Parameters for the Christian music debate, part 1

Several years ago, I learned a valuable lesson from Dr. Surrett, a professor from college.  He and I, along with Alton Beal (then the Dean of Men, now the President) were selected as the judges for a contest deciding who – on the Ambassador Baptist College staff – had made the best homemade ice cream.  Dr. Surrett taught logic and he practiced it.  Alton and I huddled in a corner with Dr. Surrett, and though no one was chosen to be the chair of our little committee, Dr. Surrett just immediately stated, “now, we need to judge the ice cream based on 3 criteria: taste, texture, and consistency; and remember that flavor may be somewhat subjective!”  I almost think he had been planning on judging that contest for days.  I was so amazed by his analytical approach that I almost forgot about the ice cream.

The lesson I learned was this, “define a problem before trying to solve it!”  Or in the case of the ice cream, set the standards before just yelling, “this one tastes the best!”  What if Dr. Surrett liked peach, I liked Heath, and Alton liked chocolate?  There had to be objectivity and Dr. Surrett lifted us beyond our favorite flavor.

By the way, based on his criteria, it was pretty easy for us all to agree on which ice cream was the best.

Where am I going with this?

In the Christian music debate, people are yelling “this is the best flavor” or “I can’t stand that flavor” because the whole debate is lacking in objectivity.

My purpose in this writing is to help set some parameters by which Christians can judge music.  I intend to speak (write) the truth in love!

First, there is a problem with the approach used in the debate.

There are three problems that I see with the typical approaches to teaching on music.  Here is each one and a corresponding example of a phrase that illustrates it.  By the way, these are not straw men; I have heard each of them.

1.  The personal approach . . . “that music is just too sweet” (subjective) – who defines sweet? Who is the authority?  Is that not just personal preference?  What one person likes, another may not.  One may say it is too loud, or too peppy, or too slow, or too fast, or too quiet . . . etc.  In a subject as emotionally charged as music, not many thinking people are going to be persuaded to change or accept a musical style just because the pastor or teacher says, “I don’t like it.”

2.  The philosophical approach . . . “is music moral or amoral?”  While I do have philosophical opinions regarding whether music is moral or amoral, that particular question makes the issue of music an ongoing debate.  Whoever can craft the best argument and state it the most eloquently or persuasively seems to be the de facto winner.  The problem with a debate is that it is usually a rhetorical war between two sides which have no intention of ever changing positions; the goal is not to listen to the merits of an opposing side with an open mind, but to listen with the intent of finding the weakness of his opponent’s argument in order to be able to undermine it!  Sometimes, the wrong side is able to destroy the assertions of the correct side because of superior debating abilities, but it doesn’t make his position correct (just reminisce about a couple of our last presidential campaign cycles and debates).  In the philosophical method, it is too easy for the wrong side to look like the right side; human rationale is the persuader instead of the Scriptures.

3.  The technical approach . . .  “a syncopated beat appeals to the flesh.”  The majority of people do not know enough musical theory to be able to determine what is technically good or bad.  I agree with the assessment that certain kinds of music are theoretically and technically incorrect.  Most Contemporary Christian Music will manipulate chords and harmony as well as rhythm and beat in order to affect a person’s senses.  Again, most believers, including preachers, do not have the musical training to determine what is good or bad according to music theory.  For the sake of illustration, I probably have more musical training than most pastors – including college level music theory, but I cannot immediately analyze complex timing, harmonic surges, and chordal resolutions (or lack thereof).  How many church members could?

In reality, the technical approach is almost the spirit of Gnosticism because it leaves the common person at the mercy of the trained musical analyst.  The following is a true story of which I’m a firsthand witness.  A preacher said that he didn’t understand what good music was and wasn’t.  So, his daughter, who was a musician, was able to help him determine what was acceptable Christian music.  In fact, he testified of finding some music, purchasing it, and enjoying listening to it until his daughter came in with shock and said, “Dad, what are you listening to?”  I was grieved at that conversation and thought to myself, “that is not right!  There must be principles by which any Christian, musician or not, can use as a filter to determine what is acceptable and what is not.”  You do not have to be a musician to know what kind of music either pleases or displeases God – you need to know the Bible and the character of God.

Pastors and leaders should recognize the failures of these three approaches, either too much subjectivity (which makes the teacher/preacher seem silly and shallow), too much philosophy (which makes the teacher/preacher seem like a debater who has lowered himself to the humanist’s level), or too much technical theory (which makes the teacher/preacher seem aloof and the listener ignorant and dependent).  I will present a fourth approach, which is the proposition that the Bible sufficiently empowers believers to determine what is good and what is not good regarding music, apart from undue dependence on subjectivity, philosophic assertions, or theoretical acumen.  I’ll call this the Simple approach.

4.  The Simple approach . . . regardless of skills in musical theory, “every believer has the potential to discern that which is good and that which is not.”  There are two tools which play into this potential.  One is the Word of God, the other is the Holy Spirit which convinces of sin, righteousness and of judgment.  This will be filled out later.

The teaching approach must be determined!  Will the topic of music be addressed personally and subjectively, will it be addressed philosophically and rhetorically, will it be addressed theoretically and academically, or will it be addressed simply, Scripturally, and Spiritually?  Granted, the first three approaches may be utilized and are not necessarily wrong, but the last must be the primary and the others used only for very limited support.

Having determined the teaching approach, we are prepared to move to the next problem.  Check back soon!

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