Saturday, May 8, 2010

When Music is Sin

It's been a while since I have written anything controversial here.  The last big flap I caused was back in 2008 when I suggested pet ownership is often severely selfish.  So now let me touch another topic that is surprisingly near to everyone's trigger: music!

Music seems to speak directly to our passions and emotions, and is a sort of universal language. My own beliefs about music might seem antiquated or overly narrow. Nevertheless, over the next couple of weeks I will post a few articles explaining them as best I can. If they only prompt you to prayerfully ponder how your own auditory diet can best honor Jesus, my goal in publishing this will be accomplished.

The line between “bad” music and “good” music
  • It is extremely hard to draw a definitive line. No line is given to us in Scripture, but that does not mean that a line does not exist. It simply means that God intends for us to live with some uncertainty about the exact location of the line. 
  • A similar situation exists with clothing. I think all Christians would agree that some forms of clothing are sinfully immodest, while other forms of clothing (such as the Islamic hijab) are legalistically conservative. God commands modesty (1 Timothy 2:9), and yet He did not give us an exact hemline measurement.
  • Clothing is also similar to music in that it is a complex aesthetic. It’s not simply a matter of hemline. The “message” of the clothing is also affected by its color (black, white, red, pastel, vibrant), pattern (dress suit vs. T-shirt), fit (how it hangs on a particular person’s body), fabric (Mr. Roger’s sweater), age and condition, cost. The appropriateness of a piece of clothing depends partly on the setting in which the clothing will be worn (wedding, inauguration, bedclothes). And yet there are some clothes that are inappropriate in any setting. Similarly, music’s message is multidimensional, affected by the instrument(s), melody, tempo, rhythm, etc.
  • Our ultimate focus should not be on the "line" at all, but on Jesus.  A focus strictly on the "law" will only make us worse law-breakers (or benders!).  Instead, let's focus on getting as close to Jesus as we can, by embracing the cross, repenting of our sins and trusting in Jesus alone as our Savior, Master, and Treasure.
Does Music Mean Anything?

    Some people believe that music itself has no message.  A piece of music, they think, is like a blank sheet of paper, ready to carry the message (the lyrics) that are written on it.  Music has no message of its own.  Thus, music itself is morally neutral,  neither good nor bad.  The only thing that makes it good or bad is the lyrics attached to it.

    But these two songs demonstrate the fallacy of that reasoning.  See if you notice any difference in the messages of their music.

    The lyrics for both hymns were written by the same author, Sabine Baring-Gold.  He wrote them using an identical poetic meter, which means you can actually swap the words between tunes.  To a person who believes music is messageless, it should make no difference to sing the words of "Onward Christian Soldiers" to the tune of "Now the Day is Over".  The fact that this seems unfitting shows that we do instinctively know that music carries a message.

    But, you might be thinking: OK, yes, both pieces of music did carry a message, but neither piece of music was morally evil.  It is just a matter of finding the music that best conveys the message of the words.  There is no "bad" music, just "ill-fitting" music.  

    This is the argument I'll rebut in my next post about music.  Meanwhile let me know your own thoughts!


    1. thanks for tackling this topic.

    2. i really don't understand what you trying to juxtapose between the two songs. Is one 'bad' vs. the other one 'good'?

      jim m.

    3. Thanks, Jim. Now that you mention it I can see how it IS confusing. Neither tune is bad. My purpose for including these two tunes was only to illustrate that tunes can have differing messages. I'll talk about whether a tune's message can be actually "bad" in my next post about music.

    4. thanks for sharing=)

    5. You are dealing with tunes that have lyrics. As an instrumentalist, my critique is that your mixing medium; prose and music. If you are wanting to understand when/if music is sin, then you have to deal with just the musical part. The words are dead give away otherwise. And that sometimes only by definition of your theological background.

      So when can music be sinful? In listening to Night on Bald Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky, that it indeed is "raising the devil" but the ending brings out the triumph of good. All without words.

      Music is extremely powerful in what it can convey without words. The question almost boils down to is it a halucenagenic? One need only harken back to the pot smoking freaks of the 60's & 70's to draw numerous comparisons.

      But like most things there are many sides to this. Sitting in repose and listening to a Beethoven or Mozart symphony or some of Dee Barton's jazz compositions for Stan Kenton and we find a splendid medium for rinsing out the day's activities, doing a bit of introspection and enjoying the themes that are so vividly portrayed.

      Music of itself is neither evil nor good. It simply is. What we make of it is what determines its character.

    6. yeah, daniel, but the message is in the lyrics, not the music. you may be shooting yourself in the foot! :)

      jim m.