by Leonard Payton
Should Amy Grant sing cross-over songs?1 After all, the distinction between full-time Christian service and secular employment is arbitrary. One of the great Reformation truths is that all occupations done before the face of God, and in compliance with his revealed Word, are godly occupations.
On the face of it, the conclusion seems self-evident: It really makes no difference whether one is singing contemporary Christian music or secular contemporary music, just so long as the music is not immoral or performed poorly. And on these grounds, it seems petty to question Amy Grant's involvement in secular pop music. But despite our watertight reasoning, we still have queasy stomachs.
Four days before this past Memorial Day Sunday, I received a phone call from a young woman in my congregation. "Would you accompany me for special music this coming Sunday?" she asked, "I'm going to sing Amy Grant's `I Will Remember.'" Like most church musicians, I am sort of a hired gun having no prerogative to deny such a request. Still, I was distressed by the event. For the sake of illustration and completeness, the text is printed below:
I will be walking one day down a street far
Look in my eyes while you're near
I will remember,
Later on when this fire is an ember, Later on when
the night's not so tender,
So many years come and gone
I will remember you
We could be picayune and attack this music from many angles. To be sure, the poetry is poor and the music is devoid of compelling musical form. For the moment, however, I would like to set these problems aside in order to address a more pressing crisis.
Clearly, we are dealing with a love song, a love song directed towards a human (dare I infer husband/wife?) relationship. But like most auditors, I began with the wrong assumption that God was the addressee. And yet, I do not think that Amy Grant and the other co-writers intended to evoke God. Nor do I think their intentions were consciously deceitful, designing a one-size-fits-all music, a romantic love song for unbelievers, and a praise chorus for Christians. How is it, then, that this text slithered into Christian worship uncontested? In order to fully answer this question, we need to understand the nature of this specific congregation as well as the nature of the music industry.
But first, what comes to mind when we use the words, "special music?" Further, what sort of congregation do we think of when we have a high school girl singing some bit of contemporary Christian music for "special music?" Would that be a Bible church, or perhaps Baptist,Evangelical Free,Nazarene,Abundant Life Fellowship, Meadowview Community Church, New Life Christian Center, or just, The Bluffs? We might speak of this collection of churches as "evangelical," even though David Wells would rightfully protest that "the word evangelical...has become descriptively anemic."3
Special music, announcements, and the altar call seem to be the only contributions the low, "evangelical" church has brought to the liturgy. But while the altar call has been falling into disfavor in recent years (it's not very seeker sensitive), special music is growing in strength with contemporary Christian music being its standard fare. Contemporary Christian music is music for the evangelical, by the evangelical. Few Christian pop stars are members of All Souls Episcopal, Our Savior Lutheran, or Truly Reformed Presbyterian.
The young woman who chose to sing "I Will Remember" might be described as the church belle, a prominent member of the youth group, heavily involved in ministry within the church, and going off to a Christian college this fall.
The congregation in which she sang would describe itself as liberal, although I have come to find that there are liberals and there are liberals. Some liberals are out to save the Mendocino striped slug and to androgenize God. My congregation, obligatory hat-tipping to inclusive language notwithstanding, is liberal more in the sense of not getting hot and bothered over what is perceived to be fundamentalist issues. They are not openly hostile to truth. They just plain don't care about it. Yes, they are liberal.
To return to our original predicament, I do not think the real issue is whether Amy Grant should sing cross-over songs. No, much more problematic is the means by which music enters the church in the first place.
