Contemporary Christian Music (# 2): Suitable for worship?

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While many Christians may admit that much of present-day Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is a result of its close association with the secular rock music industry and not God-honouring, they may yet approve of CCM for the sake of the exceptions. They might justify this kind of music being brought into the church or used for evangelism on the grounds that while we cannot agree to the words used in mainstream CCM, the rock style itself is just a matter of musical preference.

Such people generally hold to aesthetic relativism, the view that judgements about what constitutes beauty are completely subjective. In the case of music, aesthetic relativism holds that style and genre are just a matter of taste: just like some people prefer apples over pears, so some people like Jars of Clay more than Bach, and such tastes falls beyond the scope of morality.

However, aesthetics are not indifferent things. Music itself carries meaning, even apart from the words; so it cannot be morally neutral.

John Hospers explains it well: “When people feel sad they exhibit certain types of behavior: they move slowly, they tend to talk in hushed tones, their movements are not jerky and abrupt or their tones strident and piercing. Now music can be said to be sad when it exhibits these same properties: sad music is normally slow, the intervals between the tones are small, the tones are not strident but hushed and soft. In short, the work of art may be said to have a specific feeling property when it has features that human beings have when they feel the same or similar emotion.”1 And, of course, the same applies to other emotions (not just sadness).

The Bible also has examples of certain music encouraging certain emotions. For instance, David calmed Saul by playing on the harp (1 Samuel 16:14-23). Likewise, Isaiah 24:8 speaks of the “mirth of tambourine” and the “joy of the harp”. Yet Job also says his “harp is turned to mourning” (Job 30:31). Clearly, different styles – even different instruments – are suitable for specific occasions and not for others (see also, Jeremiah 48:36, and Job 21:12).

Even people of the world acknowledge that. As Rev Moerdyk says, “The idea that music has meaning and a message apart from the lyrics is still asserted by most secular singers and thinkers today”. The trouble is that many Christians who promote CCM don’t seem to realise this. As Rev Moerdyk adds, “The primary advocates of the idea that music is neutral seem to be CCM fans and artists.”2

It is also important to realise that emotional meaning is never arbitrarily assigned to certain styles of music by humans; they are inherent in the music itself. For example, no one ever designated rebellion and violence to rock; it’s simply an integral part of it. Rock musicians simply used their style because it naturally expressed their anti-establishment message and emotions.

So then, if musical style communicates emotions, and emotions are not morally neutral, it follows that music itself is not morally neutral. Thus it would be wrong to dismiss critique of the musical style with the argument that it’s just a matter of taste (i.e., aesthetic relativism). Hence we may, indeed must, make judgements about it.

There are at least three things to be said about the style of CCM as it pertains to Christian lyrics or the worship of God.

The first is that the style cannot possibly harmonise with a Biblical, Christian message. Pounding drums and screaming voices solicit many emotions (anger and the like) but cannot encourage the fruits of the Spirit, especially not peace, gentleness, and self-control.

Secondly, the emotional extremities caused by rock do not encourage careful, sober reflection on the gospel, which is necessary for true conversion. On this point, John Makujina notes, “Music has powers of its own, powers of persuasion and sentimentality that often counterfeit the work of the Holy Spirit”.3

Picture of Lincoln Brewster, a worship leader. Many churches are replacing traditional congregational singing with rock bands. Photo from Brewster’s Facebook page.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the CCM style characteristically has a complete lack of reverence towards God. Anyone who thinks he can praise God to the hip-swinging beat of rock ‘n’ roll has no idea what God’s holiness requires.

When the believers in the Old Testament met God, they were always filled with holy awe and fear of God (see, for example, Exodus 20:18-21, Isaiah 6). To impress upon his people His infinite holiness, God established stringent rules for worshipping Himself, especially for the Levites who served in His presence (Exodus 19:10-25, Leviticus 21:1-22:14). God also took the breaking of these laws very seriously. In Leviticus 10:1-6, for example, the fire of the Lord devours the sons of Aaron for offering profane fire before Him, for, says the Lord, “by those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified”. In the New Testament, nothing of God’s holiness has changed (Hebrews 12:18-29). Unfortunately, such a Biblical understanding of God’s holiness does not exist within much of the CCM movement.

