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A creational perspective on modern music: introductory thoughts


by Tim Gallant

The climax of God's work week in Genesis 1 is the creation of man. "God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created Him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)

The issue of what constitutes the image of God in man has been discussed by theologians for centuries. For the most part, it probably includes virtually everything that has been suggested: there is a moral side, in which man was created to echo God's holiness; there is a relational side, inasmuch as God Himself subsists in three Persons (and the "Us" in Gen. 1:26 puts the personal-plurality to the fore); there is a structural side - man is able, by the metaphysical capabilities with which he was created, to think intelligent thoughts, to consciously worship and praise and love his Creator, and much more.

Yet we have by no means exhausted the issue here. The first thing that we must take into account is that an image is a reflection, a representation. When man is created in God's image, he is created with a purpose to act in like manner to God's action. We see this already when we consider what God says in association with man's creation in His own image: God speaks immediately of dominion over the created order. Since God has just completed this created order Himself, it is clear that it is His dominion. Placing man over that dominion, of course, does not mean that God evacuates and leaves the dominion to man, but rather that God appoints man to be His representative, to resemble, echo, and imitate God by serving as His ambassador over the creation.

There has been considerable argument whether all of this entails some sort of "cultural mandate." It must not be overlooked that God's model of activity is one of creativity. God, of course, commands by the power of His Word, and creates ex nihilo (out of nothing), which man cannot do. Nonetheless, it ought to be clear from this divine creative activity in the context that man's imaging of God ought to involve the exercise of creative powers. Certainly, when man builds a house, it is an imitation of God's creation of the world to serve as a home for man.

The Goal of Music

What does this all have to do with the subject of music? In the context of God's creative work in Genesis 1, surely the mandated image-bearing involves man reflecting his Creator's activity and purposes. To appropriate that, we must reflect upon that activity and purpose.

God created the world as a home for man to enjoy and employ. More than that, He created all things for His own glory (Rev. 4:11). Without words, the created order proclaims the glory of God and reveals His handiwork (Ps. 19:1).

If, then, image-bearing has to do with reflection of the Creator, it involves creating things which will glorify God. This requires asking ourselves hard questions.

How does my music glorify God? Some CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) folk seem to think that their music glorifies God, if only they sing about God. And I suppose that the proper response is: well, perhaps the word-content of your music glorifies God. (But even here, it is all too common to find shallowness and banality.)

It is, however, anti-creational to insist that the glory of God resides only in the text, not the music. We are created as embodied beings, who do embodied things. The precedent of creation means that we should not be indifferent to that which we create.

Consequently, as musicians we need to make higher demands of ourselves than merely asking the question: "Are these lyrics biblical, or biblically-grounded?" We need to ask ourselves: "Am I imitating God in my creativity?" Because God didn't create junk. He created beauty. If we wish our music to glorify God, we need to be more creational. And that means that we need to care more about the package. Not in the way CCM so often operates, where the "package" refers to image, and it means presenting yourself in a way similar to the worldly presentation. NO! I'll even go further: we have to stop thinking about music merely as a package. We're devaluing it. Music is more than a vehicle for lyrics. Music is an endeavour to reflect the creative activity of God.

Modern Music: A Biblical Basis for Creation & Critique

But we must still get more specific; in the title, I indicated that I wished to speak about modern music. And that language implies that I am interested in the music of contemporary culture. Most people will probably deduce that I am going to say something about rock music, in particular.

Is rock music "inherently evil"?

