CHRISTANS AND MUSIC
Thoughts on Making Choices in Music for all Aspects of Life
Anyone who thinks seriously about anything whatsoever must, of necessity, hold certain presuppositions. As a preparation for this essay the reader ought to be aware of some that I hold.
I believe the Scriptures are God’s word; they are, therefore, true.
I believe Ellen White was God’s messenger; what she wrote, therefore, is not her message but God’s message to us.
I believe that anyone interested in learning truth must be born again on a daily basis, for only with such an experience can we be taught of God.
I believe it is always important (especially when we consider choices that demand certain behaviors) to remind ourselves of the truth that we are saved by grace through faith, that salvation is a gift to which we can add nothing by our behavior.
At the same time I believe it is important that we remind ourselves that our salvation involves an apparent paradox. For while even perfect Sabbath keeping can add nothing to the gift of salvation offered by God, Sabbath breaking will certainly cause us to be lost; while returning a faithful tithe can give us no spiritual merit, robbing God of what is His will surely keep us out of the kingdom.
In addition to such basic presuppositions I feel it important to note that the question of making choices in music is not an entry-level topic. That is, before a person is ready to deal with such choices they must already have settled such basic, and more important questions, as The Love of God, Forgiveness, Grace, Prayer, and The New Birth. Put another way, the question of music, being what may be called an "upper division" topic, demands a great deal of spiritual maturity. For as Paul says, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Corinthians 2:14).
Finally, over time I have come to realize that there are no compelling arguments about anything. No matter how tight the reasoning or how persuasive the examples may be to some, they will not be convincing to others. In this essay I have presented the evidence that I find the most compelling, the lines of reasoning I find the most forceful and indisputable. Beyond this, or in spite of all this, it must be the Holy Spirit that makes any argument compelling, and I can only pray that God will use these ideas to His own glory.
THOUGHTS ON CHOICE
When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden He gave them every possible thing they might ever need or want; He also put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. And while God gave them a strict warning against eating from the forbidden tree, they were still perfectly free to do so, for one of the most fundamental features of God’s government is the freedom and power to choose.
Today, just as in Eden, God has given us many warnings about things that are good and bad, things that will make us eternally happy, and things that will rob us of eternal life. And just as in Eden we are still absolutely free to make bad choices. And since the tempter from the Garden is still very much with us it seems vitally important that we take this gift of choice most seriously and seek to learn to make the best choices possible. That is why I begin this essay on making choices in music with eight ideas that I believe are fundamental for Christians in making all choices.
THE NATURE OF TRUTH
The first idea to consider involves the nature of truth. Perhaps this can be understood best by the following illustration. I might say to someone, "This room feels cool to me." My wife would almost certainly say, "This room is too warm." Now, it should be understood that at home in the summer my wife likes the air-conditioner turned way down—so I dress in sweat pants and warm socks and she dresses in shorts and goes barefoot. In the winter I like to turn the heater up so I can dress in a way I hold to be "normal"—so she still needs to dress in shorts and go barefoot.
In our perceptions about the temperature of a room both of us are absolutely right. What we feel about the comfort level of a room is not subject to argument; my point of view represents truth for me as does her point of view for her. It is important to notice, however, that these per-ceptions represent subjective truth—how we feel about the temperature—and neither assertion can be proven or disproven. Furthermore, on any given day either of us may have a different perception. If I come in from splitting wood, for example, I will feel a room is much warmer than usual; if my wife takes a nap after a big meal she will feel it is much cooler.
Now the question is this: If the perceptions my wife and I hold about the temperature of a room represent subjective, or relative truth, what is the real, objective truth in the matter and how might we discover it? It is actually very simple. If we want to know the objective truth about the temperature of a given room—as opposed to our feelings about it—we just need to get a thermometer. The more importance we attach to the question, the more accurate the thermometer needs to be. To get the "absolute" truth on this subject we would need to get a thermometer calibrated at the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Then we could find the objective truth about the temperature of a room that would be as accurate as it is humanly possible to determine.
The way I feel about the temperature of a room is subjective truth, and may very well change from time to time. The measurement of the temperature of a room by an accurate thermometer is objective truth, and is subject to verification and proof in an entirely different way than my feelings about the temperature. Both feelings and thermometers give truth, but each is truth of a different sort.
This brings us to the real question: What is the nature of spiritual truth? Is it more like my feelings about the temperature of a room, or the measurement of that temperature by a thermometer? I believe it must be the latter. I believe that spiritual truth must always be objective rather than subjective, must always be measured against a trustworthy standard, never determined on the basis of our feelings.
So is there a Divine Bureau of Standards that can serve as the basis for such measurement? Put in these terms every Christian knows the answer:
To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20)
If we try to verify the truth about a spiritual matter and make an appeal to "common sense," the conclusion may be right, but we cannot be sure; if the appeal is to "tradition," we may be right, but we cannot be sure; if the appeal is to any source other than the Bureau of Standards set up by God, we simply cannot be sure that we have anything more than subjective truth—and subjective truth is an entirely different kind of entity than the objective truth of God’s Word. Ultimately, subjective truth is not really truth at all—it is opinion, the opinion of weak, fallible human beings. Objective truth is real truth because—while it can also be said to represent an opinion—the opinion is that of the God who is Truth.
And we must believe that we can know God’s truth. First, because Jesus said: "I am the…truth" (John 14:6)—and it is our privilege to know Him. Second, because He said we could "know the truth" (John 8:32). Finally, because He promised that the Spirit would "guide [us] into all the truth" (John 16:13)—at least all that we are capable of knowing.
Another notion closely related to objective and subjective truth has to do with the idea of taste versus principle. When I go to a restaurant I do not think God cares whether I order peas or broccoli; He does care if I order pork chops instead of either. In the first case I would be dealing with taste, in the second, principle—that of health. When I buy a car I do not think God cares if I get a Ford or a Chevrolet; He does care if I get a Rolls Royce instead of either. Again, the first case is dealing with taste, the second with principle—that of stewardship.
In all such cases I believe that taste is basically the same as subjective truth, since it reflects the opinions or preferences of human beings, whereas principle is the same as objective truth, since it reflects the opinions or preferences of God. God gives us the privilege of following our tastes freely in those large areas of life that involve only the good and right; He forbids us to follow our own tastes where principle is concerned.
There are two Scripture texts that apply with special force on this subject. Proverbs 14:12 reminds us that "There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death." In Ephesians 2:3 Paul states that we are "by nature children of wrath," that is, we all have fallen, sinful natures. With such natures it is axiomatic that much of what seems right to us will, in fact, be wrong. That is why if we are to make good choices in spiritual things we must always base our choices on the Word of God, not on what seems good to us; we must learn to live by the objective truth of the Scriptures.
ON BEING "BLESSED"
It is almost inevitable, in any discussion about making good spiritual choices, that someone will say—by way of justifying some specific choice—that by a particular idea or practice they are "blessed." Though often unstated, the clear assumption is that because they are "blessed," the idea or practice must be good and true. I believe it imperative, before we accept, uncritically, the implications of this notion, that we find out what Scripture has to say about being "blessed."
As a central part of his final review of their covenant relationship with God, Moses reminded the Israelites that "If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them" "You will be the most blessed of peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:12-14).
The Psalmist declares a blessing on a particular attitude towards good and evil: "Blessed is the man [or woman] that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his [or her] delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doeth he [or she] mediate day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2).
An important part of the Sermon on the Mount is what has been called the "beatitudes," the blessings available to God’s children. We are to be "blessed" if we are "poor in spirit," if we "mourn," if we are "meek," if we "hunger and thirst for righteousness," if we are "merciful," if we are "pure in heart," if we are "peacemakers," if we are "persecuted for righteousness," if we are "reviled" by the ungodly (Matthew 5:3-11).
When a woman called out a blessing on His mother, Jesus took the opportunity to turn the minds of the crowd to the source of a greater blessing, one that all could share: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (Luke 11:28).
The blessing pronounced in Revelation 1 is for those who "read," "hear," and "keep" what is written in the "prophecy" (Revelation 1:3).
I believe such references are clear and unequivocal. In every case we are blessed by doing what is true and right and good. I have not found a single text anywhere in Scripture that shows the opposite to be true—that something is true and right and good if we are "blessed" by it.