R.L. Dabney, in 1876, lamented the D. L. Moody phenomenon of people taking up a visible teaching ministry without being under the aegis of ecclesiastical authority. He noted that this opened the possibility of any number of airborne theological diseases. Then, at the end of his essay entitled "Lay-Preaching," he turned his attention to Moody's musical co-laborer, Ira Sankey, in whose practices we have the groundwork for our own contemporary Christian music apparatus. Of those practice, Dabney said:
In order that the church may retain the blessing of good singing, the privilege which Mr. Sankey and his imitators claim, of importing their own lyrics into God's worship, must be closely watched... If the same license is to be usurped by every self-appointed chorister, we shall in the end have a mass of corrupting religious poetry against which the church will have to wage a sore contest. Our children will then learn, to their cost, how legitimate and valuable was that restriction which we formerly saw in the lyrical liturgies of the old Protestant churches, expressed by the imprimatur of their supreme courts, 'Appointed to be sung in churches.'4
The most that can be said of Mr. Sankey's developments in this direction is, that they do not appear to have introduced positive error as yet, and that they exhibit no worse traits than a marked inferiority of matter and style to the established hymnals of the leading churches. The most danger thus far apparent is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, in portions suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented by a jingle of 'vain repetitions.'5
What is breath-taking here is that Dabney's "jingle of `vain repetitions'" refers to what most people today would call "good old hymns." If the venerable Mr. Dabney could but view our practices now. Two facets of Dabney's discourse deserve further reflection. First, he noted that this type of entrepreneurial church music seemed to encourage the presence of "inferior matter and style" and that very presence could atrophy its hearers.
Abraham Kaplan said, "a taste for popular art is a device for remaining in the same old world and assuring ourselves that we like it."6 That word "remaining" gives the false sense of stasis, and yet, Jesus spoke of everyone as proceeding down one of two paths: broad, or straight and narrow. To remain in "the same old world" is to be on the broad path. What shall we make of an art which encourages an appetite for the same old world?
Styles, especially those within popular cultures, become quickly encrusted with psychological associations — "the same old world." These are difficult to shake. Popular styles are conspicuously vulnerable because their forms are simple and immediately assimilated. Parasites attach themselves to popular styles with little effort. The advertising industry is just such a parasite. A commercial without music is like a day without sunshine. Therefore, when we bring popular styles into the church, we also bring in the association of Nissan Truck commercials, the elevator at J.C. Penney's, Fred Flintstone, Raquel Welch, Disneyland, Marlborough cigarettes, and the list goes on. Colossians 3:l tells us to set our minds on the things above. Why should we voluntarily submit ourselves to a mental obstacle course?
I am not insisting that popular styles should not exist. Rather, as Harold Best said:
Because it is true that music quickly absorbs meaning from its immediate surroundings, this principle should work just as effectively when music, born first in the church, develops its primary associations there. Then if any perceptual dissonance takes place, it will take place in culture as a result of what the church does, not the reverse. And why not? Why not let the best and newest creativity happen first in the church, where the associations and associative meanings are first of all holy, winsome, and of good report? Why not assume that the church is capable of getting the associative jump on culture?7
We need to be inventing styles in the church which allow us to truly teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We need to be inventing styles which allow us to sing with gratitude in our hearts to the Lord in the same rich detail that we see in the biblical song texts.8
Try as we might, it is futile to maintain that there is no correlation between musical style and the verbal content which it is trying to convey. I have heard pastors say (especially those in new, small churches who are under considerable musical duress), "I may not like reggae (as an arbitrary example of a popular style), but by golly, if God gives us someone who is gifted in that style, then that's what we're gonna do." Is reggae neutral? Does it come unencumbered of associations? If it brings associations with it, what are they, and are they appropriate to Christian worship? Furthermore, can reggae forms carry the texts which fulfill the teaching and admonishing demands which Colossians 3:16 places on worship music? Finally, how is it that the above questions rarely graze the horizon iron of most Christians' minds as they make musical decisions?
Dabney worried about choristers going off half-cocked. For all his anxiety about this development, I do not think Dabney could have foreseen the specter of John Wimber's "Spirit Song," which says: "Give him (Jesus) all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you'll enter into life in Jesus' name."9 Astonishing! Since when do we enter into life in Jesus name by giving him all our tears and sadness? "Here, God: Here's a list of the problem areas in my life: Patch them up and I'll be just fine." This is "another gospel" in the sense of Galatians chapter one. This is the same way the ancient Greeks interacted with their gods.
