by Paul Downey
Ministries need a Biblical and philosophical basis for rejecting popular music in favor of conservative, traditional music. The music used in our churches and schools should provide a high-quality, meaningful alternative to the high-pressure worldly influence of popular music. While the text is important, it is by no means the only criterion by which our music should be evaluated. There are at least three general principles to consider.
Making music is essentially an activity of the spirit, not the flesh, and each of us lives with an ongoing battle between the two. We have grown accustomed to making a distinction between “sacred” and “secular” music, a distinction emphasizing only the texts of vocal music or the context for which instrumental music was written. Scripture distinguishes between the spiritual and the sensual. Galatians 5:17 says, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Ephesians 5:18 and 19 admonish us to “be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
Too many of us select our music on the basis of carnal enjoyment rather than spiritual edification. When we criticize our traditional church music as “boring,” we reveal a great deal about our spiritual condition. What we call “exciting” or “boring” usually has little or nothing to do with its spiritual content and everything to do with our physical response to the music. We reveal ourselves to be carnal Christians if we make our personal likes and dislikes the only criteria for determining what music we listen to.
The Scriptures abound with passages exhorting us to use music in our worship. (Ps. 100:2; Col. 3:16) Even instrumental music serves a spiritual purpose (2 Chron. 5:13, 14).
Numerous studies have indicated music’s power to influence the spirit. David Merrill, a high school student in Suffolk, Virginia, experimented with the effects of music on mice. He took 72 mice and divided them into three groups: one to test a mouse’s response to hard rock, another to the music of Mozart, and a control group that would listen to no music. He played music ten hours each day. He put each mouse through a maze three times a week that originally had taken the mice an average of 10 minutes to complete. The control mice cut their time to about half. The mice listening to Mozart cut their time by 85%, to an average of only 1.5 minutes. The group listening to rock music tripled their time to an average of 30 minutes. This was the second time Merrill had tried the experiment. The first time he had allowed all the mice in each group to stay together. “I had to cut my project short because all the hard-rock mice killed each other,” he said. “None of the classical mice did that” (Insight, Sept. 8, 1997).
An article in Reader’s Digest (“Music’s Surprising Power to Heal,” August 1992) told of a surgical team in Cleveland’s St. Luke’s Hospital using classical music to help relax the patient, reduce staff tension in the operating room, and reduce the amount of anesthesia needed by the patient. Others in the medical profession using soothing music as part of their treatment strategy include Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center (in the newborn ICU) and Dr. Raymond Bahr of Baltimore’s St. Agnes Hospital (in the coronary care unit). Others are using it to treat pain; anxiety; depression; mental, emotional, and physical handicaps; and neurological disorders. The University of Georgia now offers a degree in Music Therapy. Advertisers use music to create interest in a product and to boost sales. Businesses use music to influence behavior. The world at large knows that music has a powerful impact on one’s mind and spirit.
Clearly, music evokes an emotional response. People insist that others have no right to tell them what music they ought to like. Of course, one’s enjoyment of tobacco does nothing to reduce its damaging effects, any more than enjoyment of alcohol makes it less dangerous. David’s sin with Bath-sheba is not mitigated by the fact that she was attractive. Why then do we think that music should be evaluated only on the basis of its entertainment value? The very strength of the emotion leading to such illogical conclusions ought to warn us to be careful in our music.
A significant part of the problem is that we have forgotten the reality of the Devil’s enmity. We know that he is the father of lies (John 8:44) and that he seeks our destruction (1 Pet. 5:8). We tend to forget that he appears as “an angel of light” and a minister of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13–15). It is foolish to assume that we would immediately recognize the Devil’s music and that we would not like it.
Everything we do, including our music, is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). This principle applies whether we are at church, at home, or driving down the road. If we are selecting our music to bring glory to God, then it is our responsibility to choose only music that reflects the character of a holy God. God has commanded that we evaluate everything in creation in the light of His revealed Word, clinging to the good and abstaining from evil wherever we find it (1 Thess. 5:21). It is on the basis of this principle that we reject many activities that would feed fleshly lusts.
