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Scripturally, “Culture” is Simply the “Behavior” of a People

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

You can read more posts from the series by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

If there is any concept of the anthropological/missional idea of “culture” in the NT, it is the idea of “way of life.” A people’s culture is their behavior and their conduct. Several important implications may be drawn from this analysis. First, NT authors explain cultural differences between various people groups as differences of belief and value. They highlight differences of belief and religion that produce the behavior and conduct of a people. This is important because it contradicts the idea of cultural neutrality. Since values and beliefs are not neutral (i.e., they can be either good or evil), the culture produced from values and beliefs is likewise not neutral. Furthermore, this also contradicts the notion that religion is a component of culture. Rather, culture is a component of religion. So while “behavior”-related terms resemble anthropological/missional definitions of culture, the use of such terms in the NT should reorient the missional understanding of culture such that it is seen as flowing from religious values and worldview. Thus every culture and particular cultural expression must be evaluated based upon what religious values it embodies.

Second, NT authors identify people groups (ethnicities, tribes, nations, etc.) as those who share common culture flowing from common values. They do not think about “culture” per se; rather, they think about behavior, and they believe that the gospel changes behavior—it changes a person’s culture. Since culture is a component of religion, where religion changes, so changes culture. This creates a reorientation of race for Christians; since a race is a group that unites around common values and practices, Christians will find themselves increasingly alienated from the race into which they were born and drawn into a new race united around biblical values.

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The Mortification of Spin's Take on Secular Music (or, Calvin vs. the Calvinists)

Third, NT authors demand that the culture of Christians be holy, pure, and distinct from the culture of unbelievers. Rather than understanding culture to be neutral, NT authors judge unbelieving culture as worthy of condemnation. They expect Christians, therefore, to reject the culture shaped by the world’s systems and to form a new way of life impacted by biblical values. The culture produced from unbelief is not neutral; it is depraved: “The challenge to this assumption is that cultural neutrality is a myth and culture is hostile toward God; just as man is individually depraved in microcosm, so also culture is corporately depraved in macrocosm.”1

Fourth, NT authors proclaim Christianity as a new and distinct people group that shares new values and thus new culture. Peter in particular identifies Christianity as a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” and a “people for his own possession” distinct from other races, nations, and peoples. Howe summarizes the important relationship between “race”-related and “behavior”-related terms in Peter’s writing:

The word ἀναστροφῆς, “way of life,” is a key word in Petrine theology, for it occurs eight times in Peter’s epistles (1 Pet. 1:15; 18; 2:12; 3:1, 2, 16; 2 Pet. 2:7; 3:11). The contrast of lifestyles of believers before and after they trusted Christ as their Redeemer is vividly displayed by seeing how the same word is used to describe their former way of life (“your futile way of life [ἀναστροφῆς],” 1:18) and their new life in Christ (“be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” [ἀναστροφῇ],” 1:15).

This contrast serves as evidence that Peter sought to relate the theological significance of the death of Christ to the ethical dimension of the lives of those who trusted His finished work for their salvation.2

Fifth, NT authors insist that a clear distinction between the culture of believers and unbelievers will have evangelistic impact. Missional authors argue that in order to reach the culture, believers must be incarnate in the culture, e.g., they must resemble the culture around them. Unbelievers will be evangelized only as they recognize the cultural presentation of the gospel. Their posture of contextualization flows directly from their understanding of culture as something entirely involuntary and neutral. Evangelism cannot occur, they argue, without cultural contextualization. In contrast, NT authors insist that only when the culture of believers changes as a result of changed values will unbelievers “glorify God on the day of visitation.” Snoeberger explains this more biblical approach to evangelizing the culture: “The proper response of the Christian to culture is to expose its depravity, demonstrate that it has illicitly borrowed from the Christian worldview, and show that its adherents cannot live within the implications of their own worldview.”3

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T. David Gordon: "It’s like reaching the rich young ruler by throwing money at him."

