“A New Song for an Old World” (Excerpt 5)

More excerpts from Calvin R. Stapert’s book, A New Song for an Old World. Previous excerpts: OneTwoThreeFour

“As I have observed above, the wedding festivities of Christians in Antioch were often more pagan than Christian. Christians were reluctant to abandon objectionable pagan customs at their weddings. These customs included music that was objectionable to John [Chrysostom], and he denounced it whenever he dealt with weddings. A sermon on Acts [Homily XLII on Acts] provides a typical denunciation: in it John speaks of the ‘Bacchic frenzy’ of the festivities, more becoming to brutes than to men. There was in these wild festivities, he said, ‘much [121//122] pomp of the devil,’ including ‘cymbals, auloi and songs full of fornication and adultery.’

John’s Twelfth Homily on 1 Corinthians contains his most extensive castigation of pagan marriage festivities as they were practiced by Christians. Among the ‘ridiculous things’ that took place were dancing, and cymbals, and flutes, and shameful words, and songs, and drunkenness, and revelings, and all the Devil’s great heap of garbage. . . . [Chrysostom decries the indecencies and parades that accompanied weddings.] John concludes with a paragraph focused directly on the music that accompanied these proceedings: “What can one say of the songs themselves, crammed as they are with all uncleanness, introducing monstrous amours, and unlawful connections, and subversions of houses, and tragic scenes without end . . . ? And, what is still more grievous, that young women are present at these things . . . and in the midst of wanton young men acting a shameless part with their disorderly songs, with their foul words, with their devilish harmony. Tell me then: do you still inquire, “Whence come adulteries? Whence fornications? Whence violations of marriage?”‘ [122//123]

If pagan wedding festivities threatened to get marriages off on the wrong foot, the enticement of the theater was a constant threat to the stability of households. John lamented about Christians who ran to the theater instead of to church, who ran after a star of the stage rather than after Christ, and who left ‘the fountain of blood’ for ‘the fountain of the devil, to see a harlot swim, and to suffer shipwreck of the soul.’ He feared that the adulteries on the stage would lead to real adulteries, ‘for nothing is more full of whoredom and boldness than an eye that endures to look at such things.’ [Homily VI and VII on Matthew].

The music of the theater was just as loathsome to John as the action on the stage. ‘And that which the barbarian threatened, saying, ‘You shall eat your own dung,’ and what follows; this do these men also make you undergo, not in word, but in deeds; or rather, somewhat even much worse. For truly those songs are more loathsome even than all this; and what is yet worse, so far from feeling annoyance when you hear them, you rather laugh, when you ought to abominate them and fly.’ John goes on to describe the whole show of which the ‘loathsome songs’ were a part. He tells of its themes of adultery, ‘stolen marriages,’ prostitution, and ‘youths corrupting themselves’; of foul sayings’ and ‘gestures fouler still’; of unnatural and unchaste dress, hairstyle, gait, and ‘flexure of limbs.’ The whole thing is ‘full of the most extreme impurity’. . . . [123//124] . . . John asks the pertinent questions: ‘For when will you be able to become good, bred up as you are with such sounds in your ears? When will you venture to undergo such labors as chastity requires, now that you are falling gradually away through this laughter, these songs, and filthy words?’ Then, as now, there were those who claimed that they were unharmed by the spectacles. John had a hard time believing that, knowing that ‘if even now you are chaste, you would have become more chaste by avoiding such sights.’ . . . .[But even if that were true: (1) it was a waste of time and (2) it was a stumbling block to brothers or sisters in Christ]

Thus John saw that wanton music and the shows of the theater were a dire threat to chastity. He wanted his congregation to have nothing to do with the theater and its music, including those who thought they were immune to its effect [emphasis added]. . . [124//127] . . . Unfortunately, Christians in Antioch knew the songs of the world better than they knew the psalms. John challenged his congregation: ‘who of you that stand here, if he were required, could repeat one Psalm or any [127//128] other portion of the divine Scriptures? There is not one.’ And it was bad enough that they did not know Scripture; what made it worse was that they did know, all to well, ‘What belongs to Satan.’ ‘And it is not only that is the grievous thing, but that while you have become so backward with respect to things spiritual, yet in regard of what belongs to Satan you are more vehement than fire. Thus should any one be minded to ask of you songs of devils and impure effeminate melodies, he will find many that know these perfectly, and repeat them with much pleasure.’ Therefore, it was very important that the teaching and learning of psalms and hymns be a high priority in the Christian household.”

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World (Eerdmans, 2007), 121-128