Someone once asked me if I think that it is possible to put Godly lyrics with ANY beat and style of music and still retain “Godliness”? I’ve asked myself this countless times and argued both sides (I play the devil’s advocate with myself quite often – yes this involves talking to myself.) Here is the explanation I gave as to my stance on music –
It is imperative that we understand that Scripture doesn’t prescribe a particular style of music as godly and worldly. It does speak of music having particular sounds, but doesn’t say one sound was evil and the other good. There are some who claim they take a biblical stand on music and only listen to “God honoring” music. But I found that people who made this claim had varying ideas of what was “God honoring”. For some, that meant only classically sounding music, for others God also enjoyed some southern gospel every now and then. Yet those who approved of SG (southern gospel) condemned CCM (Contemporary Christian Music)because it had drums and was worldly (yet SG has drums and sounds just like secular country). Finding that what was godly was arbitrary to the one speaking, and finding that Scripture didn’t define a particular style that God liked over another, I set out to set my stance on the issue so as to be able to give an answer to anyone who may ask. I’m not much for believing something just because so-and-so said it, or because that’s the way it’s always been; and I desire to be biblical in every stance I take, and if I can’t defend it biblically (which means the stance become subjective to my personal opinion) then I still would like a defense/explanation for why I took the position I did.
I don’t think only Classical styled music is God honoring, and I despise Southern Gospel music… passionately despise it! =) (It’s a personal thing… I just don’t like the sound of it.) I’ve heard many arguments for why music with drums, or contemporary music is wrong. The primary one is that music is a language, and like language, there are bad words and good words. So there is bad music and good music. This is often blended with the argument that music touches the emotions and there are good emotions and bad emotions – hence good/bad music. This seemed good on the surface, but I found it indefensible when scrutinized. Here’s why: language is not automatically good or bad inherently. It’s not as if the German language is evil, because it expresses things differently than English. Listen to a German say “I love you” and it sounds harsh to us, as their language is very guttural. So a different style of music isn’t necessarily confined to only pumping out one message. If you want to say style of music is only like language in relation to words as opposed to language cultures, I still find the illustration to fail. For example – let’s equate the classical style to the word “love” and the rock style to the word “damn”. Both of these words, although they definitely have meaning in and of themselves, do not have moral quality in and of themselves. For instance, one may think that “love” is good and “damn” is bad; but when used in this context –
“I love to commit sin.” This is not a good message. Whereas the sentence “If any man preach another gospel than the gospel I preach unto you, may God damn his soul!” Although this is a harsh message, it’s a good one none the less. So the words in themselves aren’t good or evil, it’s the context, as a whole in which they are used. And context is more than just the sentence as a whole; one must also take into account the attitude in which it is said. For example, if one mockingly states “If any man preach another gospel than the gospel I preach unto you, may God damn his soul!” the sentence now has a bad message even though the exact same words were used in both instances. So the area of music is far deeper than just a simple equation to words.
The other analogy is that of emotions. It is true that music is emotional. I remember a time that I played the piano for Five Forks. The song was “Behold The Lamb”, no one in the congregation knew the words to it (I didn’t even know the words). I told them to think about Christ’s death as I played, and continued to play the arrangement. When I was finished, most of the people were crying. They didn’t know the truth of the song, but the melody, and tempo so gripped their emotions that they were crying! Paganini, one of the greatest violinist to ever live, was an extremely ugly man. He said, “When women see me, they run; but when I play, they throw themselves at my feet!” (he was a classical violinist by the way, not a rock star, as the quote may sound.) I am not denying the emotional effects of music, but the illustration assumes that an emotion is always good or evil. This isn’t so. God created us to be emotional beings. Anger is not always wrong, there are certain things we are to be angry over. That warm fuzzy feeling we get, as if everything is going to be okay, is not always good. So emotions, although moral, must be placed within the context that they are being felt.
I hope by now you see where I’m going with this. We must allow for context. Scripture doesn’t draw a line in musical style like it does with modesty, alcohol (which is not total abstinence, although a Christian is more than welcome to take that stance personally), sex, etc. Since this is the case, we must be careful in placing limits on our Christian brothers, as any extra-biblical rule, no matter how good, is legalism if equated as a necessity of being a godly Christian. (For example, the Pharisees had an entire litany of actions a man couldn’t do on the Sabbath to make sure he didn’t break the 4th commandment.. they couldn’t even spit, could only lift so much weight at a time, etc.. none of those rules were God given, they were all man made, and Christ condemned them for it.)
Here is the illustration that I have come to use, and I believe it fits the issue much better; although many don’t like the implications of it. Music is an art form. Art communicates, so it is a language. Art affects the emotions as well (which is a natural result of communication really). This is why musicians are called “music artists”. Style within music is just like style within painted art. To say one style is evil and the other is godly is like saying Monet’s Impressionistic style is evil and Rembrandt’s detailed style of the Golden Age is godly. So even though Monet paints a picture of the empty tomb, as does Rembrandt; somehow, Monet’s painting is worldly because he’s not as classical as Rembrandt (Rembrandt lived in the 1600’s, Monet the 1800’s.. so Monet was contemporary, and different from the “traditional” style.) In reality, the end product of a painting takes many things into account in evaluating whether it is good or evil, one can call this the context. Let me take a minute to explain: Let’s look at the two artists using different styles and each covering 2 subjects.