Snoeberger’s comments lead to one final conclusion that must be drawn as a result of synthesizing what the NT authors have to say about pagan and Christian culture: where similarities do exist between the behavior of unbelievers and the conduct of believers, such behavior by unbelievers is due to the fact that on that particular issue they are borrowing from the Christian worldview. Snoeberger explains:

Some cultures borrow substantially from the Christian worldview (sometimes consciously and deliberately, but more often in subconscious response to the latent influence of common grace that envelopes all of God’s creation) and others do not, and this factor is singularly vital in determining how a Christian is to relate to culture.4

This reality explains why the culture of Christians may at times resemble the culture of unbelievers in some respects. However, this understanding also sets the believer’s initial response toward unbelieving culture as one of suspicion until he can determine which aspects reveal a borrowing from Christian values. Furthermore, when certain aspects of unbelieving culture and Christian culture resemble one another, it is because the unbelievers look like Christians in those instances, not the other way around.

Christians in the twenty-first century will not be able to escape wrestling through matters of culture and contextualization as they seek to accomplish the mission God has for them. Yet rather than adopting the understanding of culture developed by secular anthropologists, Christians must be willing to reorient that understanding to fit within the biblical categories of behavior and conduct, applying all that the Scripture has to say about those categories to cultural matters. Only then will they be equipped to appropriate a truly biblical perspective on culture and contextualization for world evangelism, worship, and the entirety of church ministry.

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Gospel impact and the world's approval
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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.



Endnotes:

  1. Snoeberger, “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization,” 357. []
  2. Howe, “The Christian Life in Peter’s Theology,” 194. []
  3. Snoeberger, “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization,” 357. []
  4. Mark A. Snoeberger, “D. A. Caron’s Christ and Culture Revisited: A Reflection and a Response,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 13 (2008): 100. []

14 Responses to Scripturally, “Culture” is Simply the “Behavior” of a People

  1. Scott, you are saying a lot of things that I really like. Instinctively, I always saw scriptures like "For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you" (1.Pet 4:3f.) as relating to a culturally separated life. Yet, as much as I'd like to accept your equating 'lifestyle' in the NT with today's notion of 'culture', I would find it hard to defend that concept when challenged.

    Maybe you can clarify this for me – to play the devil's advocate, an obvious argument I can think of against your conclusions would be to say that our term 'culture' simply is larger than the NT 'way of life'. I mean, even the verses I quoted above are strongly oriented towards ethical living. If the NT term for behaviour is understood as exclusively ethical or moral, then it is of limited help to define our position towards the larger context of culture.

    For example, people do not commonly think (and I believe, rightly so) that someone who likes classical music is necessarily morally superior to someone who likes to listen to pop music or hip-hop. There are areas, such as clothing, where the NT gives guidance in terms of modesty, so we see a moral connotation. Yet, with many other cultural elements, this does not seem as clear. What you wrote above on Snoeberger complicates matters even more since we now need objective criteria to discern what is acceptable, and such criteria remain highly contentious.

    I was converted in the 80's, when burning one's record collection after conversion was a common thing to do. I prefer this to today's 'gradual conversion' without giving up anything (at least, immediately), which is a lot less clear and often leaves me wondering whether people are really saved or not (though time will usually tell). Yet, I cannot see clearly that the NT definition of culture as behaviour can be used to justify such a complete break with the culture around us. We'd agree that extremes such as the Amish lifestyle are not what Christ had in mind when He said we are in, not of, the world. So, is there a way to cement the idea that the NT behavioural definition of 'culture' really entails more than just moral behaviour?

  2. Hi, Martin. Thank you for the interaction!

    Your concern/objection is exactly why I think it is critically important to understand all aspects of culture as moral behavior. Everything we as moral human agents do is either moral or immoral (or somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes). Nothing we do is neutral.

    What we "do" is culture. If culture is not behavior, then what is it? There is no other valid option, in my view.

    So dress, music, habits, customs, etc. all have moral value and must be judged thus. This does not mean that it will be easy; judging behavior is rarely easy.