This distinction is crucial, because there are no end of experiences in which people claim a "blessing," even when, as it may be, many such experiences are clearly unscriptural (i.e. keeping Sunday as a holy day). And while it is impossible to deny that a person may, in fact, feel "blessed" by some-thing like Sunday worship, it is essential to understand that feeling "blessed" is not the biblical way to learn truth. For, "Blessed are they that do His commandments"; "Blessed are they that hear the word of God and obey it." If we are to make good choices in life we must be sure we are being "blessed" in God’s own way.
The notion of sincerity is closely related to the nature of truth and being "blessed." And while there can be no argument that sincerity is absolutely essential to making good choices, I believe, as the following illustrations will demonstrate, that sincerity can never be a definitive test of truth.
Central to the Roman Catholic Mass is what is called the miracle of "transubstantiation." Our Catholic friends believe that when the bread and wine of Holy Communion are lifted up by the priest (in what is called the "elevation of the host") and he says certain Latin words, these symbols become the very body and blood of Jesus. They will acknowledge that the symbols still appear to be ordinary bread and wine; they nevertheless aver that the priest has, in fact, recreated the body and blood of Jesus.
Given the probable fact that both priest and parishioners are totally sincere, the really pertinent question then becomes: Is this claim true? Is it really possible that a finite man can create God? The answer to this question, quite certainly, must be, No! Therefore it is equally certain that the doctrine of transubstantiation cannot true—no matter how sincere those are who believe it!
In some parts of the South it is the common practice of certain religious groups to handle poisonous snakes. Based on the promise of Mark 16:18 this practice is carried on, we might note, with great passion and enthusiasm. Based on videotapes I have seen where copperheads and rattlesnakes are handled freely and safely, I can have no doubts whatsoever that the worshipers are sincere.
Again we must ask: Does their obvious sincerity make snake hand-ling a valid form of worship? Most Christians (especially if they were given an opportunity to demonstrate their sincerity in this way) would be equally certain that such practices are not made true by sincerity.
In Israel over the last several years a great many suicide bombers have demonstrated their sincerity of belief in Islam when they have blown themselves up in crowded market places or on city busses. A few have been caught before they had a chance to detonate their explosives and have been interviewed by television newsmen. It is chilling to hear how sincere they are, how sure they are that they are doing the will of God and that they will go to straight to Paradise for such acts. Most people, even those who profess no religious faith whatsoever, are clear in their understanding that such sincerity, great as it is, can never justify such heinous acts.
In two stories (Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 13:24-27) Jesus also made it clear that sincerity can never be a sure guide to truth. Even those who "prophesy" in His name, "cast out demons" in His name, do "many deeds of power" in His name, "eat and drink" with Him, and listen to His teachings "in [their] streets," may be found wanting in the end—not because they were not sincere, but because they failed to "do His will." If we are to make good spiritual choices—that is, do God’s will—we must understand that sincerity is important in learning truth—but that it can never be definitive. The word of God, not our sincerity, must be the real test of truth.
LEARNING GOD’S WILL
If we are to make good spiritual choices, that is, if we are to please God in our choices, we must know His will, His opinions. In this regard I believe it helpful to understand that in the Bible we may expect to find both explicit and implicit opinions of God. In some cases His will is so clearly stated that it is impossible not to understand it with even a cursory study. In other cases His will is only implied, and we will find in necessary to study much more deeply to understand exactly what His will really is.
As examples of the first—the explicit expressions of His will—I would suggest the following:
It is God’s will that we are faithful in our stewardship, for "God loves a cheerful giver" (II Corinthians 9:7).
It is God’s will that we recognize His sovereignty, His exalted position, His name, His Sabbath, that we respect parents, life, purity, property, and truthfulness, and we must not even want anything that belongs to others (Exodus 20:3-17).
It is God’s will that marriage be permanent, for "I hate divorce," He says (Malachi 2:16).
He also hates pride, untruthfulness, violence, evil schemes, evil actions, false testimony, and any cause of interpersonal discord (Proverbs 6:16-19).
As examples of the second—the implicit expressions of His will—I would suggest the following:
"For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26-28).
I take this text to mean, at the very least, that every person is equal in the sight of God, and that the distinctions we often make in terms of ethnicity, economics, or gender violate this great principle. I believe this principle of absolute equality applied fully in the Garden of Eden and will apply again in the New Earth. What this means in a practical sense is that because we are preparing, now, to live forever in God’s kingdom we need to allow Him to reshape our attitudes about others so that by the time He comes again we will be in harmony with the way things will be for the rest of eternity.
When we see instances in the Bible where this great principle was not observed I believe we should understand that such were temporary aberrations, problems that, in God’s sight, were less important at that time than some other problems God was trying to correct. Christians, in making choices, must always strive for the ideal, must never settle for embracing that which God views as an evil, even if it is, at some point, of less import than some other evil.
A second example of God’s implicit opinions I draw from Genesis and Isaiah. "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food" (Genesis 1:29-30). Speaking about the New Earth God reveals that "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain" (Isaiah 11:9).
In the perfect world of Eden the diet for both man and beast was strictly vegetarian; in a world remade there will be no death—hence no roast beef or fried chicken. What this means in a practical sense is that because we are preparing, now, to live forever in God’s kingdom we need to allow Him to reshape our appetites so that by the time He comes again we will be in harmony with the way things will be for the rest of eternity.
There are many instances in the Bible where God allowed human beings to destroy animal life to preserve their own. This is the right of a God who is sovereign over all, but it never represented the ideal. I believe Christians, in making choices, must always strive for the ideal, even if it is only implicit in the Scriptural record.
We should especially note, as we work towards the specific question of Christians and music, that it is quite certain that we will not find explicit counsels in the Bible about such matters. Artistic questions are both time and culture conditioned and thus, unlike many principles (i.e. moral purity) that are timeless and universal, could not be addressed thousands of year ago in a way that would apply directly to us today. We must therefore look for implicit expressions of God’s will, for great underlying principles that, through the direction of the Holy Spirit, can be applied to questions about music in our time.
CULTURE AND SOCIETY
There are at least two definitions for the word "culture." We say people are "cultured" if they attend symphony concerts, visit art galleries, or enjoy museums. The word can also mean nothing more than the sum total of what makes various groups of human beings what they are. It is this second meaning that I will use in what follows.
A short list of things, practices, and ideas that might define a par-ticular culture could include speaking Japanese, wearing black skull-caps, declining to have a telephone in one’s home, eating dog meat, keeping slaves, practicing polygamy, having blue eyes, believing in the caste system.
We should note immediately that some things on this list are morally good or at least neutral (speaking Japanese, wearing skullcaps, not using telephones, or having blue eyes) and some are morally reprehensible (eating dog meat, keeping slaves, practicing polygamy, and believing in the caste system). What this tells us is that the simple fact of something being an important part of a particular culture reveals nothing about its moral value. If we are to know that we must consult a higher arbiter of values, namely, God’s word. Failure to do this will almost certainly insure that we make choices that are spiritually bad.
If we are to understand this question of culture we must also recog-nize the importance of three Bible texts:
"I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world" (John 17:15-16).
"Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, the pride of riches—comes not from the Father but from the world" (I John 2:15-16).
"All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:13-16).
What these references teach, I believe, is that when we become Christians our "culture" becomes that of heaven; we are no longer primarily citizens of a particular country here on earth.
We commonly refer to ourselves as being Irish-American, or Mexican-American, or Swedish-American. By this we mean that although we live in America our cultural heritage is from Ireland or Mexico or Sweden. As Christians perhaps we should speak of ourselves as Christian-American, or Christian-Brazilian, or Christian-Chinese, meaning that although we live in the United States, or Brazil, or China, our cultural heritage is really from that "better country," the "heavenly one" for which we strive. If we are to make good spiritual choices we must be clear as to our true cultural heritage.
Relativism is a way of thinking that has been called the "major trend of our time," and the "spirit of the age." It is thus one of the most important ideas to consider as we try to understand how we can make good choices. Here are some selected references that describe and define this phenomenon:
We live in an age of moral relativism. According to the dominant school of moral philosophy, the skepticism engendered by the Enlightenment has reduced all ideas of right and wrong to matters of personal taste, emotional preference or cultural choice. Since the truth cannot be known, neither can the good.
