Why Our Current Arguments Stand on Rather Shaky Ground
In a small corner of Christianity there is a debate going on. It’s been raging for decades. And it has perplexed many. Shrill warnings have been shouted. Territorial flags have been unfurled. Battle lines have been drawn. And theological swords have been unsheathed. Most don’t even know what side to choose. The debate has scorched many pulpits, infiltrated the student manuals of Christian colleges, stuffed the shelves of local Christian bookstores, and bloated the blogosphere. Sometimes I wonder why I’m adding to the cacophony.
What is this debate topic? It’s about music. In particular it’s about Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).
Forget the past debates about the Trinity … or of Christ’s dual nature … or the final canon of scripture … by the pitched voices of a few, you’d think that musical genre and style is one of the most important theological tenets ever addressed by the Church. Even to this day, certain “followers of Christ” are refusing to fellowship with other “followers of Christ” because of different beliefs concerning this issue.
As a musician, I must admit I haven’t always known how to think clearly on this topic. I love music so much that almost any musical form is a great delight to me. Early in my Christian walk, I innocently swallowed the line that contemporary-style music was terribly inappropriate for Christians. Then, I reversed my position and considered all contemporary music — in all its forms and manifestations, whether religious or secular — is not only acceptable, but embraceable by the more “enlightened” believer. Then, more recently, in true Hegelian form, I’ve come to a different, more synthesized perspective; hence the motivation behind writing this short essay.
Dr. Lawrence Principe, a professor of history at The Johns Hopkins University, once encouraged me in an email to “be absolutely sure to get the history right as you are explaining the backgrounds to things” and by doing so, it will provide “a meeting ground and room for discussion that is comfortably enough distant from modern, personalized hot-button issues, but still close enough to afford a well-placed jumping off point for addressing those modern issues.” So I took his advice to heart and spent hours upon hours researching the history of the contemporary music debate. What I found shocked me. Dr. Principe was so right in his advice. I’m going to share with you the big ideas of what I’ve learned. I think it will give you a richer perspective on the nature of the music discussion that is still being hotly debated today.
But, before I do, I need to remind you that there are many ways believers have chosen to argue their positions on the Christian’s proper response to music. Here is a list:
Some have chosen to use straight-forward proof-texts of scripture, Old and New Testament, to be their only source of understanding about music.
Others have expanded their inquiry and have looked at the the very nature and science of music and its impact on human consciousness.
A few have posited that music has moral agency in that it can either be “good” or “bad” of its own accord, regardless of message, just by the notes, instrumental timbre, rhythms, and performance techniques applied to it.
Some have delved deeply into the annals of Christian history, even to the extent of chasing the debate back to the patriarchs of the early church.
Still others have taken a cultural approach and studied how music is used by particular cultures.
The result? Their conclusions are just as varied as the contextual frames they have used to interpret the data. That being said, all hold to a central idea that music is important to the Christian — a wonderful gift that God has given us to enjoy and that also pleases Him in many ways.
So, what do we do? Is this debate futile? Is there a singular, right answer — or is there no right answer? Could we be perpetually stuck in relativistic ambiguity? Or have we hyper-inflated the importance of this topic to the level of the absurd?
Here’s what I’ve learned …
First off, this current music debate over the appropriateness of Contemporary Christian Music is a uniquely American concern. Therefore, arguments that have tried to link it to historical events like the Isaac Watts affair and to what Martin Luther did with reframing hymns or even to what St. Augustine wrote about music, are stretching the current debate too far back. These historical situations were definitely debates over music, but the reasons for those controversies are different in kind from the debate we are having today.
There is something unique about the current CCM debate. Even though it does appear sporadically in other cultures, the genesis of this debate rests distinctly within American culture and history. When it does appear in other parts of the world and in other cultures, it can be easily traced back to its original American influences either through American missionaries or through American books, radio, and Internet chatter. Yes, we Americans have exported the controversy to other cultures and countries where this debate might never have happened if we had left them to their own devices.