    Neither does it mean, as I made clear, that all behavior of unbelievers is immoral; it is not because of the common grace of God. So this means that the behavior of believers will not have to necessarily be completely separate from all behavior (culture) of unbelievers.

    But what this does mean is that believers must be active in their critical evaluation of what culture means and whether the values of various cultural expressions are moral or immoral.

  3. Thanks Scott. Trying to make sure I understand: you're saying that culture equals human activity in all its forms. Any particular action find itself on a continuum between morally good or evil. For example, if I have breakfast in the morning I am looking after my God-given body, which is morally good. If I sleep at night, the same applies. If I sleep only five hours a night (at least, on purpose) then I neglect the body and this has moral implications. Or for music, if I listen to music to relax that may be morally benign since I need rest. If, on the other hand, I keep switching on the radio just to distract myself and avoid to think, this is morally questionable behaviour since it keeps me from thinking consciously about my life and what God wants me to do in this world. So whereas the music I listen to may be amoral (at least if it has no words and does not otherwise communicate something that is contrary to the Gospel), the action of listening to music is morally meaningful. Also, the activity of making music would be morally meaningful (is it to honour God, to get rich, to unload anger, to express some kind of mindset or message?) and part of culture. I guess this coincides well with Paul's exhortations:

    "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." or "And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him."

    This means all our activity should be dedicated to God in some way. So I guess if I distinguish between cultural elements or objects (e.g., a clay figure or a specific dress), which may be amoral if seen apart from any cultural meaning assigned to them on the one hand, and cultural activity – which uses these objects or elements in a morally meaningful context, then I am compelled to agree with you.

    This would also fit 1.Cor 8, i.e. meat itself is amoral but eating it when it was sacrificed to idols (i.e. it is now assigned a cultural meaning contrary to biblical values) is immoral – at least if this cultural context is perceived as such (am borrowing from Snoeberger).

    Really, what you are saying is that not only scripturally but objectively, culture is the behaviour of a people. This should then override any anthropological or other definition. So maybe Niebuhr's definition of culture as “that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity” was correct, after all!

  4. Hi, Martin. I think you understand me except in one important point.

    You are correct that I would suggest that objects are neutral and behavior is always moral (or immoral).

    However, because culture is behavior, culture is NEVER neutral; it is always moral. So I would not distinguish, as you did, between a "cultural object" and a "cultural activity." "Cultural object" in my view is an oxymoron. "Cultural activity" is redundant.

    This is important because even the clay figure, the dress, or the music (without words) is already part of human behavior, and is therefore already moral.

    Let me try to explain it in a slightly different way. I believe objects are neutral, but human uses of those objects are moral. So a stick is a neutral object, but my use of that object will always be either good (if I roast a marshmallow with it) or evil (if I jam it in someone's eye).

    The common fallacy is to place something like music in the "object" category. That is a category error. A song (with or without words) is already the product of the human use (moral) of neutral objects; in this case the neutral objects are principles of acoustics, the harmonic series, the idea of rhythm, etc.

    The same would be true for a clay figure. A human has used (moral) the object (neutral) of clay to create something, so the very existence of the figure is part of human behavior and is therefore moral.

    And you are correct that I am saying that culture is the behavior of people not only scripturally, but generally. In fact, if you read the whole series, you will see that I am actually not starting with scripture in this definition; I am allowing the anthropologists (and Niehbuhr, or whomever) to give the definition since they invented it. My argument is that all of them define culture as behavior, and therefore whatever Scripture says about behavior should be applied to culture.

    Where I disagree with the anthropologists is not in their definition, but in some of their implications, e.g., their notion that culture is neutral and that religion is but one component of culture. I argue that if culture is behavior (their definition), then according to Scripture it cannot be neutral (no human behavior is) and all behavior flows from religion, not the other way around.