It should follow that we would select only music that would make us better and reject any that might bring us harm. But in this area we tend to argue that there is no way to evaluate music objectively. We ignore the teaching of Scripture. Instead of looking outward to inform our taste, we look inward to clarify or discover our taste. Instead of trying to develop a taste for that which is good, we insist on doing that which pleases ourselves. We have made our desires the final authority by which we measure what we will accept. The primary purpose of our music must be to please God, not ourselves.
The world seems to recognize intuitively the Biblical principle of the clean and the unclean (Hag. 2:12–14). It is professing Christians, not unbelievers, who try to argue that you can use any kind of music as long as it has Christian words. But Paul tells us that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Cor. 10:4). Paul also warned against those who try to evangelize by using “enticing words” rather than preaching (1 Cor. 2:4 with 1:21). We are not to use illegitimate means to spread the gospel on the grounds that they will attract a crowd. You could do the same with a circus or a belly dancer. You do not make pornography “Christian” by adding Bible verses to obscene pictures.
An incident in the life of King David vividly illustrates the importance of doing God’s work God’s way. David wanted to return the ark of the covenant to the tabernacle (1 Chron. 13). The book of Leviticus had given details of how it was to be moved, but David imitated the Philistine method of transporting it by oxcart—a seemingly more practical and efficient medium. However, when he used the Philistine method, it cost a man his life. While they thought they were being successful, making rapid progress toward the tabernacle, they found that God was not pleased. Too many are making excuses for using Philistine music to move God’s work forward.
God has told us what should occupy our minds: that which is true, honest, pure, lovely, and of good report; “if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8 ). The word “music” is based on the root “to muse” or “to meditate.” It is a medium of communication designed to cause one to ponder, think, or meditate upon a message. Thus, a more common term for a singer or songwriter used to be “muse.” And Philippians 4:8 has told us what we are to “muse” upon.
Our music, then, must be excellent music, true music, honest music, righteous music, pure music, beautiful music, reputable music, virtuous music, and praiseworthy music. We should neither waste our time or talents nor harm our spirits with music that is false, dishonest, unrighteous, impure, ugly, disreputable, licentious, or shameful. We must not ask, “Will this music appeal to sinful men?” but “Is this music acceptable to a holy God?”
The fact that much of Israel’s music was purely instrumental is also important. Just as music need not have a sensual text to be sensual music, neither must it have a “spiritual” text in order to be spiritual music. To glorify God the music itself must be excellent (cf. Phil. 1:10a) in the technical aspects of melody, harmony, and rhythm, without having an inordinate sensual appeal.
When we add Christian words to sensual music we create a musical double- entendre. It has been estimated that the words we say communicate seven percent of the message, our tone of voice communicates 28 percent of the message, and nonverbal signals communicate 65 percent of the message. When our words agree with our tone of voice and nonverbal signals, clear and good communication occurs. When our words do not agree with our tone of voice and/or nonverbal signals, we create confusion. The listener decides you are being either dishonest or sarcastic and believes the tone and nonverbal message while rejecting the misleading words. That is precisely the point being made by Nick Tosches in “Good Golly Miss Molly: Sex in Popular Music” (Vanity Fair, April 1983). Commenting on the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” he said their “tone belied the niceness of the lyrics— they asked to hold milady’s hand in the manner that a street thief might ask to hold one’s wallet—and their music reflected nothing less than the collective [sexuality] of four . . . boys in their early twenties.”
When our music expresses a sensual message through tone of voice and nonverbal communication, adding words that are spiritual does not make the music spiritual. Rather, it makes a mockery of the message by adding the understood “not” of sarcasm or the obvious hypocrisy of words that say one thing while everything else communicates a contrary message. Ultimately, the message communicated is the message of the music, not the text.
We need to stop trying to convince God that He ought to accept the music we love, and begin allowing God to teach us to love that music which brings Him glory. All of our music, whether it is for public performance or private enjoyment, must be evaluated in the light of these principles. We will give an account to a holy God for the choices we make and the influence we exert. May He be pleased to say of our choices, “Well done.”
This article first appeared in FrontLine • September/October 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Dr. Paul W. Downey is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, and is a co-author of From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got Our Bible.