In Part 3 of this series, we established that the musical medium itself is not morally neutral. In fact, the message in the medium is often very powerful. Music itself carries emotional communication. Hence, as Christians, we cannot avoid evaluating that communication as appropriate or inappropriate, even right or wrong in a given context, whether or not it is accompanied by lyrics. However, there is another aspect of musical evaluation that also needs to be considered, and that is the subject of Part 4 in this series of articles.
It is often said by Christians discussing music that musical style is not an issue.1 This idea is usually strongly argued by those supporting music’s moral neutrality.
This view reflects a stance taken in Western musicology over the past several centuries. Since the Enlightenment, when the anti-supernaturalist bias really began to grip Western culture, most disciplines have sought to become independent of metaphysical and religious considerations. This is evident even in the study of the development of musical styles. It has become fashionable to explore and emphasize the influence of environmental, sociological, economic, and even biological factors that may have influenced the development of musical styles. However, the religious influence has been increasingly downplayed, despite general acknowledgment that religion is intimately intertwined with the development of music in every known culture.2 But, ethnomusicologists working in nonWestern cultures are gradually dragging Western scholars back to some important correctives in their understanding of how a musical style develops.3
Before continuing this topic further, however, we need to define what is meant by “style.” Style has been simply described as “a characteristic way of doing something.”4 Style is a term used almost exclusively to describe human actions or creations. It designates a product of human choices. Clearly, in musical compositions, humans don’t create the tones, but the way tones are combined, how they are sounded, and how they are organized in time—are all results of human choice. Hence, these factors become known as characteristics of a particular style.
So, what drives the choices behind the development of style? Why compose this music one way and not another? Paul Tillich once gave succinct utterance to a sweeping truth which sheds light on these questions. He wrote, “Religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself. In abbreviation: religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion.”5
It is becoming increasingly evident that fundamental beliefs or worldview factors are one of the major determinants of music style. In other words, “that which rules the heart, forms the art.”6 That is true within a secular culture as much as in an overtly religious culture. Secularism or materialism is still a way of thinking about life; hence, it espouses certain fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality. In any culture, there is an observable human quest for compatibility between fundamental beliefs and the character of the art in that community.
J. H. Kwabena Nketia, describing sacred music in Africa, stated that this was a fundamental principle that appears to underlie the use of music in worship on that continent: namely, that the selection of music used, the control of musical forms and instruments, is in accordance with the conceptualization of the gods or of the individual focus of worship.7 Similar substantiation could be cited from various other religions and cultures. 8
How this happens is well-illustrated in the Islamic context. Lois Ibsen Al Faruqi described how Islamic sacred music style is molded by a significant, fundamental belief: the nonphenominal and transcendent understanding of divinity. To worship such a deity is to leave the everyday world behind and enter an awe-inspiring realm. Noting this theological emphasis in both Islam and Christianty between 300-800 AD, she observed the following of their music:
“Religious music . . . avoided the emotive, the frivolous, the unfettered responses either to great joy or great sorrow. The limited range and contiguity of notes in Gregorian and Qur_nic chant, the prevalence of stepwise progression, the avoidance of large melodic leaps—all these contributed to this demand. The relaxed tempos, the calm and continuous movement, the rejection of strong accents and changes of intensity or volume were likewise conducive to an attitude of contemplation and departure from worldly involvement. The use of regularly repeated metric units would have tended to arouse associations, kinesthetic movements and emotions incompatible with the notion of religiosity among Muslims and early Christians. These were therefore avoided. . . . Music contributed little or nothing to dramatic/programmatic content or tone painting imitating the objects, events, ideas, or feelings of this world. Hence, abstract quality has been a marked feature. . . . Formal characteristics accorded with this tendency, making elements of unity and change dependent upon correspondence with poetic units rather than with narrative or descriptive factors.”9
She continued by demonstrating that not only structure but also performance practice was belief-driven:
“Performance practice, relying on the human voice, has avoided the secular associations which instruments might bring, as well as the chordal harmonies which could be suggestive of emotional or dramatic effects. Even the use of the human voice or voices . . . has avoided the sensual and imitative in order to enhance the spiritual effect on the listener.”10
Notice the detailed extent to which musical style is influenced by belief in this case.