  5. OK… am still not sure about the object itself being moral. For example, an ancient clay figure in a museum is not really part of any activity, other than visitors looking at it and maybe learning what it was used for. The figure (say, it's a miniature god) is not used in any ritual anymore (which would be morally wrong, serving a false god) but is now an object of instruction (maybe about false religion, i.e. it becomes good). So, given objects change meaning depending on how they are used, how can you say they are moral? It seems impossible to determine their morality without a given cultural context. My thesis here is that they ONLY become moral once they are used in some activity.

    Using the 70's tune 'Popcorn' as another example, I see no way to judge it as either moral or immoral, even on a continuum. We can try to assume the author's motive to make this world a better place or corrupt it with his song, but in most cases, we will never know. So the use or cultural meaning is key. To me, the tune simply means 'fun' – but if only 'fun' tunes were used, that could become a moral issue since it projects a one-sided view on life (shallow, kitsch or whatever).

    So I am still reluctant to accept that only the clay is amoral, whereas the clay figure is not. Actually, I was confused by what you wrote in your reply as first you say you believe objects are neutral, but then again say the clay figure is moral (I think you mean 'substance' or 'material', rather than 'object'). It's clearly a cultural artifact but ONLY adopts moral meaning in a cultural context. Let me write it mathematically:

    Artifact = neutral

    Culture = moral

    Artifact + cultural use = moral

    I think someone already gave the use of nuclear power as an example. Since the use determines morality, it is necessary for there to be any moral meaning to an object, whereas the object outside a cultural context remains neutral. A bit theoretical but I think logical. Or where am I missing the point?

    Use a black Halloween-type dress: it is cloth put together to serve as a garment (neutral) but becomes moral since our culture associates this type of dress with wizardry. If I use it to dress up a scarecrow, it may become moral again (ok, this could be contested but I think I made my point). The use of horses is also part of culture: its use to till land is moral, but using two horses to tear a man apart is immoral. Yet, the horse remains neutral (a tool) in both cases.

    So we are saying almost the same thing, only you seem to draw a line BEFORE an artifact is made, whereas I draw it one level higher, i.e. AFTER the artifact is made (but BEFORE it is used). I could even go to back the clay (material) and say the same thing: using it to throw it at passers-by is immoral; using it as a medium to grow a plant is moral. Where am I wrong?

    Artifact = neutral

    Material to make artifact = neutral

    Material/artifact + human use = moral

  6. I should add that whenever there is a clear moral message (e.g. a text on a T-shirt or words to the music) then there is no escaping assigning moral meaning to an artifact.

  7. I think this all comes down to categorization. You admit that uses are moral, but there are different kinds of uses, and I think you are only recognizing some of them.

    So you admit that if a clay figure is used as an idol, then it is immoral. But the creation of that clay figure itself was already a use and is therefore moral. I may not be able to discern the motives of the creator, but that is beside the point; the creative act itself was a moral act, one that I think could be successfully explained as GOOD.

    You're right, I think that perhaps "object" is not the best word for what I'm talking about. By "object" I mean raw material, so maybe that's a better term. Nothing created by humans can be called an "object" in my categorization.

    With the example of "Popcorn," you say that the meaning is "fun," apart from any intent by the composer. Already you have placed morality upon the tune. If that tune does really mean "fun" (I don't know the tune, so I can't judge your assessment), then I would argue that the tune is GOOD, not neutral. It could always be used for EVIL, to be sure. But the cultural form itself would be good.

    So to use your terms:

    Material = neutral

    Use of material to make an artifact = moral

    Use of the artifact = moral

    Material is neutral, ALL uses are moral, even the creation of artifacts.

  8. But if the tune was NOT fun but sad or disturbing, would it therefore be immoral? I don't think so. When would a tune be immoral? Maybe the German national anthem would have been perceived as such by some after WW2 (only by association, though) but is less so today (after all, they play it at the Olympics). Again, then it would be the context that determines whether it is good or bad.

    But I think we're almost there. I agree that the cultural act of creating the clay figure is a moral act, since the figure is created for a (in this case, religious) purpose. Yet, unused and neglected, or buried under the dust of history, it has no moral character. Only when (WHILE) it is being used is that the case.

