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Harold Best vs. Ken Myers on Musical Meaning

This is an excellent illustration of where Evangelicalism is on issues related to music and worship. I’m thankful to 9Marks for doing this. It’s very instructive.

The folks at 9Marks asked three questions to two individuals who have written and spoken on the subject of musical meaning:

  • Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
  • Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
  • Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

They asked both Harold Best and Ken Myers to respond and then posted their answers in two separate posts. Best’s answer is here, and Myers’s answer is here. Both are worth reading in their entirety, but I’d like to summarize and highlight what I believe to be the most pertinent points.

BI_PrimeTime_HaroldBestHarold Best represents the majority of evangelical opinions on this matter, which is fitting since his writings and teachings have significantly contributed to perpetuating this thinking among evangelicals. You’ll find that most evangelical leaders who defend musical relativism–everyone from John Piper to Bob Kauflin to Matt Cosper and others–quote Harold Best’s classic Music Through the Eyes of Faith as support for their views. By the way, we posted an excellent review of Best’s book and its philosophy here.

Best’s basic view is that music carries no meaning of its own, it is therefore neutral, and thus no music is better than another, and no music is more or less appropriate for the gathered church. Pretty much the default evangelical view.

There are many problems with Best’s position, but I would summarize his root problem this way: Best’s position mistakenly categorizes music as a neutral “thing” and insists that God only judges people for how they act, God only redeemed people, and that only people’s motives and actions matter.

The problem is that music is not just a “thing” like a rock or a shoe or a donut.

Must is human communication; it is human action. Music is produced by moral human agents, and I’m not just talking about how a particular song or style is used by humans; the song itself is human action. This powerful form of communication, like all human forms of communication, expresses values, sentiments and moods that are part of what must be judged for their moral worth.

So I agree with Best that God judges people for how they act, and this includes the music they produce. God redeems people to be sure, but when he redeems them, their actions change. It is true that motives and values produce actions, and these are what matter, but music falls squarely in that category.

Ken-studioAnd this is where Ken Myers’s outstanding reply comes in. Myers correctly notes that the kind of relativism Best articulates fails to recognize that there exists far more levels of meaning and significance than what is merely communicated through propositions. He astutely observes that “theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning.” How true. He points out that so much value (good or bad) is expressed through imaginative forms such as music. This meaning is carried, not discursively like with propositional statements, but metaphorically through various gestures, timbres, textures, and other musical qualities that relate to universal human experience.

This means that some kinds of music are certainly better than others depending upon the values they embody. And even more important, some kinds of music are certainly better for corporate gatherings of the church since some kinds of musical meaning are simply not fitting for what goes on there.

I so appreciate Myers’s thoughtful explanation of these matters, and I wish that more Evangelicals would read and adopt his classic book on culture, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes rather than the musical pluralism of Best’s Music Through the Eyes of Faith.

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.