Sacred or Secular?

THE Bible teaches clearly that there is a distinction or difference between the sacred and the secular. Many examples might be cited, but a few will illustrate our statement: the days of the week and the Sabbath, Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14, 15; 35:2; the garments of the priest, Exodus 29:29; the tabernacle, Exodus 40:9, 10; the house of God, Psalm 93:5; 11:4; Habakkuk 2:20. There are certain things that God has declared to be holy, and we are instructed to recognize this distinction in our attitudes and our relation to these things. . .

-Harold B. Hannum is professor of music at the La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University.

THE Bible teaches clearly that there is a distinction or difference between the sacred and the secular. Many examples might be cited, but a few will illustrate our statement: the days of the week and the Sabbath, Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14, 15; 35:2; the garments of the priest, Exodus 29:29; the tabernacle, Exodus 40:9, 10; the house of God, Psalm 93:5; 11:4; Habakkuk 2:20. There are certain things that God has declared to be holy, and we are instructed to recognize this distinction in our attitudes and our relation to these things.

One of the sins of Israel was their neglect to recognize this difference between the holy and the common. Many of the problems of today arise from this gradual mixing of the common and the holy to such an extent that some say there is no difference, that everything is holy if we so consider it. Some treat the Sabbath as if it were just another day of the week. There is a shockingly common treatment today of many things that traditionally were considered sacred and holy. The marriage relation, the house of worship, the services of religion, the tithe, and many other once-revered things have lost their significance for many. The dress and deportment of some who come to worship in the house of God indicates that they think lightly of the real meaning of holiness, reverence, and the sacred nature of God and our approach to God.

This secularization can be heard in some of the styles of music that have crept into the church. We do not maintain that music or the elements of music are intrinsically secular or sacred or that some instruments are secular and some holy. The Bible does not make any such claim. And there are many cultures in the world where altogether different music has been developed from that which we know in the European or Western culture. This is not the point at issue. No matter what the culture or style, there should be a distinction between that which is considered sacred or religious, and that which is common or secular. This is recognized in many cultures throughout the world.

In the music of the European tradition there have developed certain techniques that characterize the serious or the "classical" music as distinguished from popular styles. The music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Mozart, Haydn, and composers in this tradition is played by symphony orchestras and musicians in a style that is clearly recognized by competent individuals as belonging to this music. The music of this group of composers is intended to be performed within definite style characteristics. The same music performed by a jazz combo or a rock combo would be recognized by listeners as not in the tradition that is appropriate to this kind of music.

There is another class of styles that is used by the entertainment industry. It goes by various names such as jazz, popular music, rock 'n' roll, boogie-woogie, ragtime, blues, and other titles. These various styles have one thing in common they are popular expressions of different segments of the population, and many of them belong in the dance hall or in theatrical entertainment rather than in serious or "classical" music. One thing is true of these styles they have all been considered secular in nature and therefore have not until recently been used for religious music in sacred services. There is a serious question among many whether or not these styles should be accepted for use as sacred music. These are the kinds of music to which we refer as secular styles. We will not enter into the question of whether any of this music is acceptable for our secular enjoyment. We will confine our discussion to the use of this music in religious services and in the cause of evangelism.

Some believe that any music that has religious words should be considered religious music. For individuals whose life-style has been with this type of music, and whose environment has been chiefly the music of jazz, rock 'n' roll, and this type of music, it may be that this music with religious words might have a religious appeal. Some evangelistic groups seek to reach groups with the popular music of the day. But to those whose background has been the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms, and this style of music, it seems difficult for them to have any religious associations with music that is used chiefly for the theater, the dance, the night club, and secular entertainment, often of a questionable kind. An individual who has heard the symphonies of Beethoven, the piano music of Chopin and Schumann, the songs of Schubert, and the music of Brahms, Vaughan Williams, and others, will not be easily persuaded that the theatrical and popular idiom is appropriate for religious use.

This is not necessarily due to a reactionary conservatism, or an unwillingness to accept new musical language. Some of the greatest religious music was writ ten by composers such as Palestrina, Handel, Bach, Des Prez, Byrd, to name a few. Simply be cause it is new does not make new or contemporary music surpass the great religious music of the past. On the other hand, we need excellent music for today in con temporary styles. But it is not necessary for new religious music to borrow the contemporary secular styles. There must be a clear distinction maintained.

