This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is There Such Thing As A Sacred Style?

i had a conversation with a friend recently. He said some people had heard some of his music and remarked that 'no one with their heart in the right place would ever like that kind of music.' They were not commenting on the lyrical content of the music, but were referring solely to the musical style. The mere combination and arrangement of melody, harmony, rhythm, and tone color, in their view, constituted something that was spiritually harmful. In other words, the claim is that there are some styles that are wrong or profane or bad or sinful.

This sort of rationale pops up in church worship settings with fair regularity. 'We can't sing songs like that' because that style is spiritually harmful. Some styles are too 'carnal' or 'worldly' or 'lively' or 'somber' or 'out-of-date.' This 'sacred style' charge can be used to defend just about any particular preference. 'We need to sing more songs like that because it puts people in the right frame of mind' (whether 'like that' refers to traditional or contemporary or unorthodox or fringe or whatever). Nevertheless, the idea is that some styles (remember, we're not talking about lyrical content) are morally/spiritually better than others and thus more pleasing to God overall. (i honestly think this matter of style goes way beyond music into other areas, but i'll hold off on that for now.)

Is that true? Are there styles which are somehow 'profane' in and of themselves and others that are 'sacred' in and of themselves? i'd like to argue that this is just false.

A style can't be good or bad, holy or unholy in and of itself. Styles are cultural constructions. With music in particular, styles are developed through various cultural shifts over time. It's not like there's some scripture in the Bible which tells us exactly how fast to sing a song, in what key, and using what chord changes, harmonies, and tones. It is culture which determines such things. Certain styles develop certain cultural associations. It may very well be that a certain culture associates a style with good or with bad. But that means such a style is only "good" or "bad" as far as people within that cultural perspective are concerned.

But we do not live in a world of only one culture. And we certainly don't live in churches having only one culture (or at least, we shouldn't unless its coincidental). People of different ages, economic classes, ethnicities, etc. develop different cultural norms for evaluating style. Not only do we have differing cultures, but in America particularly, we live in a society of differing sub-cultures as well. Yuppies, suburbanites, blue/white collar, Southern, Western, Appalachian, etc.--even differing sub-cultures of people have different norms for evaluating style. i am suggesting that style is a socially-subjective matter. Thus, people saying that others' style is bad or profane and their style is 'good' and 'holy' is very likely little more than saying 'You like strawberry ice cream? That's gross. Chocolate is the best.'

I say "little more" because it is, i admit, more than just different ice cream flavor preferences. People grow to make moral and evaluative associations between people and certain styles insomuch as they identify with certain cultures or sub-cultures. Nevertheless, i compare it to ice-cream-flavor-preferences because it is ultimately subjective. Telling people their preferred style is 'bad' or 'wrong' has no real force at all unless (1) they consider themselves to be a member of the culture that disapproves of their preferred style, or (2) they desire to be included/welcomed/approved in the culture that disapproves of their preferred style.

But if they have no such desire, what good is telling them that the style of music (or other things) they prefer is bad or wrong or profane? If styles are culturally subjective, then what right does anyone one person have to tell another that the mere style of their-preferred worship music is profane or means 'their heart can't be in the right place'?


MrsHonea said...

I whole-heartedly agree.

But. haha- like that?

I have to ask myself that if Marilyn Manson looked, sounded, and his actions were the same as they are now, yet he sang a song which has lyrics that have a Godly spiritual message, would it be completely lost and in that, basically be in vain? And not at all ...well, Godly praise??

reborn1995 said...

Well, there's way more to come. i've already written about 7 parts of this series scheduled to post over the next few days. But i'll tell you more of the background story.

My friend Josh is a soon-to-be full time pastor at his church. i'm really not sure what the denominational affiliation is, but i gather it's in the neighborhood of charismatic, but not pentecostal. Anyway, over a year ago or so he started a Tuesday night bible study/worship group for, let's say, 'alternative' looking young people. It's all conducted at his church building and fully endorsed by the leadership of that church. And all the worship music played on Tuesday nights is heavy metal in style. (And knowing him, i'm guessing it's VERY heavy.) He's got about 60 regular attenders a week now last i heard.

So recently, he had some event with his group where he invited a bunch of different denominational youth groups to come to the Bible study and listen to the worship music. Well, afterward, he said one of the youth pastors from the Baptist group made a comment that "no one could possibly have their heart in the right place and listen to that kind of music."

Of course, it's true that Josh and i would disagree quite sharply on very significant doctrinal stuff. And it's obvious from other posts on my blog that i still don't believe the use of instrumental music in worship is right. NEVERTHELESS--i think what that youth pastor said was frankly despicable and completely uncalled for. i think what he said is FAR more spiritually suspect than any music Josh's band might've played that night. --for tons of reasons, most of which i'll get to in subsequent posts. But that is the story that lit a fire under me to write this series.

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