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A Parable About Pop Music in Church

Christian 1: So I hear you have a problem with lollipops?

Christian 2: Lollipops? No, I think they’re just fine.

Christian 1: But you apparently won’t eat them for family meals.

Christian 2: That’s true. I prefer my family eats some kind of meat, vegetables or healthier food for their meals.

Christian 1: So you prefer the “high” food. That’s okay, as long as you can respect other people’s food preferences.

Christian 2: Preferences? Look, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing here. I’m talking about feeding my family. Lollipops are tasty, and fun, but they are not food. They’re amusement for your tastebuds. I enjoy them as much as the next guy, but they’re not real nutrition. It’s really not about high food versus low food, as much as it is about actual food versus dietary entertainment.

Christian 1: So you have a problem with people having lollipops for dinner.

Christian 2: Well, I’m not responsible for other people’s families. I certainly have a problem with doing so for my own family. And I pity and worry about those families that do so, especially if they eat almost nothing else.

Christian 1: You know, I think you really need to spend some time in Romans 14. See, you are what the Bible calls “the weaker brother”. You need extreme convictions to feel “safe” in your conscience. I don’t want to rock your world, but I just want you to consider that there are some very godly and mature believers who have lollipops for dinner.

Christian 2: I’m well aware of that. Do you know why they do so?

Christian 1: Because they have come to see that food is neutral, and that any kind can glorify God. Those believers have a preference for sweet things, just as you have a preference for salty things.

Christian 2: Uh, no. I don’t have a preference for salty things. Given a choice of tastes of what I find more immediately tasty, easier to recognise and more powerfully evocative, I’d take sugary drinks and eats every time. But there is a reason sweets and lollipops are the food at children’s birthday parties, and there is a reason why armies feed their soldiers protein.

Christian 1: I think it’s elitist and snobbish to call lollipops childish just because you don’t like them. It’s spiritual pride to insist that your food preference must be practiced by others.

Christian 2: I don’t think you’re listening. I actually do like lollipops, in their place. But I know what they are there for. They are a simple pleasure, a distraction for your tongue. But to turn a distraction into sustenance and nutrition for your family is not about culinary preferences. It’s a serious error in judgment: a complete misunderstanding of what food is, what nutrition is, and what the human body needs to be healthy.

Christian 1: If it is such an error, why are so many families doing it?

Christian 2: I don’t know. Possibly parents are becoming more permissive and child-centred, not wanting to displease their children, and giving them what they want to keep them happy. Perhaps parents have been cut off from a living tradition of good meals and are now turning to whatever they see advertised. Maybe those parents who try to give good meals are overwhelmed by the sweets-envy their children have of other families, and they capitulate to keep the peace. Perhaps parents are becoming more ignorant about the nutritional value of food, and more obsessed with being popular parents.

Christian 1: Well, I just don’t think this is something worth dividing over.

Christian 2: Maybe. But when your children get sick, they play with my children. My children can’t give your children their health. But your sick children can give my children their sickness. What you call a preference affects others.

Christian 1: So maybe your family should just keep to yourselves, and keep away from our ‘sickening influence’.

Christian 2: No, that wouldn’t be loving. When you and your family land up in hospital, someone needs to visit you, care for you, and teach you the importance of good meals when you come out. Someone needs to conserve health, because a lot of sickness is coming.

Christian 1: Well, we’re doing just fine right now. I think your whole “food-conservatism” thing is a bit quirky, and probably quite limiting for you.

Christian 2: I hope you are blessed with good health. God’s laws of sowing and reaping mean that bad choices add up to a bad harvest, so if I am correct about the dangers of lollipops-as-meals, I don’t think the result of your choices will be a good one. If that day comes, I have some great recipe books I’d love to share with you.

Christian 1: Recipe books! Ha! I haven’t seen one of those for years! But that’s a nice thought.

Christian 2: I hope that’s all it turns out to be.

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

7 Responses to A Parable About Pop Music in Church

  1. Serious question from a CBTS grad:
    1. Are the Getty’s lollipops or are they decent food?
    2. Would re-making hymns with modern instrumentation and more contemporary worship style address this concern? Does new contemporary style destroy conservative substance?
    3. Do anything besides conservative hymns meet the criteria of substance? Will eachbcultures hymns all sound the same?

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for your question. We’d have to clarify some nomenclature to avoid talking past each other.
    “Conservative hymns” could be variously defined. I’m assuming you mean something like the classic, traditional hymns, but some would include Gospel songs and Singspiration hymns, which I wouldn’t.
    I think classic hymns (as in “Hymns to the Living God”) do meet the criteria of substance, if the criteria is something like: music and lyrics that do not trade in cliches, banalities or vapid and predictable schemas, or something like “music and lyrics that evoke Christian affections with appropriate forms”.

