Music: Myths, Meanings, Messages and Mediums

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Music and the Early Church

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music on the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to share this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that music was an abiding concern among many of the Patristics. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism were most strongly felt was in popular music.

Paganism still makes inroads into the church through music, though sadly many Christians no longer believe music is an area where we need to exercise discernment. They have fallen prey to a number of music myths perpetuated by the godless philosophy of our day.

Music Has Meaning

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating when I say the church has largely abandoned discerning thinking about music. If you think I’m exaggerating, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church plays during worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you’ll receive is not that the criticisms are false, but that they are based on a category mistake since music is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

That is, instead of receiving the retort, “You’re wrong – this type of music is actually very appropriate for worship”, the person will often reply, “Who are you to say?” The subtext is often that because music has no intrinsic meaning apart from the words, any meaning we assign to the melody, harmony and rhythm is regulated by little more than personal subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I talked to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that different types of music are better suited to various activities than other types of music. For example, we could probably all agree that it would be unfitting to play a funeral dirge at a barn-raising or rap music to help a baby get to sleep. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that Christians tend to make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

The non-Christian community has no trouble grasping this general point. If you were to go into a college dormitory and start asking young people to suggest a type of music to assist with meditation, to work-out to, to create a partying atmosphere, to invoke a melancholy mood, to create a condition of mind appropriate for seduction, to hype someone up before a fight, most people would be able to match certain styles of music to these activities with a surprising degree of consensus. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians hesitate to say that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another. While we are all ready to acknowledge that certain styles of music are appropriate or inappropriate for a barbecue, a birthday party, or a barn-raising, when it comes to worship Christians will deny that the concept of appropriateness even has coherence.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we have discussions about music. One of the reasons we are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because we haven’t first understood about the meaning of music from Monday to Saturday. We don’t understand worship music because we don’t understand “secular” music, having been influenced by the following interrelated music myths.

Music Myth #1: Only Words Influence the Soul

One of the ways Christians routinely misunderstand music is in thinking that only the words can have a formative influence on the soul.

The very idea that the unique combination of melody, harmony and rhythm that goes into any piece can contribute to the ordering or disordering of the soul, often strikes us as strange. It is almost an unquestioned axiom that only the words contain spiritual and ontological significance.

As such, we’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm. In this regard, it is we who are strange, for until the twentieth-century it was universally understood that music can affect the ordering of the soul in ways that are either conducive to human flourishing or which contribute to our disordering. Until recently, it never even occurred to serious thinkers (whether Christian or pagan) to suggest that apart from lyrics music is a realm of complete spiritual and moral neutrality.

Music Myth #2: It’s all in the Ear of the Listener

Ever since the Romantic era it has become increasingly common for people to talk about beauty being in the eye of the beholder with respect to visual art. The musical equivalent is to say that all objective categories we might predicate to music reside completely in the ear of the listener and not in the music itself.

This type of aesthetic relativism works to systematically remove all objective categories from the discussion of music. Christians whose worldview antennas shoot straight up when they encounter relativism in ethics or epistemology, easily embrace aesthetic relativism when it comes to music. This aesthetic relativism is usually always just assumed as an unquestioned axiom – something that is so obvious that it does not even warrant rational reflection.

Space prohibits me from interacting in depth with all the problems with aesthetic relativism, although I have dealt with it my article, “Music and the Objectivity of Beauty.”

Music Myth #3: the Medium is NOT the Message

Still another way we fail to appreciate the true nature of music is in thinking that there is no intrinsic link between form and content. It is routinely assumed that if we predicate qualities like “anger”, “aggressiveness” or “sensuality” to a song, we are either making truth-claims about the words of the song, or about the reactions of certain individuals – reactions that have no organic relation to the specifically musical elements of the work. As such, we fail to appreciate that in many respects, “the medium is the message.” While Christians are generally coming to understand the principle that “the medium is the message” in other areas of cultural analysis (i.e., communication technologies or eating practices), our thinking about music still lags far behind.