So, where did this conflict over music begin? And how did it mature into the raging debate we are currently experiencing? To get the best grip on the topic, we need to trace it back to the 1800s and to a booming town resting on the banks of the Mississippi River called New Orleans, Louisiana …
In the 1800s New Orleans was a vibrant city growing rapidly both in numbers and in stature. Ever since the Louisiana Purchase, the war of 1812, and President Andrew Jackson’s placing a U.S. Mint in the city, New Orleans began to shape entire American experience not by radical shifts in culture, but by surprising mixes, like the spice palette of a delicious gumbo. In New Orleans, they combined everything: the blended language of the French Creole, the European and African ancestries of the mulatto, and, most important to our discussion, the first uniquely American-sounding music of the cake walks, ragtime and jazz music that filled its streets. And it was this bent for blending that set the destinies of American music and the church’s response to this music on edge.
Ragtime was all the rage in the 1890s, not just in New Orleans, but all over the United States. Scott Joplin, a classically trained African-American composer, and from nearby East Texas, wrote some of the most enduring ragtime compositions to come out of the era. Ragtime was a musical style that took European melodies and forms and would “rag it”, meaning combining those songs with African and Cuban music that was characterized by complex polyrhythms and syncopation — music that got your toe tapping. When Scott Joplin was first exposed to ragged music at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he knew he should try his hand at it. He gave us the famous “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” Ragtime became an instant obsession. During the “Gay 90s” sheet music of ragtime music made many a fortune for music publishers. Upper-middle class and wealthy women loved to play rag on their upright pianos for parties in their homes. When these women would go to the music store to buy the music, they’d know the ragtime music inside was authentic because music publishers would put images of black people on the cover to let them know it was true, toe-tapping rag.
Just because there was a blending of many aspects of New Orleans culture, it didn’t mean that everyone was in favor it. Racial segregation and hatred were rising to a fevered pitch during these early years of American music. Slavery had only been gone for a generation and racial barriers were intensifying with the horrifying Colfax Massacre of 1873 the advent of “separate but equal” (originating in Louisiana in 1890) which led to the now-infamous Plessy v. Ferguson court case of 1896 which allowed states to segregate everything from transportation and housing to health care and water fountains in the increasingly hostile Jim Crow South. Separate? Sure. But equal? Hardly.
Sure, this newly blended ragtime was popular, but the concern that this music would encourage more blending of the races agitated many. The overwhelming majority of local white men and pastors of churches were afraid that the white women of New Orleans would be entranced and tempted to fraternize with black culture, especially the “immoral black male” — a fate considered the most heinous of all social stigmas. They preached long and hard on the dangers of ragtime. They published their sermons in The Picayune and The Times-Democrat newspapers with acid attacks warning the public not to poison themselves with this new kind of music. The sermon clips you can find referred to ragtime in the 1890s as “their [meaning African] music,” “race music,” even retaining the humiliating title of a by-gone era: “coonsongs.” It was demonized first because it was the music of blacks and their culture. Walter Winston Kenilworth expressed the sharp sentiments felt by many when he wrote:
“Can it be said that America is falling prey to the collective soul of the negro through the influence of what is popularly known as ‘rag time’ music? … It should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger—if it has not already gone too far. … The American ‘rag time’ or ‘rag time’ evolved music is symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the negro type.”
In order to justify their positions further, the opponents of this new ragtime music rationalized their arguments to reach beyond racism. In much the same manner as many churchmen of the South rationalized slavery just a generation prior as being both “biblical” and actually “good” for blacks to remain slaves, the same strategy of theologically-sounding rhetoric was used to demonize ragtime itself. By branding ragtime’s and ultimately Dixieland jazz’ rhythmic style as “spasm music,” many prominent preachers of the day used the term pejoratively in their sensational, hell-fire preaching.