There is an important issue here, one that is intimately related to the major trend of our time. In many areas of human endeavor, the old confidence in traditional values has eroded, to be replaced by a kind of flabby relativism. I use this term to denote a point of view that holds that there are no fixed values, no way of making choices between competing ideas, and hence no truth independent of social or political convention. This viewpoint is usually cloaked in rhetoric about the value of diversity and multi-cultural influences in American life…. Many academics seem to believe that it is totally unfashionable to say that one point of view is better than others....
It is not hard to see how such a situation could lead to the notion that all points of view are equally valid. Provided you are sufficiently clever, you can defend almost any philosophical proposition. There is no external test for the validity of your arguments; all you have to be is smarter than your opponents. How, then, can any one point of view be superior to any other?
Much admirable philosophical work has been done upon the notion of "ways of seeing," of angles of vision, of—to speak more ponderously—alternative conceptual systems. We have be-come familiar enough with the idea that phenomena may be viewed in more than one way, comprehended within more than one theory, interpreted by more than one set of explanatory concepts. It has thus become almost impossible to believe that some one way of seeing, some one sort of theory, has an exclusive claim to be the right way....
The idea of universal truth in ethics, they say, is a myth. The customs of different societies are all that exist. These customs cannot be said to be "correct" or "incorrect," for that implies we have an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. But there is [they say] no such independent standard; every standard is culture-bound…. This line of thought has probably persuaded more people to be skeptical about ethics than any other single thing. Cultural Relativism, as it has been called, challenges our ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth. It says, in effect, that there is no such thing as universal truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural codes, and nothing more. Moreover, our own code has no special status; it is merely one among many.
It is easy to see that if we buy into this way of thinking it will be impossible to make good spiritual choices. If we consider right and wrong to be only "matters of personal taste, emotional preference or cultural choice," how could we possibly please God? If it is impossible for us to say that "one point of view is better than others," how could we be guided in making truly moral choices? If we believe that no "one sort of theory has an exclusive claim to be the right way," how could we know that there is one sort of way that is clearly wrong?
The moral bankruptcy of this system of thought is so obvious that it seems impossible that intelligent, thinking people would accept it, but, as noted above, many see this as the "major trend of our time." Here are some examples of how non-believers are influenced by moral relativism today:
The Surgeon General of the United States of America promotes the notion that out-of-wedlock births are not wrong because, as she says, "Everybody has different moral standards"
A writer comments on how the "doctrine of the moral equivalence of all ‘lifestyles’" [i.e. hetero- and homosexuality] has "obliterated the reality of human depravity"
Shortly after the terror attacks that have come to be known as "9-11" a young woman at Yale University wrote an essay entitled, "The Question That We Should Be Asking." Here are some important excerpts:
"In a college seminar on Sept. 12 a professor said he did not see much difference between Hamas suicide bombers…and American soldiers who died fighting in World War II…. I wanted to say that although both groups may have believed that they were fighting for their ways of life in declared "wars," there is a considerable distinction…. The professor didn’t call on me. The people who did get a chance to speak cited various provocations for terrorism; not one of them questioned its morality."
"The explanations students and professors give for the September 11 attacks—extreme poverty in the Middle East, America’s foreign policy in that region and religious motivation—are insightful, but they cannot provide absolution for wrongdoing."
"Much of the discussion on this campus since September 11 has failed to address the question of whether an absolute wrong has been committed."
Regrettably, it is not only on secular campuses like Yale University that moral judgments are skewed by relativism. Many Seventh-day Advent-ists are being caught up in the same kind of thinking. As examples, I quote from two letters sent to me by brilliant, Seventh-day Adventist graduate students who had, incidentally, received all their previous education in the Adventist school system.
I strongly believe that if people used their powers of thought, studied honestly, and searched in the millions of ways they’re individually inclined to search, there would be as many different "religions" as there are people.
Later in her letter this student said, "How can either one of us claim to be right and the other wrong?"
In the second letter another friend stated that
My life is made rich by the Adventists I have associated with and the educational institutions I have attended. However, I wouldn’t claim for a second that my heritage is somehow more legitimate than others’ religious heritages. I think we are all equally far from the truth.
Notice how no one can claim to actually be right about a religious question, and that no one idea can be superior (or more "legitimate") than any other; thus no one can make any claim to really know truth and error!
I trust it is clear that the implications of such reasoning are dreadfully serious for making good spiritual choices. The only safe alternative to such thinking is to believe in absolutes—the absolutes revealed in Scripture. If we are to make good spiritual choices we must learn how to spot relativism wherever it appears, and we must oppose such thinking as strongly as we can for it is totally incompatible with Christianity.
THE GREAT CONTROVERSY
Anyone seeking to make good spiritual choices must consider the basic facts of what Seventh-day Adventists call the "Great Controversy." For purposes of the present argument, one of the most important facts about the Great Controversy is that Satan is a liar and a murderer and has only one great aim—to deceive and destroy mankind. While he still makes sin appear as "a delight to the eyes," and "to be desired to make one wise" (Genesis 3:6), all he is trying to do, in the end, is to kill us.
From this, it seems logical to me to assume that Satan will use every possible means at his disposal to accomplish his purposes, and one would be hard pressed to think of a single area of life that Satan has not used in his work of deception. In fact, the Holy Spirit corroborates this view in what follows:
He [Satan] will misrepresent, misapply, and pervert everything he possibly can, to deceive, if possible, the very elect.
A second point we ought to consider is that before his fall Lucifer was the leader of the choir in heaven. Since he will "pervert everything," and since he is an experienced musician, is it not logical that he will endeavor to use music to deceive us? God has revealed exactly what it is that Satan wants to do with music:
Satan has no objection to music, if he can make that a channel through which to gain access to the minds of the youth. Anything will suit his purpose that will divert the mind from God, and engage the time which should be devoted to His service. He works through the means which will exert the strongest influence to hold the largest numbers in a pleasing infatuation, while they are paralyzed by his power. When turned to good account, music is a blessing, but it is often made one of Satan’s most attractive agencies to ensnare souls.
The Great Controversy scenario assures us that every day we find ourselves confronted by an enemy bent on our destruction, an enemy who will pervert and distort every facet of life in order to accomplish this end. Furthermore, we cannot opt out of this conflict, we cannot "Just say No." Whether we like it or not, each of us is caught up in this cosmic struggle and will, finally, have to decide on which side we wish to stand. If we are to make good choices we must consider the implications of the Great Controversy in every choice we make.
THE CHOSEN PEOPLE
The last basic point to consider as a preparation for making good spiritual choices involves God’s expectations for each of us. Most Christians are familiar with the idea that God chose the Israelites as His special people in order that they might do a special work. Abraham was promised that in his posterity "all families of the earth [would] be blessed" (Genesis 12:3), and at the time of the Exodus the Israelites were invited to enter into a covenant relationship with God. As a result He assured them that they were to be "my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6).
We must also remember that at the time of Christ’s first advent the spiritual failures of the Jewish nation caused the covenant relationship between Israel and God to be broken, and Christ told the leaders of the nation that "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (Matthew 21:43). For this reason Peter could write that "you [Christians] are [now] a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (I Peter 2:9).
What this means is that since we are the heirs of the covenant promises we are called to an exceedingly high standard. Not only have we been chosen to be a "royal priesthood" and a "holy nation." We have been chosen "in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9).
As we consider making spiritual choices we must bear all of this in mind. We are very special to God; He wants us to make very good choices. I think it significant that Jesus summed up one important section of the Sermon on the Mount—a section calling for good choices involving the most stringent terms ("if you even look at a woman with lust….")—with these words: "Be ye therefore perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Someone has said, "Old age is not for sissies"; we might add that neither is being part of God’s "chosen" people. As we study how we are to make good choices, this is the context in which such choices must be made.
At this point the question might legitimately be asked: Is all this introduction necessary to a discussion about Christians and music? Why not just go directly to the point? I believe such a preparation is necessary because without clearly understanding the difference between subjective and objective truth it would be very easy to mistake the former for the latter. It would also be easy to assume that because one is "blessed," or "strangely warmed" by some particular idea or practice it must be the Spirit of God who is doing the blessing or warming. And it would be easy to allow taste to take the place of principle, or to assume that sincerity or culture can make a lie into truth. Keeping the nature of truth clearly before us is the only way to be certain of making valid judgments between the good and evil that surrounds us.
