Differentiate Between Sacred and Secular

The subject of music for church is an old yet ever new topic, and one on which complete agreement can scarcely be expected. In the hope of contributing to peace and unity, we offer a few analytic suggestions.

RICHARD LEWIS,  Associate Professor of English, Pacific Union College.


The subject of music for church is an old yet ever new topic, and one on which complete agreement can scarcely be expected. In the hope of contributing to peace and unity, we offer a few analytic suggestions. The bases of musical classification are manifold. A few of these are applicable here.

Some music is elevating. Other music is rec­ognized as being Satanic in origin. Its effect upon the emotional nature is to stir the base passions, to stimulate sensual thinking. We may call this distinction a moral one. Where the distinction is obvious, there is no debate about church usage. Satan's music has no place in our secular lives, much less in the sacred service. On another axis the distinction is not moral but intellectual. Here some of the most heated arguments center. Here we need peace and unity.

When Jesus talked about love He told three stories : The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. When Paul discoursed on love he wrote the highly rhetorical, intellectual, pen­etratingly analytic thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. Jesus chose the more universal appeal, but that does not invalidate the writings of Paul, which the majority of Christians do not fully understand. But it is good to read his writings, even if they do not fully understand them. To Christian scholars Paul's writings are supreme expressions of Christian truth.

All worshipers can appreciate "My Jesus, I Love Thee" and "I Need Thee Every Hour." The melodies are sweet and pathetic, and the harmonies simple. Not all can appreciate a Gounod "Sanctus," or a Bach "How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee ?" These are eminently appro­priate and may be deeply spiritual to those of musical discernment, to whom they may convey far greater meaning and uplift than the simple songs. The distinction here is intellectual rather than moral.

The musically untrained can gain something by listening to music that is above them, and they should refrain from attributing ostenta­tious pride to those who sing arias from orato­rios for the sacred service. The question of the wisdom of such selections is another matter.

On the other hand the musically educated are in danger of exhibiting this same ostentatious pride, and never more so than when they cease to find spiritual value in such hymns as those previously mentioned. Simply because a man finds his highest musical fulfillment in listening to a somewhat sentimental. rendition of "When They Ring the Golden Bells," we need not hold him devoid of spiritual understanding, though we may well hope for his advancement in reli­gious penetration. And the man himself needs to recognize that he should one day grow up to greater musical maturity.

Understanding and tolerance should lead to peace on this particular musical front. Where no moral values are involved, where the music is all sacred and appropriate for worship, intel­lectual distinctions should not be allowed to form a basis for friction and division.

A third axis of distinction separates the sa­cred from the secular. Here the differences are less obvious and the decisions more difficult. We shall have to recognize that some music is sufficiently equivocal in effect to serve more than one purpose as far as its innate character is concerned. Hymns have been sung to the tune usually associated with the love lyric "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes," and certainly there is nothing inappropriate in the musical structure itself. The only objection arises from a connection with the secular song, but this association is so widespread that the music has become unusable for church.

Fewer people are disturbed when listening to "Give of Your Best to the Master" than by hearing echoes of "Take Back the Heart That Thou Gayest." Some may object to the Christ in Song musical setting for "I Think When I Read That Sweet Story of Old" because of re­membering the words of "Fair Harvard." Thus secular associations may render an appropriate musical setting unfit for sacred use.

In a different direction an "Ave Maria" may be musically perfect as an instrumental selec­tion for worship, for the Catholic Church has a centuries-old tradition of producing musical liturgy that inspires the spirit of worship. But the Bible Christian cannot comfortably wor­ship to a musical setting which suggests subversive doctrine. Shall the organist use music that was composed to un-Biblical words, or composed for a Catholic service? In the case of Schubert's famous and beautiful "Ave Maria," which has been concertized under that title throughout the world, the answer must be no, for everyone at once thinks of the title upon hearing the melody.

