CCM (5)- The Music Itself
Written by Eric Moerdyk
|Reformed Practice - Music|
The following article is a part of Rev. Moerdyk's booklet in which he evaluates Christian Contemporary Music from a Biblical perspective.
A third area that needs particular attention when CCM is analyzed is the music itself. This is a difficult task because of the broad variety that exists within the CCM industry, but there are general statements that can be made.
We need to begin by noting that the moral neutrality of all music is a foundational principle on which the movement is built. This is a direct result of the Kantian shift to subjective aesthetics. If the value of a piece of music is to be determined by the results it produces rather than by whether or not it meets certain objective criteria, then by the nature of the case there can be no such thing as a style of music that is not appropriate. If someone somewhere likes it, that is enough.
Note the following quotes. “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all music was created equal, that no instrument or style of music is in itself evil – that diversity of musical expression which flows forth from man is but one evidence of the boundless creativity of our Heavenly Father.” In other words, no critique is possible. There are no objective standards we can apply to a genre or style of music as a whole. According to this conviction, it is impossible to create or corrupt a style of music to the point that it could no longer be called beautiful. In other words, there are not even objective standards in the character of God that apply here.
In response to the charge that no instrument or style of music is itself evil, it is true that an instrument is made of materials that are in themselves neither good nor evil. But that still does not legitimate everything produced by that instrument. “Just as vowels and consonants can become blasphemy, and pen and paper in the hand of an artist can become pornography, so notes and rhythm, in the hands of a composer or artist, can become sensual” or can convey other inappropriate desires.
Music is the best of God’s remaining gifts in the natural world. Are we to suppose that Satan would consider this gift hallowed ground? Would he leave it alone out of respect for God? Sin has distorted every single one of the gifts of God in one way or another. The order that marks God’s creation has been turned into disorder at every turn. This has also occurred with music. Let me demonstrate this with a series of concrete arguments.
The conviction that music is neutral and does not carry any message is simply not true. Again this conviction is relatively new if we examine history. Note the words of Aristotle: “music directly represents the passions or states of the soul...if a person habitually listens to the kind of music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.”
This is the consistent testimony of history, from both secular and Christian thinkers. The idea that music has meaning and a message apart from lyrics is still asserted by most secular singers and thinkers today. The primary advocates of the idea that music is neutral seem to be CCM fans and artists. This raises the question, why do they argue this way? Part of the reason may be that the church has been very reluctant and slow to accept rock music in its various forms (though this opposition has faded to some degree over the years), and they are trying to legitimate their work. CCM artists are attempting to respond to the constant charge over the years that the message rock music carries within itself is not compatible with a Christian worldview. In the end, whatever the cause, the argument does not hold any water.
Music has a message. Music is emotional communication. There is no such thing as music that has no message or meaning.
Since men as moral creatures are the ones producing music, this means that the message expressed in music must be moral as well. This message does not derive purely from association, or from the words that accompany the sound. It is something inherent within the arrangement of the notes themselves.
Since music has a message, what message does the music of CCM carry? In order to get at the message, we need first to make an objective assessment of the way in which rock music makes its impact. To repeat what was said earlier, on a purely musical level, rock music emerged as a synthesis of rhythm & blues, pop, and country western music.Though the music developed in various directions and subgenres as reflected in the CCM industry today, the dominant feature of all of it is a powerful incessant beat.The result of this is that the rhythm dominates the music to such an extent that the melody, harmony, and lyrics assume a secondary place in the overall effect of the music on the listener. Unlike many other forms of music, rock music as a style makes its primary impact through its dominant beat.
Secular historian Carl Belz notes: “For the total folk function of rock, the rhythm of the music has always had as much meaning as its subject matter, for it has given the subject matter a real immediacy.” William Schafer writes: “There is no separation of form and content in rock, since they are fused as a continuous experience, a package of simultaneous impressions and feelings.”
What is the result when the rhythm dominates the music this way? Everyone who has heard rock music will agree that it has a great deal of energy. All music has energy, but this music bombards its listeners with a particular kind of energy. Rock music dominates and overwhelms the listener in a way that other music does not. Nik Cohn writes “what was new about it [rock] was its aggression, its sexuality, its sheer noise; and most of this came from the beat.” This energy is raw, blatant, noisy, emotional, bombastic, and unrestrained.
Rock represents and gives expression to a complete rejection and rebellion against traditional values and meaning in life. It is a deliberate rejection of the Christian worldview, and the adoption of a new worldview and way of life. This Cultural Revolution proclaimed that God is dead, and life makes no sense. It is chaos, undisciplined and meaningless. The standards, order, and way of life of the old culture are deliberately left behind in favor of the new. The new in this case means complete moral and cultural relativism, and the rejection of all objective standards for truth, morality, and the arts. Cultural analyst H.R. Rookmaaker writes “Each line and each beat [is] full of the angry insult to all western values.”
