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Culture doesn’t just change

I received an email a few days ago asking what I thought about a few particular contemporary Christian songs. The individual mentioned that he thought that hymns have always been simply reflections of whatever music existed in the current culture, and that these songs were no different. I’ve copied my reply to him below in hopes that it might be a help to someone else:

My particular views in terms of application are built upon dozens of foundational philosophical and theological presuppositions. So it’s sometimes difficult for me to give a simple answer regarding what I think about a particular song without fully explaining the underlying philosophy (hopefully my book will help with some of that).

However, I’ll give you a short answer and address one foundational issue.

I’ll admit that I’m not thrilled with the songs you mentioned, for several different reasons. One reason is textual, and the other has to do with the musical forms employed.

But now to the more foundational issue. You said, “I feel as though Hymns were established with the form of music from that time. I think that as music changes so does the music we use to worship.”

You are certainly correct to a certain extent. It is true that culture and musical forms change over time, and the church will likely (and probably should, in most cases) reflect at least some of the current cultural forms.

But that is nevertheless a very simplistic way to look at the issue. Culture doesn’t just change; it changes for a number of reasons, most of them religious and philosophical. Culture is not neutral, it is an expression of values and worldview. Culture is essentially the behavior of a people that flows from their beliefs about God, the world, man, life, salvation, etc.

Therefore, certain cultural expressions are better reflections of a biblical worldview than others. So as culture changes, it is important for Christians to ask why it is changes and what values the newer forms express.

It is also important to recognize that in times past Christian values were more dominant in Western civilization, and therefore the predominant cultural expressions were more closely connected with biblical values. Today this is not the case; values quite contrary to Scripture are becoming more and more dominant in our civilization, and this is reflected in the prevailing culture.

So when we choose what musical forms we are going to use in worship today, the choice is not a simple as copying the music of the day. We must decide which cultural forms best reflect the values of Scripture and the lyrics we wish to express.

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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

18 Responses to Culture doesn’t just change

  1. The inquirer's comment regarding his thoughts that "hymns have always been a reflection of whatever music existed in the current culture" couldn't be further from the facts. Historically, tunes for hymn texts were developed by skilled composers around the text itself. Tunes composed for specific texts were crafted metrically, agogically, and with important intervals reserved for the purpose of setting the text in the most idiomatic manner for according to the language of the text. That is a great departure from today's pop tune writng in which a style is superimposed (regardless of the speech and inflection patterns) onto a text. Unimportant syllables and parts of speech end up being unduly emphasized because the musical style demands it. There is a great deal of difference in the pop culture model and the earlier model in which the texts placed demands upon the tune composition. The music should be a servant of the text both in terms of inflection and affect. A biblical text should not suffer the indignity of being artificially crammed into a musical style simply because we like that style. It does damage to the text and violates Paul's instructions for worship to do all things in a "fitting" or "appropriate" manner.

  2. "We must decide which cultural forms best reflect the values of Scripture and the lyrics we wish to express." It seems as if the present generation, knowing the difficulty of making an objective decision, thinks it can avoid responsibility by deciding to accept everything.

  3. Scott,

    You wrote, "You are certainly correct to a certain extent. It is true that culture and musical forms change over time, and the church will likely (and probably should, in most cases) reflect at least some of the current cultural forms."

    Could you perhaps elaborate on the church's apparent responsibility to reflect at least some of the current cultural forms? I am thinking it might help me delineate between cultural entities we should embrace and those we should avoid.



  4. Todd, I do not think there is any responsibility, per se, for a church to reflect the culture. Its culture should reflect its values, and it will inevitably reflect some aspects of the surrounding culture just because the people of the church are part of that society. But I do not see any mandate to change and try to reflect culture at all.

  5. Your statement here could easily be used to support the KJVO position. There is no need to update one's language to reflect the language of the culture.

    It seems to me that the church has the mandate to utilize appropriate cultural forms as part of its task to communicate the gospel in a given culture.

  6. Scott, my apologies if it seems like I'm trying to parse every couple of words — but you have acknowledged that "the church will likely (and probably should, in most cases) reflect at least some of the current cultural forms.” You use the words "probably should reflect" — but then you seem to disavow "any mandate to change and try to reflect culture at all." I am quite confused here because the two statements don't seem to be aligned with each other.

  7. Ben, I would say it could be used to support a King Jame Preferred position, but not an ONLY position. I believe Bauder prefers the KJV for these reasons.

    I personally don't prefer the KJV as my primary Bible, not because it's such out-dated language, but because it's not the most accurate translation. I prefer the ESV because I think it preserves a lot of the beauty of translations like the KJV while being more accurate.