This was something that came up last year when Christianity Today asked Mars Hill Audio host, Ken Myers, about various Christian hip-hop artists. In his responses to Russell Moore’s questions, Myers asked us to respect the integrity of hip-hop as a style by recognizing that, as a vehicle, the style is better suited to certain types of words than others. That is, form and content are organically related in ways that Christians are often apt to ignore.

“Music sounds ‘like feelings feel,’ said Myers. That’s why no one could credibly suggest that Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ conjures ‘feelings of melancholy, humility, tentativeness, or ennui.’ And no one could claim that Gregorian chants are ‘brimful of arrogance, assertiveness, anger, or brashness.’

By contrast, Myers said, ‘Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.’ In other words, rap is anything but about ‘reticence, patience, self-giving, or submissiveness.’

‘Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence,’ Myers said as we continued talking over e-mail. One cannot, he said, rap the Sermon on the Mount without altering the fundamental meaning of either the text or the form, any more than one could easily perform ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ set to Fleet Foxes’ ‘White Winter Hymnal.’ To use “pious and humble” hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate ‘the musical vocabulary of hip-hop,’ since it is a style ‘more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit.’

Myers was not arguing that hip-hop is bad, or that it is incompatible with Christian practice. Rather, he was asking Christians to respect the integrity of hip-hop as a style by recognizing that its forms are intrinsically more suited to certain types of content than others.

Music Myth #4: Music is a Realm of Complete Spiritual Neutrality

When engaged in discussions with young people about music, I frequently run into the idea that music is a realm of complete neutrality. The very idea that music is a realm of spiritual neutrality would never have occurred to church fathers like Saint John Chrysostom, let alone pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The fact that such an idea is so prevalent in our age should propel all Christians to think as carefully about music as we have thought about other areas of cultural life.

Part of the problem arises because of a pervasive false dilemma. When I try to talk to young people about the relationship between form and content, people tend to automatically “hear” me saying that certain styles of music are sinful. They think I want to legalistically ban certain styles of music when all I want to do is to invite reflection on music in the same way Christian young people are encouraged to reflect on other areas of cultural life. Sadly, the rich vocabulary for talking about music that has been handed down to us from over two thousand years of reflection is neglected as the entire issue is collapsed into a choice between affirming that certain music is sinful vs. saying that music is a realm of complete spiritual neutrality.

The problem with this false dilemma (musical legalism vs. musical neutrality) is the same one that I identified in my 2012 article about food. In that article I pointed out that there is a whole realm of inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos, for which it was created, and to respect that telos through the wise ordering of our practices. Too often we want to start with ethics when we should be starting with ontology, teleology and theological anthropology.

Christians often find it hard to embrace a theology of music for similar reasons. When it comes to both music and food, our nominalist presuppositions often rob us of the categories with which to talk meaningfully about the right ordering of nature independent to questions of right and wrong. That is to say, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions about music is sin-avoidance, and since sin does not apply to musical choices in any type of distributive (categorically-general) way, thousands of Christian young people are ready to make the non-sequitur leap to the fact that music is an area of complete spiritual neutrality.

Don’t be scared off by all these big words I’ve been using. All I’m saying is that it is problematic the way so many Christian young people are quick to unthinkingly assume that where sin does not apply to musical practices, it therefore follows that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice. What gets lost in the process is all questions about how music contributes to the ordering of our nature as spiritual and physical beings. What gets lost is also questions about music itself: the nature, teleology, and purpose of music. If we could back up from reductionistic ethical questions to reflect deeply on these more rewarding philosophical questions about music, then a lot of our assumptions about music’s supposed spiritual neutrality would be seen to be suspect.

Where to Go From Here?

Okay, so I hope you’ve got my basic point: we need to start thinking seriously about music. But where do we start?

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a philosophy and theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment:

Next Steps. Get together with a group of Christians and go through Robin’s discussion questions about music. Also, share some of the resources above to discuss in small-groups. When meeting together, consider playing different types of music and then asking everyone to discuss it.


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