Shai Linne and I are having a conversation between Christian brothers about Christian rap. This post will not make sense unless you start at the beginning of this discussion and read through all the posts. You can find the other posts in this discussion on this page or on the right hand side of this post. This is Shai’s third question to me.
Scott, you have said that music can or cannot be holy since human behavior can or cannot be holy. Can you please give an example of holy music and explain what makes it holy?
This is an outstanding question, because as I’ve said previously, the burden of proof is always on the Christian to prove the good and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2), prove things that are excellent (Phil 1:9-11), test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:21), and train powers of discernment to distinguish good from evil (Heb 5:14). I do not simply assume everything people create is good until proven otherwise. Rather, I have a robust enough understanding of human depravity to distrust human expression until I have evaluated whether it is profitable (1 Cor 10:23), godly (Titus 2:12), and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). That process of evaluation is fallible, and I always welcome correction, but I’m happy to take you through the thought process I employ when evaluating music.
Let me first prepare this by noting that I evaluate two layers with all musical communication:
- The natural meaning of the music.
- The meaning derived from “cultural conditioning,” conventional associations, or specific contexts.
What I will do below is to consider the first layer, but assessing the second layer is also important, and it is certainly possible that something that is naturally good could be used for evil or otherwise take on sinful associations in a given context.
Second, it is important to define “holy” in this context. There is of course the declaration of God that one who is forgiven in Christ is holy (e.g., 1 Cor 6:11). This state cannot be lost or diminished, no matter what a Christian does. Furthermore, nothing a person does can make him holy in this sense. So I want to be clear that I do not believe that any music can make someone holy or improve or diminish one’s standing before God in this use of the word.
But there is also a secondary idea of holiness that involves how we live in response to that declaration, and that is what I’m referring to when I say “holy behavior.” That is what Peter refers to, for example, when he says, “be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). This doesn’t refer to the standing of a Christian before God, but rather one’s actions. A Christian’s actions are to be holy, like God is holy. They are to conform to God’s righteousness and be a reflection of God’s character and attributes.
So what does that look like?
Scripture is filled with lists and examples of qualities of a kind of behavior that is holy, honorable (1 Thess 4:4), and worthy of God (1 Thess 2:12). I’ll just give a sample: holy behavior manifests the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22)–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Holy behavior manifests compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12). Holy behavior is worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil 1:27). It accords sound doctrine (Titus 2:1); it is sober, dignified, marked by integrity, and self-controlled. Holy behavior speaks the truth in love (Eph 4:15).
Since music is part of our conduct, we should discern what music expresses these things just as we evaluate tone of voice, attitude, body language, etc.
You asked for a specific example, and of course, there are many, many varieties of examples of music that are holy in this sense. I’ll supply just one here as requested; I selected something that is not part of my normal listening, and even something outside my culture, to demonstrate that this kind of evaluation is fairly universal since we all share what I call a “culture of humanity.” When evaluating conventional meaning, it is usually necessary to be a part of the particular culture or at least well-studied in it, but natural meaning can be discerned by all.
This music is not my preference, but it is naturally peaceful, gentle, and self-controlled in some places, modestly vivacious and joyful in others. It exhibits dignity and sobriety; it is honorable, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8).1
- Interestingly, this is an eighteenth-century Chinese folk tune that Christians have used in their hymnody since it expresses sentiments quite fitting for worship. [↩]