June 25, 2017

Music in the perspective of Creation, Fall, and Redemption – expanded edition

Brian Collins

One of our regular contributors, Brian Collins, recently wrote an excellent piece on music at his blog, Exegesis and Theology. Before reading this article, you might like to read his initial offering and the comments. The piece is called “Music in the Perspective of Creation, Fall, and Redemption”.

When I read the article, I tried to get Brian to republish it here, but instead he agreed to respond to some questions of mine that arose from the article. I appreciate very much the effort he put into this. It is much longer than the original article and provides further excellent instruction on the subject. – ed.

P&D: In your article on music, you refer to God creating the possibility of music. What would your reaction be to claims some make concerning creation to the effect that “God created music, therefore no style of music is inherently evil.”? 1 Timothy 4.1-5 is cited for this argument, with special reference to verse 4.

In the first place it is very important to affirm the goodness of God’s creation. We must never locate sin ontologically in the good creation of God. That is, sin isn’t rooted in the very being of the creation. The creation of God, even after the Fall, retains its essential goodness. It is, to be sure, twisted by the Fall. And the effects of the Fall touch every part of creation. But sin has not corrupted the essence of God’s creation so that the good creation in itself is now evil.

It seems that in 1 Timothy 4 Paul is combating an asceticism that failed to affirm the creational goodness of marriage and certain foods. So in this passage Paul emphasizes the need to affirm the goodness of marriage and food and the great wrong it would be to reject these things which Christians should receive with thanksgiving.

That, however, is not the end of the matter. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul advises that some people should not marry for the sake of the advancement of the kingdom of God. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul argues much the same way as he does in 1 Timothy 4: The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s; if you can eat with thankfulness, eat whatever is sold in the market or served by a pagan neighbor without asking questions. But even that is not the end of the story. If someone informs the Christian that the meat was offered to idols, he is not to eat it. In fact, the whole thrust of Paul’s argument is that a believer should not knowingly eat meat offered to idols. This is consistent with other New Testament teaching on this matter. In Acts 15, after acknowledging that the Gentiles are not bound by the Mosaic law, James nonetheless says that the Gentile Christians are to abstain from things contaminated by idols (15:20). Paul repeats these restrictions in Acts 21:23 and rephrases this to abstain from things sacrificed to idols. In Revelation 2, Jesus tells the church at Pergamum that he has something against them in that they have some who teach it is permissible to eat things sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:14). Likewise to the church of Thyatira Jesus condemns “Jezebel” for leading Christians to eat things offered to idols (Rev. 2:19).

So Paul’s statement that Christians are to reject nothing that is received with thanksgiving must be canonically qualified by these other Scriptures. Christians may not for ascetic or Gnostic reasons reject God’s good creation. But other valid reasons may lead to abstinence.

Thus far we’re dealing with things that are directly created by God, and which are therefore good in and of themselves: marriage and meat. Music is in a different category. God created a world capable of producing music. But he does not create individual musical compositions. To claim that all music must be acceptable because God created the capacity for music is akin to saying that all art should be embraced by Christians for worship since God created the materials from which the art was made. It just doesn’t follow.

P&D: You also talk about the effect of the fall on human culture, defining culture as “the product of God’s image bearers making things from God’s creation.” You assert that “There is no good reason to restrict the impact of the Fall to musical lyrics and to wall off musical style as the (only?) aspect of culture unaffected by the Fall.” Could you expand on the phenomena of restricting the impact of the Fall to lyrics alone and also give some thoughts as to why some (at least) find it difficult or impossible to discern the effects of the Fall on the music itself (music apart from lyrics)?

