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Book Review: God's Word, the Final Word on Worship and Music, A Biblical Study

Kurtz, Dean. God’s Word, the Final Word on Worship and Music, A Biblical Study. Self-published, 2008. 364 pp. $15.59.

Purchase: Amazon

ISBNs: 1606473239 / 978-1606473238

Author Bio (from the book): Dean Kurtz (BS Music Education; BS Bible; MA Sacred Music; Doctor of Ministry) has been passionate to communicate the Word about worship and music for over twenty-five years. His heart for ministry has taken him to classrooms and churches on five continents teaching and preaching to elementary students through seminarians. After twenty-five years at Calvary Baptist Church, Lansdale, PA, Pastor Dean currently serves Calvary Baptist Church, Watertown, WI. He also teaches as adjunct professor at Maranatha Baptist Bible Collge. He and his wife Brenda have two daughters. For more information on worship and music visit www.worshipintheword.org.

Review: I am delighted to recommend Dean Kurtz’s new biblical study of music and worship. The book is just that: a biblical study. While other works approach this subject from a more systematic or philosophical approach, Kurtz aims to take a journey through the pages of Scripture to discover what the Bible has to say about music and worship. In the end, Kurtz produced an excellent, helpful resource for any Christian desiring to know God’s mind on these important subjects.

The book begins in Genesis and works through every major section of Scripture through Revelation. Kurtz divided these sections as follows:

  1. Creation to the Flood
  2. Patriarchs
  3. Mosaic Worship
  4. Joshua and Judges
  5. United Kingdom
  6. Psalms
  7. Job, Ruth, Esther, Eccl., Song of Solomon, Proverbs
  8. Divided Kingdom and the Disintegration of Worship
  9. Exile and Restoration
  10. Christ on Worship
  11. Worship in the Early Church
  12. Pauline Epistles
  13. Hebrews, James, 1, 2 Peter, 1, 2, 3 John and Jude
  14. Revelation

Each chapter begins with a summary of the section, lists what Kurtz believes “are significant passages regarding worship and music” (12) from within that section, and then engages in extended discussion of a few of those passages that Kurtz “consider[s] to be representative or significant for a more in-depth exegetical treatment” (13). With each of this select passages Kurtz discusses “Exegetical Considerations,” lists “Principles to Apply,” and then suggestions various “Applications” from the passage. This approach, I believe, results in a very helpful, instructive resource. Kurtz intends for the book to be read in order, each section of Scripture building upon what has come before, and I agree. However, once one has read the work, Kurtz’s format provides easy opportunity to reference his study on a particular passage if needed, especially taking advantage of the serious exegetical work he offers with each passage.

As I evaluate such a work, what is most important to me is to see correct understanding of a few very important categories of thought that influence one’s interpretation and application of the biblical data, and I was enthusiastically delighted to see such understanding in a number of areas. How one exactly applies the biblical principles is not as important to me (although I had very few disagreements with Kurtz’s applications). What matters to me is precise understanding of overarching categories of thought, without which I do not believe one can properly make right applications of biblical principle. Allow me to list a few of these that I was glad to see Kurtz highlight in his work.

1. A distinction between pop culture and folk culture.

One of the biggest category errors in discussions of music today centers on the differences between pop culture and folk culture. Most people today simply blend the two, defining anything that is “popular” as either “pop” or “folk” or both interchangeably. Kurtz does not fall into this trap. Rather, he explains,

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Folk music in the strictest sense is musical styling which is participatory in nature, arising without known composers, and for this reason has wide acceptance. It communicates broadly held feelings and beliefs about basic living It is most distinguished from pop music because commercialism is absent. Not always easily distinguished from pop music, folk music’s simplicity and accessibility to people means it can be an appropriate vehicle for communicating the immanence or “accessibility” of God’s person. It is less helpful as a vehicle to show the transcendent side of God. (45).

Kurtz is exactly right in his understanding of the fundamental distinctions between pop music and folk music. His work does not allow him to elaborate any further — that is the task of others. But this fundamental understanding, I believe, allows Kurtz to rightly interpret and apply the biblical data concerning culture and music. The one small point on which I would disagree with him involves his identification of the music of camp meetings and revivalism as folk music:

It is no surprise then that over the past century it has been the evangelist who has emphasized folk elements in their ministries. The gospel song, with its simple chord structure, easily singable melodies, and simple texts was written in what must be defined as a folk music styling. Churchmen and local church musicians, when they are allowed, have shown a greater tendency to use musical forms that are more transcendent in character, more “high church” (45).

I would argue both historically and by analysis of the songs themselves that such music (both textually and musically) was actually the first church music to borrow from the then-new forms of pop music, music such as Steven Foster ballads, Vaudville, and Tin Pan Alley. Certainly these pop forms were much more benign than the rock forms soon to come, but they were pop nonetheless. Instead, I would argue that good hymnody, by its very essence, is folk-like or even uses actual folk music. It is the more complex performance music of choirs and soloists that falls into the category of “high art.” Any congregational music, by its nature, is either folk or pop.

