Kurt Woetzel’s “An Important Question for Our Times — Is Music Moral?”

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Easter Issue
An Important Question for Our Times-Is Music Moral?
Kurt Woetzel

To be absolutely clear, the question must be stated several ways. Is music neutral? Is sound capable of moral influence? Does music alone, with or without text, carry and communicate moral value? Is music amoral? The answer to this watershed question divides much of the Christian community and greatly influences the character of the music which may be heard in a particular church. When I posed this question to Robert Shaw he responded, without a moment of hesitation, "All the arts are moral." It was very obvious that the most celebrated choral conductor of the twentieth century had seriously pondered this matter prior to our discussion. During a rehearsal with his Collegiate Chorale in February of 1953 he is reported to have said and later written in a letter to the group, "music is the most moral of the arts" (Dear People, Joseph Mussulman, p. 108).

It is interesting to note that the neutrality controversy is a relatively recent phenomenon and is primarily limited to the Christian community. Although secular sources from the time of the ancient philosophers to present-day writers allude to the topic frequently, one is indeed hard pressed to find anyone from that contingent who sides with the position that music is amoral. My library includes over seventy books on this general topic. I have yet to find a secular author who even hints at making a case for the neutrality of music. Perhaps the only exception is Stravinsky who reportedly commented that his music was an "object," a "thing," with no particular meaning beyond itself (What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland, p. 12). Virtually all others write eloquently and with great passion for the music-has-great-moral-impact position. It must be understood that their motivation is, unlike ours, primarily sociological rather than spiritual. The artist and the social scientist are concerned about the impact of music on individuals and society as a whole. Our interest and plea, as believers, comes from a sensitivity regarding the influence of music on the Christian and subsequently on the body of Christ.

A Divisive Debate

In order to gain a more complete perspective of the dynamics of this debate it is entirely appropriate and necessary for us to first consider when, why, and under what circumstances this issue evolved. It is critical to our insight because, as Michael Hamilton correctly points out in a Christianity Today article, ". . . American churchgoers no longer sort themselves out by denomination so much as by musical preference" ("The Triumph of the Praise Songs," Michael S. Hamilton, Christianity Today, July 12, 1999, pp. 29-35). Sacred music, which holds the marvelous power to unite the body of Christ in vertical praise unto the Lord, has become a divisive horizontal entity subject to individual taste and preference while at the same time creating a raging debate and grievous polarization among believers. Mr. Hamilton makes the observation that, "Our new sectarianism is a sectarianism of worship style. The sectarian creeds are dogmas of music . . . . Churches that are too small to sustain separate congregations with separate worship styles are either trying to mix musical styles ('blended worship'), or they are fighting and dividing over which music to use." Later in the article Mr. Hamilton reveals his position on this watershed issue when he writes, "The job of the local church is to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ, to draw people into a living relationship with God, and to remold disciples of Jesus into a Sermon-on-the-Mount shape. Any worship music that aids a church in these tasks is almost certainly a conduit of the Holy Spirit." It is interesting to note that even though it is obvious from this last comment that this author would not consider music to be moral, he makes a valuable observation which greatly bolsters the moral position when he writes, "When one chooses a musical style today, one is making a statement about whom one identifies with, what one's values are, and ultimately, who one is." How has Mr. Hamilton aided the music-is-moral position with this statement? Music styles selected by individuals are a means by which values are espoused. Individual values are an evidence of morals; therefore, music styles have moral significance.

The inherent contradiction evident in the Christianity Today article reflects the dilemma of those in the Christian community who stoutly maintain that music is neutral, yet having to admit to its power and notable influence on character and values. 1 Cor. 15:33 gives further insight and an unmistakable warning-"Be not deceived, evil communications corrupt good manners." Music is a powerful instrument of communication. Manners are the fleshing out of values and character. That which is neutral, obviously, cannot impact character. However, when we ascribe or attribute morality to an entity, it must, by its very nature, have the capacity to affect and influence character. If music is moral, then it will, by necessity, prevail upon behavior-the evidence of character. We can't have it both ways! Music is either neutral and has no bearing on values or it is moral and, as do other moral agents, impacts character and values. Therefore, it is inconsistent and illogical to say music is amoral, and yet has influence upon values.