I suspect that people focus on lyrics over style because lyrics are easier to evaluate. The evaluation of musical styles seems more subjective. I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that in the modern world the prevailing mood is against any objective aesthetic judgments. C. S. Lewis noted, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others” (The Abolition of Man, 14-15). In the modern world, however, such evaluations are often seen as subjective: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m skeptical of the modern position, for a number of reasons. In the first place, as Calvin Stapert notes, the claim that musical styles carry no moral meaning is typically only asserted by modern Westerners. The opposite position has been held, “most people at all times and in all places — ancient and modern, East and West, primitive and literate, sophisticated and unsophisticated, civilized and uncivilized” (A New Song for an Old World, 55). The consensus over time and place does not prove that musical style can communicate meaning, especially moral meaning. But it does mean that I want to hear some serious argumentation to the contrary about why a nearly universal moral sense is incorrect. Too often, Stapert notes, this issue is dismissed “out of hand with absurdly reductionist rhetorical questions, such as, ‘How can a C-sharp make me evil?’” Which is a puzzling question, since no one makes this claim. Second, even in the modern West, it seems that a significant number of people recognize that music apart from the lyrics communicates. For instance, in the letters to the editor section of the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Books and Culture, the author of an article reviewing a recent release by Sufjan Stevens responds to a critical letter: “But our argument was never about the strength of the musical or lyrical ideas. Our negative view of Stevens’ album was based on the fact that he used the same ideas in a variety of songs whose lyrics were so different in tone, mood, etc. For example, if Slayer did a death-metal cover of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ their version would still communicate apocalyptic rage, regardless of the meaning of the lyrics.” Likewise, Naomi Schaeffer Riley marvels in her research on faith-based universities that so many utilized musical styles that undercut the moral messages they wanted to inculcate in students. Third, once again I have to wonder why musical style has remained untouched by the Fall? Is it impossible to create a style that communicates rage, rebellion, or seduction? On what theological grounds would we say that the Fall has cultural effects, but that musical styles have some how been preserved from these effects?

P&D: Would it ever be possible for enough time to elapse such that the situational perspective (the culture surrounding the style) be so long past that the style itself ceases to communicate sensuality? Are you aware of any other cultural expressions where the passage of time sufficiently removes any situational “baggage” that might attend the piece?

I would think so, but this moves beyond my competence. My guess is that aspects of musical communication are tied into creational structures and other aspects are cultural. Understanding the situation fully in this case requires knowledge of musicology, and in this specific case cross-cultural musicology. Two clarifications follow from this: First, this does not undermine the sufficiency of Scripture; it does recognize the need to understand the situations to which Scripture is applied. As an aside, this is an argument for Christians being involved in a variety of vocations and academic pursuits. Second, this does not mean that Christians cannot make musical decisions without a degree in musicology. There are all sorts of areas in life in which we do not have the resources to become experts but in which we must make prudential judgments the best we can. This does not by any means mean that we should ignore the experts; they can be of great benefit to the body of Christ. But it does not mean that we have to be experts in everything before we apply Scripture to life.

As to another cultural expression in which the passage of time sufficiently removes situational baggage: I understand that trousers in 18th century France (and perhaps in other parts of Europe) were a sign of the radical left. More commonly men wore knee breeches. That cultural association has been gone for several hundred years.

P&D: Back to the main article and Redemption: given the three perspectives for evaluating ethical questions, is it really possible to “redeem” a cultural expression that flows out of depravity? For example, could we ‘redeem’ the cultural expressions of the ancient Canaanites as re-discovered by archaeology, or the cultural expressions of more recent pagan societies (say South Sea cannibals)?

Regarding redeeming elements of culture, I’d prefer to speak in terms of living consistently with the redemption that Christ has procured and will bring one day to full fruition.

In talking about redemption in connection with culture, it is very important to distinguish what we are seeking to see rescued from sin. I would say that just as the Fall affects creation comprehensively, so redemption affects the creation comprehensively. This means that redemption extends as far as the fall. That doesn’t mean, however, that every cultural expression will itself be redeemed. Some cultural expressions are inherently depraved; they represent in themselves violations of God’s law. An indisputable example here is pornography. There is no Christianizing of pornography. Redemption means the elimination of pornography and the development of faithful, monogamous, conjugal relationships within marriage. So human sexuality, as a good part of God’s creation, will be redeemed. But not every cultural expression related to it will be “Christianized.” When speaking of redemption, we have to distinguish between the essentially good creation and the way that it can be used in either fallen or redemptive directions. With regard to music, specific styles are not part of the essentially good creation that must be redeemed but are instances of directional goodness or fallenness, and that to varying degrees. Thus I expect music to be redeemed, but I do not expect every style to be redeemed. Redemption probably means jettisoning some styles.

Regarding the specific example of the Canaanites, I would say it depends. Just because cultures are touched by the Fall at every point does not mean that they are as bad as they can be. They are still products of God’s image bearers. So certain cultural artifacts, for instance Canaanite idols, especially their female idols, must be rejected whereas perhaps some of their pottery could be recovered.

P&D: Brian, thank you very much. I hope your answers might be edifying to our readers.


Dr. Brian Collins is employed at the Bob Jones University Press.

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