The Controversial Angel
Dwight K. Nelson
Who says that rock 'n roll is the only musical language this generation understands or accepts? Who says we are beholden to communicate the glory and majesty and holiness and love and mercy of God through the pounding rhythms and pulsating decibels of rock music?
In the autumn of 1987, Dwight Nelson, senior pastor of the Andrews University Pioneer Memorial Church, presented a sermon titled, "The Controversial Angel (and the Repentance of Billy Joel)." In that sermon, he stated his conviction that the term Christian rock music is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Nelson then continued by raising questions about the use of rock music in worship today. The sermon came as a surprise to many and created a controversy on the campus. The following article, Nelson's response to the campus controversy, was published in the university school paper,The Student Movement.
I have been asked by the Student Movement to respond to some of the responses to my most recent sermon at Pioneer Memorial Church, "The Controversial Angel (and the Repentance of Billy Joel)." Perhaps the angel turned out to be more controversial than anyone first imagined!
But then, controversy has always dogged the heels of any discussion of rock music, hasn't it? And inserting the adjective "Christian" before the words "rock music" has hardly quieted the debate! In that context who could be surprised that the conviction I expressed in this sermon - "Christian rock is an oxymoron" should end up being so hotly discussed and debated in some circles? Though frankly, I am grateful for the intellectual energy with which the subject is now being examined.
But irrespective of our personal convictions on the subject (and I've been asked to reiterate mine in this column), there is a pivotal truth we shared that Sabbath that bears repeating: Personal conviction must never become the basis for judging someone else. We must not judge each other. Not in regard to Christian rock. Not in regard to anything. The spirit of Jesus' life and teaching forbids all such judgment. Period.
Are there Christians then who have come to Christ through a Christian rock concert? Yes. Are there Christian musicians who sense their fulfillment of God's calling to ministry through their compositions of Christian rock? Certainly. Then God uses Christian rock to save some people? If the answer to the first questions is Yes, a third Yes is certainly mandated as well.
But beware of the "God uses it, so that makes it right" kind of logic. Just because God uses something or someone does not make it normative for the rest of us. God used Balaam's donkey to save a life, which is hardly a veneration of donkeys for later communities of faith. And Paul himself observed, "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry.... [They] preach Christ out of selfish ambitionů. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (Philippians 1:15-18 NIV). Which hardly sanctifies envy, rivalry and selfish ambition as a means of salvation, even though God was able to use the very avenues the Scriptures warn against (see Galatians 5:20,21).
I repeat the key point: Debating the use of Christian rock in Christian worship must never become a forum for judging the spirituality or character of Christian musicians or Christian worshipers (or anyone, for that matter).
So why did I share my conviction, "Christian rock is an oxymoron?" Because in our fall Sabbath journey toward a new (or "re"newed) vision of God's majesty and glory and holiness, we cannot sidestep the issue of how a contemporary community of faith should worship this majestic and sovereign Lord. And so for three Sabbaths in a row I shared the story of a woman who approached me this summer with the observation "Pop music portrays a pop God. Sentimental music portrays a sentimental God. And majestic music portrays a majestic God." She obviously could have gone on to state, "Relational music portrays a relational God. Warm music portrays a warm God. Etc."
But her line about majestic music portraying a majestic God became the catalyst for my own personal reflections this past summer. Have I lost a sense of God's majesty and glory? Have we as a contemporary community lost our sense of awe and wonder and reverence for God's sovereignty and holiness? In our earnest efforts to focus on God's "up-close-and-nearness" (what theologians call His immanence), have we forgotten about His "high-and-lofty-exaltedness" (His transcendence)? In pursuit of the answers to those questions, we've begun our fall pulpit journey, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory."
And in that context the issue of music in worship is inevitable. For, what kind of music best captures and expresses our reverence and awe and loving gratitude for this God who is "bigger" than the universe yet longs to live within our hearts? How can a contemporary community of faith best express itself corporately and musically in worship before this awesome and glorious God we call Father and Friend?
The children of Israel were faced with that same decision. And when Moses remained too long up on the mountain top with God, they turned to Aaron and begged him to let them embrace the worship methods of Egypt and "transform" those methods into a "new" worship expression to the God who had delivered them from bondage. And you know the rest of the story - how they rose up and sang and danced before the golden calf in imitation of the style of their Egyptian taskmasters, how Moses heard the commotion of their revelry in worship and hurried back down the mountain, and how he threw God's freshly engraved tablets of the Decalogue onto the valley floor. We've grown up with that story.
My question on Sabbath was simply, Is there a lesson for us today in that ancient tale? A moral that could inform our own quest to lead a new generation to God? Can we learn from their misguided efforts to worship God, when they mimicked the worship methods of the very enemy who had held them in bondage for so long? Why worship the Redeemer through the methods of the Enslaver?
You don't have to be a rocket scientist or a musician to know that the medium of rock music, both past and present, is heavily identified in secular circles with the drug and sexual and occult countercultures of America and the West. Anybody who has watched MTV for an extended period is quick to recognize the latent themes of death, suicide, violence and promiscuity. Nobody's saying that everything on MTV or every thing in the venue of rock music is riddled with these themes. But if it could be shown that even ten percent of the medium or the venue were contaminated, why would we choose to "baptize" the medium into an agent of salvation for Christ or worship before God?
Because, you might respond, we've got to reach this generation by giving them what they're familiar with and used to. And I certainly agree with the premise that the Good News of Jesus needs to be communicated in the language of the culture or the generation we're seeking to win to Him. But who says that rock 'n roll is the only musical language this generation understands or accepts? Who says we are beholden to communicate the glory and majesty and holiness and love and mercy of God through the pounding rhythms and pulsating decibels of rock music?
If God is calling an entire generation out of the enemy's bondage in the subcultures of drug addiction and sexual promiscuity and occult dabbling, then why would we seek to embrace the musical genre or style of that counterculture in order to point them to the One who can free them from its bondage?
Most troubling of all, wouldn't it be sobering to discover that in fact the very framework of rock music we had to surround the truths of Calvary and salvation and the character of God, that very framework in fact effectively neutralizes the portrait it surrounds?
"Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come" is not a message about panicking before God, but an earnest contemporary appeal to discover in reverential awe the glorious truth of God's liberating power and triumph through the cross over every entrapment and enslavement of the devil. It is the very good news that the victory of Jesus is for this generation!
"Come out of her, My people." That cry once called the children of Israel out of the land of their bondage. Is it not also the passionate cry of God to a generation of young adults living at the edge of eternity?
Dwight K. Nelson has been at Andrews University since 1983. During his tenureas senior pastor of the university church, Pioneer Memorial, he has made sweeping changes in many aspects of the worship services. Church attendance and student participation have increased dramatically. Born in Tokyo, Japan, of missionary parents, Nelson converses in Japanese. He graduated from Southern College in 1973 and completed master of divinity and doctor of ministry degrees in 1976 and 1986 at the AU Seminary. Nelson has written five books and done extensive work in radio and television.
Reprinted with permission in the Spring 1998 issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association, from the October 15, 1997 issue of the Andrews University school paper, The Student Movement