Since music must match the message by creating the right mood, God did not overlook the worship music in the Old Testament. For example, many of the psalms include instrumental or other musical stipulations such as “with stringed instruments”, “with flutes”, or “to the tune of…”. Clearly, the music accompanying the words were significant, something many CCM advocates deny or relativise.

The Genevan tunes that we use for psalm singing were also developed for the same purpose. They had to be suitably reverent for worship and complement the words.

Rev K Deddens writes about John Calvin, who initiated the Genevan project,

[Calvin] said time and again that our singing in church was not to be ‘light and frivolous,’ but ‘worthy and majestic.’ Calvin had a great aversion to all kinds of street-ballads, which made the people only licentious, as he said. […] He sought a style that was proper to the church, but not artificial. Therefore, Calvin often used in this respect the word ‘moderate.’ In his writings about church music actually this word has a threefold meaning. This “moderation” stands in the first place over against the abundance of Gregorian chants, but Calvin used this word also over against a very frequent use of music in the church. The singing of the congregation was to have a place in public worship, but not the first and the main place. But, thirdly, Calvin used this word also over against a kind of agitation and excitement in singing. Hence the expression ‘worthy and majestic’.4

Thus, many of the things closely associated with CCM are the exact things Calvin sought to prevent when he reintroduced congregational Psalm singing.

Some CCM advocates have claimed that the church music of the past centuries was just the music of their time. They thus accuse those who oppose CCM of simply rejecting it because it is new or because the world also uses that style, while the church historically never had a problem with appropriating secular music for worship.

This, however, is a questionable claim, at least as far as the Reformed church history is concerned. There has always been a distinction between God-honouring music and worldly music. Historically, therefore, the church has also had different music than the world. That much is evident from the Genevan project, led by John Calvin, where composers created psalm melodies for the express purpose of congregational singing. Clearly, not just any worldly music would suffice. Rev Deddens says:

As for the church modes, already in that time they had a very long history. Thus it is absolutely not true that the Psalm melodies were based on street songs of that time or on the airs and tunes which were popular then. For many decades this theory has been repeated, but it is totally wrong.”5 (In his following article, Rev Deddens works this out, but for the sake of length, I will not deal with his reasons here. Readers can access the Clarion archives online.) Also consider this statement by James McKinnon, “There is hardly a major church father from the fourth century who does not inveigh against pagan musical practice in the strongest language.”6

Everything points to the importance of musical style in worship and therefore the care that we should take to ensure that it matches the words and creates an appropriate mood for the worship of God. CCM fails the criteria for church music.

In the words of Alan Ives, a former rock musician:

We can never portray the peace of the Lord with wild, discordant, violent sound. […] We can never speak of the love of God with hateful music. […] We can never speak of the holiness of God with unholy music […] We can never speak of heavenly things with earthly, sensual, and devilish music […] We can never speak of the seriousness of the cross, of hell, and salvation with flippant music.7

(To be concluded.)

References

  1. Quoted by John Makujina in Measuring the Music: Another Look at the Contemporary Christian Music Debate. Old Paths Publications, 2002, p. 102
  2. Eric Moerdyk, 2021, p. 44 (The paper I refer to is hitherto unpublished. Used with permission.)
  3. John Makujina, Measuring the Music, p. 29
  4. Deddens, Clarion, Volume 36, Issue 6, emphasis original
  5. Deddens, Clarion, Volume 36, Issue 5
  6. Quoted by John Makujina in Measuring the music, p. 221
  7. http://www.practicapoetica.com/articles/the-difference-between-good-and-bad-music/