Many churches preached against ragtime and it offspring, jazz, so harshly back in the early days of the twentieth century that they browbeat their congregants into swallowing their rationalizations hook-line-and-sinker. The unsubstantiated and superlative accusations quickly turned into moral truisms that passed from one congregation to another alienating all forms of modern music within the church. The arguments began to form that stated, “God prefers the sweet, calming European Classical style over the spastic rhythms of African music.”
Even the contemporary music critics of the day showed their bent toward racism. In their reviews of the music, they claimed that an “inferior” race could not have created such an innovative music as this and they actively tried to show connections of ragtime rhythms to Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in order to bring acceptability to the music. Later, musicologists easily refuted these claims. The brilliance of this new music definitely had Afro-Cuban roots. Other musicologists of the period tried to dismiss ragtime as being a “passing fad” and a mere “curiosity” that would “dull the senses” to better, more European, music. Others argued that ragtime shouldn’t be considered American (meaning “white” American): “The so-called negro melodies, even if they be original with the colored race, cannot be considered as American, for the negro is a product of Africa, and not of America.”
But the popularity of ragtime and jazz didn’t die away. It only escalated. Why? Because it was fresh and fun to listen to. The music would find an audience, if not in the churches, somewhere else. The talented musicians of New Orleans, most of them from African descent, would play ragtime and jazz wherever it was welcomed. Many musicologists today see the early days of American Jazz as the beginning of a synthesis of two great musical traditions: the melodic and harmonic elegance of European Classical music with the polyrhythmic sophistication of Afro-Cuban music. Jazz became an expression of the best of both worlds, creating a new classification of music that would change American music — eventually all of the world’s music — forever.
If not the churches, then the dinner clubs, bars, even a few brothels (called “bawdy houses” and “sporting houses”) would give this new music a stage. And, ironically, many of the original performers and composers of ragtime and jazz had grown up and were God-fearing men and women. Just like “Jelly Roll” Morton and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, these musicians performed wherever the music was welcome. It was in the streets and late night clubs of urban centers like New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Kansas City, St.Louis, Memphis, and Philadelphia where the music came into its own, adding proof to the claims made by fiery preachers that this music was indeed a product of the devil himself.
The reaction of the white churches to new forms of music, especially music that came from the African-American community, remained throughout “The Roaring 20s.” Most black preachers bought into their arguments as well in order to appear as being more refined in their doctrine like the “white” folk. Black pastors tried unsuccessfully to distance this new music from its African roots. The development of new forms of jazz and swing through the 1930s and 40s, including Dixieland, be-bop and boogie-woogie, also were characterized as being “unbecoming of good Christian folk.” The increasing popularization of rhythm and blues (still termed “race music” by many) and hillbilly music (the precursor to modern country) was on the rise. Race music was preached against. Hillbilly music was accepted because it was performed by white musicians. Hillbilly music became a popular form of Christian music we can still hear today in a cappella form as southern gospel.
In the 1950s everything changed again. Many white musicians admired “race music” as being fresh and inventive. During this time, a new technology had grabbed the imaginations of the American public: the radio. Now, access to all kinds of music was available to anyone with a radio receiver. Radio became a great democritizer. You could listen to classical music, radio dramas, preaching, southern gospel, hillbilly/bluegrass music, big band, jazz or even race music with the simple turn of the dial. And many did — especially one young teenager in Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Presley.
