I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow my imaginary argument down!
Straw Men in the Music/Worship Debate
One of the most dangerous, yet easy pitfalls one can fall into when discussing music/worship issues is to misrepresent the opposing view (most likely unintentionally). This is easy to fall into because it’s always easier to blow down an opponent’s position if you get to invent a pretty weak caricature of his actual view!
I’d like to just briefly list some of the straw man arguments I’ve heard on either side of the debate. I’m doing this largely for my own benefit since I’ve certainly been guilty of this from time to time. I think discussion and debate over these issues is important, but we must fairly represent the positions of our opponents for there to be any profitable discussion.
In each of the cases I’ll mention, I’m sure there has been someone somewhere who has held positions like these, or with some of these they may have even been positions held by a group of people in the past. But to represent either side of the debate today in any of the following ways is, in my opinion, unhelpful in these discussions. I’ll list these with little comment, just in order to stimulate some thought.
Straw Men Used Against a More Progressive Philosophy
- “Contemporary Christian songs are written by theological novices.” Perhaps in some cases, but to say this universally is incorrect. There are many contemporary Christian songs being written today by men who have a deep love and respect for biblical theology.
- “The lyrics of contemporary Christian songs are shallow.” Again, some certainly are. But there are many Christian songs written in a contemporary idiom that contain lyrics just as profound as those of Watts or Wesley. To make this kind of general statement is unhelpful.
- “Contemporary Christian music is just entertainment-oriented.” The CCM industry was probably very much a commercial endeavor and interested in entertainment. But to apply this criticism to all sacred music written in a pop style is simply unfounded. In fact, such a charge could just as easily be levied against some churches that use “traditional” music. In reality, the Praise & Worship Movement and much of today’s contemporary sacred music is fueled by a particular theology of worship, not a desire to entertain.
- “They just want to impress the world or be like the world.” Entering the realm of heart-motivation is always dangerous (something I’ve failed by doing more times than I would like to admit). But even if this charge is correct about some individuals or groups, there are certainly plenty of contemporary Christian musicians who are godly, humble, and motivated by a desire to serve the Church rather than attract the world.
- “Contemporary Christian music always communicates sexuality and/or rebellion.” I will be the first to argue that much of the pop/rock genre communicates sexuality and rebellion, but not all of it does. Therefore, if conservatives are going to make this kind of charge, they must be very specific about what they are referencing since not all pop music communicates these kinds of messages.
- “CCM artists are all worldly, ungodly, and often commit adultery.” Unfortunately, this kind of description could apply to any number of individuals, progressive and conservative alike. But it does not accurately describe a great majority of those who perform contemporary Christian music.
- “Those who use pop music in church are just trying to attract unbelievers.” This is probably true about Seeker-Sensitive kinds of churches. But it is not at all true of most churches who use pop forms in church. I would suggest that most of those who use these styles of music are more motivated by a honorable desire to allow Christian people to sing to God in forms with which they are comfortable.
- “They’re just a bunch of 7-11 songs; 7 word repeated 11 times.” Again, this may be true about some songs, but many songs written with pop idioms contain rich development and robust theological lyrics.
- “Contemporary churches are all about what happens on the stage.” This is another charge that could just as easily apply to some churches that use conservative music, and quite a few contemporary churches are very much congregation oriented. Often far more so than many “traditional” churches.
Straw Men Used Against a More Conservative Philosophy
- “They’re against anything new.” This whole debate really isn’t at all a new vs. old issue. It’s not about when a song was written, but the characteristics of the song. Of course, the term “contemporary” certainly adds to the confusion, but this kind of charge is simply untrue of the conservative position.
- “They think the Bible tells us what music pleases God.” Certainly some people have done hermeneutical gymnastics to make Scripture say what it does not when it comes to music philosophy, but to broadly characterize conservatism this way is untrue. Conservatives simply want to correctly apply the Bible to musical choices just like the Progressives do.