    But there are plenty of other kinds of songs that have substance, but we don’t use them in corporate worship. There are some lovely spirituals that are simple, but don’t often make it into corporate worship. The oratorios in Handel’s Messiah are beautiful, but not for corporate worship. Some children’s songs, “Jesus Loves Me” are appropriate for singing with children (it is simple, not trivial), but probably not appropriate for corporate worship. Plenty of folk songs do this.

    I chose the analogy with lollipops because pop songs tend to be like candy: an instantly recognisable formula that is pleasurable to a maximum number of people. (For a humourous example of the formula used by country singers, see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itz6cGctwtE, or a satirical look at the formulas for praise choruses here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhYuA0Cz8ls )
    A discussion of substance is a discussion of musical and poetic form: the shape of the music and the poem, what it is trying to do, and if it achieves it. That’s a long discussion. This is a helpful primer: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IFFU156/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

    No, not every ethnic group will have hymns that sound the same. Bear in mind two qualifications: 1) Things can be different, but still be equivalent. This is particularly so in art. One can have two different versions of beauty, which are both beautiful, and evoke similar affections, even in different people groups. That’s equivalence, even though different.
    2) A good hymnbook is actually composed of hymns and melodies that DID develop among different ethnicities. What is falsely caricatured as white and western has developed across continents, languages, ages, and different Christian traditions.

    Again, we’d need to agree on what ‘contemporary style’ means. We’ve written on this site on the importance of contemporary hymn writing and composing (http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-aesthetics/article-13-on-todays-congregational-music/). But we mean that contemporary composers and lyricists should prepare more steak and vegetables, not more lollipops.
    And so, if I take a guess at your meaning, no, I don’t think that singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” to a pop tune addresses the concern. In fact, it probably exacerbates the problem by doing the equivalent of trying to make candied chicken drumsticks.

    As to the Gettys, they are a mixed bag, in my view. They are obviously light years ahead of Fanny Crosby and John W. Peterson. I think the lyrics of How Deep the Father’s Love are particularly good. Some of their melodies can be easily sung by a congregation. At the same time, they are drawing largely on a formula quite popular today: the Irish ballad reworked into a folk-rock form. And some of their songs are indistinguishable from other CCM.
    Overall, the quality is uneven. Some are good enough to sing, IMO- others on this site may disagree. Scott did a good post on them a few years ago which you can search for.
    On the other hand, the current infatuation with them has them vastly overrepresented in modern hymnbooks, which will ironically make those hymnbooks look very dated in just a few years.

  3. Well done, David. May those who have ears to hear be moved that our holy and majestic God may increasingly be worshipped “according to the glory due His name,” and may we be changed more into His likeness.

  4. I like the analogy, overall. However, wouldn’t the assertion that lollipops are tasty… essentially create the notion of the parallel idea that pop culture worship music is also tasty, and may have its place, just not in corporate worship? In other words, could a Christian take this example and say that lollipops are good at times for their personal lives, and ok, as long as we don’t make a full meal out of them, or use them in corporate worship?

    I would think that what you would lean toward is that the lollipops of pop culture worship music are not to have a place in the Christian’s life. I could be wrong in that assertion, though, since I don’t know you personally :-). Just a thought.

  5. Taigen,

    Yes, every illustration is finite. In this illustration, tastiness does not equate to goodness or helpfulness. Tastiness simply stands for immediate pleasure through a formulaic product.

    In fact, I think it is important in this debate to concede the point that pop music is enjoyable to most. If it were not, it would not be ‘popular music’. Because it is a commercial product, it standardises and schematises until it has found a predictably likeable and attractive formula, that will sell with a large number of people. The problem with pop music is not that it is likeable, but that it is likeable through the manipulation of a predictably successful formula. This makes it a lot more like flattery, or like advertising, than like art, which genuinely wants to say something.

    Along those lines, there are items from pop culture that are positively harmful, and there are items that are mostly diversions, with little positive or negative value. Obviously the Christian should shun the former, and decide on the latter in terms of his stewardship of time.

    Now we could say that people’s tastes should grow and be elevated to where they recognise the hollowness of a pop song. But that’s exactly where the analogy does work. A lollipop is a powerfully simple formula that many tongues will like. A trained palate will outgrow it, and probably eventually dislike its sickly-sweetness. But even the most trained palate likes sweetness, and understands the appeal of lollipops, even if it no longer regularly feasts on them. It now knows there are far more pleasurable and nutritional things one can do with sweetness.

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