The world has a rather precise perspective of music's influence on the individual and society as a whole. Dr. Peter Wicke is the Director of the Center of Popular Music Research at Humbolt University in Berlin, Germany. He has been active for many years as an author and music critic. In Rockin' the Boat, Mass Music and Mass Movements, he writes on page 81, "Music is a medium which is able to convey meaning and values which-even (or, perhaps, particularly) if hidden within the indecipherable world of sound-can shape patterns of behavior imperceptibly over time until they become visible background of real political activity."

A Brief History of the Question-Is Music Moral?

Music-is-neutral thinking evolved in Christian circles in the late 1960's and in the early 1970's. It was during this same period that western culture experienced a traumatic and turbulent upheaval. Judeo Christian values and mores were ridiculed, attacked, and promptly discarded. The revolution in music played no small role in that process. From evangelicals came the clamor for the church to relate to contemporary culture. Music, a marvelous expression of faith for the believer and often a propellant of cultural change, was chosen as the vehicle for the church to connect to a society experiencing tumultuous change.

In 1969, Don Wyrtzen, a young, gifted, influential musician and familiar name in Christian music circles, wrote in his Master of Theology Thesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, "Every generation of Christians is responsible to impart the Christian message to the cultural setting in which it finds itself." He continued by claiming that "Christianity will not get a hearing in the contemporary culture until Christians become unshackled from their cultural apathy and begin to enter the arena where the debates of our time are taking place" (An Introduction to a Christian View of the Arts, Donald John Wyrtzen, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1969, pp. 61-62).

The debate, which continues to this day, encompassed an entirely new approach to sacred music. The pop sound, which was considered inappropriate for church music, began to gain respectability. Since that time, the new religious music (today known as contemporary Christian music-CCM), virtually indistinguishable from the music of the world in its sound, sensibility, and antics, has been welcomed into an increasing number of churches. Today it is prominent on the platform, firmly planted in the pew, and even more securely anchored in the private listening habits of the average believer. How did CCM get invited and who did the inviting? What conditions hastened a monumental change in practice, in philosophy, and in the purpose of sacred music? How did that which was art-oriented, contemplative, uplifting, wholesome, and orderly get replaced with the pop sound from the lounge, dance floor, honky-tonk, and other places where the world congregates to feed the flesh?

It all ensued with a change in purpose. Purpose dictates practice. "We must relate to our culture," was the cry. When the goal, motivation, and mission for sacred music was modified from exalting the Lord and encouraging the saints to identifying with a culture and reaching the lost, the music had to change. If Christian music is to become a major tool to reach the world for Christ, then it is imperative that such music communicates to the world with a sound and a style with which the majority of the world can easily identify. Therefore, not only was a refurbishing of the music in the church required, but more importantly, the character, guidelines and philosophy which governed and reflected that music needed a remake.

April of 1971 proved to be a pivotal turning point. "After weeks of coast-to-coast surveying and numerous personal interviews by Eternity's staff," executive editor William J. Petersen wrote an article with the momentous title, O, What a Fantastic New Day for Christian Music. In the magazine's own words-this article "brings everything into focus." Indeed it did.

What was the tone and how did the attitudes change in the "new-day" Christian community? First, the new culture-directed focus for sacred music was to become external and horizontal rather than remain internal and vertical. The Scriptural model for sacred music is quite clear. Ephesians 5:19 suggests, "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The sister passage, Colossians 3:16, reminds us that we are to be "teaching one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Hebrews 2:12 echoes these two passages with ". . . I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee." The believer's music is to be an in-house, vertical activity. Speaking to yourselves, teaching one another, and declaring the Lord's name in the midst of the church, does not even hint at evangelism. Sacred music is for the saints and unto the Lord. Over and over the admonition of music references in God's Word includes the same sentiment, "unto Him, unto the Lord, unto the Most High, unto Thee, unto Thy Name." When a society abandons its mores, restraints, and conscience, as it did in the 1960's, it is not the duty of the church, nor is it appropriate for individual believers, to cast off the Scriptural model of music and follow a decadent-bent community in locked-step for the opportunity "to get a hearing in the contemporary culture."

