Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Epistemology, Utilitarianism, and Music - Part 2

To read Part 1, click here.

Thus far, it would appear as though the bulk of my conclusions have been that conservatives are wrong when it comes to the music debate. But this is not quite true. In fact, I find myself agreeing with conservatives theoretically and philosophically when it comes to music, for the most part, but perhaps disagreeing with their application of that philosophy when it comes to the details. Or at least I think I disagree with them on the details (or most of the details).

The truth is, there are a number of things that I am a bit troubled by when it comes to the “contemporary” Christian music movement. Let me share those with you.

1. I am troubled by the presuppositions of those on the “liberal” side when it comes to the reason for doing the music we do. One of those presuppositions that I often hear is essentially a Utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarianism, simply put, is the “ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.”

And how does this manifest itself when it comes to music? I have often heard this type of logic used when talking about Christian music: “You know, we have these young people who are leaving the church in droves and we need to keep them coming.” In other words: in order to keep young people coming to church, we need to let them play and listen to the type of music they like.

How many times have you heard this type of logic? Granted, this is not to say that this necessarily makes their music wrong, but anytime this is the motivation for doing a certain type of music, or doing anything, we are walking on thin ice. Certainly such a use of logic does not have biblical support. God desires us to worship Him in “spirit and truth,” (John 4:24) not in whatever way is going to promote the greatest “happiness” or fill the most pews.

This applies to anything, of course, and is certainly not limited to music. If our goal is simply to get as many young people coming as we can, then we could use some pretty questionable methods to accomplish that. And many have. This does not mean, however, that we should make our church services un-enjoyable, boring, or uninteresting. But we need to make sure that our primary goal is to uplift the crucified and risen Savior, and that any methods we use are in accordance with biblical truth.

Of course, this is not only true for contemporary music, but the old-time hymns as well. I’ve heard old-timers say, “They’re playing that music because the young people like it.” And I’ve responded by saying, “Yes, and don’t you like your music that is played?” It is silly to say that we should not play contemporary music because it is just what the young people like, while maintaining that the old time music is somehow sanctified, when, in reality, it’s just what we like.

2. Along similar lines, there is a belief out there which maintains that we need to use contemporary music so that we can appeal to non-Christians. This just doesn’t seem to hold any water, though.

Truth be told, non-Christians scoff at our Christian contemporary music and, really, the only people that like it are those within our walls who want to mix their worship of God with a little bit of U2, Beyonce, or Coldplay. Let’s tell it like it is: Christian contemporary music is really for us who have been Christians our whole lives. And I find, over and over again, that those who have been on the “outside” generally want to leave that type of music behind when they come “inside.”

It also seems to me that there was very little debate on this issue before Christians, and Adventists specifically, started listening to secular “rock music.” For some reason, before Adventists ever started listening to rock music, we didn’t independently produce music that sounded like it. Why didn’t we independently arrive at it without the influence of the secular arena?

Furthermore, if our contemporary Christian music is so objectively wonderful, why is it simply always keeping pace with secular music? I appreciate Risieri Frondizi when he writes, “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” (Quoted in Stefani, p. 414).

Shouldn’t Christian music be the head, and not the tail, of the arts? For centuries it was. Handel gave us Messiah. Now it just seems like we’re simply trying to keep up with everyone else by copying their music.

3. It also troubles me that we typically approach music with an egocentric attitude. Far too often I hear people say, “I feel like I’m worshipping God when I am singing this type of music?” or, “I am so blessed by this particular song?” I’ve responded by saying, “Why don’t we ask what God would want in our music? Why don’t we ask Him what He would be blessed by?” Someone responded to me recently by saying, “But don’t you think God would want us to play music that we are going to enjoy and be blessed by?” That sounds good in theory, but I don’t necessarily find this to be biblical.

One example of this would be Cain, who felt pretty happy about the worship he was offering God. No doubt he felt blessed by bringing the fruits of his labor to the altar. But this simply wasn't acceptable to God because it was not what He wanted or was blessed by. To say that it doesn't matter how we worship God, so long as we have a seemingly sincere heart and we are blessed by it, doesn't seem to jive with what God requires of us.

Furthermore, what would happen if we approached music with an other-centered attitude? What would happen if we asked ourselves, “What type of music would Sister Jones be blessed by?” or “What song would little Jacob really enjoy?” Music is not necessarily about us. It’s about God and it’s about others. As Barry Leisch writes, “It’s often overlooked today that we have a responsibility to one another in worship” (The New Worship, p. 39).

4. I am going to call a spade a spade: I am greatly bothered by the lack of lyrical and theological depth and clarity in many contemporary songs. And, quite simply, we have got to go deeper in our songs. (And this is coming from a guy who has written many a shallow song, and continues to do so. So I am part of the problem.) What may come as a surprise to many of us is that, according to Paul, we are supposed to use songs for the purpose of “teaching and admonishing” (see Colossians 3:16). Singing songs is not for the sole purpose of getting a warm tingly feeling about God. They are also to teach us doctrinal truths about Him.