Elvis loved race music. He knew most of the songs by heart. When Sam Phillips, the owner and producer of Sun Records in Memphis first heard Elvis singing the legendary bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song, “That’s all Right,” during a late night recording session on July 5, 1954, Sam taped Elvis Presley and his band while they were just goofing off. But Sam knew he had something special. Three days later, Sam convinced his friend and DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) to play this new record. Elvis’ first record combined race music on Side A: “That’s Alright (Mama)” with the hillbilly song on Side B: “Blue Moon Over Kentucky.” For a while, “Blue Moon” was more popular than “That’s Alright,” but that didn’t last long. Once a white performer started singing race music, the dam burst. The now ubiquitous name for this new genre of music (first coined by Cleveland DJ Allen Freed) became the new American sensation: rock-and-roll. Elvis would go on to record dozens of race songs that were formerly written and recorded by black musicians and take them mainstream — sung by a charming white teenager with a nervous leg shake that set young women to screaming. The most amazing new wave of musical expression the world had ever heard, fueled by the new technology of radio, was born. The racial lines were blurring. And the complimentary work of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom Marches added more energy to an already unstable social upheaval. The Afro-Cuban rhythms of yesteryear morphed into the astonishing backbeats of rock-and-roll.
The pastors of many churches attacked this new form of music with heightened intensity. It was God-less. It was immoral. It was wantonly sinful. And, just as jazz did, rock-and-roll found its audience outside the churches. Many churches intensified their stances against the moral degradation of rock music. Rock musicians were hedonists. They took drugs. They promoted irresponsible attitudes towards sex. Some even sang about devil worship. And the preachers were right. Rock-and-roll, freed from moral restraint, ran its own course and appealed to the basest nature of man. Elvis Presley became a drug addict before his untimely death in 1977. So did many of the big names of rock-and-roll. They did not lead exemplary lives.
But was this moral degradation within the rock culture a direct effect of rock music? Or was it a degradation that would be present regardless of whether the music was around? Did other societies in other times have troubles with hedonism, sexual promiscuity and addictions? History would tell us that the rock-and-roll culture is not alone in its moral degradation. There was plenty of moral degradation in the 1830s in America before the Second Great Awakening. There were plenty of bawdy songs and poems written throughout human history by the Greek playrights, Sappho, the Kama Sutra, Ovid, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Wilmot, even Shakespeare. There has been immorality throughout the course of all human history.
This in no way excuses rock-and-roll culture of its moral failings, which are many. It just goes to show us that the original reaction against this music is the most telling: racism itself. And, sadly, it was racism that fueled the church’s response throughout the history of American music. That’s the part of the story that troubles me most.
Should we avoid the excesses of jazz and rock-and-roll cultures? Absolutely. My point is this: if we vilify the wrong thing now, we will make improper moral judgments later. My worry is that there are still many among us who think the music itself is the culprit. I am more convinced than ever it is not. The moral problems do not arise from the music itself, but from our own hearts.
A new generation is coming into its own in our churches and communities. They are increasingly seeing the weakness of the arguments against rock music and, in particular Contemporary Christian Music (rock genre, Christian-themed music), and are unimpressed by the illogic.
Thankfully, most have abandoned the debate due to lack of compelling evidence. Yet, there are some good-hearted people who are still trying rationalize a case against contemporary music. They do it in honest fealty to their Savior. And they are not aware (nor was I) of the history of how their positions and arguments came to be. The American Church’s long-standing campaign to demonize ragtime, jazz, and rock-and-roll had beginnings that most of us today are totally unaware of. It now troubles us because we now know. The lingering attacks on contemporary music that it is evil in its own right have proven to the overwhelming majority to be paper thin at best. Sure, there is one group, the broader jazz and rock cultures of yesterday and today, that have an obvious stain of excess that is well-deserved. Even so, there is another group made up of a lot of wonderful Christians who are actively involved in contemporary music who are not being adversely affected by the genre. Both groups are playing the same musical style, yet have completely different world views and moral ideals. Because it’s never been about the music itself no matter how passionate some have argued. I’m hoping we can close the chapter on this controversy for good.
I hope this rising generation will be able to: (1) free the Church from the residue of past racism back to moral clarity and (2) help us find a way to spur the Church to lead again by creating new, fresh music for the world to marvel in just as she has always done though her rich history. The musical voice of the American Church has been muted for way too long.