It is also certain that without understanding God’s will—whether explicit or implicit—we will make many bad choices. We may often need to be reminded that tradition, or common sense, or science, or sociology, or majority opinion, or virtually anything else may have much value and importance in our lives—but that all such means of knowing spiritual truth are, and must always be, trumped by the word of God.
Without clearly understanding that relativism is the "moral trend of our times," and that it negates the whole point of the gospel, we may get caught up in such thinking ourselves, and thus find it impossible to make true moral judgments.
Without clearly understanding the Great Controversy and its appli-cation to our daily lives, it would be easy to miss an important point when the question comes to music itself. So often people will say, "What’s the big deal, it’s just music." The notion of the Great Controversy tells us that it is not just music or just anything. Everything in life is important, for "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:2).
Finally, without understanding that we are God’s special treasure, a peculiar people called by Him for a special task—a task that becomes infinitely more important as we near the end of time—we would be like travelers who go on from day to day without a certain destination. And without the meaning that comes from setting our course by a particular star we would have no reason to even try to make good and true spiritual choices.
MEANING IN MUSIC
Before we can discuss the specifics of making choices in music it is necessary that we understand something of the nature of music and how it achieves meaning. Virtually everyone agrees that music has meaning; the only disagreement comes on exactly how that meaning is achieved. There are two major ideas, or schools of thought, regarding this aspect of music.
The first assumes that music is inherently neutral, that notes on a page, of themselves, mean nothing at all. The meaning that music clearly has is considered to be derived only on the basis of (1) ascription, (2) the lyrics associated with the music, and (3) the associative or connotative relationships that come with different kinds and styles of music.*
Ascription, or ascribed meaning, is like what we have with national anthems, school songs, and such works as "Peter and the Wolf." Each of these pieces of music means what it does simply because someone ascribed or "assigned" a particular meaning to a set of notes. As the meaning is clearly arbitrary, if one does not know the ascription, the idea that the music is meant to represent, a specific meaning is impossible. Whatever meaning such music would then have would be derived from some other source.
The lyrics used with music also give it meaning. Music with silly lyrics means silliness; music with grand lyrics usually means grandness. It should be noted in this context, however, that the bad always tends to "overcome" the good—much in the same way that rotten apples always make good apples become rotten. (As an example of how this principle works in music I will tell you that when I was young it was not uncommon to hear frivolous or vulgar words put to some well-known hymn tune. Now, many years later when I hear the hymn, "At the Cross, At the Cross," all I can hear in my mind are those frivolous words learned so long ago, and the hymn is still ruined for me.) Thus good music can be spoiled by bad lyrics, and, conversely, music that carries negative meanings (derived by other means) cannot usually be made positive simply by adding positive lyrics.
The associative or connotative relationships of various kinds and styles of music is the third way in which music has meaning according to the first school of thought. A little reflection will demonstrate—if we ever view films, listen to radio, or watch television—that our lives are constantly being influenced by this phenomenon.
As an example we could imagine a movie scene with a large, dark warehouse. As the hero prepares to enter this building how are we made to know that a "bad guy" is hiding there? Or imagine a scene in which a dappled fawn is feeding in a sunny forest glade. How are we made to know that a hungry wolf is lurking unseen in the shadows? In scenarios like these it is clearly the music that gives us such obvious indications of danger. And it is the music that tells us about heroic actions and situations of sadness; it is the music that informs us that a scene is happy or pensive; it is in the music that every conceivable mood and frame of mind is reflected. All this is possible because different kinds of music have, over time, become associated with certain ideas and moods, and in Western culture these meanings are pretty much universal. Because of this a composer can enhance and under-score almost any conceivable idea or situation by choosing just the right kind of music.
In addition, we need to recognize that a competent composer can set a given tune in any number of styles, thus using the same basic tune to convey a great many different meanings. Imagine, for example, the hymn "Abide With Me" as a waltz, a march, a minuet, or a rag. In each case, although we can still hear that "Abide With Me" is the basis for the work, each has become something else entirely. In an example like this it is easy to see that the style, not the tune itself, is what is important. The reason for this is that, in a given culture, certain styles have become associated with certain kinds of activities and places; there is an emotional "baggage" that is attached to each style.
As another illustration of how this notion works we may consider a humorous piece by Garrison Keillor of "The Prairie Home Companion" fame. Mr. Keillor spins one particular yarn about how the Lutherans in Lake Woebegone are hunting for a new church organist. First they engage a gentleman by the name of J. S. Bach. He is a dynamite performer—but his music is so complicated that the members soon tire of his style and decide he is not the man for the job.
Next they hire a wonderful organist by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. How he can play! But there are so many notes! After a while the joy begins to pall and it all begins to seem a little "light"—so Mr. Mozart is also let go.
Mr. Keillor caricatures a few other composers (i.e. Richard Wagner plays beautiful melodies—but they never seem to end, etc.) before he finally gets to George Gershwin. Keillor’s punch line about Gershwin is that he was a fine organist, "but when the deacons came around with the offering plates the congregation didn’t know whether to put in an offering or order a drink."
Now why would Mr. Keillor say this? It is based entirely on the notion of associative relationships. Such a reference is humorous only when we recognize that George Gershwin was one of the first "classical" composers who made a studied effort to unite jazz with the musical traditions of the 19th century. Keillor operates on the assumption that everyone understands the meaning jazz carries—that it has long been associated with drinking establishments.
So, according to this first school of thought, if we want to find out what a particular piece of music means we must look at how these three factors—ascription, lyrics, and associative relationships—interrelate to form a composite picture.
The second school of thought regarding the meaning of music suggests that there are inherent meanings somehow "embedded" in the music itself. It is thought that there are things in the elements of music (the melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre, etc.) that carry meanings quite apart from those meanings discussed above. In support of this it has been demonstrated, for instance, that there are predictable physical and/or emotional responses to certain styles and kinds of music, much of which happens on the subliminal level. People can, in a very real sense, be manipulated by music. The psychology of music is an important field of study in which a good deal of support can be found for this second school of thought. Unfortunately, such information is not very accessible to most people, nor is it easily understood.*
There is another line of thought in support of this second notion about the meaning of music, and it is easily understood. It may be called the "What Is" argument. It centers on the question, How did certain styles of music become connected with particular kinds of activities? With the entire gamut of music from which to choose, why are the choices made that are made? What is, in fact, habitually done? The answer seems to be that certain styles of music just naturally enhance certain activities and situations. And this appears to be true in virtually all Western cultures.
Ultimately these two basic ideas about the meaning of music are complementary rather than contradictory, for in a sense the argument comes down to a sort of "chicken and egg" question—which came first, the meaning or the use? Is meaning derived from use, or use from meaning? It probably does not matter, since in the real world people pretty much know what music means, and the "what" is more important than the "how."
There is one more important question along this line: Does God see any meaning in music? What can we learn about how He views music? Note the following:
Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God. What a contrast between the ancient custom and the uses to which music is now too often devoted! How many employ this gift to exalt self, instead of using it to glorify God! A love for music leads the unwary to unite with world-lovers in pleasure-gathering where God has forbidden his children to go. Thus that which is a great blessing when rightly used, becomes one of the most successful agencies by which Satan allures the mind from duty and from the contemplation of eternal things.
Satan has no objection to music if he can make that a channel though which to gain access to the minds of the youth. Anything will suit his purpose that will divert the mind from God and engage the time which should be devoted to His service. He [Satan] works through the means which will exert the strongest influence to hold the largest numbers in a pleasing infatuation, while they are paralyzed by his power. When turned to a good account, music is a blessing, but it is often made one of Satan's most attractive agencies to ensnare souls.
Such references make it abundantly clear that from God’s perspective music has tremendous meaning—for both good and evil.
All of this being so, what questions would a Christian need to ask as he or she makes choices in music? Let me suggest a few:
Would someone who really understands what Satan is trying to do, and who is committed body and soul to the service of Jesus Christ, want to choose music that has ascribed meanings not compatible with pleasing God?
Would someone who is praying every day for the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit want to choose music that has lyrics that are impure or that glorify sin?
