December 17, 2017

Values and Music: A Theological Perspective (Part 4)

Gerald Priest, Ph.D.

This is the fourth part of five. Part 1Part 2Part 3

Part 1 points out that the first and most important criteria in making musical choices is theological: does my music please God?

Part 2 argues that music is moral since it originated in God and thus its purest forms communicate the image of God, not the corrupt image of carnality.

Part 3 reminds us that restraints are necessary because of the fall and the corruption of human nature. The Old Testament restraint was the Law, the New Testament restraint is the Spirit, motivating us by love, but still intent on restraining the flesh. It is our natural tendency to tolerate sin, the Spirit never does.

If the culture is corrupt then we have to discern what makes it that way. We have to distinguish between that which is part of allowable custom from that which is morally detrimental. If God’s gifts of general revelation or common grace have been perverted by man, and it should be obvious to us that they have been, then to the degree we adopt them (in their perverted condition) to that degree we become corrupted by them. We have allowed the culture to dictate our standards, rather than allowing divine standards to decide our behavior. It is not just a matter of the camel riding us instead of us riding the camel; it is finding a much better mode of transportation.

An indication of paganism is reflected in the mind and illustrated by the body: the elimination of inhibitions. Take off the clothes and put on the tattoos: immodesty and disfigurement. These are only two examples of a rebellious disregard for divine order. It used to be that when missionaries went to heathen lands (now that is a politically incorrect term, if there ever was one!), and they would realize converts, the first two things these new believers would do is put on clothes and sing hymns. And the songs they sang were the ones taught to them by western missionaries. But we are told that we need to accommodate other cultures, not impose our western ways on them. Let them have their music and we will supply the Christian lyrics. Problem is the music often originates from a pagan culture. What is it about a pagan culture that we need to accommodate? Couple that with Christian lyrics and what do you have? Confusion.

Of course, there are exceptional native melodies which are useful because honorable, pure, lovely, and of good repute. They are indeed worthy of praise. Likewise, there are western hymns and spiritual songs that are doctrinally and lyrically unsound and therefore unworthy to be sung. Simply because they are traditional should not make them acceptable. But the greater problem is that much Christian thinking is so conditioned by a diverse and tolerating culture that the product doesn’t seem confusing at all.

I hear regularly, and mostly from the younger generation, that rock music is acceptable today because the association with the rebellion of yesterday has been removed. But the more pressing question is whether rebellion is intrinsic to rock music itself. Why was that genre of music associated with a rebellious drug culture in the first place? It is because the sound conveyed rebellion. The rock performers actually told us that. Now, we are told that, with the passage of time and the removal of the association, rock music is simply a matter of Christian preference, not abhorrence. And so our churches have been conditioned to believe that this type of music is a perfectly acceptable mode of conveying the gospel message and worshiping God. It is baffling to me how it can be thought that this music may be consonant with Philippian 4:8. Can this change be attributed only to the passage of time, or could it be that the Christian community has been desensitized?

If rock music is not worldly, then I would ask, “What is?” And I do not mean that as a rhetorical question. If the quality and preference for music are determined solely by association, then what is the matter with using heavy metal music as a means of worship, once an association with its current milieu is removed? But once again, if such questions are discussed merely on the horizontal plain, we have missed the point. The question is whether this music has, can be, or ever will be, pleasing to the holy, eternal, immutable, sovereign God revealed to us through inscripturated revelation.

Is it more than coincidental that contemporary rock music is very much at home with continuationism of sign gifts? Both share a permissive, rather than a regulative, approach to worship. One of rock’s chief features is freestyle; likewise, a subjective or experiential openness is characteristic of sign gifts. One needs to be careful to avoid an axiomatic conclusion here, but the relationship does provoke consideration. I find it interesting that the standard fare in Pentecostal assemblies, a music which excites the emotions and renders the mind susceptible to ecstatic utterance, has also become the norm in evangelical continuationist churches. These churches may disavow a formal connection with the charismatic movement, but have made themselves vulnerable to its temptations. Is the nose of the camel in the tent?

To be continued.

Gerald Priest served many years on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He is now retired and lives in Greenville, SC.

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