Secondly, the "new day" would bring an entirely new view of music. That powerful and emotionally-packed medium of communication which had been considered to have great moral influence and impact was to be reclassified as amoral. This was accomplished with a single sentence from an influential magazine. The article written by William J. Peterson in Eternity magazine, O, What a Fantastic New Day for Christian Music, included a landmark statement which would provide fresh impetus and new justification for the church to embrace any kind of music in order to reach the lost. This new perspective of music would significantly alter the sounds of worship, and more importantly, provide a vehicle for reaching out to a contemporary culture through music-centered evangelism. The article quoted a well-known musician of the day who commented, "Soul winning is the only aim. The music is-well, it's enjoyable sure, but our real aim is soul-winning." Then Mr. Petersen detonated the explosion which unleashed a pop-music avalanche upon the church when he wrote, ". . . we have to remember that, strictly speaking, music is amoral."

The great majority of Christianity is now living under the avalanche. A host of Christian music leaders have written numerous articles parroting the new thinking. Several books echoing, restating, re-defining, and attempting to justify the music-is-amoral ideology have gained a measure of notoriety and acceptance in the Christian community, all in an effort to keep the debris firmly in place and make digging out difficult, if not virtually impossible.

Thankfully, the Lord has allowed some pastors, music directors, educators and church leaders to observe from a distance and avoid being engulfed by the movement. Not only have they avoided the rubble, but also several serious efforts have been made to counter the music-is-amoral posture with Scriptural principle as well as documented and credible evidence from qualified secular sources. What follows is an effort to present further timely, convincing and convicting evidence in an attempt to sharpen, reinforce, and expand the music-is-moral discourse.

Finding a Reasoned Answer to the Question-Is Music Amoral?

Music Is a Language

Ever so crucial to this discussion is the need for the realization and understanding that music is a language. It is often called the language of languages. It is also referred to as the universal language. Although it is incapable of expressing concepts, it is immeasurably more effective in communicating feeling and emotion than the verbal medium.

There is a striking similarity between language and music. In language, we work with letters which become words. Words grow into sentences. Sentences develop into paragraphs. Paragraphs mature to chapters and chapters make a book. In music, notes become chords. Chords grow into phrases. Phrases are melded into sections. Sections emerge as movements and movements become a composition.

We do language with head, eyes, mouth, hands and feet. Music is done with head, eyes, mouth, hands and feet. In language we write, compose, create, think, require inspiration, formulate ideas and much more. In music the exact same process occurs.

Language is governed by rules of grammar and syntax. Music is created with rules of composition and harmony. Language relies heavily on sounds with different pitches. Obviously music does the same. Language and music both employ sounds with varied durations, dynamics and timbre. With language we think, ponder, consider. Muse, the root word of music means to think, ponder and consider. Is it any wonder that music is called a language?

Deryk Cooke was a "distinguished broadcaster, music critic, and musicologist" of the 1950's. In his classic book, The Language of Music (p. 272) he writes, "We may say then that, whatever else the mysterious art known as music may eventually be found to express, it is primarily and basically a language of the emotions, through which we directly experience the fundamental urges that move mankind, without the need of falsifying ideas and images-words or pictures." Robert Shaw expressed it in another way when he wrote to his Collegiate Chorale, "Neither weight lifting nor watchmaking is the concern of our singing-but mood and meaning" (Dear People...Robert Shaw, Joseph A. Mussulman, p. 26). Edward Rothstein, chief music critic for the New York Times, is a man with a fair amount of experience, credibility and knowledge about this subject. In his book Emblems of Mind (p. 171) he writes, ". . . music has the power to change the way we see things, to transform our senses and our understanding . . . ."

Can we support music's linguistic character and attributes Scripturally? 1Corinthians 14: 7-11 includes an unmistakable example where music is used as an analogy for language. "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound . . . how shall it be known what is spoken?" Deuteronomy 31:19-22 was the last face-to-face meeting between the Lord and Moses. This was obviously a momentous occasion during which we could expect the Lord to give Moses some very important instruction. What does the Lord tell Moses? What would replace God's presence and direction which the Israelites had known and enjoyed? How would His comfort and care, experienced for forty years, continue? God instructs Moses to ". . . write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel."

God did not say on this occasion, "Speak these words to them. Make certain that they understand what I'm about to tell you." No. The Lord told him to teach them this song. Why is that critically important? Because the words alone did not reflect the power, gravity, and importance of the message. "Write them a song, so they'll remember me that way," God told Moses. "The song, in their mouths and hearts, as they observe each other singing it, will keep them close to me and it will prick their conscience when they stray," the Lord assured Moses.