As one would expect, emphasis on the inherent conceptualization of deity spawns a very different style of music, including a deliberate rejection of the abstract and the contemplative in favor of a strongly psycho-physiologically stimulating musical expression. Repetitive rhythm is emphasised over melody and harmony. Loud, percussive instrumental playing that promotes group participation and instinctive movement is commonplace. Whereas in the transcendent orientation, meditation or contemplation of the deity’s self-revelation is worship’s goal, in the immanent orientation, possession by the deity is the ultimate desired outcome. Two very different conceptions of the divine engender two very different styles of music because, indeed, whatever or whoever rules the heart, forms the art.11 As Al Faruqi has observed:
“One set of . . . religious beliefs predicates one kind of religious experience and, by extension, a particular notion of suitable religious music. Another set of religious beliefs gives rise to a different kind of religious experience and accordant religious music . . . The examples of religious music are then but reflections and expressions of the complex of religious ideas held in a given culture at a particular time.”12
As one begins to explore the intimate connection between worldview and music style, it becomes clear why Tillich suggested that it may be possible to “read styles” with appropriate discernment, to detect which ultimate concerns or worldview factors are driving them.13 The development of this thought is beyond the scope of this article. However, the demonstrable relationship between style and belief exposes the superficiality behind the claim that musical styles are neutral and incapable of proclaiming worldview.14 In fact, the opposite is true. Music styles are value-laden. They are veritable embodiments of beliefs. Stylistic features are brought into existence in a search for a fitting aesthetic expression of deeply held truths about what is real. If this is so, decisions about the appropriateness, even rightness and wrongness, of musical styles, especially for worship contexts, are mandatory, not merely a matter of individual or cultural taste or preference.
Indeed, Titus Burckhardt has a point when he writes: “Granted that spirituality in itself is independent of forms, this in no way implies that it can be expressed and transmitted by any and every sort of form.”15 He went on to note that “[a] spiritual vision necessarily finds its expression in a particular formal language; if that language is lacking, with the result that a so-called sacred art borrows its form from some kind of profane art, then it can only be because a spiritual vision of things is also lacking.”16
With the constant borrowing of musical language from various sources that is so often evident in contemporary Christianity, one wonders what the spiritual vision is that drives today’s Christian musical expressions. It would seem that a major opportunity for unique aesthetic witness to the Christian worldview is being lost.
Christians have a moral responsibility to seek not only fitting lyrics for their songs but a musical style that legitimately expresses their understanding of God and of life. Clearly, the evidence indicates that the issues surrounding sacred music style discussions extend far deeper than petty likes and dislikes. The bottom line is that, because of the inherent link between style and worldview, the clash over sacred music styles is really a clash of underlying beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality, not just inconsequential aesthetic preferences. Perhaps that’s why discussions about music won’t go away, because people intuitively sense a deeper substratum to these discussions even if they can’t verbalize what it is.
What can we conclude about all this? I would suggest at least three points:
1. To seriously espouse the idea that music is a morally neutral medium may be understandable from a secular viewpoint, or if one believes that human creativity is untouched by the Fall. However, if one believes in a moral universe lovingly and purposefully created but infected by sin to the extent that a terrible distortion has marred (though not totally obliterated) God’s image in humankind, one is committed to both appreciating the evidences of good in our world and also recognizing and distinguishing the evidences of evil. The creative or artisitic element (so closely tied to the very core of human nature) cannot be considered immune from sin’s distortions. The answer is not to espouse moral neutrality in this domain but to thoughtfully and prayerfully work out ways of facilitating discernment.
2. While individual letters in an alphabet may be neutral, as they are combined together into words, phrases, and sentences, they take on meaning that can be evaluated as refined and decent, crude and rude, reverent and respectful, or blasphemous, appropriate, inappropriate, right, wrong, and so on because of the ideas they encapsulate. In the same way, while individual tones may be neutral in themselves, they never appear in isolation. In music, they are always presented in conjunction with other tones, played with certain accents, in certain rhythmic formations, and sounded on certain instruments. The ability to understand more precisely the vocabulary and syntax of music’s emotional communication is beginning to emerge. Hence, evaluations of calm and peaceful or angry and aggressive, bold and reassuring or fearful and apprehensive, appropriate and inappropriate, right or wrong are increasingly possible. If accurate matching and assessment of music is possible in movie production, it is surprising, even ludicrous, to suggest that it is impossible in the worship setting.
3. As evidence mounts that styles of music are actually artistic embodiments of significant worldview factors in the belief systems of individuals and cultural communities, the implications for moral evaluation become even more imperative for Christians. Taste and preference cannot be the arbiter of appropriate/inappropriate musical styles. However, evaluations cannot be made simplistically or superficially. There are good reasons why the music of Voodoun or Islamic worship cannot be mindlessly transferred into the Christian setting. Similarly, there are reasons why Gregorian chant or the latest rap, as done in their original settings, cannot be whimsically switched into Seventh-day Adventist worship. Styles of music are, in fact, value-laden, and, for this reason alone, evaluation needs to take place. While a start has been made, much more study is required to provide increased discernment in “reading” styles of music and making accurate assessments. But, clearly, this task is not an optional endeavor. The evidence already gathered makes it imperative.
