Music Is Not Neutral
John 4:24 tells us, "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in [by means of] Spirit and truth." We are focusing on that second aspect. The doctrine of worship is controversial today, there are new trends that have come into evangelicalism in the last forty or fifty years so that typical Sunday worship in the more conservative Bible based churches today is very different from what it was. Yet the worship that was in the church forty or fifty years ago was not that different from what had characterized 100 years before that or 200 years before that, or even 300 years before that. There has been a massive change that has taken place and we have to evaluate that and learn to think critically.
The battleground is over the concept of truth. The Bible gives us specific revelation regarding creation, that man was created in the image and likeness of God, and pre-fall Adam reflected the nature of God. Of all the different attributes that God had one aspect is that of creativity, that man would reflect the creativity of God in what he did. Man's creativity was marred by his depravity and corruption and by the fall. So that which man does in terms of worship is frequently marred by the fall, by thinking that is consistent with idolatry, thinking that takes elements out of the creation, blows it out of proportion and elevates it to a particular priority where it becomes idolatry in and of itself. What has happened in the rationale of the contemporary Christian worship movement is the idea that there are no universals to govern music, and music is basically amoral; there is no such thing as good music or bad music as long as you just take Christian words and adapt them to any music whatever it may be.
Some of us are familiar with another way of taking Christian music and attaching it to what many of us would consider good music, classical music. But how many of us know the context of that music? Once we become aware of what the original context is and what that music was designed to communicate as the music is matched with the words we realize that by doing that we are doing just the same thing as trying to sing Amazing Grace to The House of the Rising Sun. It is trying to communicate Christian content in the clothing of the culture. This isn't legalism, it is common sense.
Worship is subordinating our thinking to God's will so that we can then serve God with the totality of our lives. We started off in this series thinking about music because that is what is happening in Revelation 4 & 5 where they are singing praises to God and to the Lamb of God in the heavenly scene, and we are focusing on understanding music because music is really a Trojan horse of pagan world view. As we adopt forms of music for the expression of Christian content, if that music reflects a pagan worldview then we've created a conflict. People have a worldview and whether they have thought it out or not their worldview is going to come out in their art, their music, their creativity; reflections of their basic orientation and understanding of life. We say these things and accept the principle that ideas have consequences, and as we trace the change of ideas down through the centuries we see that when worldview changes the culture changes. This has positive and negative effects. For example, as we look at the change from the Medieval period dominated by neo-Platonism and its shift into the Aristotelianism that became popular through the church, through Thomas Aquinas and others, one of the things that we notice is that it put a more proper emphasis on nature and creation and things as they actually were. It got away from that kind of idealism that was expressed in the art. So it had positive factors in that words that were sung to the music in Byzantine chants weren't understandable, it wasn't necessary to understand them, it was all about just creating a form of mood music, much like we have today, and that is related to mysticism and other changes. But we see that music changes with the worldview and the music, then, reinforces and promotes the worldview. It becomes a purveyor of the idea so that the music becomes loaded with a message. We must always remember that music is never value-neutral, it is never worldview neutral; it is always an outgrowth of the presuppositions that govern the culture. So we have to understand the culture that produces the music and then we can understand the message of the music. In other words, we have to think a little bit, not just relax and emote.
That is part of this whole conflict we have today because worship has been defined in popular literature as being a certain mood, a certain contemplative, meditative attitude; and that fits with the fact that there has been a shift in the last twenty years back to a Medieval asceticism and contemplative, meditative attitude. People are reading Medieval mystics all of a sudden and they think that that is leading them to a higher and deeper spirituality and, of course, that is reflected in the kinds of music. When people listen to Christian radio and listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music but they don't realize that in the music there is a message and the words in many of the songs are defined from a charismatic theology background and they become loaded with the basic assumption that we have to get into the right mood, and that mood is defined as a worshipful reverent mood. In other words, it is driven by emotion, it is not driven by thought. One of the problems we have had with evangelicalism in the last hundred years is that it has been driven by an anti-intellectualism. It is tough to think but it is tougher still to think about our thinking, especially when we are in this box and we are trying to think within the context of our own culture. It is easy to analyse somebody else's culture but it is touch to have the objectivity to evaluate our own culture.
So we have gone through the various historical periods to establish the principle that ideas have consequences, that when worldview changes, music changes. If we are going to be able to think critically and evaluate the music of our own day and the music that has been brought into the church, then we have to understand what the ideological, intellectual influences have been on music, because as the ideas change the music changes. We need to be reminded that this is ultimately all about truth, this belief that there are universal truths that we can derive from Scripture to govern every aspect of life. Francis Schaefer said that Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural but rather truth spelled with a capital T. It is about total reality. There is nothing that escapes and music isn't somehow over here separate, divorced from an absolute umbrella of biblical truth. Biblical Christianity is truth concerning total reality and the intellectual holding of that total truth, and then living in the light of that truth. It always leads to life, to how we think, how we live, not being conformed to the world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds—Romans 12:1, 2.
1) Music should involve unity and diversity. Remember, God is one but is also three. There are things that unify creation and there are things that are distinct. In the same way music should have melody and harmony. There should be a strong melody that people can sing and can learn.
2) The music that we sing should be well written and executed well, not just in a haphazard manner. It shouldn't be trite; it shouldn't be simply three chords repeated endlessly, which is what we have in about 99% of praise music today.
3) It should have complexity. Think of the artistry in the temple and the tabernacle that we really the Holy Spirit giving skill to the Bezaleel and Aholiab. Think of the complexity of the words in the psalms. The psalms are so complex it would demand complex music to carry it.
4) It moves towards a resolution and end. God moves things. History is moving towards a resolution; music should move towards a resolution and an ending.
5) It is not about a performance. You don't have a band up front that is no different from a rock concert.
6) The music should composed to fit the words. It is about the words, not the music. The words drive the music, not the other way around.
7) The music should enhance the message. The music should prepare the worshipper to think and concentrate and focus on being able to listen to a one-hour message that teaching things he never heard before.
8) The content of the words, then, should impact the emotions, not the other way around. But we don't try to recapture the emotions; it is the words, the thought, the doctrine that drives our thinking. So the music isn't supposed to be the kind of soft mood music which is consistent with contemplative, subjective spirituality, but it should be the kind of music that supports and enhances thoughtful words that are an analysis of who God is and what He has done for us. The purpose of the singing is to focus our attention on who God is and what He has revealed and accomplished in history.
The music, then, is an aid to the Word. It should focus our concentration on those great doctrines of Scripture that talk about the attributes of God, the work of Christ on the cross, what He accomplished, what He is doing now in history. When we think about those things at times our emotions will become deeply stirred, but it is by the words, not the music. If we are using music to create these moods rather than the Word then what has happened is we have worshipped internal subjective emotions that have taken rein. We put the cart of emotion in front of the horse of doctrine and we are trying to recapture these feelings that you define as being close to God, and what we have done is set up an idol of our own feelings. That is what happened across the board of our culture today. So we have to take music as something that has real meaning and has real impact. We must recognize that it is the vehicle that drives the words, not the other way around.