Would God use music for this kind purpose if it were neutral? But, you say, "There were words with this music." Yes. But the Lord could have instructed Moses to teach them only the words-perhaps in a poetic form. Obviously the music, along with the words, had a greater power to influence their lives and their walk with the Lord than did mere words alone.

Music Is a Moral Language

Steve Mason, a member of the CCM group Jars of Clay, made a comment in a Christianity Today article (November 15, 1999, p. 39) which is representative of Christians who are on the other side of this debate. In my discussions and correspondence with those who take the music-is-neutral side, this same sentiment has been expressed repeatedly in one form or another. Mr. Mason seeks to justify the group's crossover (sacred into secular) ambitions and comments, "It's like 'either you're in or you're out.' There's got to be a third rail where music can just be music." Can music just be music? No. Music is a language. Can language just be language and thereby be neutral? The answer is obvious. Just as language cannot be neutral, neither can music. The sociologist takes strong issue with Mr. Mason's contention when he writes, "There can be no music without ideology" (The Sounds of Social Change, R. Serge Denisoff, p. 107). Whenever music is played or performed, something is being taught. The chief music critic of the New York Times would also not agree with the suggestion of a "third rail." Once again Mr. Rothstein (Emblems of Mind, p. 89) clearly indicates which side of the morality issue he is on: "So when you play music, you also embrace a style. A style suggests ways to sit, ways to sing, ways to feel rhythm. It also suggests ways to think."

His comments should really not come as a great surprise. It was mentioned earlier that the term music itself is derived from muse or musa which means to think, to meditate or to contemplate. Could something which causes us to think a certain way be amoral? If so, then we would need to conclude that thinking-is just thinking. Fortunately our common sense tells us otherwise. Furthermore, the Word of God provides candid instruction for the believer on this matter. Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Why is the Lord concerned about how we think? Why should believers give attention to the thoughts which flow through our minds? The answer is found in Proverbs 23:7, "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:" Dr. Charles R. Phelps, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Concord, New Hampshire, has well said, "If music impacts thought and our thoughts are to be righteously regulated, then we must righteously regulate the music to which we listen."

Lest there be any question about what is meant by music (organized sound itself) being moral, let us continue in our quest for further understanding and evidence. Deryck Cook, after much technical music analysis in his book The Language of Music, makes a closing definitive statement as he ends his study (p. 271), "Of course, rhythm and form play a large part in moral expression." Of course, as if to say, "Everyone knows that-it goes without saying!" Perhaps some have forgotten it and need to hear it anew.

William Kilpatrick, is a distinguished Professor of Education at Boston College. He is also the author of the popular book, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong and What We Can Do About It. What is his opinion regarding the role contemporary music plays in the lives of today's adolescents? Why does Johnny have difficulty distinguishing good from evil? Mr. Kilpatrick makes it clear that one of the reasons Johnny can't tell right from wrong is because of the music in Johnny's life. "Music and Morality" is the title of an entire chapter in his book. His comments leave no doubt as to his opinion on the morality of music. "No matter how many reforms are attempted, rock and rap will always gravitate in the direction of violence and uncommitted sex. The beat says, 'Do what you want to do'" (p. 182).

Martha Bayles, graduate of Havard University, a six-year television and arts critic for the Wall Street Journal, and author of articles in Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, the Brookings Review, the New Creation, and many other publications, has also written Hole in Our Soul, The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. Early in the book (p. 4) she establishes her concern with contemporary music with ". . . few critics have addressed the subject of sound-which is, after all, what the music is made of." Unlike most of the Christian authors who address this subject, her evaluation is sound-based rather than lyric-based. She continues, ". . . just as assaultive as the lyrics and images of contemporary popular music are many of the sounds."

The book is divided into four parts. The final section of the book is captioned, "The Triumph of Perversity." After presenting her argument she makes several pointed value statements. One of them is found on page 388 as she writes, "It is ironic that, in this age of multiculturalism, so many people seem intent upon ignoring the fact that the West is the only civilization to have created a form of art whose sole purpose is to attack morality." It is almost bizarre to think that the great majority of the Christian community is included in the "so many people" who have ignored this "fact." She defines morality as ". . . simply the difference between good and evil as understood by most human beings."

