Today's Religious Music Scene

THERE have always been varied opinions and tastes regarding music and its use for the many purposes of the church. Long be fore the Protestant Reformation the church fathers were struggling to maintain the purity of church music against what they felt to be secular elements. . .

-Professor of Music at Walla Walla College, at the time this article was written

THERE have always been varied opinions and tastes regarding music and its use for the many purposes of the church. Long be fore the Protestant Reformation the church fathers were struggling to maintain the purity of church music against what they felt to be secular elements. The history of church music shows a pendular swing between austerity and innovation. What is there about to day's situation that focuses our attention so sharply on the subject?

Let us be specific. It has generally been accepted among most Seventh-day Adventists of this century that some forms of music are not suitable for Christian performance or listening, whether outside or inside the church walls. This concept has been based upon scriptural and Spirit of Prophecy guidelines relating to separation from the world. "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you" (2 Cor. 6:17). And then:

It is God's purpose to manifest through His people the principles of His kingdom. That in life and character they may reveal these principles, He desires to separate them from the customs, habits, and practices of the world. . . . Seventh-day Adventists, above all people, should be patterns of piety, holy in heart and in conversation. --Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 321.

Further, it has been pointed out that Satan uses music as one of his most subtle and alluring weapons to hold people in an infatuation with the world (see Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 506). Certain phrases describing music have given some idea of the type of music that should be avoided. "Frivolous ditty fit for the dance hall," "frivolous songs and the popular sheet music of the day," "frivolous waltz," "low songs," and other such expressions were used by Ellen White to indicate dangerous music not compatible with serious Christianity. Although most Adventists have never read this material for themselves, they have had a vague collection of hearsay information on the subject. Throughout the past fifty years or so there have always been some types of "religious" music that partook to some degree of the style of these light, secular, show business and theater types. As in past centuries, some churchmen decried and denounced with generally little effect. Most of us will remember the torchy ballad style of such songs as "Stardust" and "Laura." A gospel song that was written in the same style and became very popular was "Overshadowed." Although the principle is the same with today's incursion of popular music into the church, something about our situation today has brought a sense of crisis to the atmosphere.

Our present church-music (using the term in a very broad sense) controversy began to become more acute in the mid-sixties when religious folk music gained institutional support among us. As I traveled across the country I was asked by many what I thought of the new phenomenon. People who obviously liked it were yet honestly troubled about whether they should! Records flooded the Adventist Book Centers as the word spread that folk music with a certain amount of "beat" was now O.K. for Sabbath listening. From then until now all bars have been dropped, and those old folk songs that started it all seem mild in comparison.

The idea that any kind of musical style might be incompatible with true spirituality has been discredited by present denominational practice. Church members have accepted the leadership of those in a position to set trends and establish standards of practice. Such widespread and enthusiastic acceptance of this present practice has been achieved that large sums of money are now being happily spent to support full-time performers of pop-gospel music.

Throughout the country many voices of concern have been raised. Approval of the present denominational musical trend is far from universal. We have come to a time of serious crisis in the thinking of many. I personally see music as only one part of a much larger picture of our present stance as a people. It is at this point that I must state that at issue here is our confidence in and use of the counsels of the Spirit of Prophecy writings. In the hundreds of discussions I have had on the subject in the past few years, I have yet to find anyone really well versed in what Ellen White has had to say on this subject and all the related issues, other than one or two colleagues. Without recourse to her counsels our task would be much more difficult.

During my many years of service in denominational music I have sought to be as knowledgeable as possible on all aspects of our use of music. All Biblical and Spirit of Prophecy references to music have been studied and restudied. In the past few years the need for more intensive study on a broader scope has made itself felt. In recent months it has been my privilege to make a careful review of the entire basis of our outreach to the world about us. I was particularly rewarded by a close study of the books Evangelism, Gospel Workers, Christian Service, and Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students. In such limited time and space I could not begin even to outline the results of the time spent.

As I seek to apply some of the basic principles found in these sources, let us consider this important bit of advice.

Those who are seeking to know the truth and to understand the will of Cod, who are faithful to the light and zealous in the performance of their daily duties, will surely know of the doctrine, for they will be guided into all truth. --Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 427.

One of the clearest teachings to emerge from divine inspiration is that Cod's people will be different. In 1 John 2:15-17 we read:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

A second prominent characteristic of God's representatives in the world is their great reverence for sacred things, together with a fine sensitivity in perceiving the difference between the sacred and the common. God's view of the importance of such matters is made clear in the scriptural account of Nadab and Abihu. These unfortunate men offered strange fire before the Lord and were instantly destroyed. Moses said in Leviticus 10:10, "That ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean." These men lost their lives so that Israel might learn this important lesson.

Our concept of the nature of God will determine the manner in which we approach Him and the attitude we demonstrate when speaking of Him. We remember the experience of Moses at the burning bush, and we have been told that the angels veil their faces when they speak His name.

The marvelous consideration regarding these concepts of God is that such an exalted view of His nature does not in any way prevent us from having a deep, intimate personal relationship with Him and that the Son would have paid the enormous ransom that He did for any one of us if we had been the only one who needed it!

If we accept these characteristics as based upon solid Biblical and Spirit of Prophecy foundations, then we must seek to relate all aspects of our experience to them. Traditionally, so-called "popular" music has always been considered as part of the world by Seventh-day Adventists. Without going into great detail I think most of us have a pretty good idea of the kind of music generally included under the term popular. The oldest among us would think in terms of ragtime, then jazz and swing. Later came be-bop, Negro rhythm blues, country-Western, and early rock and roll. The last decade has seen rock reach heights of violence unimagined. This violence peaked out several years ago; and although hard-rock is still a part of the present scene, many hybrid forms share the limelight. Separation from the world has indicated that these types were inappropriate for Christian listening at any time.

The basis for this has been two fold. First, this music has been judged by the company it has always kept. Its natural habitat has been the pleasure centers of the world, from bordello to nightclub to dance hall. It has been a thriving branch of the show business, theatrical world. One of the most severe warnings we have in the Spirit of Prophecy is in regard to the theater with its "low" songs and lewd gestures and corrupting influence (see Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 652.) Second, the intrinsic quality of the sound (apart from the text) has been judged to appeal to the lower nature of man. "In all ages, temptations appealing to the physical nature have been most effectual in corrupting and degrading mankind." --The Desire of Ages, p. 122.

Very specific idioms of the three basic elements of music (melody, harmony, and rhythm) are used to enhance the generally sensuous lyrics that have always characterized popular music. This is one of the most basic issues with which we are dealing. Let's examine a few inspired comments for enlightenment as to whether music without words can be detrimental by itself. "No one who has an indwelling Saviour will dishonor Him before others by producing strains from a musical instrument which call the mind from God and heaven to light and trifling things." ---Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 510. From this statement it must be very clear that instrumental music alone can create negative spiritual values. This directly contradicts statements made by many that music does not have moral potential in and of itself. The following words from Evangelism, page 508, give us further insight: "Those who make singing a part of divine worship should select hymns with music appropriate to the occasion, not funeral notes, but cheerful, yet solemn melodies." Here we see that the quality of a melody can affect the mood of a listener or singer. Ellen White simply confirms what has been instinctive acceptance of man's experience for centuries. She says that music "has power to subdue rude and uncultivated natures; power to quicken thought and to awaken sympathy, to promote harmony of action, and to banish the gloom and foreboding that destroy courage and weaken effort." --Signs of the Times (Australian), Sept. 25, 1905. Need I mention the obvious implication that it could be used for other less desirable effects?

(To be continued)

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-Professor of Music at Walla Walla College, at the time this article was written

February 1973

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