    My problem is really that the artifact can be used for BOTH good and bad. The activity is EITHER good or bad, and qualifies the artifact IN THE MOMENT IT IS USED.

    Out of use, it loses any moral connotation until picked up again or, in some cases, seen in a showcase or museum).

    Material = neutral

    Material in use = moral

    Artifact = neutral

    Artifact in use = moral

    Activity involving material or artifact = moral

    So, without a qualifier (an activity), any object or artifact does not have a moral connotation that could be defined. Once in use, it can generally taken on either moral or immoral character.

    Getting back to the prepared meat example in 1.Cor, it seems that the prepared meat itself is neutral even if we know it has been prepared for some religious ritual (given pagan gods are not real). Paul say that, although the meat has been used in a ritual (which is immoral), it is not therefore tainted as 'immoral'. Rather, we can eat it in peace. Only if there is someone around that takes offense should we abstain, not to give the impression that we support the cultic activity.

    For music (the Popcorn tune), it is not really possible to separate use from existence. It only exists as a tune when it is listened to (i.e., there is some kind of use). So maybe it is a bad example but I would still generalize that its goodness (or badness, for that matter) depends on whether and how it is being used.

    Interesting to think this all through. Thanks for your patience :-)

  9. This is a great discussion, Martin. Thanks for engaging in it.

    OK, a couple things. First, the tune would be immoral if it is an expression of immoral sentiments. So no, a sad tune would not be immoral, but a tune that expressed unbridled sexuality or rage would be.

    Let me use a little more concrete example to see if we can get to the heart of this.

    Let's say that I write a novel. I use the raw material of phonemes (consonant and vowel sounds), a writing utensil and something on which to write. All of these raw materials are neutral.

    First, the act of writing itself is a moral act.

    But let's say I walk away, no one reads the novel, and it gets buried in rubble. Is that novel moral? I would suggest that it is. Since it is the production of a moral act, it is thus an expression of morality, and its morality will be judged based upon whether or not its content is moral or immoral regardless if it is currently being "used."

    In other words, the novel is a cultural artifact, and it is thus moral.

    Now literature, being more concrete than other cultural artifacts, is easier to judge as moral or immoral (apart from the motivation of its author). We judge the morality of literature by its content.

    But the same is true for ALL cultural artifacts. ALL cultural artifacts, whether the plastic arts, painting, music, culinary arts, fashion, etc. have content that may be judged as moral or immoral. You can see this readily with literature because you understand the content more easily than with other cultural forms. But it is no less true for them than it is with literature.

    Now let's add one more layer. Let's say the novel I write is moral in its content. What if someone takes that novel and uses it to club someone over the head. Now a use of an otherwise moral cultural artifact is immoral.

    I use that silly example to point out that there are several layers of morality here. To use our ever-growing list:

    Material = neutral

    Material in use = moral (based on motive/intent)

    Artifact = moral (based on content)

    Artifact in use = moral (may be different than intrinsic morality)

    To more carefully specify these different layers of morality, which may contradict each other, I use the following terms.

    I call "material in use" the motive or intent of the moral agent.

    I call the morality of an artifact the "natural" morality, that is, what is naturally inherent to the content.

    I call other layers of morality "conventional" because they are learned, and they can change.

  10. Yeah, it's kind of breaking my head but its fun to discuss this – guess you are the only one I know that I could have such a discussion with!

