A friend recently asked my opinion on this (old) article by Friar Dwight Longenecker on the tendency for Christian music to be “awful.” Friar Longenecker offers this critique:
We might like listening to Christian country Western or a sweet Broadway type ballad about Jeezus or we might get all hyped up listening to Christian rock, but is it worship? Is it really inspiring us to draw closer to God? Is it really deepening our spiritual life or is it just music we like which makes us feel good and it makes us feel even better because it talks about Jeezus too? Forgive me for being cynical, but think about it. The worst example is Christian Rock music. At the risk of sounding too puritanical, rock and roll music was, from the beginning highly sexualized, laden with rebellious, heavy and nasty rhythms linked with the drug culture–designed to alter consciousness and demolish self restraint. The acid rock and heavy rock was also obviously linked with an occult and demonic sub culture.
So you want to put cozy Christian words to all that? To my mind that’s like putting a gospel tract inside a porn magazine.
And this corrective:
The antidote is to be more aware and appreciative of sacred music. There is a kind of music that on its own–even without words–is designed to open the mind and heart to the sacred. Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony which evolved from it–is the music of worship. Especially in the liturgy this is the music which we are supposed to use because the music lends itself to worship. It opens the heart and mind to a new dimension and reveals the spiritual aspect to our lives in a way that secular music with Christian words does not. That’s what sacred music is. What is required is catechesis about this music and an effort to appreciate it. Truly sacred music is an acquired taste. It takes some effort. It also takes some effort to produce it at a good and worthy level.
His article is helpful in noting that much of modern Christian music, the lyrics are vapid and they’re clearly written for an emotional rather than a worshipful response. For someone like me who’s fond of old dusty theology books and excerpts from The Book of Common Prayer, Christian music can be mind-numbing. From indie Christian rock to Christian contemporary music (CCM) to cheesy Christian rap, I’m often struck by how awful it truly is, both theologically and as an art form. I’d prefer a Trinity-centered Gregorian chant over an ambiguous Christian pop song any day. We certainly need more contemporary music with theological and creative grit.
But does that mean that music “linked with the drug culture” or “an occult and demonic sub culture” is not redeemable? Should we simply go back to “simpler” times when music was made for the Church and no one else? Should Christian rap, for example, cease to exist because of NWA, 2 Live Crew, and Tupac? I think not. (I would say, however, that Vanilla Ice is in no way redeemable. Never. Ever. In any possible world.)
Here are two reasons why I disagree with Friar Longenecker’s sentiment:
1. The Bible, particularly Paul, has no problem appropriating pagan writings. In Acts 17:28, Paul uses a line from Cretica by Epimenides that originally refers to Zeus, not Yahweh. In Acts 26:14, in describing his conversion experience, Paul quotes (and possibly suggests that Jesus quotes) a play by Greek tragedian Aeschylus. Many scholars suggest that he alludes to pagan writings quite often, but these are two clear references.
Some have also convincingly argued that John and other biblical writers used ancient mythical stories of other deities to prove Jesus’s supremacy over them. And the early church, for example, had no problem using pre-Jesus mythical stories to demonstrate that Jesus is the truth myth above all others. Patristic-era churches would even incorporate the icons of mythical figures into their art.
This means for us that even the Bible includes reappropriation of pagan works. These works weren’t just meant to bring about some sinful response; many were used to directly deify false gods. But they were redeemed from the fallen state in which they were once bound.
All truth really is God’s truth, no matter how it’s packaged. And packaging matters. Plain and simple. Even beyond the question of whether it’s valuable for a church setting, bands like Flyleaf (R.I.P.) and artists like Lecrae reach cultures and subcultures a Gregorian chant never will. And if they’re faithful to the gospel, we should applaud them. Maybe they’re not made for Sunday mornings only, but it is short-sighted to assume that people can’t worship to them at home or in their car, or that they can’t draw others into worship for the first time. Too many testimonials prove otherwise.
2. Ancient isn’t always best, and content is king. Longenecker’s article also reeks of reverse-chronological snobbery. We’ve all heard someone say that returning to old hymns or Gregorian chants is a return to true worship. I’ve worked in churches who decried “7-11″ contemporary Christian songs–”7 words repeated 11 times”–when disapproving of the one contemporary song sung on Sundays.
What we tend forget is that the hymns or chants we love were once themselves “modern” and sometimes controversial based on their tune, tempo, or similarity to “pagan” music forms. Our desire for older music is misguided because we forget that our music will one day be the “ancient” music some pine for. Age of the song should be disregarded. (And I know Longenecker isn’t making a pure chronological argument, but it’s a major aspect of his piece.)
We should, however, be concerned with content. This is where Longenecker takes us, but leaves us too early. Old hymns and ancient sacred music were more predominantly theological, with robust choruses about the majesty of God and the humility of man, the propitiation for sins, and the wonder of the Trinity. Nowadays, music often resembles knock-off Nickelback and Taylor Swift songs. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean Christian rock, hip hop, or other forms should be tossed aside. I’m not sure anyone can listen to a Shai Linne album and say, “Man, that guy just doesn’t get how sexually-charged his beats are.”
So would Paul listen to Lecrae? Yes. Unless he simply doesn’t like a mixed beat or two.