As Leisch points out, most contemporary songs “excel at expressing celebration and intimacy, but, in general, lack intellectual rigor and fail to offer a mature exposition of the broad range of biblical doctrines” (Ibid., p. 21). There has been a movement of late to go deeper in contemporary songs, but even these have their problems. As scholar Jerry Stackhouse has written on his blog (to the ire of many), “We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears.”

What do our contemporary songs reveal about our theological depth, understanding, or experience? Sadly, I’m afraid that many of us who are supposed to be “12th graders,” spiritually, are stuck singing Kindergarten songs, lyrically.

This is why I love hymns. They actually have spiritual/theological depth to them. You don’t exhaust their meaning in one singing of them—unlike most contemporary songs. (As Leisch writes: “Must all texts be immediately accessible? . . . . Isn’t it healthy to have some lyrics that are dense in meaning—that keep yielding new insights to us each time we sing them?”)

When I shared this with someone recently, she responded, “Well, that may be true for you, but when I sing hymns I don’t even think about the words.” To me, that’s like saying, “When I read the Bible, I don’t even think about the words. Therefore, I am not going to read the Bible anymore.”

What is even more troubling is the fact that many of us sacrifice theological clarity and truth for a nice tune. Very few people actually exegete a song’s lyrics (this is true of hymns or contemporary songs, of course), or realize that they are unwittingly singing about their dead grandparents who are now looking down from heaven at them, or how God controls our destiny and we could, therefore, never be lost.

I think it is also worth noting that, in the Old Testament, only those from the tribe of Levi were given the job of leading out in music. These individuals were not only trained musically, but also theologically. This tells me that, though others were, no doubt, free to express themselves musically to God personally, when it came to corporate worship, only those who were trained in music and theology could lead a congregation.

What are the implications of this? We should be a lot more careful and intentional when inviting individuals to lead out in worship because, how they lead in worship affects not only them personally, but the corporate group as well. Thus, although I am sympathetic to doing all that we can to get people involved in ministry and worship, I am not sure it is worth jeopardizing the welfare of the corporate group for the involvement of one. Simply placing a guitar in someone’s hand and inviting them to lead out in music so they will keep coming to church doesn’t seem to reconcile with what I understand “worship” to be all about.

Each person, be it the pastor who is preaching or the Sabbath School teacher who is teaching, has a moral responsibility toward those they are leading. And just as none of us think it would be appropriate for someone to play the role of a doctor—though they have no knowledge in medicine—simply so they will keep coming to the hospital, neither should we invite others who have very little or no knowledge in theology or the things of God to lead out in worship, simply to keep them coming to church.

Where to?

So where does this leave us when it comes to music? I think it leaves us with the realization that we need to be ever more prayerful when it comes to this important topic. I wish that all of us, myself included, would take music—and the leading of music—more seriously. We cannot afford to be nonchalant or casual about it.

As one who appreciates the writing of Ellen White, I think she offers us some helpful guidelines as well. I think it would be beneficial to consult with her on this subject. And, in reading some of what she says, as well as reflecting upon biblical principles and continued scientific understanding of music’s effect, here are some broad principles that I think are helpful when pursuing the music of heaven. Perhaps all of us should reflect upon these principles when we are leading out in music.

1. No worship should be entered into without a great deal of prayer, preparation, and biblical reflection. I need to remember this as much as the next guy.

2. We are to worship God in “spirit and truth” (John 4:23). This means I will avoid songs where the lyrics do not reflect an accurate understanding of biblical truth. We need to be especially careful with this because, far too often, the lyrics that are being sung enter into our psyche subconsciously and often with little intelligent reflection.

3. If I am confronted with the possibility that the way my music is played may inherently prevent a person from using their reasoning abilities, I will want to avoid performing in such a way.

4. We should never perform music that may be injurious to people’s health. This is not simply subjective. It can be empirically judged. For example, I need to make sure that the music is not so loud that it damages a person’s eardrums.

I also will want to avoid screaming. Such affects the vocal chords in a negative way. So if this means I need to turn down the volume on other instruments, then I need to be prepared to do this.

I will also avoid performing in such a way that encourages people to smash into each other. This is just one other example.

5. Similarly, if we are singing for the purpose of coherent biblical and spiritual reflection—which should be our goal—I will never want to lead out in music in such a way that any accompanying instrument monopolizes the music and leaves the singing undistinguishable. Thus, I will definitely want to make sure that any other instrument is turned down and serves as a supplemental “dish,” rather than the main course.

6. I must recognize that certain types of music have worldly “associations” for some people, and I need to respect their views. If such is the case, I will want to avoid those types of music so as not to place those individuals in a situation where they unwillingly have to recall their former experiences that they are trying to put behind them.

7. If my music offends someone, I need to be willing to lay it aside for the sake of my brother or sister. It is not worth alienating relationships over, or destroying the work of God for the sake of “food.”