On the other hand, Henselt has composed a very fine "Ave Maria" which few Adventist church members would recognize. Shall the or­ganist refuse to use it because it was composed for the Catholic service ? Here is a church bul­letin listing as offertory "Andantino" by Hen­selt. Is his "Andantino" any better than his "Ave Maria," if you don't know the name? As it turns out, the offertory actually is the "Ave Maria" wisely disguised under the technical term. Surely no one should object to hearing this lovely and fitting music for an offertory.

It seems obvious that the safe course lies in being guided by good taste and musical discern­ment, making the character of the music the basis of judgment, and being careful to elim­inate any selection that has secular associations or un-Biblical suggestions. On this basis such songs as "The Rosary" or the barcarole from Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann should be left out of the sacred service. A care­ful quartet will not offer a hymn of the musical setting of "Pale in the Amber West," and most of the material in the Jubilate song book must be eliminated.

The original use of a melody does not always furnish a rule for its use. The melody for our national anthem was once a drinking song. Handers Largo, a favorite of the church or­ganist, was composed for an opera. Most church weddings use at least one operatic selec­tion, possibly a practice that should be avoided. Our Church Hymnal contains many melodies from secular sources, such as "My Jesus, as Thou Wilt," from von Weber's Der Freis­chutz, several adaptations from folk melodies, and the like. The character of the music rather than the point of origin must be the guide.

There is still room for disagreement on the character of the music itself. It should be recog­nized that music for church does not always have to be slow and melancholy. Handel's "Hal­lelujah Chorus" is eminently sacred, but is rhythmic, spirited, and syncopated. Gounod's "Unfold, Ye Portals" has tremendous verve and movement. But music such as this has a dignity arising from its melodic and harmonic maturity and excellence that makes it highly appropriate for worship. and that sets it far apart from the cheap chorus song which has lit­tle else but rhythm and syncopation.

There is no solution to this ultimate problem of selecting music for church, aside from good taste and musical sense. There is no rule of thumb. There is only the indispensable discern­ment between the sacred and the common, the sensitiveness to spiritual values which tells the listener when he is being carried into the spirit of worship.

Finally, then, by being careful to close our ears to the devil's music at all times, by being tolerant and understanding when distinctions are purely intellectual, by avoiding all music with objectionable associations, and by cultivat­ing sensitivity to the difference between the sa­cred and the common, we may come to please God in the musical part of our worship. RICHARD LEWIS. [Associate Professor of English, Pacific Union College.]

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

RICHARD LEWIS,  Associate Professor of English, Pacific Union College.

May 1948

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Your Call to Mission Service

So, you have been called to a foreign field! Now what are you going to do about it? The decision rests with you.

Postwar Challenge to Missions

An important international council re­cently met in Ontario, Canada, to study the problems of Christian missions in the postwar world.

Responsibility of Administration

Administration is just another name for leadership.

Winning Souls Without Preaching

Elder Young is a man with about twenty years' ex­perience teaching in our schools, having been princi­pal of various academies. He has never claimed to be an evangelist, but has a burden on his heart for souls. and accordingly laid plans in his district which have netted good results.

Student Volunteer Movement

December 27 to January I, 1948, was the time for the quadrennial conference of the Student Volunteer Movement. It was on the campus of Kansas University and was attended by 2,000 delegates from the United States and Canada, representing 35 denominations and 500 colleges and universities. The conference theme was "Exploring Christian Frontiers."

On the Change of the Sabbath

More evidence that the Church of Rome instituted Sunday worship.

Advanced Moves in Practical Training

It is heartening to witness the strong prac­tical emphasis that is being placed upon our ministerial training.

Short Campaigns; Long Follow-up

A most interesting experiment in evangelism was recently carried out by the stu­dents of the Hawaiian Mission Academy, who held meetings in the Manoa Valley housing area in Honolulu.

The Pulpit or the Altar - Which?

Is there a Rome-ward trend in Protestantism?

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All