“Thinking about music,” although sadly neglected, as Krehbiel suggested (see Part 2 of this series), is a very important task and one that will be rewarded with great insights into one of God’s noblest gifts to humankind. It may also open a way for Christians to develop a unique and more consistent aesthetic witness to the worldview they hold. Regrettably, at present, Christians tend to be followers and copiers rather than leaders in the arts, especially in music.
However, this leaves us with an anomoly. Christianity claims a life-enhancing and life-changing message for the spiritual, mental, physical, social, and emotional facets of humanity. But, what distinctive aesthetic witness to a lost world is being given in Christian musical communication? It is often claimed that, if it exists at all, it is in the lyrics, not in the music. Sadly, the message is often perpetrated that, in God’s kingdom, we do the musical component the same as the world does it, only with Christian musicians. I believe that the evidence outlined in this series indicates that this is neither a valid nor tenable proposition.
Risieri Frondizi posed a significant and worthwhile challenge when he wrote: “The essence of the moral reformer and of the creator in the field of the arts lies in not adjusting to the predominant norms, or tastes, but unfurling the flag of what ‘ought to be’ over and above people’s preferences.”17
This is the twenty-first century’s challenge to all dedicated, Christian musicians, but it’s not just an artistic task. It is an objective for any Christian who wants to be a genuine disciple and present a consistent witness in any area of lifestyle. But, given our endtime mission and the wholistic emphasis in our message, perhaps Seventh-day Adventists have even more reason than most to think about and take on that challenge in the musical arena and let it bear fruit.
1 See, for example, Gene Edward Veith, Jr., The Gift of Art: The Place of the Arts in Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 58-59; and Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, 26.
2 See, for example, Bruno Nettl, “The Role of Music in Culture: Iran, A Recently Developed Nation,” in Contemporary Music and Music Cultures, by Charles Hamm, Bruno Nettl, and Ronald Byrnside (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 98-99; and Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 159, 165.
3 Lois Ibsen Al Faruqi, “Muwashshah: A Vocal Form in Islamic Culture,” in Ethnomusicology 19 (January 1975): 1; and Donna Marie Wulff, “On Practicing Religiously: Music as Sacred in India,” in Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice, ed., Joyce Irwin (Journal of the American Academy of Religion Thematic Studies, vol. 50, Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), 149.
4 Robert L. Scranton, Aesthetic Aspects of Ancient Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 28.
5 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 42.
6 This aphorism was developed during the writing of the author’s doctoral dissertation. It is not really a new idea. It is simply a rewording of the biblical principle from Proverbs 23:7 (“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” KJV) and Luke 6:45 (“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” KJV).
7 J. H. Kwabena Nketia, African Gods and Music (Legon, Ghana: Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, 1970), 11, 12.
8 See, for example, Bruno Bettelheim quoted in Robert L. Scranton, Aesthetic Aspects of Ancient Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 2; Erik Routley, The Church and Music, rev. ed., (London: Gerald Duckworth and Company, 1950), 14; Ravi Shankar quoted in Donna Marie Wulff, “On Practicing Religiously: Music as Sacred in India,” 153; Komla Amoaku, “Towards a Definition of Traditional African Music,” in More than Drumming, ed., Irene V. Jackson (Westport. Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 37; Francesco Gabrieli, “Literary Tendencies” in Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization, ed., Gustave E. von Grunebaum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 87.
9 Lois Ibsen Al Faruqi, “What Makes ‘Religious Music’ Religious?” in Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice, ed., Joyce Irwin (Journal of the American Academy of Religion Thematic Studies, vol. 50, Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983), 28.
11 The implications of this transcendent/immanent contrast are profound for the Christian setting and are discussed in detail in the writer’s doctoral dissertation, “The Concept of God and Sacred Music Style: An Intercultural Exploration of Divine Transcendence/Immanence as a Stylistic Determinant for Worship Music with Paradigmatic Implications for the Contemporary Christian Context” (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Mich, 1993), 218-270.
12 Lois Ibsen al Faruqi, “What Makes ‘Religious Music’ Religious?” 27.
13 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), 40.
14 See, for example, Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, 42, and Nick Mattiske, “What Would Jesus Think of Today’s Music?” in The Edge, Issue 16 (Record Supplement, March 4, 2000), 5.
15 Titus Burckhardt, Sacred Art in East and West: Its Principles and Methods, trans. Lord Northbourne (London: Perennial Books, 1967), 7.
17 Risieri Frondizi, What is Value? An Introduction to Axiology, 2nd ed. (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1971), 29.
Wolfgang Stefani, Ph.D., is a pastor in the Park Ridge and Flagstone Seventh-day Adventist Churches in the South Queensland Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Australia.