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Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: Example of Holy Music (Rebuttal)

Shai Linne and I are having a conversation between Christian brothers about Christian rap. This post will not make sense unless you start at the beginning of this discussion and read through all the posts. You can find the other posts in this discussion on this page or on the right hand side of this post. This is Shai’s rebuttal and my reply to my most recent answer.

Shai_Bio-300x300Hey Scott, thanks for your answer to my last question. I especially appreciated your music recommendations. I enjoy listening to instrumental music while I work, so now I have a few things to add to my collection. I want to address a few problems I saw with your response.

First, there was a problem with how you defined holy. In defining holiness, you described positional sanctification in one sense and practical sanctification in another sense. You went on to speak of how music can be holy in that second sense. While the Bible does speak of holiness in terms of moral purity, the predominant meaning of holiness throughout Scripture is the idea of being set apart for God’s purposes. For example, there’s nothing particularly holy about bread, incense or utensils in themselves. However, when used in the tabernacle or temple, they became the “holy” bread (1 Sam. 21:6), the “holy” incense (Ex. 30:37) and the “holy utensils” (Ex. 40:10). But it’s not like they were suddenly changed intrinsically. The molecular structure of the bread didn’t change. What changed? The purpose or usage. The fact that these things were being used specifically for the worship of Yahweh, the infinitely Holy God, is what made them holy, as opposed to common (Lev. 10:10-11).

In your secondary idea of holiness, you rightly stated that “a Christian’s actions are to be holy.” I agree, but of the selections you chose as examples of “holy music”, at least a few of them were composed by non-Christians. Biblically, there is no mention of the holy behavior of people who don’t know the Lord. For behavior to truly be holy, it must spring from a heart changed by God. This highlights a category error that you’re making. What you are calling the “holy behavior” of unbelievers, I believe is actually the Imago Dei. Non-Christians are capable of works of great beauty and skill. That is undeniable. This is the outworking of the image of God in them. You said that you have a robust understanding of human depravity. It seems that your view of the image of God in fallen humanity is not quite as robust.

Second, there was a problem with your distinction between the “natural meaning” and “culturally-conditioned” meaning of music. This is an arbitrary distinction, because it is impossible to discern or assess the “natural meaning” of music without lyrics apart from cultural conditioning. This very conversation demonstrates this. What is the “natural meaning” of a Hip-hop instrumental (Or any other kind of music without lyrics)? And how do you prove it? Those questions can’t be answered apart from a person’s experiences, associations and understanding of context, i.e. cultural conditioning. You are also incorrectly presupposing that instrumental music can only mean one thing. How the same piece of instrumental music is understood and processed varies from culture to culture and person to person.

As a final observation, I find it interesting that you are willing to grant the label of “holy” to instrumental music composed by enemies of God, while at the same time withholding that same label from music that explicitly proclaims the gospel, exalts the person and work of Christ, calls sinners to repentance, highlights the character of the Triune God and encourages the listener to fall at the feet of Jesus in worship and adoration.

Scott-thumb-300x300Thanks, Shai. A few responses:

First, I already acknowledged in my answer that there are several meanings of “holy” in Scripture, and I specifically articulated which meanings I was and was not applying to music. I am not using it here to refer to positional sanctification (music can’t make someone right with God), nor am I using it as a synonym of “sacred,” as you did above. I explicitly stated that I am using “holy” in the 1 Peter 1:15 sense, which refers to conduct that is morally good. The passage (and others) is not talking about positional holiness or setting something apart for sacred use (like bread or utensils); it is talking about actions, and since music is an action (not a thing), music can be either morally good or evil. By the way, I most often use language of morally good or evil rather than “holy” exactly because use of “holy” can be confusing, but I’m comfortable using it in the 1 Peter 1:15 sense to mean morally good.

This also answers your question concerning music produced by believers and unbelievers. Of course, by God’s common grace unbelievers can do things that are morally good (Luke 6:33, Rom 2:14-15), although without faith this certainly doesn’t change their standing before God, and believers can do morally evil things. Likewise, an unbeliever can “do” morally good music, and Christians can “do” morally evil music.

