Whenever the question is asked whether associations matter in musical choices, people usually fall into one of two camps. First are those who strongly believe that associations matter. If a particular song is in any way associated with a raunchy lifestyle, errant theology, or questionable movement, then we must avoid using that song, whether or not the song itself is good. On the other hand are those who evaluate individual songs on their own merits and care not about a song’s associations.
Personally, I think both of these positions take a somewhat simplistic view of the matter since there really are several different kinds of associations, and differing situations require viewing the different kinds of associations, well, differently.
Before discussing the different kinds of associations, let me first say that when discussing whether an association renders a particular song or style or artist unusable, we are assuming that the song itself is good. We are assuming that the text is theologically sound and that the tune is good. When evaluating a song itself, we are also divorcing the bare text and tune from any particular musical style. Strip away instrumentation, particular arrangements, vocal quality, etc., and you have the bare song up for evaluation.
If, after that careful evaluation, the song itself is deemed good, some will argue that it is usable no matter what associations may be tacked on. Usually those who argue this way will suggest that conservatives have been singing songs written by heterodox individuals for centuries, and they often quote C. H. Spurgeon in their defense:
The area of our researches has been as wide as the bounds of existing religious literature – American and British, protestant and Romish, ancient and modern. Whatever may be thought of our taste, we have exercised it without prejudice; a good hymn has not been rejected because of the character of its author, or the heresies of the church in whose hymnal it first appeared; so long as the language and the spirit of it commended the hymn to our heart, we included it, and we believe that we have thereby enriched our collection.1
They also argue that conservatives would never reject the music of Mozart or Chopin even though these men lived quite licentious lives. They insist that all rules applied to one song must be equally applied to all others. If we ignore one association, we must ignore them all. The potential problem with this kind of argumentation is that it does not recognize the difference between kinds of associations, and that is the primary focus of this essay.
Do We Even Need to Consider Associations?
Before we discuss kinds of associations, however, we must answer the question of whether associations even matter. This is certainly a highly debated issue, of course, and I won’t take the time to fully develop an argument here. However, we can at least see a glimpse of the importance of associations from Paul’s discussion of meat that had been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians. The issue at stake is certainly not whether the meat in and of itself is evil; Paul clearly judges the meat to be good. The issue at stake is the meat’s association with the debauched practices of temple idol worship.
Among other principles that Paul articulates in , he is clear that the exercising of our liberty must not be a stumbling block for others. In other words, even if something is inherently good, we must ask whether our indulgence in that thing will cause another person to stumble into sin. We must consider others above ourselves.
So considering associations for the sake of others (among other factors) is important as we evaluate our musical choices. I think very few would actually disagree with this point. The point of contention appears with (1) if the thing associated is actually sinful and/or (2) if the association will actually lead to sinful practice.
This is where a discussion of different kinds of associations may be helpful. Different kinds of associations, I believe, differ in how strongly they may influence a person to fall into sin.
Different Kinds of Associations
When evaluating associations, we are asking the question, “With what is this song or style strongly identified?” Already the word, “strongly” becomes somewhat subjective, but let’s consider different kinds of identifications. One given song or style may have several of these identifications.
Identification with an author – a particular lyric is readily identified as being written by a certain individual, and that individual is well-known either for his life or his work.
Identification with a composer – a particular song is readily identified as being written by a certain individual, and that individual is well-known either for his life or his work.
Identification with a performer – slightly different is a song that is readily identified as being performed by a certain individual, who may or may not have written the song. Again, this individual is well-known.
Identification with a lifestyle – closely connected to these first three is a song or a style that is identified with a particular lifestyle. This identification may be due to the strong connection with the composer or performer whose lifestyle is well-known, or it may be that the style itself is most-often identified with a particular sub-culture or activity.
Identification with a particular theological system – a song that is readily identified with a certain theology, probably because the composer or performer is well-known for that theology. The text of the song may or may not actually reflect the theological position.
Identification with a movement – a song that is readily identified with a movement, association, convention, or denomination, again probably because the composer or performer is a well-known member of such a movement, or because the publishing arm of a particular movement has produced the song and/or made it popular.
Identification with a performance style – a song that is readily identified with a specific musical style because it was originally performed/recorded in that style, because the composer or performer with which it is identified is known for that style, or because the song became popular as an arrangement in that style. Not that a song was one time performed or recorded by someone somewhere in a rock style, like Elvis performing “Amazing Grace.” This is a song that is clearly identified with a certain style.
Old vs. Current Identification – finally, with any of these associations, we must make a distinction between those associations that have faded with time and those that are still current today. Associations are dependent upon time and culture.
Now, as we can see, the matter of associations is perhaps a bit more complex than some would have us believe on either side of the spectrum. Arguing that we must apply one set of rules for all kinds of associations is naïve at best. On the flip side, asserting that, as one pastor did, “to use one set of rules for old songs and another for new ones seems double-dealing to me” assumes that the “old songs” in question have the same kind of negative association as the “new songs” in question. It really isn’t an old vs. new thing, it’s an understanding that different kinds of associations require different kinds of considerations.