    Re the book, I still can't agree. Its writing is a moral act, we are agreed on that. Yet, if nobody ever reads (uses) the novel, it has NO impact on anyone. As such, the is no moral consequence. The book then loses its moral attribute. You are extending the morality over the act of creation. I agree that there is clear 'good or bad' morality linked to the act of creation – as you say, there is either good or evil intent. Yet, when it comes to USE of an artifact AFTER its creation, there is no longer either good or bad but BOTH, good or bad. This means the moral quality of the artifact is not an inherent quality but entirely depends on its use (= I am saying it becomes neutral after the creative act has ended). Given that it can change from good to bad and vice versa, morality is then no longer attached to the artifact once it has been created. If, for example, I use the 'immoral' novel to teach a class on how to write moral novels, I am putting it to a moral use! Or I can read it attentively, discerning the immoral aspects, and learn from that (also moral and possibly against the immoral intent of the author). Although the novel's message is bad (and I would not give it to someone with little discernment), once this is recognized, it can still be put to good use! So the novel is not immoral even though it contains immoral concepts (though READING IT becomes an immoral act if one cannot draw any positive lesson from it, i.e. there are few acts that can rescue an immoral book from the deserved trash can). There is no escaping that any artifact can be used in both ways.

    Think of the Bible – some have criticized it because it contains accounts of immoral acts (often misunderstanding that these are historical accounts not meant to imply that immorality is condoned). So the novel may contain immoral concepts, but can we then say that makes it immoral? I think it only becomes so when someone reads it and condones these concepts, falsely learning immorality. But the book itself is not immoral. It all depends on what we do with it (i.e., how we read it – not to mention whether we bash someone with it :-).

    Now this applies to a novel, which has clearly spelled out content that can be understood and judged. If we move back to the clay figure that gets dug up after 2000 years, the finder may not even know what its original (cultic) use was. Even if he knew, he could give it to his kids to play (moral use) or use it to revive some kind of ancient religious rite (immoral) – or give it to a museum. My point here is that the figure has nothing attached to it that clearly determines its morality – because we forgot what its destined use was, or because we cannot decipher the writing on the bottom. The figure by itself does not tell the finder what it is, nor does it dictate its use; it carries no clear message intelligible to everyone.

    Once the creative act has ended and the artifact leaves its maker's hands, he no longer has any control over its use. So the axe made to kill humans for a sacrifice can be used to fell a tree for firewood. Morals are in the hands of the user!

    I should add the example of a pornographic image: when we see a Greek nude statue, we do not automatically consider it immoral (rather, the onus is on us to control our minds and then it will not lead to sin). Yet, when we recognize e.g. an image as pornographic, we call it immoral. Yet, there is nothing immoral about the sexual act itself. Again, I submit it is our USE of the image that makes it immoral. We recognize the intent of its creator to elicit an illicit desire in the viewer. Recognizing this intent, we refuse to be drawn into this scheme, turning our eyes away in disgust. So even here, it is what we DO once we view (use) the image where its moral quality comes in. It is immoral to create the image to show it around in the first place, its exhibition is another immoral acts, and its viewing can become yet another immoral act. Yet, the image itself knows nothing of morality until someone uses it the wrong way. If it were am image of a married couple making love and would remain in their bedroom, it would not be linked to immorality at all.

    With music (without lyrics) I submit that the same applies. You elicited that a tune could express immoral sentiments. I don't believe it can. Music is too ambiguous to communicate moral messaging. Cultural context is required to make this happen. For example, the Stones' 'Satisfaction' expresses the sexual act musically. Yet, I only found this out once I read about it (then it made total sense). Maybe if I had seen Mick sing it, making certain movements on stage, I would have gotten the drift earlier. But the tune itself does not clearly communicate what it means unless there is support from other sources, either visually or verbally. If I have my history right, Bolero was a powerful tune that may have incited to dance, but it was only when it was used in a movie as background music for having sex (forgot which one) that it was commonly associated with sex. Since then, our culture (or maybe just our generation) seems to link it clearly to seduction. I am not sure either that a tune that expresses rage (maybe some rap or hip-hop music) is automatically immoral. First, one could argue whether the tune (or more, the rhythm) by itself expresses rage, nervousness, or confusion – or is a metaphor for traffic noise or a hurricane. But even rage or anger is not always immoral either. Again, I think it is the use of the tune, not the tune itself, that is either moral or immoral. Used to reinforce a scene in a movie, it may be moral. Used to add lyrics that blaspheme, it is clearly immoral. I guess one could even argue that its use in combination with biblical messaging can be immoral. But not the tune itself. You always need activity/use to determine morality.

