Today's Religious Music Scene Conclusion

Today's Religious Music Scene (Conclusion)

TRULY there is something about a perfect marriage between a text and its musical setting that raises the power of the words to a completely new level. . .

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

TRULY there is something about a perfect marriage between a text and its musical setting that raises the power of the words to a completely new level.

For the common things of every day,

God gave man speech in the common way.

For the deeper things men think and feel,

God gave the poet words to reveal.

For the heights and depths no word can reach,

God gave man music, the soul's own speech.

Trying to verbalize on the special magic that music has shown in affecting the whole nature of man is very difficult, but most of us have experienced this magic.

In the popular music field there have always been very effective instrumental numbers that were highly successful in creating a response. Driving, repetitious rhythmic movement with carefully calculated orchestral effects can really "move" a listener. Is it really possible that a sensitive, talented musician could honestly claim that music is neither good nor bad, but that everything depends on what it is used for?

In a sense, all the foregoing has been leading to this final phase of our subject. The Christian must have a highly developed sensitivity in distinguishing between the common and the sacred. We have been talking about the Christian's responsibility in avoiding the patently vulgar and openly evil aspects of music. A higher degree of discernment is required to keep from confusing the common things, which may be perfectly legitimate in their own sphere, but to tally inappropriate for sacred purposes. We are counseled that "This part [the musical] of the service is to be carefully conducted, for it is the praise of God in song." --Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 144.

In the schools of the prophets "the art of sacred melody was cultivated. No frivolous waltz was heard, nor flippant song that should extol man and divert the attention from God; but sacred, solemn psalms of praise to the Creator, exalting His name and recounting His wondrous works. Thus music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which was pure and noble and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God." --Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 97, 98. Notice the reference to the type of musical setting as well as to the source of textual material. Can we avoid the conclusion that care must be exercised in order to avoid a musical medium that is incompatible with a sacred text?

Let us explore this problem of compatibility a little more. Present religious music trends generally are not combinations of the common (as defined above) and the sacred, but rather of the vulgar and the sacred. If one accepts the position of some trend setters, any musical style is usable in a sacred setting. Therefore, we find music that is completely identified with our secular, worldly, hedonistic society, being joined with what has been characterized by one writer as "theological skimmed milk" for words. This combination is then promoted as the answer to to day's evangelistic, revival, and youth needs. This approach flies in the face of the principles laid down by inspiration. Note this: "In their efforts to reach the people, the Lord's messengers are not to follow the ways of the world." --Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 143. Musicians among us are taking over styles developed by the world for something quite the opposite of our reason for existence, and are using them to reach (to what end?) and communicate (what?) with people. The music of the discotheque has become the music of the chancel in the name of communication. If a youth "turns on" to a rock band at the discotheque tonight, how can any reasonable person expect him to react differently to the same sounds tomorrow night at the coffeehouse or whatever? But the words are different, may come the answer. Are the rules of human response abrogated so simply? I say an emphatic No.

We are counseled to "never bring the truth down to a low level in order to obtain converts, but seek to bring the sinful and corrupted up to the high standard of the law of God." --Evangelism, p. 137. We find this significant question in Job 14:4: "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one," and from the wise man in Proverbs 6:28, "Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?"

We should take a moment to remind ourselves of Satan's methods. "Satan will work with his deceptive power to influence the heart and becloud the understanding, to make evil appear good, and good evil."--Gospel Workers, p. 264. Numerous counsels of the same substance are available, but I will use only one more on this particular point. Here is a perfect description of his technique in our context.

Satan does not enter with his array of temptations at once. He disguises these temptations with a semblance of good. He mingles with amusements and folly some little improvements, and deceived souls make it an excuse that great good is to be derived by engaging in them. This is only the deceptive part. It is Satan's hellish arts masked. Beguiled souls take one step, then are prepared for the next. --Messages to Young People, p. 83.

