Today, I received an invitation on Facebook to a friend’s “Holy Hip-Hop” concert. I noticed one of the comments on the event page echoing a line of thought I’ve heard before, essentially arguing that there is no place in the Christian community for hip-hop music, that these “worldly hip-hop beats” (the commenter’s words) are incompatible with a Christian message.
As a former worship pastor, I’ve heard many an argument made for a biblically preferential worship style. I’ve been told that “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) cannot take place when drums are present (it’s important to note that the context of this verse has nothing to do with worship). I’ve been told that being “in the world and not of the world” means listening to and singing music that is stylistically different from music on the radio. I’ve heard that certain types of music are “hypnotic” and can “put you in a trance.” I was once even told (when working at a bookstore in high school) that the Switchfoot CD we were playing contained the “devil’s beat.” I’ve heard it all. And I’m here to tell you it’s all nonsense.
The truth is, instruments are neither sacred nor secular. There’s no such thing as a “sacred instrument” or a “secular instrument.” A pipe organ is no more holy than a kick drum. By the same token, instrumental music is neither sacred nor secular. Music without lyrics gives glory to nothing and no one, regardless of whether it’s a string quartet or techno CD. While we may recognize certain tunes and associate them with certain sacred or secular lyrics, it is the text of a song that determines its meaning.
What is interesting about this whole argument is that many of those who believe God somehow prefers some styles of music to others actually personally prefer tunes that were originally secular. Several hymn tunes began as secular songs and were later adapted as sacred songs. Luther was especially known for doing this; some tunes he used were pub songs. One theory is that he used them because of their familiarity; he knew worshippers would be more easily able to learn songs they already knew. Those tunes are now the very songs to which many “musical purists” now cling. It all goes to show that whether a song “sounds sacred” or not is simply an opinion and often subject to culture.
The same argument made against using pop, rock, hip-hop, or other current music styles in worship (or as Christian music in general) could have been applied against many hymns. However, as previously mentioned, the familiarity of the tunes made them good selections for worship. Even though these tunes may have first been secular, they were still able to be made sacred. Some have made the argument that certain musical styles or beats have pagan roots to them. However, as Christians, we believe in a God who is Redeemer. Every day, God makes beauty from ashes. He turns “hearts of stone” to flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). If God can redeem any person, no matter how broken, why believe a song or even a musical style is beyond God’s redemptive power?
The reality is, for many, that it’s just a weak argument in favor of a preference. Oftentimes someone who prefers hymns played on an organ to rock music played on a guitar or rap music performed to a beat will try to find biblical support for such preferences. The only problem is it’s just not there. What the Bible does tell us is that we should worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We can worship with trumpet, harp, lyre, or cymbals (Psalm 150:3,5). It is not the style that matters but the authenticity. And some percussion doesn’t hurt either!
Did you remember Dr. Harold Best’s thoughts on this topic in his text, MUSIC THROUGH THE EYES OF FAITH? He nailed it on the head.
It sounds like Dr. Best and I agree, or so it seems from this quote: “The musical styles of CCM are neither Christian nor non-Christian. They are simply music.” (180)
BAM!!!! SMACK!!!! WHAMO!!!! CRASH!!!! Another super hero defense against idiocy … I LOVE IT!!!! What is the one thing that makes a song sacred or secular? THE WORDS. Nothing more nothing less. I love Switchfoot and Reilant K!!! I love that there are great words attached to music I enjoy. I’m not a Hip Hop fan but it is the WORDS. I am not a fan of the tune or rhythm, just the words. Thanks for the input JG!!!
Like I said in my FB post, if we scrapped things in Christianity that were originally “imports” from other traditions, we would be left with a fairly bare cupboard. As in, pretty much just Judaism. So yeah, I’m with you.
In the context of the worship service, however, I’ll state that my preference (and it’s exactly that – a preference!) is strongly “traditional” in inclination, for many reasons.
First, it reminds me that the God whom we serve is not cultural, nor bound by any era of history (including my own), but is in fact eternal.
Second, and growing from the first, it encourages me to remember that I’m not alone – that our generation is not alone – that we are part of a larger tradition, a “cloud of witnesses,” that have struggled with the same general issues for all time.
Third (and probably most controversial in this forum!), I hate to admit it but most modern attempts to bring popular music styles into worship services bore me to tears. Part of it is (still) personal preference, of course, but I also feel like a great deal of this music beats the emotive side of worship to a bloody pulp while leaving any attempt to reach the intellect far behind – and are we not to love and serve with heart, soul, *and* mind?
I’d never go so far as to call it “of the devil,” because that’s frankly kinda dumb. However, we do ourselves and our brothers and sisters a disservice when we shut ourselves off from the traditions that preceded us – Bach, Luther, Newton, and Robinson have much to share with us.
I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of “popular” Christian music is pretty low quality. From composition to publication much of it seems to be generated with “cheesy Christian culture” in mind (and I discussed this a little bit in a previous blog post). However, that doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of the effort.
It’s also important to mention that there’s a lot of stuff out there that is excellent in quality and depth (Gungor and Derek Webb are the first couple of examples that come to mind). Their content is rich and their style is artful. I’m also not in favor of leaving behind our heritage as some are. I’m pretty unique in that I love both “traditional” and “contemporary” worship music, and when I was a worship leader, it wasn’t uncommon for me to sing the likes of Bach, Gungor, Luther, and Hillsong all in one worship service. I don’t want to see us lose our rich heritage, but I also believe there are plenty of current artists creatively reaching a new generation that may not place as much value in the tradition that others value. I think it’s important to keep in mind that, as you said, it’s merely a preference, and there’s nothing “wrong” with certain preferences. In fact, there is often plenty of “right” to be found in what many wish to quickly discard.
While I agree with many points, including that many styles can be used for worship (and you do argue effectively on that point), I really disagree with you that instrumental music cannot have sacred or secular meaning.
This argument for the meaning within instrumental music is not new, and yours aligns with Eduard Hanslick and others in favor of “absolute music,” that which cannot be explained by words. On the other end of that argument is “program music,” or that which is attached to a story line or is an audio representation of the visual.
The argument for or against the meaning of instrumental music is completely moot: if a composer, and the performers who share the music do so in the name of God and to the glory of God, it is pleasing in his sight. It is for this reason that music without text is and will remain an integral part of worship–that more “contemporary” music relies primarily on texted music causes those performers and congregants to lose a valuable part of the experience of music as a Godly act.
I definitely agree that instrumental music used in worship can be effective and useful. However, that meaning is often derived from familiarity; in other words, when we hear a meaningful instrumental song, it’s usually an arrangement of one we recognize. Beauty can surely be found in an unfamiliar instrumental piece, but how can one find meaning in it?
I have no doubt that someone who has never heard any song of worship could find an instrumental arrangement of a classic hymn – take “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace,” for example – to be beautiful. However, this person wouldn’t understand the meaning of the song because it is found in the text. I think that’s the critical difference. While one can value and appreciate the spirit in which music is performed, the text brings an extra dimension of meaning that cannot be found in a purely instrumental piece.
It reminds me of a time in college when my college choir sang a beautiful French piece at a wedding. The text was actually horridly inappropriate for such an occasion (the translation includes “full now of woe and deep despairing”), but in the words of our director, “They’ll never know!”