Would someone who is striving every day to be more like Jesus, who wishes to be used by God to save lost souls, want to choose music with associative relationships that come directly out of the kingdom of Satan?
Are not the answers to these questions totally clear? Should this not be enough? Regrettably, things are never quite as easy as they seem so I will be more explicit.
There are basically two types of music that I find especially reprehensible—but that are commonly used in many Christian communities. These are jazz and rock music and I will discuss them in turn.
CHRISTIANS AND JAZZ
Christians who are interested in music, if they are really serious about doing God’s will, must at some point face up to the problem of jazz. On the one hand, there was a time when jazz (like a good many other practices now found in the church) was considered by Christians to be a tool of the devil. On the other hand, a sizeable number of sincere Christians feel, today, that jazz is a totally acceptable art form. And, unlike rock music, which is not only spiritually bankrupt but aesthetically weak, jazz can lay claim to both musical sophistication and aesthetic respectability. Thus we have the question: Has the spiritual discernment of the church become blunted over time, or has jazz become—or has it perhaps always been—something desirable for Christians?
Based on all that has gone before in this essay, I would like to suggest a way of looking at jazz that has helped me in dealing with this question.
I hold that jazz is unfit for Christians on two basic accounts: first, its origins and usage—and what that implies in terms of meaning; second, the basic nature of the music itself—especially the obvious "physical" quality of this style.
Jazz had its origins in an amalgam of several different, but related, styles. These would include Black gospel music and what is called the "blues." Another important antecedent would be the music of West African Voodoo ceremonies brought to America with the slave trade.* The progeny of these various elements was nurtured, in the early years, primarily in the brothels and nightclubs of New Orleans. The seamy nature of all this becomes clear when we learn that the term "jazz" was originally a euphemism for sexual intercourse, the "F" word of an earlier generation.
A useful reference for some of these facts about jazz may be found in the book, Planet Drum. I quote two relevant passages.
Those cultures that choose to access the higher domains—the spirit world, the other world, heaven, Valhalla, transpersonal consciousness, the collective unconscious, name it however you prefer—have often used some form of rhythmically controlled noise to facilitate the communion. The Shamans say they "ride their drum" to the World Tree. The classic possession cultures say that the Orisha, the ancestor spirits, ride the rhythm of the drum down into the dancing bodies. Work drum, dance drum, war drum, trance drum. How does rhythmic music serve as a catalyst for transformation? What role does the musician play? How much training is required before a drummer can handle these powerful trance rhythms and not become entranced? What quality of balance is needed before we can dance at the edge of music and not slip?
Some scholars connect the West African possession cultures with the ancient Neolithic mother goddess culture that nine thousand years ago [sic] stretched from eastern Europe into what is now the Sahara desert. When the slave trade began in the seventeenth century, this technique of possession trance was carried to the New World. In those places where the Africans were allowed to keep their drums, it mutated into candomblé, santería, and vôdun. In America, where the drums were prohibited for many generations, this legacy of possession-trance dance rhythm was shorn of its spiritual dimension, becoming instead jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
Another excellent reference is African Rhythm and African Sensibility.
After going through an elaborate ceremony involving animal sacrifices, etc. Mr. Chernoff, a sociologist, reports his subsequent experience as follows:
As a skeptic, I had taken the ceremony lightly, and I thought little of it afterwards. The bundle of sticks was too lumpy to bother putting them under my pillow.
My reflection on the ceremony became an issue because, though I am only an amateur musician, I managed to learn to play African drums…. During my first months in Ghana, while Gideon was taking me around to display my skills, he spent only an afternoon or two teaching me a few supporting rhythms. Yet whenever I played with Gideon in the cult, I seemed never to make a mistake. Gideon would sometimes play rhythms to which I had never learned the responses, and still my playing would be correct. Cult drumming is fairly difficult, and I was a real novice at the time, yet nobody was surprised when I played well and nobody, not even Gideon, made suggestive references to the ritual when they congratulated me. Practicing alone in my room, I could not maintain steadily even the responses I had learned.
I believe such accounts by professionals with absolutely no spiritual "agenda" to support should provide a powerful reason for Christian to ask themselves some very serious questions about the use and enjoyment of jazz. Should not a style that drew important elements out of ceremonies designed to facilitate trance and spirit possession put up some red flags for those who understand that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil"?
My second concern about jazz is the "physical" nature of this style. For much of its history jazz has been associated with dancing and other physical responses that are crude and vulgar. There seems to be something about this style that, as someone has said, "appeals to our bodies from the neck down." Of course Sousa marches also appeal to the "body," but the physical responses to jazz have always been of a distinctly different nature than the responses to most other kinds of music.
In connection with this quality of jazz we should also ask, Why was jazz chosen for use in brothels and nightclubs in the first place? It was certainly not the only kind of music available at the time. Certain sociological reasons have been suggested for this association, and such reasons are clearly true to some degree. More importantly, however, jazz was chosen because it fit; it enhanced what went on in the red-light districts; jazz was a home with whores and pimps.
Support for this notion can be found in a remarkable book by Martha Bayles called Hole In Our Soul, with the subtitle, The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.
The author makes a significant point in her introduction that will help in understanding the entire book:
My intention is not just to rub your nose in the latest swill; any number of critics can do that. Rather it is to explain the situation: to articulate exactly what is wrong, to show where the swill comes from, and to suggest why popular music doesn’t have to be this way. Unlike many others who have been knocking popular music lately, I do so from a position of deep and abiding sympathy. In that sense this book is not a tirade, but a labor of love. (Hole in Our Soul, pages 3-4. Emphasis supplied)
Ms. Bayles thus makes it clear that she is defending what she would call "authentic" popular music (which would include both jazz and rock) against a host of aesthetically unworthy pretenders—what she calls "swill."
Basic to her argument throughout the book is this underlying view: all popular music is based on the erotic. Here are a few of the many, many references that might be cited to show this view:
There is a world of difference between the human eroticism expressed in Afro-American forms such as the blues, and the dehumanized obscenity that is the perpetual, infantile preoccupation of perverse modernism [which is how she describes much of the current (in 1994) popular fare].
[She speaks of those] who can appreciate the complex beauties of the music because they can sense the difference between the erotic, which preserves the connections between sex and the rest of life; and the obscene, which severs them.
This contrast in performance style parallels the distinction between eroticism and obscenity—a distinction that would soon be lost on the youthful avatars of rock.
These quotations may also be used to underscore another important point in this book. When Ms. Bayles laments the "loss of beauty and meaning" in popular music, what she means is that the music is too often not simply erotic (a quality in music she apparently admires) but obscene (a quality she decries).
Again, how can such an evaluation from a defender of popular music not alert a born-again Christian to be wary? How can exposing oneself to music that is obscene, or even "simply" erotic, not be a negative for one who wishes to become "pure in heart," or who wishes to follow the counsel to think on what is "good," and "true," and "pure"?
As a Christian I find in either the origins, or the "physical," erotic nature of jazz, sufficient reason to at least ask myself some serious questions concerning how this art form might help or hinder me in my efforts to become more like Jesus.
I would like, now, to go on to some of the objections that are often raised regarding these two basic ideas.
1) Concerning the question of the origins of jazz, the point is frequently made that this is an invalid objection since Christians now find many practices acceptable that also had pagan origins—Easter and Christmas being the prime examples.
The origins of both these festivals probably cannot be denied, but the real question is: Are they still pagan in nature? I would suggest that to the extent that they are still pagan they are not fit for Christian celebration. If Easter is no more than a form of sun worship or a celebration of fertility rites in connection with rabbit "eggs," it is still essentially pagan. If Christmas is all Santa Claus and elves along with a spirit of total commercialism it, too, is still pagan. I believe that if these celebrations do not place emphasis on the birth or resurrection of Jesus, they have not really been "Christianized" at all and are probably not spiritually healthy for us.
Following the same line of reasoning I would suggest the following kinds of questions about jazz: Have the pagan elements inherited from Voodoo rites been eradicated? (Are we even sure what all of these elements are?) Does the use of jazz over the course of the last few decades suggest that it has really been "Christianized"?
2) The point is often made, also, that although jazz did have its origins in rather unsavory circumstances, it has become serious concert music and has thus somehow been "sanitized." If jazz were only used as concert music one might try to make a case for this being so. I have friends, however, who still play jazz for people to dance to, so, at least in some places, jazz isn’t exclusively concert music. (And, for all I know, jazz may still be used in brothels as well.)