One need not quibble over the fact that some secular music of the past has been arranged and adapted as religious music today. This music has lost its secular associations and now has the characteristics of religious music. One should be more concerned over the present associations of any music contemplated for religious use.

To be specific let us point out some of the secular styles that we believe should not be used in our sacred music.

1. Technical devices that are borrowed from the theater. The kind of organ known as the theater organ produces tonal effects and qualities that do not belong to the church. The excessive tremolo, glissando or gliding effects, peculiar tone qualities, too-prominent rhythmic effects, these are natural effects on the theater organ.

2. Sentimentalism. Sentimentality is an emphasis on emotion for the sake of emotion. It is over doing emotion. It is insincere expression. It is adding sweetness and luscious effects where they become overly emphasized. Certain types of melody and harmony will have this effect. The crooning of the popular singer is a good example.

3. The untrained vocal tone. This is borrowed from the popular way of singing folk songs. It shows a lack of good voice training. Some times it becomes unpleasantly raucous. Instead of depending on beautiful vocal tone, the singer depends on facial expressions, sometimes quite distorted.

4. Embellishments. Cheap, trivial types of embellishments and elaboration in piano and organ playing display a lack of good musical taste. Highly decorated piano playing with runs, scales, arpeggios, and other hackneyed devices do not appeal to good musical taste. There is a time and a place for proper embellishments, but it takes one with good artistic taste to know when and how much to use these devices.

5. Lack of simplicity, directness, and unadorned beauty of music. Great music is not adorned with needless effects and musical devices to make a showy impression. Excessive elaboration often hides a poverty of real musical value.

Characteristics that good religious music of today will have are--

A. Beauty of tone, both vocal and instrumental. Artists work for years to obtain a beautiful piano tone, or a beautiful quality in the singing voice. The beauty of the violin tone of Heifetz was not obtained in a day, but is the result of years of careful and intelligent practice. We should expect no less in the beauty of tone for religious music.

B. The melodies should have originality, strength, and beauty, instead of sentimental, trite, and obvious emotionalism. A study of the melodies of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and others will show what beautiful melodies are like. Contemporary religious music should also have melodies of beauty and emotion.

C. Rhythm that is strong and intrinsic to the music, rather than a dominating and hypnotic force that is imposed on the music to make it appeal to the untrained ear. The rhythm should arise from the nature of the melody and the harmony. It should not be added simply to make a strong physical appeal. Rhythm is most elemental in physical appeal, and it is easily debased, making an appeal to the basest passions. The rhythm of sacred music will be refined in character.

D. Skillful technical performance should characterize all religious music. No slipshod, careless performance without adequate preparation should be allowed. Sacred music needs to be performed as carefully and beautifully as secular music. It should not depend upon religious emotion to make it acceptable. Because it pertains to sacred subjects does not in itself excuse it from meeting exacting technical standards.

E. The standards set forth in the recently adopted philosophy of music presented at the 1972 Annual Council are an excellent guide and should be taken seriously by our churches.

We recognize the attack that Satan has made on the Sabbath and the significance of the Sabbath as a recognition of the true God. The attack of Satan in these last days is even more insidious and powerful in the realm of the emotions. He is using such words as love and peace to cover up a breaking down of principles that are as eternal as Cod Himself. By weakening the distinction between the sacred and the common in the field of music, which deals strongly with our emotional nature, Satan can eventually weaken our respect for other Biblical truths. We should be aware of this and seek to make our musical offering as pure and above reproach as we are capable of doing.

It is not necessary to make our music either difficult or unattractive to attain this goal. But it may mean that we will have to give up some of our cherished physical delights in certain types of music in order to offer a more perfect offering of sacred music. Just as one must sometimes learn to like foods that at first are not so attractive to the taste, so in music one may have to learn to like the simple, the beautiful music that is not tainted with the world and the theater, but which will prove in the end to be more beautiful than anything the world has to offer. Let us not compromise with the world in our sacred music.


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-Harold B. Hannum is professor of music at the La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University.

May 1973

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