    I'd agree with you that a tune used to express immoral sentiment (whether that is intelligible or discernible to others or not) at the moment of performance or creation is not amoral. Yet, once I use a recording (now disconnected from the original intent or feelings of the performer or creator), it is no longer clear whether the tune is moral or immoral. To complicate matters further, God can even turn immoral intent into something good (e.g., the persecution of Christians which led to the spreading of the Gospel well beyond Jerusalem).

    I read some of your posts on dionysian music etc. I believe there is something to it but also believe that morality depends on how you combine words and music, and in which setting you are using it. In my opinion, the usage model will be more helpful in discussions around worship music than trying to label certain types of music as immoral. Maybe we can say someone that combines unsuitable music with Christian lyrics is sinning unknowingly (or sometimes, willingly). The more we know, the more we will be responsible for our actions. Education is key here, and you are doing a great job providing it for those who want to learn!

    Phhh… this has grown rather lengthy again. So to summarize, I can't agree that artifacts have morality attached to them. Many of them have no clearly defined content that could be categorized morally. Even if there is moral content, it still depends on their use whether the artifact is moral or not. Is this approach not closer to what Paul teaches, saying "whatever ye DO…"? Isn't immorality always linked to sinning = an act?

  11. Wow; we're starting to write novels now! :) This has been a good discussion, and it doesn't appear that we are going to convince one another (yet!). So I'll make a few comments and give you the last word.

    I think the big issue is distinguishing between form and content. You are focusing on content (i.e. the words of a song) and ignoring form, I think.

    What I am arguing is that form communicates. It is certainly not nearly as precise as textual content, but it does communicate, and it can communicate morality.

    There are all sorts of kinds of messages communicated through form, including some that are learned and temporary.

    But on a natural level, music is like an attitude; it shapes the content and communicates something on its own.

  12. Ha – guess since you wrote several books already I felt the need to catch up :-)

    Yes, great discussion.

    I completely agree that music communicates, and that is the great merit of your website, i.e. you spent a lot of time explaining that point. I hope I understood the difference between form and content from your previous articles.

    What we disagree on is where morality comes in. Whereas I agree that form communicates, I am not convinced it has moral qualities by itself. I was saying that only action by moral beings (humans) has moral qualities. Such action is moral or immoral either by itself or in combination with an artifact. Yet, the artifact itself is only an expression – like a documentation of what was going on in its creator's mind or of an act. So the book shows the author's imagination in the case of the novel, or the photo shows an immoral act in the case of the couple committing fornication. Yet, just like e.g. judicial proceedings, which also document (mainly immoral) acts, the book or photo is only a document, and detached from whether the documented act was moral or not. It tells us about moral or immoral acts but has no morality of itself – but just a medium or tool. Morality only arises once we use such a 'document' or 'medium' in various ways – ad the photo of an immoral act could actually be used morally to identify and punish the perpetrator. But I'm only saying the same thing with different words.

    So you say, form communicates morality, whereas I say, it cannot. Yet, we both agree it does communicate. So to me, morality arises when we culturally combine form and content in various ways. There are some ways that are inappropriate (immoral is a strong word but ultimately that is what it means, even if unintended or ignorantly done), and I am still learning exactly when this is the case. I guess one criterion is truth, i.e. if we combine popular art-type lyrics with emotional sound in worship we may communicate biblical truth incorrectly. Projecting such a warped image of God then is immoral and requires rectification. The consequences can be dire if we think the congregation might get a wrong picture of God over time.

    So I think we agree in principle, and have the same concerns. I only think that logic and consistency demand we drop the idea that certain artifacts or forms are always immoral (though they may always be inappropriate for certain uses, making such uses immoral). I think the foregoing discussion highlighted some examples that speak against that view.

    Until next time, I guess! Take care, Martin

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