    Having said that, again, I do acknowledge that our behavior and language (i.e., "culture") will naturally reflect who we are at this time and in this place. But that behavior should flow from our beliefs and values first and foremost rather than some "mandate" to adopt the behavior of unbelievers.

    Where Christian values have dominated in a society, the behavior ("culture") of believers and non-believers will look alike. The same is true for when unbelievers "borrow capital" from the Christian worldview.

    But I am convinced that when the behavior ("culture") of believers and unbelievers look alike, it will be (should be) because unbelievers have borrowed from our worldview, not because we somehow adapted ourselves to theirs.

  8. Good point about the KJVO vs. preferred. Perhaps it would be even more accurate to say your sentiment would support the Latin Vulgate proponents and would have ruled out the KJV altogether. If the church has no "mandate to…try to reflect culture at all" then there would have been no reason to translate the Bible into any language.

    BTW, you changed your statement in your last comment. Originally, you simply spoke of culture. Now, you are referencing the "behavior of unbelievers."

    Though I may be wrong, I believe your basic point is to argue against a seeker-sensitive approach that seeks relevance by embracing all cultural forms rather uncritically. But you deny the responsibility of the church to effectively communicate within a given culture to say that is has no mandate to reflect culture. I believe the church is mandated to employ a certain kind of contextualization if it is to communicate within a given culture–and that includes all forms of communication, including music.

    The reason I emphasize this is because you seem to assume "that our behavior and language (i.e., “culture”) will naturally reflect who we are at this time and in this place." I disagree. Plenty of churches and missionaries do not naturally reflect the culture they are in and, as a result, make Christianity unnecessarily foreign (e.g., my reference to the Latin Vulgate/KJV issue). Critical evaluation is necessary, not wholesale adoption or rejection.

  9. OK, now you're going much further than anything I've said or implied! :)

    Of course God's truth must be translated into the language of the people in missions contexts; I am not talking here about when a person from one society goes to another. I still think there are limits to so-called "contextualization" in those contexts, e.g., the contextualization that occurs must be faithful to how Scripture expresses God's truth and with Christian values and beliefs.

    What I am specifically talking about here in when OUR culture changes. My point is that when we in our context see the culture changing around us, we must not simply change with it; we must parse the reasons for the changes first, since many changes in culture occur because of changes in value we must not embrace.

    A missions situation is much more complex and difficult to navigate, I will admit. I do absolutely acknowledge the unfortunate situations in which American missionaries impose certain practices on foreign nationals (usually out-of-date American pop culture).

    But the contemporary "missional" emphasis that says that we must treat our own context in exactly the same way as if we were going to a foreign situation (while there are certainly some benefits to this perspective) is often a stretch in my opinion. When an unbeliever who is immersed in hip hop culture (behavior) enters a service in my church, what he encounters is NOT a different language in any similar sense that would be true of an African tribesman. He can understand the gospel, and actually the difference between his behavior and ours is itself evangelistic since his behavior flows from unbiblical values and ours from Christian values.

    Finally, I am using "culture" and "behavior" nearly synonymously; they are the same thing. See my recent journal article for an explanation and defense of this view. Understanding culture as behavior, in my opinion, goes a long way to solving a lot of the fuzzy discourse about culture and contextualization.

  10. If I understand correctly that the underlying implied argument here is that our current (American/Western) culture can't understand, comprehend, or relate to hymnody as a musical language, then I reject that argument. Hymnody and CCM contain the same musical elements: melody, rhythm, harmony, etc. There is no analogical equivalent of a "language barrier" as there would be between a native German speaker and a native Chinese speaker. The barrier is one of preference, born of a culture where "choice" is idolized.

    On the whole, the musical elements that bind CCM and hymnody are crafted in a qualitatively better manner in hymnody as a genre than in CCM. (This is a generalization, of course; I would by no means defend every hymn written as excellent). This is because hymn writers generally start with the text, not the preferred musical style.

    Comprehensibility is not, therefore, the issue. Preference is. Exodus 32:15-20 demonstrates a sound of singing that is foreign to God's people and that is associated with idolatry. If you accept that this passage at minimum demonstrates that there is a sound that is foreign to God's people, the question is for every generation and every culture: What is that sound, and how can we as a called out people set ourselves apart from it?

    Regarding foreign missionaries: is it reasonable to expect that a culture that has never heard of Christ would produce a musical sound that is fitting and appropriate in affect and tone for the Gospel? I suppose it's possible, but my guess is that it is unlikely. Even if so, great discernment would be needed.