Let me further explain and illustrate, working through examples of each kind of identification. Let’s first use the hymn, “Faith of our Fathers” as an example. Assuming the text and tune are good in and of themselves, let us consider possible associations.
First, identification with a particular person is a consideration only if that person is well-known. Likely, no one in an average congregation would know Frederick Faber from Darth Vader. Today, this is probably due to the age of the hymn. But something like this could also be true for someone still living. If a Roman Catholic man were to write a good hymn text today, that hymn could still be usable if no one in a congregation knows who it is or what his theology is.
Even if, however, the author is well-known, and known for his heterodox theology, the hymn may still be usable because I would suggest that identification with a particular theological position (assuming the text itself is orthodox) is significantly different from other kinds of associations. In other words, I think I can fairly say that no one singing a good text written by a heterodox man is going to be tempted to fall into heterodoxy. Associations with errant theological positions (again assuming the text itself is orthodox) do not present significant stumbling blocks.
“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” presents an interesting case on several levels. The text was written in 1907 by Henry van Dyke. Van Dykes was an influential theological liberal who helped harbor liberal ministers in the PCUSA and did everything he could to promote theological liberalism. This fact may cause some to question the theology of the text itself, and some have chosen to reject it for theological reasons. Others read the text at face value and see it as simply an objective affirmation of the splendor and majesty of God.
Assuming that the text itself is orthodox, does van Dyke’s personal heterodoxy render the hymn unusable for reasons of association? I would again suggest that it does not since any association with van Dyke has long faded, and people would likely not know him anyway. Even so, as I mentioned before, I do not believe that association with heterodoxy will ever cause someone to stumble into heterodoxy. People become heterodox because they are convinced by heterodox arguments.
The tune of “Joyful, Joyful” was adapted by Edward Hodges in 1842 from Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Two potential association problems exist here. First, Beethoven was no model of Christian virtue! Is the hymn tune unusable because of Beethoven’s lifestyle? Again, I would suggest that old associations that have faded to not render something unusable. Further, just like with theological associations, I do not believe that association with the lifestyle of either a composer or performer will necessarily cause someone to stumble into sin.
One more potential association problem exists with the tune. ODE TO JOY is adapted from the final chorus of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It was a choral setting of An die Freude, an ode written in 1785 by the German poet, playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller. The poem celebrates the ideal of unity and brotherhood of all mankind and is hardly Christian in its sentiments. Would that render the hymn tune unusable? Perhaps in some settings. Although the hymn tune was not adapted until much later, let us assume for a moment that the tune was proposed as a hymn tune during the lifetime of Beethoven and during the time when his 9th Symphony was new, well-known, and popular. Certainly the fact that the tune was so closely associated with secularist philosophy may have given reason for Christians to reject its use during that time, while today such identification has long faded.
I am reminded of another German hymn tune, this time by Franz Joseph Haydn, AUSTRIAN HYMN (“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”). This hymn tune took on a rather nasty identification during World War II since it was the tune for the German national anthem. That identification rendered use of the tune impossible for many years, especially in Germany and even other parts of Europe. I spoke with one missionary to Britain once who used the tune and had a WWII veteran storm out of the service. Such an association has certainly faded in America by now and probably the rest of the world, so the tune is once again usable.
Let’s consider two more modern examples now as we evaluate the nature of different kinds of associations.
“Lord, We Bow Before Your Glory” is a modern hymn whose text was written by Eric Alexander and whose tune is written by Paul Jones. Both of these men are Presbyterians. I am a Baptist. They are Covenant Theologians. I am a Dispensationalist. We probably disagree in some areas of ecclesiastical cooperation. Does the fact that these men believe doctrines that I believe are wrong render this hymn unusable for me? Well first, most obviously, while I disagree with these theological positions, they are hardly heterodox. Second, no one in my congregation knows either of these men. While Paul Jones is a performer who has recorded this hymn, his views concerning music and worship match my own convictions, so that is not a concern. Finally, even though I disagree with Presbyterianism and Covenant Theology, no one is going to start believing these systems just because they sing the song. Therefore, since the text itself is very good and doesn’t necessarily reflect Presbyterianism or Covenant Theology, and since the tune is good, I may use the song.
Consider finally, “The Word Is Alive” by Casting Crowns. “Casting Crowns is a Grammy Award and Dove Award winning Christian band that employs a soft rock music style.”2 Most of the members appear to be Baptists. Their music is hailed by theologically conservative Christians who value rich, doctrinal songs. The members seem to be godly, dedicated Christians.
So, assuming that “The Word Is Alive” is performed conservatively (I’ve personally heard this very song performed in a fundamental Baptist church in a fairly conservative style), does the association with this group and their performance style render the song unusable? Of course, the assumption here is that their performance style is ungodly, which I believe that it is. If you don’t, then this discussion will be of no help to you.
But if you do think that the performance style of Casting Crowns runs contrary to the truth they proclaim, is a song written and performed by Casting Crowns unusable due to associations?
Remember, we are asking the question, “Will this cause someone else to stumble into sin?” So, more specifically, “Will singing ‘The Word Is Alive’ lead someone who is weaker than I to develop a desire for the rock style of Casting Crowns?”