It is not my intention to dismiss the legitimacy of rock music in the abstract. Many Christians are uncomfortable with that. They wish to say that somehow rock music is "inherently evil." But the more we penetrate the issue, the more difficult it becomes to sustain that position. Consider a few common objections to rock music:

"It is worldly"

And how is "worldliness" defined? Well, unbelievers like it; it's popular "out there." A moment's thought will make clear that this is an inadequate definition of "worldliness," and an inadequate objection. Unbelievers and believers live in the same world, and share a great deal of things. In truth, it was the unbelieving line of Cain that seems to have developed the art of music in the first place (Gen. 4:21). But we do not deduce from that fact that we ought to have no music. Similarly, unbelievers find it pleasurable to drive cars and to employ all sorts of devices which Christians use as well. "Worldliness," in truth, is not an independent category. Something is not wrong simply because it is "worldly," according to biblical terminology; it is "worldly" because it is wrong. When John condemns "loving the world," in the next verse he identifies what he means by "world" - "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (see 1 Jn. 2:15-16). Consequently, the "worldly" label can only be attached to something if some sort of lust is necessarily involved; biblically speaking, it is inappropriate to employ the term on the basis of "popularity" or something else so unstable.

"It is too rhythmic/percussive/beat-driven"

It is not entirely clear what is behind this objection. There is nothing evil about percussion. The only instruments employed by Miriam and her maidens after the drowning of the Egyptians were timbrels (Ex. 15:20) - a percussive instrument. Psalm 150 extols the use of cymbals.

It is my suspicion that some other, supposedly deeper, objection stands behind the "beat" objection. For example, percussive music encourages dancing. That is quite unquestionable: watch even babies when rock music is being played, and you will see bodily motion. But that bodily motion is not sensual - there is nothing in rock music that automatically makes the bodily response a sensual, inappropriate one. We cannot condemn all rhythmic bodily motion (i.e. all dancing) without laying a charge against a vast array of biblical characters, including Miriam, David, and many others.

There are other anecdotes that supposedly show the harmful effects of rock music - say, on plants. "Rock music kills plants; classical music helps them thrive." I am amused by this, because the same people who cite such things would pay no attention to the harmful effects of consuming certain foods (and those studies, at least, have people as their subjects). And if people really believed this, why don't they play classical music to their plants? But more to the point, these "studies" are difficult to be scientific with. Is all rock music the same? What sort of volumes are we talking about? It is a no-brainer to figure out that listening to anything (whether rock music or heavy machinery) at 130 decibels is harmful. But that has nothing to do with the supposed "inherently evil" character of the music.

Then there is the anecdote about the missionary kid in Africa who plays Christian rock on her ghetto blaster, and all the natives come running, asking why she is calling up the spirits. Supposedly, this is the same music they use in their pagan rites. Frankly, I doubt the anecdote is anything more than a fiction. For one thing, it again presupposes some all-encompassing sameness in the genre that defies belief. But even if the tale were true, what would it prove? Pagans sometimes employ fire in their rites. So? Should we avoid using fire? The fact is, even if pagans employed identical rhythms to what you might hear in a rock song, that is absolutely no proof that the rock song is a pagan ritual that will call forth evil spirits. To illustrate this, I could use an analogy from the other side of the coin: Jesus used ordinary bread and wine when He instituted the Lord's Supper. Does that mean, then, that every time bread and wine is consumed, the Lord's Supper is celebrated? Clearly not. The elements of bread and wine do not constitute the Lord's Supper; and neither does the supposed element of a particular beat constitute pagan ritual.

There is a lot more that can be said along these lines. I have only said this much in order to prepare us to think about things from a better position. We need a more adequate creational grounding in order to critique our culture in a manner that is biblically effective, and not simply in a manner that suits are personal tastes.

A creational critique of modern music

It is thus clear that I do not dismiss modern music in the abstract. In other words, I do not claim that a particular beat is demonic, or that a particular style is inherently "worldly." But that does not mean that we can do no more cultural critique of modern music (other than, of course, condemning debased lyrics). We need to re-orient our minds to think creationally, to think in terms of the positive mandate laid upon man as God's image-bearer. As we said above, for the Christian, for the man who is self-conscious in his desire to be faithful in his bearing of the divine image, music is an endeavour to reflect the creative activity of God.