One should also ask: Does "concert" use necessarily change the nature of jazz? If so, exactly how would this be?
The USA Weekend of December 1-3, 1989 carried an interview with Wynton Marsalis, one of the leading jazzmen of our time. The title of the piece was "Sexy Wynton Marsalis." On the side of the first page, in large letters, it said: "The jazzman on his steamy new holiday LP." Here is some of the dialogue that made up the interview:
Interviewer: What’s the big idea of making Silent Night sound sexy, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing sound honky-tonk? Don’t you think people are going to be annoyed and think, "Is nothing sacred?"
Marsalis: We’ve been doing these carols out on the road for eight years. The people come and they love the music. They recognize that "sexy" is part of what "America" is. These carols may have been written by Europeans, but when we get ‘em we make ‘em American. It’s like what Duke Ellington did with the Nutcracker Suite.
Interviewer: But that wasn’t sexy....
Marsalis: Oh, yes it was. Duke was one of the sexiest musicians who ever lived.
Interviewer: What is there about the blues that makes it so sexy?
Marsalis: It’s a profound understanding of what goes on between a man and a woman, of what goes on between people in their relationship to nature, and of the bitter and the sweet.
(These profound thoughts on human relationships come from a man who is also described as being "impatient over topics like his live-in girl friend and their year-and-a-half-old son"—surely an important source for lessons on ethical questions!)
If jazz in the concert hall is all pure "art form" with none of the implications of its history, why is Marsalis, a concert jazz artist, called "sexy"? Now, to be fair, it should be noted that the term "sexy" can be used in two different ways. It can mean (a) "with it," "chic," or "fashionable" (as in, "world hunger is a sexy issue today") or (b) simply erotic. Which way is it being used in this interview? If "sexy" means no more than "fashionable," why is this album also described as "steamy"?—surely a euphemism for the sexually provocative. And if "sexy" means being "chic" or "with it," why does Marsalis talk about "what goes on between a man and a woman"?
In May of 1990 I had a conversation with a good friend who conducted the Jazz Band and taught Jazz History at a college near where I lived. In this conversation I learned that for several years in the mid-80s my friend was a free-lance musician in New York City. One of his primary jobs during that time was to play a musical show. He was not a member of the pit orchestra but part of the "cast" in that he played with a jazz combo on stage three times during each show. Presumably his group lent a feeling of authenticity to the show whose title was…"The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas." The success of this show would suggest that as recently as the mid-80s there was evidently still a connection—for those who know such business—between jazz and whorehouses. I can only conclude that the use of jazz in concert halls has not broken the relationship of this music with its origins.
3) Some people assert that jazz simply doesn’t affect them physically in any kind of vulgar or crude way. Perhaps not. But are we always sure how we are being affected by music? The field of the psychology of music, as suggested earlier, has shown how powerful music is, and how it influences us at levels outside our volitional control. This being so, we must ask ourselves if we want to be influenced in ways that jazz has usually influenced people, even if that influence may be less overt now than in some other times or places.
4) Another point often made is essentially this: How can all these fine Christian people be wrong about something like jazz? In response, the following kinds of questions need to be asked: Should right and wrong ever be based on what the majority thinks? In fact, has the majority ever been right about anything spiritual? How many other evil practices (pre-marital sex, the use of alcohol, almost casual divorce, etc.) have gained wide acceptance among Christians? Does this not simply demonstrate that Christians can lose their sense of right and wrong? Christians must always live by higher principles than the world around them. They must not ask, Does it seem good? Are others doing it? They must ask, Is it right? Does it express the will of God?
CHRISTIANS AND ROCK
The term "rock ‘n’ roll" was coined in 1951 by Alan Freed, a Cleveland, Ohio, disk jockey, and, like the term "jazz," it also originated as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. And also like jazz, rock music has had a long history of being associated with everything that is unchristian. Still, this style is one of the most pervasive elements in American society today and has become a major part of the lives of many Christians. Since this is so, the thoughtful Christian must address the problem of just how to relate to this form of entertainment.
It is well known that many Christians have opposed rock music from its very inception. But just how do writers in the secular press view this style, those presumably friendly to rock music? And how do the creators and performers of this music see their art? The following quotations cover a period of nearly forty years, yet they show an interesting consistency. I would suggest that these quotations be read with Philippians 4:8 as the principal referent.
Hifi/Stereo Review, Essay on "Popular Song," 1/64:
The most striking difference [from the songs of the 20’s and 30’s] was the distinct, if indirect, sexuality that came in with Sinatra and has been the source of the popularity of male singers ever since.
High Fidelity, Article on Folk Rock, 12/68:
Once love without sex was the great theme of folk song; today’s lays rhapsodize sex without love.... Not since the London broadside of the Restoration have pop singers been so explicit and so carnal.... "Let’s spend the night together," urge the Stones, and their manager cynically states, "Pop music is about sex, and you’ve got to hit them in the face with it."
Time, Music Section, 1/3/69:
In a sense all rock is revolutionary. By its beat and sound, it has always implicitly rejected restraint and celebrated freedom and sexuality.
Time, Modern Living Section, 2/28/69:
The article speaks of . . . the preoccupation with sex and dope that is integral to rock culture.
Newsweek, My Turn, 5/6/85:
A mother who calls herself a "rock freak" says:
I am concerned about the number of hit tunes that can only be called porn rock, and about the tasteless, graphic and gratuitous sexuality saturating the airwaves and filtering into our homes.
Newsweek, Justice Section, 10/16/89:
In Alexander City, Alabama, record-store owner Tommy Hammond knew some parents in town didn’t have much patience for foul mouths and dirty minds. He’d sell the raunchy rock and rap albums, but he always kept them behind the counter, out of public view.... Johnson [the store owner’s attorney] argues that raunchy sexual language has always been a vital element of pop music.
Union Bulletin, 1/5/90:
Fiona wrote or co-wrote all but one song on her recent release of recordings. Her duet ("Everything you do you’re sexing me"), with Kip Winger, is currently in MTV’s top ten rotation spot. Locally it is being blacklisted by all commercial radio stations.
U.S. News and World Report, 3/19/90:
Rock bands have responded vigorously to the excruciating challenge of how to shock the already numb. You can see how the dial has been turned up just by looking at the names of current rock bands. Vulgar or sexual band names used to be ambiguous or hidden.... Now there are at least 13 bands named after the male genitals.
Newsweek, Anecdote from "Perspectives," 4/16/90:
We’ve hung up bras from Montana in Wyoming and panties from South Dakota in Utah. (Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, who likes to hang up fans’ undergarments during concerts, on the highlights of the band’s current "Pump" tour.)
Union Bulletin, Mike Royko, January 1993 on Michael Jackson:
But as only a casual observer of pop culture, two disclosures caught my interest. One was his response when Oprah asked him why he grabs his crotch while singing and dancing.
As readers might recall, this is a question I posed last week after seeing Jackson repeatedly grab his crotch during his Super Bowl performance. And it’s something many people have wondered about. Well, the music makes him do it. The powerful rhythm drives him to it. As he said, "I’m a slave to the rhythm."
(These vulgar actions of Michael Jackson are put in a broader context in a Newsweek article called "The Glorious Rise of Christian Pop," July 16, 2001. The author says: "He [the performer] gestures like a member of some vicious street gang as he screams and roars into the mike, his arm swinging low as if on the way to the requisite crotch grab. This crude move is as integral to rap-rock as the blown kiss is to a lounge act, and is usually accompanied by a testosteroid explosion of expletives." If the crotch grab is both requisite and integral to rock music, apparently Michael Jackson is not the only one who is involved in this sort of thing.)
Union Bulletin, 2/23/93:
The lead singer of the rock band Jackyl, Jesse James Dupree, has been arrested for allegedly exposing himself at a concert.
Dupree was arrested Saturday for investigation of committing indecent exposure and obscene behavior after parents complained about the Feb. 17 show at the Long Beach Arena.
"What they’re saying is that he was viewed completely in the nude, that he had exposed his genital area and allegedly was fondling," police Lt. Stephen Andrew said.
Dupree was released on bail for a court appearance March 4. Band manager Warren Tuttle refused to comment on the charges.