- “They think that rhythm is bad.” While conservatives do discuss what certain rhythms communicate in certain contexts, no thinking person would ever say that rhythm is bad. Music doesn’t exist without rhythm, and everyone knows that. I’ve heard Progressives quote a conservative discussion about what certain rhythms communicate and then summarize it with this charge. It’s simply untrue.
- “They think that syncopation is sinful.” As discussions of the nature of syncopation have filtered down into the pew, perhaps some naive individuals believe that all syncopation is evil. However, no one intelligently engaged in the music debate has ever claimed that syncopation is sinful. It is certain kinds of syncopation used in certain contexts that are under consideration in intelligent discussions of music philosophy.
- “They think that if a song wasn’t written by an independent Fundamentalist, we can’t use it in corporate worship.” This is perhaps the silliest straw man I have heard (and I’ve quoted this word for word from a real sermon). No conservative argues this or practices this.
- “They elevate music standards to the level of Scripture.” Some conservative may view their music standards as pretty important, but is it really honest to say that they raise their standards to the level of Scripture? I would suggest that this is simply another straw man, ad hominem attack that is simply untrue. Again, we are all trying to correctly apply the Bible’s principles to our musical choices in worship.
- “They think that music is the most important thing we have in our worship.” Again, this kind of charge is unfounded. There may be some who believe this, but I think you would be hard pressed to prove that any majority of people consider this to be true. In fact, I would suggest that those who prefer contemporary styles of music could fall under this charge just as easily, if not more so. Stereotypically, it is usually more conservative people who view music as merely “prelude to the preaching,” and more progressive people who view the music part of the service as “worship,” and the preaching separate.
- “They think that biblical music is classical music.” Again, I’m quoting this charge word for word from a sermon, and again, it is a completely unfounded charge. Some conservatives may argue that classical forms have the best capacity to support biblical truth today, but no one is going to argue that David played Mozart on his harp!
- “They think that certain instruments are bad.” Those who make this charge point to drums, for instance, and claim that conservative insist that drums are always bad. Yes again, this charge is silly. Any conservative would agree right along with the progressive that it is how an instrument is used that matters. It is not that drums are used but how they are used. Plenty of conservative churches have orchestras with percussion instruments. What is even more silly with this straw man argument is when the one making it exclaims, “Don’t they know that the piano is a percussion instrument? Maybe they should get rid of that too!”
- “They think that repetition is bad.” Again, as with the syncopation straw man, making a universal statement like this does not in any way accurately reflect the arguments of conservatives. It is how repetition is used, in what kind of musical context, etc., that matters. Again, a common silly statement made with this kind of charge is, “If they don’t like repetition, maybe they should read the Psalms some time,” or “They’d have to get rid of Handel’s Messiah, because that sure has a lot of repetition.” It’s easy to blow down straw men of our own creation, isn’t it?
- “They think it’s dangerous to allow emotions in music.” I feel like I’m repeating myself, but again, no Christian conservative thinks that emotion itself is bad. Emotion is at the heart of biblical religious and worship, and conservatives themselves call music the “language of emotion.” What concerns conservatives is certain kinds of emotions or emotionalism.
- “They think the music issue is black and white.” Some may have implied this with how they have set up certain standards, but in reality, no one would say this. Everyone on either side of the debate recognizes that music is a very complex issues with lots of factors involved. They wouldn’t be involved in the debate if they thought it were black and white.
When we set up these kinds of straw men in order to discredit opposing positions, it is usually because we are unwilling to take the time and effort to intelligently engage with the deeper philosophical issues underlying each position. Now admittedly, on both sides of the debate, there are plenty of arguments being made that are unworthy of engaging. But to characterize everyone on a given side of the debate by one or more of the sillier arguments is dishonest.
Again, I truly believe that having discussions and debates about music is a healthy and important practice. But as we discuss these issues, let’s be sure that we are charitably and accurately representing our opponent’s positions.
What kinds of straw man arguments have you heard on either side of the debate?
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.