Just because a Christian does something does not automatically render it good, no matter how good his intentions, or even if it happens to have Christian words, no more than a Christian bombing an abortion clinic in the name of God is good.

Second, if you want to talk about “sacred” music, that is, music set apart for specifically sacred purposes, then I would certainly narrow my criteria. I would insist that sacred music be both morally good and have a sacred text that “explicitly proclaims the gospel, exalts the person and work of Christ, calls sinners to repentance, highlights the character of the Triune God, and encourages the listener to fall at the feet of Jesus in worship and adoration.” I will readily acknowledge that there is no such thing as “Christian” or “sacred” music without Christian lyrics, but this is not the same thing as denying the reality of morally good or evil music.

So there are three kinds of music: morally good music (with or without lyrics), morally evil music (with or without lyrics), and morally good music that has been set apart for sacred purposes (with explicitly biblical lyrics).

Third, I’m glad you brought up natural vs. conventional meaning, because this is something I’ve wanted to elaborate on but haven’t had the chance yet. It’s important in this discussion to understand how music carries meaning naturally. I highly recommend Stephen Davies’, Musical Meaning and Expression, which clearly articulates where the most basic meaning does and does not lie:

  1. It is not a system of conventional symbols, like a language.
  2. It is not depictive, like representational paintings.
  3. It is not based on the feelings or intent of the composer or performer.
  4. It is not based on its power to move the listener.

All of these things can be true, but they do not describe the most basic, naturally meaning in music. Instead, Davies explains music’s expressive power with the fact that it resembles “emotion characteristics” in human behavior. He describes what he means by “emotion characteristics in appearance”:

The character of a person’s appearance, bearing, face, or voice sometimes is described by using emotion terms. We might say “He is a sad-looking person” . . . In such cases we do not mean that the person feels sad; neither do we mean that he frequently feels sad, or that we make believe that he feels sad. The reference is not to any emotion, in fact, but to the look of him. (222-223)

He summarizes his position this way:

Music presents emotion characteristics. Just as a willow can be sad-looking, or a person’s face happy-looking, music can present an expressive appearance in its sound (without regard to anyone’s felt emotions). This is because we experience the dynamic character of music as like the actions of a person; movement is heard in music, and that movement is heard as purposive and as rationally organized. (277)

Davies even goes so far as to deny cultural deviation in this level of communication:

I think that the behaviors in question are grounded in our common humanity rather than in arbitrary cultural differences; that is, I believe that Chinese sad-lookingness is much the same as French sad-lookingness. (243)

Because I hold that expressive behaviors owe as much to our common humanity as to our various cultures and that music is expressive in being experienced as like human action, I think that there is a common expressive element found in the musics of different cultures. I know of no culture that consistently expresses sadness with jaunty, fast, sprightly music, nor of any that expresses happiness with slow, dragging music. To take on example, Westerners formerly unacquainted with Japanese music are very unlikely to take the gamelan music that accompanies the weeping of puppet characters in wayang kulit for happy music, or to mistake battle pieces for funeral music. (244)

Davies helpfully explains what I’ve been articulating all along: music’s expressive power is in the music itself, not in any person’s interpretation of its meaning. Furthermore, this position strengthens the view that intrinsic meaning in music is universal, actually rooted in the fabric of humanity.

This way of explaining the most fundamental meaning in music is the consensus of other modern philosophers and theorists such as Susan Langer (Feeling and Form), John Hospers (Artistic Expression), Leonard Meyer (Emotion and Meaning in Music), Peter Kivy (Introduction to a Philosophy of Music), and Bennett Reimer (A Philosophy of Music Education). It is also the consensus of thousands of years of philosophical discourse. Despite their differences in many matters, including some of the specifics of musical value, most of the significant philosophers, musicians, and Christian leaders of the past agreed with this basic understanding of meaning in music, including Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Boetheus, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Asahel Nettleton, and many others.

In summary, because music is human action, particularly “emotion characteristics in appearance,” music may be either morally good or evil, not based on the intent of the composer or performer, or on the interpretation of the listener, but based on how the music itself corresponds to universal human experience.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.