    Music is not a means of grace, promised by God to draw people to Himself. It is, for God's people, rather a commanded means of praise, lament, prayer, thanksgiving, etc., and should reflect the attributes of God as they are revealed in the Bible, not the characteristics of a pagan culture from which we are mercifully drawn.

    The basic premise inherent in the argument above is that musical sounds have meaning. I believe that Scripture shows us that they do and that we are to use discernment in their use.

  11. To clarify, I don't believe you agree with what I posted or meant to communicate that. However, I think that is the implication of your statement: "I do not see any mandate to change and try to reflect culture at all." I don't disagree with your overall point that we must be discerning when and how we change–i.e., we don't change simply to match up with culture. But I do think we have a mandate to change in order to effectively communicate within our culture. I do think we need to do examine our culture in many ways like missionaries do. Part of our problem is we often assume that the way we do things is the right or biblical way when it is actually just a reflection of either our own sub-culture or the culture of the past. Part of our problem is that our immersion within our own culture blinds us to its influence on us. When we do the work of contextualization, we seek to discern what parts of culture can and should be utilized and what parts should be rejected.

    Another clarification: My reference to your shift of terminology was not "culture" vs. "behavior" but the addition of "unbelievers." When we refer to our culture, I assume you are talking about the culture of a given location that naturally includes aspects that reflect the image of God in man and those that reflect man's depravity. When people add the qualification "of unbelievers" they are usually referring to the sinful elements of culture that are manifested by a heart that hates God. So if you ask me "Must the church reflect the culture/behavior of its context?" I would probably answer "yes, with discernment." If you ask "Must the church reflect the culture/behavior of unbelievers?" I would be more likely to ask what you mean, because the church has no mandate to reflect the fallen aspects of culture.

    I apologize for taking the discussion a bit off topic from your original point, with which I'm largely in agreement. I just wanted to push back a little about the church's mandate to reflect culture.

  12. Thanks for the pushback, Ben! I really appreciate it.

    A couple comments.

    You said, "Part of our problem is we often assume that the way we do things is the right or biblical way when it is actually just a reflection of either our own sub-culture or the culture of the past."

    I agree completely! But I do not think this is a problem merely because a particular group's culture is shaped by something of the past or a "sub-culture." I think it's a problem because the culture of the past many preserve, such as many fundamentalists, was a weak culture to begin with. I am all for preserving culture of the past if it is good culture. The church should be a sub-culture.

    You also said, "Part of our problem is that our immersion within our own culture blinds us to its influence on us."

    I also agree with this, and this is one of the reasons I advocate allowing ourselves to be shaped by Christian tradition rather than the prevailing culture since we are often blinding by how the current culture shapes us.

    I understand better your reference. By culture of unbelievers, I simply mean how they act that flows from their worldview and values. Sometimes how unbelievers act can be good when they borrow from the Christian worldview; their default behavior is sinful.

    The reason I'm wary of the "mandate" language, I'll admit, is that it is often extreme and abused, so I acknowledge your point here..

    My main point, though, is that I don't think we need to "contextualize" very much in our own context (it is different when we go to another context) because we are part of our context already. I already speak, for example, like everyone else in my context. Beyond that, there is not much more I need to do to accurately communicate the gospel to unbelievers. I do not see any necessity or mandate to change how I worship, for example, in order to reach unbelievers. I may need to change how I worship because it is wrong, but not for some goal of contextualization.

    This reminds me of a discussion I saw between Driscoll and Piper, where Driscoll said contextualization demands that he watch movies and go to clubs, etc., and Piper responded that he didn't need to do those things because as a human being in this culture, he already had all he needed to communicate the gospel to people. That's sort of the point I'm making.

    I agree that we're very close, and again, thanks so much for the interaction!

  13. I was planning on finishing with my last comment, but I can't sit back and let myself be compared to Driscoll without voicing my objection :)

  14. I'd like to ask this of anyone: which songs, in your opinion, are some good examples of good, correct, scriptural, God-honoring, God-centered, selfless, meaningful worship songs/chorals/hymns/symphonies/ that, — whether older or more recent, — might appeal to more than one age group? and that might last anywhere from two minutes to twenty minutes? My aim is to get clarification on very specific examples that can be derived from general scriptural principles. I reckon it would add to clarity/specificity if you provide video links, or at least audio links.

  15. I think that, for purposes of clarity and specificity, it might be helpful to some of us if very specific examples of worship music — whether older or more recent, and whether more "traditional" or more "contemporary" — could be added to a "catalog" of sorts, whereby we music critics and analysts of Christian music can hear (and/or see) specific examples. Whether we shall cite "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace", or whether we shall cite something from the archives of "CCM" ("Contemporary Christian Music"), I think it might help us. Thank you.

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