In January, Dupree pleaded innocent to public indecency for allegedly dropping his pants on stage in Cincinnati.
Newsweek, Sports, 3/15/93:
Ice dancing is the most sensuous of sports. Partners glide across the rink—limbs entwined, faces enraptured—balanced on a blade roughly one eighth of an inch wide....
And what of the Americans, progenitors of the sexual revolution, tight jeans and the simulated sexual rhythms of rock and roll?
Union Bulletin, 5/19/93:
A concert by the alternative music band The Screaming Trees was stopped early when fights broke out in a mob that had rushed the stage....
Trouble began during the opening performance of the Seattle band Love Battery, when a crew member hurled a fan off the stage into the crowd.
Newsweek, National Affairs, 11/1/93:
We live in a time when the national homicide rates seems to have no upper limit, when juvenile crudeness masquerades as comedy and when much of popular music conveys brutality, misogyny and rancor.
Newsweek, Music, 12/6/93:
Speaking about music at the CBGB, a place called the "cradle of a rock revolution," the article describes the action:
On stage, some band is playing an awful set of Led Zeppelinesque metal. Its singer is snapping his head back theatrically and rubbing his pelvis against the mike stand like an overheated mutt.
Union Bulletin, 12/11/95:
A new magazine has made its list of who’s naughty and nice this Christmas, finding only 10 of 40 popular albums on sale this holiday season free of profanity or lyrics dealing with drugs, violence or sex....
Newsweek, Music, 4/22/96:
Now there's a new Hootie [& the Blowfish] album to contend with. Some might read the title "Fairweather Johnson" as a reference to bandwagon jumpers, but we read it as another of Hootie’s inane sexual innuendoes.
Newsweek, Lifestyle, 7/26/96:
Excerpts from an article on "Rockers, Models and the New Allure of Heroin":
Yet no matter how smart we think we are, heroin’s allure persists. In the past two or three years, its presence in pop culture has risen dramatically....
When Nirvana’s 1991 album "Nevermind" hit No.1, a range of attitudes and behaviors from the fringe of pop culture suddenly hit the mass market: dressing rebelliously, flouting conventions, screaming real loud, taking drugs if you want to. The most revered bands carry out the message in their lives as well as their songs. Since kids emulate rock stars, they’re liable to emulate their drug use. The number of top alternative bands that have been linked to heroin through a member’s overdose, arrest, admitted use or recovery is staggering....
Ask executives if there’s a heroin problem in the music business, and more than one will answer, "Absolutely." "It’s worse than it’s ever been," says one record-company vice president.
Union Bulletin, 10/5/96:
On the most recent MTV Video Awards program:
"He [Dennis Rodman] seemed to be very respectful," said singer Toni Braxton, who was presented an award with Rodman. "He didn’t strip or anything like that."
The same couldn’t be said for Flea, who unsuccessfully tried to convince model Claudia Schiffer to remove her shirt. Afterward, he turned and showed the audience a full or half-moon; it was tough to tell as the camera panned away.
Newsweek, The Arts, 8/10/98
Speaking about Liz Phair, this article says:
Rock fans were taken with her girly singsong voice, low-fi guitar chords and lyrics so sexually explicit that they would make a roadie blush.
Newsweek, Arts and Entertainment, 7/19/99
In an article entitled "Long Live Rock’n’Rap" the author describes some of the recent changes in the popular music scene. Two quotes demonstrate how many things have not changed:
And like the current retro-fetish for all things Rat Pack, rock’n’rap offers anxious white males a chance to act out their top-dog fantasies without having to take full responsibility for them. The women seem to play along. As skateboarder Jerimiah Odem, who caught Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock in Dallas last week, described the experience, "It’s a mecca for girlies. The ones that come here take their shirts off."
In Del Mar, Calif., Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, waits to go onstage. The four white boys (ages 9 to 11) lucky enough to score backstage passes are too busy staring at their new hero to notice the busty blonde peeling off her skintight white halter top to get the star’s attention.
Newsweek, Arts and Entertainment, 8/7/00
About the all-girl band Kittie the article included the following:
…they acknowledge his [a fan’s] adoration by flashing the horns of the Devil…. That gets a big cheer—Satan’s always a crowd pleaser. On the bus, they relive the show, bragging about how they kicked two girls off the stage for baring their breasts to the crowd….
Family Circle, "The Rock’n’Roll Horror Show: What Every Parent Should Know," 11/1/01
Surprisingly, some of the worst carnage has occurred at some of the biggest shows, where one might expect concert-industry professionals to be more vigilant about safety:
Reportedly, almost 10,000 people were injured at Woodstock 1999 in Rome, New York, where a near-riot broke out during a performance by the hard-rock group Limp Bizkit. Three deaths and several rapes also occurred among the crowd of almost 200,000….
[In May of 2000] over 900 were injured at the 93XFest at Float-Rite Park in Somerset, Wisconsin. Artists, show announcers and guest celebrities called upon women to disrobe, and their naked images were projected on large screens. Three women told police they were raped during the three-day festival….
[Speaking of the dangers of mosh pits] Cory Meredith, owner of StaffPro security company in Orange County, California, lays much of the blame on the performers themselves. The rowdiness, he says, "could be stopped, but it seems like it is part of the show, so they let it continue."
These quotes (admittedly an effort at "over-kill") were not written by people necessarily Christian, and certainly not Seventh-day Adventist. Taken singly any of them should cause a born-again Christian concern about the propriety of using such music; taken as a whole they offer a devastating indictment of rock music and the associated milieu. In addition we should note that the quotes speak mostly of the blatant sexuality of rock music; they do not speak as much about the celebration of drugs, the violence, and the "Satanism"—all of which are also common in this form of music.
Some may wish to argue that what I have presented above is clearly a worse case scenario, that what one usually hears is much less objectionable. Anyone feeling this way should know that at a recent  presentation of this material a young man who had just come out of the rock scene volunteered the opinion that this picture represents "just the tip of the iceberg."
It has become common in recent times for many Christians to assert that rock music can be "Christianized." They claim to be able to remove the objectionable features of rock music so that it can be made a useful tool for evangelism and worship. Given the descriptions of the rock scene presented above, is this really possible? It must be remembered that even secular writers speak of the "simulated sexual rhythms of rock and roll," and that Michael Jackson grabs his crotch because "I’m a slave to the rhythm." So what are the rhythms like in "Christianized" rock music? Are they really any different from those used in "normal" rock music?
And note this commentary by constitutional law scholar Kathleen Sullivan on the question of reshaping rock music:
You cannot take sex out of rock-and-roll or rhythm-and-blues. True, the quality of the mixture spans a wide range. 2 Live Crew's lyrics are crude, vulgar, and blunt. They can’t hold a candle to the infinitely more clever double-entendre and subtle innuendo of earlier and greater sexually suggestive songs.
Those who believe that rock music can be "Christianized" by substituting better lyrics should also note the following from the Washington Post :
Paul McCartney, originally of the Beatles and a solo artist since the 1970s, told the Washington Post: "The message is not in the lyrics, but in the music."
If the message is "in the music"—primarily in the rhythm—and not the lyrics, how could adding "Christian" lyrics to rock music make it acceptable? I would assert that the term "Christian rock" is simply an oxymoron.
We must also ask, Is it really possible to use jazz or rock under any circumstances and still say, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do"? Do these styles of music represent what is holy, what is pure, what is lovely? Will the influence of these styles of music help or hinder us in our battle "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places"?
FINAL QUESTIONS ABOUT CHOOSING
Let me suggest a final illustration that may help clarify some of the problems involved in choosing music. Imagine a line of water glasses that is almost infinitely long. At one end is a glass that contains water so pure it could only have come "from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (see Revelation 2:1). Now imagine that to the very next glass we add to that pure water a deadly poison at the ratio of one part poison per one "gazillion" parts pure water. To the next glass we add two parts poison per one "gazillion" parts pure water, and to the next, three parts poison per one "gazillion" parts pure water—and so on down the line. At the middle of this very, very long line of water glasses the ratio of pure water to poison will be fifty-fifty. The farther we go down the line the percentage of poison will increase until at the very end we will have a glass where the poison will have displaced the pure water completely.