Crisp lines, extremely detailed in every way, as accurate a representation of any object he paints. If he uses his distinct style to paint a picture of the borrowed tomb. He uses dark colors, to convey the sadness the disciples felt as they didn’t believe the words of Jesus before His crucifixion. This is a good painting, and conveys truth in a biblical way. He can paint the same picture using bright colors, that convey that Christ has risen from the dead! Also a truthfully biblical message (and absolutely wonderful!). Now he can take the same style draw a sensually nude woman who is attempting to entice men. Same style, different topic – absolutely wicked picture…. literally pornography (porneo = evil graphy = picture thus evil picture).
His style is not as crisp. Actually, if you stand too close, you can’t really tell what it is, but if you back off and view the art as a whole, you can see that he has drawn the tomb also. He draws one with dark colors, and one with vibrant colors, as did Rembrandt, conveying sorrow and joy respectively. Is the picture evil because his style is different? Of course not. We evaluate the painting as a whole. Now what if he uses that impressionistic style to paint pornography? Wicked, without a doubt!
Now, you may ask, “What if they’re painting something neutral, like a sunset?” Actually, you did hint at it when you said, “However, if you put on just the music (no lyrics) to “A Mighty Fortress is our God” or some other old hymn, non-Christians would likely just scatter and go somewhere else whereas Christians might tend to smile and be drawn to it.” But I disagree with your conclusions. Non-Christians wouldn’t scatter, for there are non-Christians who thoroughly enjoy the classical style music (non-Christians even make a living playing it – like Itzak Perlman, or made a living writing it – like Beethoven). If there are no words, then Christians wouldn’t smile at it, for they wouldn’t recognize it as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” seeing as there were never those lyrics to it. And if you say there are lyrics, they just aren’t played that time, then the thing that makes the Christians smile is the lyrics, not the song itself, for they are reminded of the truth conveyed by that particular song. Let’s plug this back into the painting illustration. If people are in an art museum and on one end is Rembrandt’s sunset and the other end is Monet’s; those who prefer Rembrandt to Monet will gravitate to the sunset painted by the Golden Age artist. Monet’s fans will gawk at the Impressionistic painter’s work in admiration. So we’re left with a subjective standard.
You also asked, “do you think that every style of music can be holy?” Holy means set apart, and I think that since Scripture doesn’t lay out musical style boundaries, I should be cautious. I believe there are Christian rappers who have made their style holy. They have set it apart from the rest in their field. This is the same with classical (Bach, Vivaldi for example), southern gospel song writers (Bill Gaither – as much as I dislike that genre, he has written some good songs), rock (Casting Crowns, Lincoln Brewster). I don’t know if Monet was a Christian, I’m lead to think he was not, but his style of painting can be made holy for The LORD’s service. (I’m going to drop the painting illustration now, as I hope you see it seems to illustrate rather well.) To my knowledge, Beethoven was not a believer, yet we sing his music in church to the lyrics “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”. There were many people who wrote classical music for a living, and it was merely an art they were passionate about. Richard Wagner, not a believer, loved Beethoven’s 9th symphony so much, he wrote variations of it for piano. So we see a style that is most often associated with “godly” being used by the ungodly for their purposes (Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer, by the way).
So in evaluating music, I ask a few questions to myself:
If it is in the Christian pot:
1. Are they lyrics biblical? (this is of utmost importance to me)
2. Does the music communicate the lyrics well? (if they words are celebratory, does the song make me want to celebrate/dance? If the words are solemn does the music make me feel solemn? Victorious, does the music make me want to shout a victory cry?)
3. Does it seem that the musicians are more concerned with playing their style than communicating truth and worshiping God? (If so, then I look for the song being played by another artist… if I like the song.)
Now I know that there are styles that I do not like, like Southern Gospel, and I don’t care if the words are biblical, and the musicians hearts are sincerely worshiping Jehovah, I just don’t like the style. Question #2 fails for me, subjectively, because I don’t like the style and feel that nothing serious or deep can be communicated through “redneck sounds”. But this is personal. I realize that there is nothing wrong with that style, as long as they aren’t singing in a celebratory manner something that is portrayed biblical as sorrowful (one wouldn’t sing about Christ walking the way of sorrow to the tune of “Sweet Beulah-land” or “I’ll Fly Away”). I do not say SG is wicked, there are people who truly worship God and sing that. That is their culture, that is their own personal style. I believe Scripture makes room for the believer to express his true desire to worship in various venues. I wouldn’t tell a native of China not to use the pentatonich scale (which is what his music is based on… that’s why it sounds so funky) and that he had to play European Classical music if he wants to worship God; since he used the pentatonic music when he was a Buddhist. I can only be adamant where Scripture is adamant. I have yet to find acid Rock that is done for God’s glory. I have a friend who is a believer, and loves God; and he likes a groups called “Disciple” I just can’t get past the style. I don’t like it. I would say it’s evil, except I don’t see where God does. So I don’t go that far. I tell my brothers and sisters in Christ that they must examine their own heart in this matter, and not try to exalt a style by using The Savior, but use the style to exalt The Savior!
We must be careful in evaluating the methods of a culture, as I tend to be harsh on any culture that is not mine. We have short, spikey hair and goatees, something Bach would have thought foolish. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have discernment, I’m saying we should, but that in drawing our lines personally in areas that aren’t clearly mandated in Scripture, we must be careful not to lay our standards on the backs of men as if it were from God, yet we hold those standards with a heart aimed at pleasing God. We know that if someone doesn’t hold the same standard musically we do, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t love God. I believe this is a matter that falls in the category like Paul mentions in Romans 14 where every servant stands or falls to his own master. In the mean time, we shouldn’t flaunt our liberty either. We must strive to be biblical in every position we hold, and respect the other brother/sister who may be weaker in this area. Greater than which style of music I prefer is that I walk in love toward my brother/sister.