Just a fleeting glance at MTV would cause any discerning believer to agree with Martha Bayles. The pictures accompanying the sound on MTV now graphically display the sensuality which has been pervasive in the music for over two generations. Even some of the entertainment industry's own are expressing concern. Speaking on the "Bloomberg Forum" (WGBH, Channel 2, Boston, 2-2-98) Steve Allen commented, "Much of show business now involves vulgarians entertaining barbarians." Indeed, there is a brutal attack on morality and music plays a major role in the attack.

It is at this point that the average Christian, adhering to the neutrality view, must ask some searching questions. Can an entity which is neutral attack morality? Can an amoral medium have moral impact? The obvious answer to this question exposes the error of music-neutrality thinking and postures statements from men like Harold Best and Steve Miller in sharp contrast. Mr. Best is the former dean of the conservatory of music at Wheaton College and calls music "moral nothingness" and claims that "There is nothing un- or anti- Christian about any kind of music" (Music Through the Eyes of Faith, pp. 59, 388). Steve Miller is the author of The Contemporary Christian Music Debate and makes his position clear with, "Using what is neutral in a society as a vehicle for the gospel is not only acceptable; it is sound missionary strategy" (p. 49).

These Christian spokesmen use candid and direct words which make their viewpoint unmistakably clear. The world is equally blunt. In a PBS historical documentary (Jazz, Part 3, aired January 10, 2001) produced by Ken Burns, music critic Gary Giddins described the music as, "hot, exotic and sexy." Narrating the scene at a Duke Ellington show Mr. Giddins comments, "He's playing behind some pretty racy shows. And he is providing a music that supports them and so the music itself becomes erotic. And so the band becomes a kind of participant with the dancers. They're just as erotic. They're just as seamy...."

Martha Bayles uses similar terms in Hole in Our Soul (p. 132) in describing a music which appeared almost thirty years later. "It would be absurd to argue that 1950's rock 'n' roll is 'religious' in the sense of being ethereal, reflective, and contemplative, as opposed to physical, emotional, and erotic."

A Biblical Perspective on the Question-Is Music Amoral?

I recognize that it is relatively easy for believers to dismiss the historian's critique, the sociologist's comments, the music critic's judgments, the educator's opinions, the composer's evaluation, the choral conductor's insight and anyone else who does not overtly espouse Biblical values. Let us remember, though, that in these circles, and particularly in this discipline, there is a level of expertise, awareness, academic stature and professional accomplishment which is seldom matched in Christian circles.

Furthermore, when folks without the witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives forcefully and passionately condemn that which they consider damaging to the arts in particular and to society in general, we as believers need to heed their words. It should make Christians sit up and take serious notice when the world categorizes something as having moral impact and the Christian community responds by saying, "We don't think so. Matter of fact, we think it's fine." Are we not typically on the other side of this kind of discussion? Who is being the "salt and the light" here? In Luke 16:8, the Lord alluded to instances in which the world would have better judgement than the believer, ". . . the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." Perhaps the area of music is a classic example.

The evidence for the music-is-moral side from these sources is overwhelming. The world condemns itself and its music. Why do believers come to its defense? In this discussion I have sought to blend Biblical principle with secular findings in an effort to develop an effective, convincing argument.

Why is music moral? Why is it critically important for the believer to grasp this concept? Because Scripture declares music moral-without the help of secular wisdom. The evidence from the "world" only reinforces, clarifies, embellishes and perhaps contemporizes what the Bible already declares. For those perhaps still uncertain let us consider a final passage in the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles 25:1-3, we find a particularly valuable and interesting phrase which unmistakably indicates that music, without words, is moral. In verse one we read, ". . . of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals: . . ." In verse three the same thought is repeated, ". . . under the hands of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with a harp, to give thanks and to praise the Lord." The words "prophesy" and "prophesied" literally suggest that preaching took place. A prophet addresses social, political, and spiritual issues. In this instance the "preaching" was done with instruments-with sound-music! Could such prophesying be considered amoral or neutral? No. Thus, for the Christian to take a music-is neutral position is not only to dismiss the enormous amount of data which exists from secular experts, but more seriously, to deny and deliberately oppose the clear teaching of the Word of God.

Music has a powerful influence in individual lives, families, and churches. My prayer, aim, and purpose for this discussion is that the music in the life of the reader would cause him to experience the reality of the words in 2 Kings 3:15. "But bring me now a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him."

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