2. An errant emphasis on creating external “feelings” in contemporary worship.

Another significant category error made today is the tying of outward, physical expressions and “feelings” as the essence or proof of genuine worship experience. At the heart of this error is a failure to understand important distinctions between the affections and passions. While Kurtz does not explicitly makes such distinctions in his work, he does rightly identify this error in contemporary worship of seeking to move the audience toward certain feelings or expressions as the heart of what makes worship. For instance, he cites Barry Liesch’s “five-phase model” by which he seeks to bring about desired experience through specific choices of “musical keys, tempos, emotions, physical postures, and activities” (180-81). He also recounts Rick Warren’s “IMPACT” model (“Inspire Movement, Praise, Adoration, Commitment, and Tie it all together” [181]) as essentially a manipulative excercise designed to create a desired “worship experience.” I was also very gald to see Kurtz apply this criticism to even “conservative” worship:

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In my experiences in church music I have likewise heard many simplistic recommendations about worship service planning. People have said: “Pick some fast ‘upbeat’ numbers at the beginning of a worship service, then move to more ‘worshipful’ music that will get people in the mood for preaching (or to enter God’s presence).” Often the “song service” is a loose collection of favorites selected to “prepare the heart for the Word.” I am left wondering, where is the Word before the preaching (181)?

Instead, Kurtz identifies God as the initiator of true worship and His Word as that which must be at the center and that to which the worshiper must respond with his spirit:

The problem is that however “psychologically sound,” pragmatically satisfying or good-hearted these approaches may be, they ignore the examples in the Scriptures of worship based on God’s self-revelation. It is God who moves toward mankind by revealing Himself to them. It is God who desires to have a relationship with mankind, a relationship characterized by worship (181).

3. The danger of silly children’s sacred music.

I was very pleased to see Kurtz issue this challenge about sacred music for children:

I would also challenge you to take a good hard look at what we are really teaching our children with the musical choices we are making for them. Not only are we handicapping our young people by teaching silly drivel that makes little sense to them, we are also missing a wonderful opportunity to bring the powerful tool of music to bear in their lives. Certainly we must be age appropriate, but that does not mean we have the liberty to denigrate our God with songs like “Father Abraham.” If you want to sing some silly songs about spiders or whatever to get the wiggles out, go ahead, then transition to simple, reverent songs that accurately portray the God they need a lifelong relationship with. If we tie God to the silliness of some of what passes for children’s church music in some circles, we run the risk of having them leave their relationship with the Lord behind with their Barney sheets. Again, take an objective look at what your children are learning about God in their music and teach them wisely (281).

Kurtz is right, in my opinion. If we present our children with silly, entertaining music about God and His Word, they will grow to understand God and gatherings of the Church as something that must be entertaining and trivial. Is it any wonder that upcoming generations are leaving for such entertaining and trivial churches?

4. A proper understanding of 1 Corinthians 8-10 and issues involving sinful associations.

Paul’s discussion of meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians is often used as a way to prove that all music is acceptable, and believers simply must make decisions based on personal conscience. Kurtz rightly points out that such one-to-one comparison between meat and music is impossible:

A second important consideration is to remember that music and meat are fundamentally dissimilar. Meat is not mood-altering nor does it influence volition and personality as music does. Meat does not teach. These passages are dealing with associations more strictly. Also, we are dealing with a “thing” in the passage, an inanimate object. We are not discussing a method of communication between two moral beings (283).

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This common category error is important to understand. Objects are neutral — things like guns or knives or meat or the idea of music in the abstract. But uses by moral human beings are never neutral. Once the gun is used, the use is no longer neutral. Once the meat is used, the use is no longer neutral. And once music is used — once a song is written — it is no longer neutral. A song or a style is not an object since it is the creation of a moral human. Once a song has been written or a style created, it has already entered the category of use.

Paul is not dealing with use in 1 Corinthians 8-10. He is dealing with association, which is a third important category for moral evaluation. Kurtz seems to have a right view of this important issue as well, illustrated by this very helpful comment:

Those who are unconcerned with associations easily fall prey to immorality (285).

Associations don’t necessarily make something wrong, but Christians would be foolish and unwise to be “unconcerned” with associations.

5. A proper understanding of culture and multiculturalism.

So many people today argue that culture is neutral. “It’s just cultural” is a mantra often uttered in defense of some musical style or practice. Kurtz understands, however, that culture is religion externalized; it is the tangible expression of a collective worldview:

Culture in its many expressions is a demonstration of a belief system (286).

Since this is true, every culture must be evaluated based on how its connected belief system fits with a biblical worldview. As Kurtz rightly explains:

As politically incorrect as it may sound, I believe an examination of various human cultures reveals that some cultures may be closer than others in reflecting the fixed norm of Kingdom culture (how things will be when Jesus is King). That is why it is dangerous to reason from culture back to the Scriptures. Instead we should endeavor to build the best biblical model for worship and music that we can and then go to the culture in which we find ourselves and look to stimulate progress toward that model (287).

Each of these correct understandings of important, overarching categories of thought, combined with excellent exegetical study, result in what I believe to be helpful, reasoned, balanced, fair applications to the music/worship debates today. I enthusiastically recommend God’s Word, the Final Word on Worship and Music to anyone wanting to know how to apply the Bible’s principles to music and worship today.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

One Response to Book Review: God's Word, the Final Word on Worship and Music, A Biblical Study

  1. Interesting review, and much I agree with – silly and meaningless children's music I have long found objectionable, for example.

    I think my main bone of contention is point 2, about feelings. I agree that both contemporary and traditional worship can be considered manipulative, but there is a fine line between that and encouraging and facilitating people to express their worship to God based on His word and His revelation.

    The truth is that all worship gatherings are planned with an outcome in mind, and the content is designed to achieve this. I've no idea what you would see as a "perfect" church service, but I'm sure there would be both content and structure that could be considered manipulative.

    Also, I think it's fair to say that most writers of worship music write it as a result of their own personal journey of faith, to express what they are going through rather than with the aim of producing a predetermined response in others. (That's not to deny it could be used that way, though).

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