Since man is fallen, we cannot assume that we can just appropriate whatever is out there in the world. Often, indeed, we can make the appropriation. Certainly, Christians continue to do so with classical music. But if you think about it, this is a good example. Think of modern classical music. Much of modern classical music is deconstructive, atonal and beyond. Frankly, it is less musical than most rock music is. When Christians appropriate the classical tradition, they generally do not turn to this modern classical debacle; they look to the musical traditions of past centuries. And rightly so. The modern descent into ugliness is art with bad intentions.

God created all things and made the assessment: it is very good. God's work was beautiful. He created some sort of elemental "world" out of nothing, and it was formless and void (Gen. 1:1-2); in six days He proceeded to give it shape, order, beauty, function.

When man fell, he affected the entire created order. Certainly, he affected himself: he could no longer reflect his Creator with the holiness and purity with which he once could. But the fall also affected the rest of creation. It became cursed with futility, to the degree that Paul can say that it groans in travail, waiting for its "rebirth" in the new heavens and the new earth (Rom. 8:22).

Ugliness and futility are not things to rejoice in. They are things to live with, in faith; but the Christian does not glorify them, because they are the expression of a righteous divine judgment. To glorify ugliness and futility would be to glorify the sin which brought it about.

The modern "classical" music has lost its moorings in the classical music of the past. That older tradition was beautiful, because it was music made for the sake of beauty. It breathed in the air of at least the remnants of a Christian worldview. The "music" of John Cage and others, however, is born out of a different worldview - a worldview that delights in ugliness and destruction and disorder. A nihilistic worldview. As personified Wisdom says in Proverbs 8:36, "All those who hate me love death."

The biblical critique of the dominant music of our culture, then, does not arise out of a magical view of music ("Beat X = demonic music"). It arises out of a recognition of the goodness of creation. It arises out of the recognition that good art, true art, is built upon that biblical worldview, and that the more our culture becomes entrenched in its hatred of all things biblical, the more likely it becomes that its artistic expressions will take forms which are at cross-purposes to the biblical paradigm for art.

Does the modern music scene reflect a love of disorder and death? Yes and no. The problem is not universal. It would be simplistic to equate rock music and disorder. But it is not that difficult to point to numerous "musicians" who are unquestionably bent on glorifying ugliness and disorder. It occurred with a great deal of "punk" music twenty years ago, and is echoed again in a high percentage of the so-called "alternative" music of today. (I am always tempted to see the term as identifying an "alternative" to music: non-music.) It is typified by the lingering death-image of some popular musical celebrities: black cosmetics, ashen faces - a deliberate attempt to appear dead. "All those who hate me love death." Christian groups who imitate this are severely ignorant of their own message, and the message of the musicians they are imitating. These are two worldviews in collision: truth and beauty versus disorder and ugliness; creation versus curse.

My point here is not to claim that any kind of ugliness or dissonance in music, for any purpose, is evil. There is artistic value and appropriateness for some instances of ugliness and dissonance. But there is something evil about its glorification.

We must recall that art is in a sense prophetic: it must communicate reality. It is man's calling to imitate God. In music, that implies creativity that seeks to reflect the beauty of God's creative work. But we must not forget that it was God who imposed the curse. And it is entirely within the scope of good art to reflect that divine activity. Not to glorify the curse. But to affirm the righteousness of God's judgment. Even as we portray the futility of the world in our preaching, it is appropriate to depict that futility in music. But again: to depict, not to glorify. The depiction we are talking about communicates bad news. Christian art must address the good and the bad, but it never mixes them indiscriminately, as if one were the other. Good art means knowing that the music depicting creation is not appropriate to depict judgment and curse, or vice-versa.

The point of this little informal essay is not to make a list of musicians who are making good art that conform to creational theology. I simply want to challenge us to think about music biblically, to examine our culture, not on the basis of whim, but on the basis of the Word of our God - our God who created all things well, and speaks all things truthfully. Truth and beauty: here are the twin pillars of creational art.

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