Contrary to what some would insist, I do not believe that this is a very easy question to answer. In many ways, this is a chicken/egg situation. Do people like the song (and the group) because of their rock style, or do they like the rock style because of listening to the songs? And then further, does singing the songs conservatively introduce innocent people to the group itself, and thus lead them to embrace the group and the style?
I’m not sure I can answer that question perfectly, but allow me to offer an observation. There are two ways of viewing the actual performance style of Casting Crowns. The first is to view it as sinful. The second is to view it as not sinful. The second group could further be broken down into people who perform music in the same way as Casting Crowns in their churches and those who perform music conservatively yet don’t necessarily view rock as sinful. Even so, there are really just two ways of viewing Christian rock. It is sinful, or it isn’t sinful.
It has been my experience that almost without exception, those who view rock as always sinful are very wary of using music written and performed by Christian rock groups, even if they were to do it in a conservative style. On the other hand, those who do not view rock as sinful but don’t use it themselves usually have no problem with singing something associated with a Christian rock group.
The dividing factor between how one views singing songs associated with a Christian rock performer seems to me to be whether in their heart of hearts they view rock as always sinful. Again, we’re not talking about a song that just happens to be performed by a rock group. We’re talking about a song that is identified with a particular rock style because it was popularized or, more often, written by a rock performer.
In other words, it seems to me that many are completely ignoring all associations because, while they do conservative music in their services, they really don’t see a problem with their people listening to Christian rock in other contexts. They don’t view associations with rock as harmful because they are unwilling to say that rock is always wrong.
Now, I am not necessarily arguing that you should not sing “The Word Is Alive” conservatively or any other song written or performed by a Christian rock artist. But what I am insisting is that you cannot completely ignore the association. You must (especially pastors and other church leaders) at least intentionally wrestle through the fact that in our internet-driven, iTunes age, singing that song may lead someone (especially a teenager) to Google the song, find the group, and immerse himself in their music. Again, if you don’t think that’s a problem, then all of this means nothing to you. But if you view rock music as always sinful, then you must at least consider this.
“But what about all of the other associations that you justified earlier in this essay,” you ask? This is where I raise the differences between kinds of associations.
In my estimation association with a performer is much different than association with a composer, a theology, or a movement because a performer is naturally and automatically identified with a certain style of music. And since music itself is powerfully attractive and addictive, weak people could easily be drawn into enjoying sinful music.
In other words, it is not so much about the source of the particular song as it is about the whole ethos of the song.
No one in my congregation, after singing “Faith of our Fathers” is going to go home, Google the hymn, find that it was written by Frederick Faber, discover that he was a Roman Catholic, and say, “Hmm, I’m now drawn to Roman Catholicism.” If the song itself is good, no one is going to change his theology because of the source. I think this is the kind of thing Spurgeon was referencing in his oft-cited statement. He was talking about the theology of the author, not musical style. There was no such thing as pop music in Spurgeon’s day.
No one in my congregation, after singing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” is going to stumble into theological liberalism.
No one in my congregation, after singing, “Lord, We Bow,” is going to be tempted to embrace infant baptism.
But can I say with assurance that no one in my congregation, after regularly singing songs written and performed by Christian rock artists will be tempted to stumble into that kind of music?
Now again, I am quick to admit that this is not an easy question, and could very well be a chicken/egg kind of thing. I am sure that many people who end up rejecting conservative principles don’t do so because a song by a Christian rock group was performed conservatively in their church.
All I am arguing is that we must at least wrestle with the question, and someone who insists that associations never matter are not dealing with the issue biblically. Associations do matter as we see with Paul, and we need to be willing to wrestle through whether or not we are causing weaker people to stumble into sin with our decisions.
Summary of Kinds of Associations
Let me close by summarizing what I see as the connection between different kinds of associations and the potential for causing someone to stumble into sin.
Identification with an author – it is very unlikely that someone will stumble into sin because of who wrote the text of a song, as long as the text itself is orthodox.
Identification with a composer – it is very unlikely that someone will stumble into sin because of who wrote the music of a song, as long as the bare tune itself is good.
Identification with a performer – if the body of a given performer’s work is characterized by harmful music, then we must at least consider the potential of leading a weaker brother into that music by conservatively using one of his songs.
Identification with a lifestyle – it is very unlikely that someone will fall into a sinful lifestyle just because an author, composer, or performer lives a sinful lifestyle. No one is going to commit adultery because they sing a cleaned up version of a Sandi Patti song.
Identification with a particular theological system – likewise, it is very unlikely that someone will buy into a certain theological system because of the theology of the author, composer, or publisher. If a person adopts an errant theological position, there are going to be far more factors involved than just the fact that the musician they like also holds to such positions.
Identification with a movement – it is very unlikely that someone is going to be attracted to a particular movement only because they like the music produced by members in that movement or an official publishing arm of the movement. It may be one of the factors drawing them, but it will not be the most significant factor.
Identification with a performance style – this kind of association is the only really significant one in terms of potential to lead someone into sin.
Old vs. Current Identification – with each of these kinds of associations, given that the song itself is good, negative associations most often fade over time. The question is whether the identification exists now.