November 18, 2017

More from “A New Song for an Old World”

Last week we offered some comments from Clement of Alexandria on music, as quoted by Calvin R. Stapert in A New Song for an Old World. For your Monday morning, we offer a bit more of Stapert, addressing the modern music wars with thoughts from the ancient world.

“One’s music Clement [of Alexandria] believed, is not merely a reflection of the kind of person one is; it is, to a certain extent involved in shaping a person. Clement and the church fathers were in general agreement on this point, and they were united with Plato and most of the thinkers of antiquity. For that matter, they are united with most people at all times and in all places—ancient and modern, East and West, primitive and literate, sophisticated and unsophisticated, civilized and uncivilized. Of course, there have always been skeptics too; but the biggest concentration of skeptics appears to belong to modern Western civilization. Modern Western skeptics have a strong inclination to dismiss the subject out of hand with absurdly reductionist rhetorical questions, such as, ‘How can a C-sharp make me evil?’ The answer, // of course, is that C-sharp is not music. Nor is a scale or a chord or a rhythm or melodic motif. Music involves all of those things, but none of them is music, and no one ever claimed that those ingredients by themselves have an impact on a person’s character.”

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World (Eerdmans, 2007), 55-56.

“Some might remember, however, that Plato allowed only certain modes in his ideal republic . . . . // Mode, then, was not only scale. It included a host of other ingredients that tended to cluster together and reinforce each other in producing music’s character-shaping power—ingredients such as text, occasion, performers, kinds of instruments used, and manner of performance. This whole package is what we must keep in mind when we hear Plato or Aristotle speak about modes.”

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World (Eerdmans, 2007), 56-57.

“If some of Clements’s words describing fitting Christian music—words such as grave and sober—mislead us into thinking that he was describing something joyless, the first quotation [Miscellanies VII; p. 533] should set us straight. Christians, according to Clement, are both grave and cheerful at once—and so is their music. As the second quotation says, their whole life is a ‘festival’ [Miscellanies VII; p. 537]. When Clement invited the pagans to Christianity, he did not invite them to leave something joyous and exchange it for something gloomy. He invited them to leave the frenzy and impurity of the Maenads for the sobriety of the ‘fair lambs’ who celebrate the holy rites of the Word, raising ‘a sober choral dance.’ But sober is not somber. . . . Clement, like Plato, was concerned about the character-shaping power of music; but of music fulfilled its primary function of being part of a thankful, sober revelry, it would also contribute toward shaping sober and joyous character.”

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World (Eerdmans, 2007), 58.


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