At the same time, if I disagree with someone’s music, even if I am convicted that it is “evil,” I need to approach the subject lovingly and treat others how I wish they would treat me. I must follow the example of Christ, who, instead of running away from evil, not only ate with sinners, but took up residence in sinful human flesh.

Music is an “arguable” topic, and is not a moral issue to the extent that any of the Ten Commandments are. It is not worth alienating relationships to make my point about music, one way or the other.


Rondi said...

Wow, Shawn! Lots and lots of thought-provoking stuff in these two posts! I am so with you on it all! It would be interesting to just sit and talk with you about this...some day maybe =)

Ron Nickerson said...

Deep thought .. I agree with your conclusions and add the carefullness to avoid being someone elses conscience .. some thing we all too often do. There are many reasons why contemporary music may be offensive to many unrelated to the lyrics or sound ie. effects of prior life experience and how the music directs our thought. I'll tell you a story about that when we meet again.

Anonymous said...

Food for thought. Let us hope it generates future discussion. May we press together and not alienate.

Shawn Brace said...

Ms A! Thanks for reading. I'm glad it resonated with you. It would be wonderful to shoot the breeze and chat with you sometime about it. Maybe that opportunity will come around sometime.

Thanks, Ron, for your thoughts as well. I'm looking forward to hearing your further perspective in the future!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Shawn for your intelligent discussion on this difficult topic. I have used contemporary music in my outreach to Non-Christians and have a hard time believing that it is offensive to my Lord to do so. Many people have told me that they were blessed by the music. As for our house, we often listen to contemporary but definitely shut it off during Sabbath. I go back and forth on this issue myself. David Gates said "if the angels sing it, it is acceptable." I think that Christianity is a progression, and that we must be willing, myself included, to stay open to the guiding of our Savior should He impress us, individually or corporately, to aim higher.

Mrs. Anderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. Anderson said...

My parents actually do not "get a blessing" from church, but they are active members (in Austin). What I mean is that they realized a long time ago that they needed to change their purpose in church. Many times they could have complained that the sermons were mediocre and that so and so did not come up to them and say "happy sabbath", potluck was "interesting" etc. Instead, they realized that the only way they could receive a blessing was to be a blessing at church. (In other words, they learned to be greeters at church and teach sabbath school, etc.) They used the talents that God gave them. In doing this, my parents realized the point of church. It is to bring people closer to Christ. (To be a minister to others and not be ministered to) I know that this is so obvious, but many people have missed this in regards to church. They spend a lot of time focusing on what they did not get or what happened to actually wonder if anyone was drawn closer to God. (I still do this) I really appreciated what you have said about music and its applications in church. When I read it, it made me think about my parents and how they shifted their idea of church attendance. Sorry if this has no biblical anything, but I really appreciated it and my parents thoughts on the matter. I think they would agree with you. (I do as well)
Heather A.

Shawn Brace said...

Anonymous: I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for sharing them. I have a question that I'm a little curious about. I've heard a few people share this idea with me before. You say that you listen to contemporary but "shut it off for Sabbath."

Why is that? If this Christian music is fine the rest of the week, why is not all right on Sabbath? I am not saying you're wrong; I'm just trying to get a feeling for what your thought process is.

Heather: great to hear from you! I'm glad that your parents seem to be on the right track, looking to be a blessing at church, rather than get a blessing themselves. That is always the healthiest thing to do when it comes to church!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Shawn. As a pastor in a district with churches on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, I have had some of the same thoughts as you.

I wonder if part of our problem isn't just music, but worship. Do we really understand what worship is? I don't know whether it would clarify or muddy the question about music, but it seems to me that before we can have an intelligent, dispassionate study and discussion about music in worship, we need to understand worship. Which may lead to a need to understand God (insofar as it is possible for a finite mortal to understand the Infinite!)

Have both "conservatives" and "liberals" been too egocentric in our concept of worship?

I really don't know the answers, I'm just wondering...


Anonymous said...


I read with interest this post on music. I was at a school where ta student introduced a song by saying
"we will now sing Amazing Grace to the tune of The House of the rising Sun" I almost fell of my pew. I am sure she had no idea what the house of the rising Sun was!! Perky

Mithun said...


I've thought much about this subject, and had plenty of debates with my Dad about it. I even started a sermon I gave at Church once with an unrelated digression tying the music question to Romans 14.

I pretty much agree with everything said in these two posts. Good job.

Shawn Brace said...


I totally agree with your thoughts. I think we are all too "egocentric" about this issue. I think we are often guilty of worshiping self, instead of God. We all have that problem, no matter which side of the aisle we sit on.

Thanks, also, Mithun! Glad that I received a "good job" from you!! ;-)

I will be posting something else today that I think is a good resource for everyone. Keep your eye on that.

Micaiah said...

I think we had a conversation about this once and we were somewhat in agreement if I recall. Everything was peachy until I read this... "Christ, who, instead of running away from evil, not only ate with sinners, but took up residence in sinful human flesh." I hope I'm understanding this wrong. How could this be Shawn?