In the context of one step leading to another just review the rapid development of this phenomenon among us. Some of the latest record releases make the Southern folk music of the mid-sixties sound rather tame indeed. I saw a portion of the Oral Roberts' television program the other day and was not surprised to see the elaborately staged musical productions copied directly from Broadway and other musical shows. The only difference was the words and the more modest dress of the young people involved. We as Adventists are only one step away from exactly the same thing. Perhaps this is the point for a most pertinent warning.

Not one jot or tittle of anything theatrical is to be brought into our work. God's cause is to have a sacred, heavenly mold. Let everything connected with the giving of the message for this time bear the divine impress. Let nothing of a theatrical nature be permitted, for this would spoil the sacredness of the work. --Evangelism, p. 137.

How could anything be clearer than that theatricality is totally opposed to the nature of our work? "We are handling subjects which involve eternal interests, and we are not to ape the world in any respect. We are to follow closely the footsteps of Christ." Ibid., p. 139. If we are truly following Christ's example we will not imitate the world's seamier aspects.

Of course, we must never lose sight of the fact that the sinner who is not contacted either through personal witness or literature can never be led to Christ. As Christ did, we too must go where the people are and must seek to develop means of successfully reaching them. Likewise, we must remember that "He reached us where we were, that He might lift us up" (Gospel Workers, p. 209). It must follow that He made no compromise with principle or used any means of approach that could later be questioned.

In discussing trends with friends and colleagues I often hear someone say, "Yes, but it is so successful," or a pragmatic, "It works!" At this point we have come to the last issue of this presentation: The difficulty of evaluating results, of judging apparent success. When a program that seems to be in open violation of all guidelines is widely popular, what does one say? I must take refuge once again in divine counsel:

If you lower the standard in order to secure popularity and an increase in numbers, and then make this increase a cause of rejoicing, you show great blindness. If numbers were an evidence of success, Satan might claim the pre-eminence; for, in this world, his followers are largely in the majority. It is the degree of moral power pervading the college, that is a test of its prosperity. It is the virtue, intelligence, and piety of the people composing our churches, not their numbers, that should be a source of joy and thankfulness. --Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 94.

We all have a temptation to get involved in the numbers game. Large crowds are very impressive. Often our churches are filled to overflowing when some popular singing group appears for a concert.

Some ministers make the mistake of supposing that success depends on drawing a large congregation by outward display, and then delivering the message of truth in a theatrical style. But this is using common fire instead of the sacred fire of God's kindling. The Lord is not glorified by this manner of working. Not by startling notices and expensive display is His work to be carried to completion, but by following Christlike methods. --Gospel Workers, p. 383.

Please note that this is not the first time that Christ's methods are contrasted with a showy aping of the world.

In the final analysis God is the only one who can judge the quality of spiritual experience, and we have been told that "God would be better pleased to have six truly converted to the truth as a result of their labors, than to have sixty make a nominal profession, and yet not be thoroughly converted." --Evangelism, p. 320. A major evangelist discovered that when he switched to folk-rock music in his meetings the number of commitments rose sharply. Later he discovered that the percentage of these that completed his follow-up program had fallen from his previous 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

Some of the strongest testimony we have against rock-oriented music comes from former rock musicians who have become Christians. They make it clear that no compromise with this music is possible. Total abstinence is the only way, they say. The nature of the sound is so surely "of the flesh" and a part of "the world" that it must be eliminated from the life. Shall we be found in support of what others have proved to be antispiritual? In the light of the "higher than the highest human thought can reach" concept, we at least owe ourselves and our heavenly Father another look at this burgeoning movement.

Without a living faith in Christ as a personal Saviour, it is impossible to make your faith felt in a skeptical world. If you would draw sinners out of the swift-running current, your own feet must not stand on slippery places.

We need constantly a fresh revelation of Christ, a daily experience that harmonizes with His teachings. High and holy attainments are within our reach. Continual progress in knowledge and virtue is God's purpose for us. His law is the echo of His own voice giving to all the invitation, "Come up higher; be holy, holier still."--Gospel Workers, p. 274.

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

March 1973

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