Now, because the increments of change are so small it may be that there will be hundreds and hundreds of glasses that contain water that is vastly more pure than what we habitually drink, and because the changes in the purity of the water are so very slight between adjacent glasses we may need to move down the line for hundreds of glasses before we can detect even the slightest change. But as we go down that line we will finally come to a point where the water will give a few people who drink it the very slightest headache. Much farther down the line drinking the water will give everyone a headache. Hundreds of glasses on down the line the water will give most people a little tummy ache. If we continue far enough down that line, drinking the water will make everyone deathly sick, and finally the water will be so dangerous that anyone who drinks it will surely die.
If we are thirsty, from where on this line will we choose to drink? Will we not wish to drink the purest water possible? Would it be very smart to see how far down the line of glasses we can go, carefully sampling the water so that we can find a spot from which to drink where the water makes us only a little sick? Would it not be a sound principle to drink the safest water we can?
I want to apply this illustration to music, and imagine all music on a continuum going from very good to very bad in infinitely small increments. At one end is music that is pure and wholesome, music that comes as a gift from God, music that may be used to uplift and ennoble human beings. At the other end is music that is the equivalent of pure poison, music, the consumption of which will cause spiritual death.
In the same way that we would choose drinking water, should we not choose music that comes from the part of the musical continuum that is clearly safe? And would it be very smart for a committed Christian to see how close to the slightly bad he or she could come and still survive spiritually?
Earlier in this paper I tried to show that in the spiritual warfare we call the Great Controversy Satan will use anything he can to lead to the spiritual ruin of as many people as possible. Since he is the master of deception, if he were trying to pass counterfeit money (to change the metaphor) would he be more likely to try to buy something with a $20 bill that is a beautifully crafted counterfeit, or a $20 bill from a Monopoly Game? Would we not expect that an expert like Satan would spend little time with crude forgeries as opposed to brilliant reproductions?
This being so, how might he use music to destroy us? Given his deceptive power is it logical to assume that he would come to most Christians with the pure poison of the worst music possible? Is it not much more likely that he would come to us with music that appears to be safe—but in reality still has enough moral poison to destroy us if habitually used?
My plea is that as we make choices in music we think about this big picture and the ways in which Satan works. Undoubtedly, even mature Christians will disagree on just exactly where the line is beyond which everything is unsafe. This must be a decision that each person makes for themselves based on careful study, common sense, advice from mature Christians, and, most importantly, prayer. But it seems clear to me that the prudent Christian will always want to be on the safe side where there is any question—whether dealing with water or music.
For myself, I have determined that I must draw my line when I can hear anything in a piece of music that is distinctive to jazz, rock, or other kinds of popular music. What this means, specifically, is (a) improvisatory lines typical of jazz, (b) distinctive jazz harmonies, (c) rhythms that overemphasize syncopation, (d) rhythms that emphasize the second and fourth beats [described by supporters of rock music as "simulated sexual rhythms"], or (e) such "signature" musical gestures as a "boogie-woogie" bass or "blue notes" used either melodically or harmonically.
DIFFICULTIES IN MAKING CHANGES
As we conclude these thoughts on making choices in music we need to look at two other facets of this question. Many years ago the Holy Spirit inspired Ellen White to make the following comments about making choices in what we read. Might the principles suggested here apply to making choices in what we listen to?
It is often urged that in order to win the youth from sensational or worthless literature, we should supply them with a better class of fiction. This is like trying to cure a drunkard by giving him, in the place of whisky or brandy, the milder intoxicants, such as wine, beer, or [hard] cider. The use of these would continually foster the appetite for stronger stimulants. The only safety for the inebriate, and the only safeguard for the temperate man, is total abstinence. For the lover of fiction the same rule holds true. Total abstinence is his only safety.
When we use music that is only a "little bad" is it possible that we may actually be creating a taste for music that is much worse? The counsel given above clearly suggests this to be true. Should not this principle guide us in considering where each of us draws our line in the great continuum of musical choices?
I believe it is helpful, too, to consider some of the things Jesus said about the difficulty of making good choices, of actually choosing to make changes in our lives.
"Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’" (John 3:3-5).
Jesus said that the only way to eternal life is by way of the new birth. Just what imagery does this metaphor suggest? At the very least it suggests pain and trauma. And from the viewpoint of an unborn child it also suggests that there will be great disruption in the "lifestyle" hitherto experienced. Given the choice, what fetus would not prefer the warmth, comfort, and security of staying right where it is to being thrust out into a cold, loud, disruptive world? Yet the only safe alternative involves this momentous change, without which life would soon end. For the unborn it is either change or die; for the Christian it must be the same.
"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30).
These verses, though clearly not to be taken literally, teach a most profound lesson. It seems clear that Jesus is trying to tell us that the sin problem is more serious than we often consider it to be. He wants us to understand that making spiritual choices potentially involves what may seem like a kind of personal "dismemberment."
"Then Jesus said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’" (Matthew 16:24).
For Christians in the 21st century the image of the cross is often one of comfort and hope; for Jesus’ first-century hearers it was an image of great suffering and a lingering death. To appreciate the impact this text has on our process of making choices we must try to take ourselves back to the time when crucifixions could be seen in all their horror. It was to people who had a full appreciation for this kind of thing that Jesus declared that discipleship required the voluntary acceptance of this sort of death. The cost of disciple-ship is still the same today, and making good choices may often seem as difficult as the demands of crucifixion.
"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21).
The rich, young ruler came to Jesus asking about eternal life. The disciples, who would have greatly valued the fellowship of such a man, must have been shocked beyond measure when they heard the demands that Jesus laid out. That this was more than just a suggestion is made clear when the record declares that the man "went away grieving." He grieved because he realized that there was no other option if we wished to follow Jesus. For the modern Christian some choices we may need to make may also be such that we will be tempted to go away grieving when we realize what is actually at stake.
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
In this text Jesus again uses hyperbole. This mode of expression, this exaggeration, must convey to us the necessity of making choices that may appear to be at the cost of (temporal) life itself. Without this attitude Jesus says that we "cannot be" His disciples.
Ellen White left us a personal testimony on the difficulty in making changes in her life. It should not be difficult to make applications to our own lives as we consider making choices in music.
When making these changes in my diet, I refused to yield to taste and let that govern me…. I was a great meat eater. But when faint, I placed my arms across my stomach and said: "I will not taste a morsel. I will eat simple food, or I will not eat at all." Bread was distasteful to me. I could seldom eat a piece as large as a [silver] dollar. Some things in the reform I could get along with very well, but when I came to the bread I was especially set against it. When I made these changes I had a special battle to fight. The first two or three meals, I could not eat. I said to my stomach: "You may wait until you can eat bread." In a little while I could eat bread, and graham bread, too.
Is it possible that Christians who want to follow Jesus more than anything else in life may need to "place their arms" across their ears and declare that they will not listen to any music at all until they can listen to that which Jesus shows them to be safe?
I close with the record of an impressive vision, given about 100 years ago, that puts all the questions I have raised into a most significant light.
Eternal things have little weight with the youth. Angels of God are in tears as they write in the roll the words and acts of professed Christians. Angels are hovering around yonder dwelling. The young are there assembled; there is the sound of vocal and instrumental music. Christians are gathered there, but what is that you hear? It is a song, a frivolous ditty, fit for the dance hall. Behold the pure angels gather their light closer around them, and darkness envelops those in that dwelling. The angels are moving from the scene. Sadness is upon their countenances. Behold, they are weeping. This I saw repeated a number of times all through the ranks of Sabbathkeepers.
Woodward, Newsweek, 6/13/94
Trefil, Reading the Mind of God, 1989, pp. 35,36
Warnock, English Philosophy Since 1900, p. 144
Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 345
Ellen White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 411
See Ellen White, The Story of Redemption, p. 25
Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1, p. 506
Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 594. Emphasis supplied
Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1, p. 506. Emphasis supplied
Hart, Lieberman, & Sonneborn. Planet Drum, pp. 102, 138
John Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, p. 15
Martha Bayles, Hole In Our Soul, pp. 3-4, 13, 72, 200. Emphasis supplied
Martha Bayles, Hole In Our Soul, p. 349
Quoted in the Adventist Review, 10/30/97
Ellen White, Counsels to Parents and Teachers, pp. 383-384
Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 2, pp. 371-372
Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1, p. 506
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