Rock music, with its bombastic atonality and dissonance is the musical mirror of the hopeless, standardless, purposeless philosophy that rejects both God and reason and floats without orientation in a sea of relativity and unrestrained self-expression. The music has no logical progression because it comes from a philosophy that renounces reason. It violates the spirit, because its philosophy violates truth and goodness. And it violates God, because its philosophy violates all authority outside of self.
Not only the titles and lyrics of many rock songs but the names of many rock groups shamelessly flaunt a godless, immoral, and often demonic orientation. The association of hard rock with violence, blasphemy, sadomasochism, sexual immorality and perversion, alcohol and drugs, and Eastern mysticism and the occult are not accidental. They are fed from the same ungodly stream. A leading rock singer once said, ‘Rock has always been the devil’s music. It lets in the baser elements.’ Another testified, ‘I find myself evil. I believe in the devil as much as God. You can use either to get things done.’ Putting a Christian message in such a musical form does not elevate the form but degrades the message to the level already established in the culture by that form.”
Rock music was shaped and enhanced not within the boundaries of the conviction that life has objective meaning, order, and beauty, but in order to function as distraction, and to gratify the constant need of the people for excitement. Rock music makes its impact with raw and unrestrained energy, overwhelming the hearer and keeping him from the pain of reflecting on the meaninglessness of his situation. It is a stimulant for the desires and passions of the heart.
One of the results of the ‘painkiller’ function of rock is that by the nature of the case it needs to become stronger and stronger to have the same effect because after a while the same dose does not work as well anymore. This has led secular rock into a continuous downward spiral into the bizarre, the perverted, and the extreme. It has led into heavier and heavier styles of rock such as acid rock, and heavy metal.
It is noteworthy that the desires aroused by rock music could probably better be described in biblical terms as ‘the desires of the flesh.’ “One of the more obvious outlets for rock’s energy is sex. This theme is a very familiar one, and is the staple of Christian criticism of rock.” The association between sex and rock has been made innumerable times by critics, devotees, and medical professionals, both secular and Christian. The term ‘rock n’ roll’ was first applied to the new music in 1951 by Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed. It was a ghetto term referring to fornication in the back seat of a car. Rock musicians regularly connect their music to sex. For example, consult the magazine Melody Maker, March 9, 1988: “From our viewpoint it’s impossible to ignore the correlation between music and sex because, being so incredibly rhythmic as it is, it’s very deeply correlated to sex.” Alan Bloom wrote a thought-provoking chapter on music in The Closing of the American Mind in which he elaborates on this claim. When Elvis Presley began dancing to his music “in a raucous and sexy manner,” parents and authorities reacted strongly. His fans went crazy: “To his enthusiastic audience, Presley’s spontaneous dancing was a visual counterpart to the feelings which his singing inspired.”
It ought to be obvious that rock music is not a suitable medium for communicating the gospel evangelistically. It is also not suitable for worship, because it contradicts the transcendent mindset that is an essential part of worship and praise, and of holiness in any setting. Rock music stands in flat contradiction to nearly every point of the Christian worldview.
This has serious implications for casual listening as well. Rock is not suitable for just relaxing either, because of the impact of the music on character. This impact is the same no matter what the lyrics say. The impact is the same even when there are no lyrics at all. In the final analysis, rock music is not consistent with a Christian worldview at all.
There is one final question that needs to be answered in this section. This critique of rock music has been quite broad and general in nature. How are we to apply it in particular to a musical scene as diverse as CCM? Admittedly we are dealing with questions of degree when we ask how much rhythm in a song makes it incompatible with a Christian worldview. Some CCM artists release cd’s that feature a singer accompanying himself on a guitar as he sings some of the classic hymns of the faith. Others are so bombastic that even seasoned critics can not make heads or tails out of the lyrics or melody. We are obviously dealing with a spectrum here, meaning that a cut and dried rule is impossible to articulate.
The principle is that the rhythm of a song may not dominate a song at the expense of the lyrics, melody, or harmony.
The great majority of CCM features a predominate rhythm that falls under the critique outlined above. As with all questions of degree, we must be careful not to flirt with the edges of what is permissible, but to be committed to music that is clearly consistent with a Biblical worldview. This is particularly important when it comes to CCM, since rock artists and listeners tend to progress towards heavier music.
The church father Augustine has shown us the way when it comes to responding to music that makes its impact subjectively: “When it happens to me that the song moves me more than the thing which is sung, I confess that I have sinned blamefully and then prefer not to hear the singer.”
Rev. Eric Moerdyk is pastor of Monarch Free Reformed Church in Alberta, Canada.