidance we may turn to what Paul wrote in Galatians 5 about the fruit of the spirit. Among the fruits listed is self-control, and this should apply to praise as well. Now, it is difficult to define exactly what self-control is so that everyone would agree, but there are some Christian musicians who clearly do not display self-control. Wild stage antics and screeching voices and guitars do not seem controlled in the least.
While there will be variation on what level of control is deemed acceptable, again there is guidance from Paul, although not in quite so direct a way. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14:6-19, Paul gives guidance concerning the usefulness of speaking in tongues. As part of that guidance he uses the example of musical instruments which give clear notes so that people know what is being played. He compares this to speech that is only good if you can understand what is being said. He goes on to say that speaking in tongues is limited to the spirit of the person speaking, and that no one else benefits. So, he writes,
I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Tongues, prayer and song should be controlled and understood in order to instruct others.
Sing a New Song
Parents are afraid of the new songs and music. It is true that music has an effect on people. Only recently there were two more suicides attributed to the music of Nirvana, a grunge rock group whose leader also committed suicide. But does the fear come from the source, or from the lyrics and lifestyle? I have argued that we cannot judge properly by the source, and that we should judge by the spirit. Let us help our young people to learn to judge all things in this way.
Music will influence our young people, so let it be music that is a new song to the Lord. Let them hear the praise of God in all forms, and teach them to discern what is not praise. Let them sing in a fresh, new way about the work of God in their lives. Let them be affected by constant praise to God. Let them give praise in everything!