Despite the heretical content, we are able to sing "Spirit Song" because it feels good. Indeed, I know of a congregation which is "Reformed" and which gives credence to the Westminster Standards for whom this is a much loved song. If you like the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, or Kenny G, you will probably like Wimber's "Spirit Song." Musical appetite, not verbal content, is the a priori constraint in these choices. I saw a bumper sticker recently which read, "If it ain't Country, it ain't music." Not that adherents of Country `n Western music are unique in their outlook, but we could replace "Country" with almost any style label. In short, my appetite says there is only one kind of music because I refuse to eat anything else.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) relieves local congregations of the need to secure copying permission for much contemporary Christian music. CCLI lists several thousand choruses, most of which were published since 1970. James said, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1) How is it that every Tom, Harry, and Mary is teaching now that he/she has a guitar and knows three chords? (As Chuck Barry said, "Three great chords, eighteen great albums.")
John Wimber may not be a heretic. Still, certain attitudes about music and about theology lead to heretical results. A poor composer is controlled by the form. A good poet controls the form. A poor poet is controlled by the form. Whenever bad musical form and poetry reside in the same person, theology suffers because the composer does not have the skills necessary to say what needs to be said.
Contemporary Christian music is a subset of the larger pop music world, and, as such, is also driven primarily by style appetite, not verbal content. This is a catastrophe for a faith predicated on, "In the beginning was the Word." Those sensibilities necessary to enjoy pop music, both contemporary Christian and secular defy the accountability of reason. There are numerous reasons for this. I would like to cite two.
First, the forms of pop music are automatic and predictable. No thought is given to them because they demand no thought. Tupperware from the factory could not be spewed forth more regularly. And while this is just fine for refrigerator containers, it is not for art. Thoughtless musical and poetic forms communicate the same message as tilt-up church buildings and Kool Aid in a styrofoam cup for the Lord's Supper.
Second, pop music fills the entire human hearing range in a way unprecedented by any other music. There is such a thing as noise pollution, even though we have not defined it very well yet. In order to grasp the idea, there are roughly two parameters to be considered, spectrum and amplitude. The spectrum represents the human hearing range which, in the best of circumstances extends from 20 Hz at the low end to 20 kHz at the top. Amplitude represents the power of a frequency. Amplitude translates very roughly into loudness as a percept.
When a music's chief trait is how it feels—as is the case with pop music—it operates much the same as recreational drugs. If you could watch different kinds of folk or western art music on an oscilloscope, you would notice different parts of the hearing range having low or high amplitude with much variation. Not so with pop. It looks more like a tidal wave On one end, the bass guitar shows high peaks of amplitude. At the other, the pink noise (a broad random frequency band) of the cymbals, modified guitar timbres, and androgenous voices, overload that portion of the human hearing where consonants reside. Of course, consonants are indispensable to verbal understanding. Needless to say, digital synthesizers have only fueled the condition.
Like recreational drugs, there comes a point where the present diet is not enough, and the technology can increase the increments seemingly limitlessly. That is why we can sometimes hear a car's hi-fi system long before we hear its engine. It is why we can often hear the head set even when it is not over our own ears!
Pop music's vacuity of musical and poetic form together with dense spectrum and amplitude bring us right to the shores of the Twilight Zone. On the one hand, the form demands no thought. On the other, our aural nerves are delivering a steady torrent of overwhelming stimuli to our brains In the same way that God did not design our bodies to process excessive amounts of radiation or highly distilled liquor, we are truly unable to think about what we are hearing rationally; we can only experience it.
What about listening to pop music quietly? Let's be honest, pop music does not sound very good when it is not loud.
The "marked inferiority of matter and style" which Dabney observed has led to the introduction of heresy in our time without so much as a skirmish. No, matter and style are never separate. Decisions of style are decisions of substance.
If the "license of self-appointed choristers" were all there was to errant texts, the problem could be contained without too much difficulty. Unfortunately, there is more danger than meets the eye at first. The situation is ominous.
Jesus did not mince words when he told us that we would have to choose between masters, between God and mammon. When we gave up the church's imprimatur, "Appointed to be sung in churches," there was a vacuum of authority. Something had to fill it. I do not think R.L. Dabney could have fathomed the half-billion dollar contemporary Christian music industry which we have before us today. When the Church gave up its responsibility to determine what music could be in the church right down to the last jot and tittle, then commerce willingly stepped it.
Early in 1992 a new bi-monthly magazine was sent gratis to many pastors and church music directors across the country: its name, Worship Leader. It is not a publication about the Holy Spirit (who is the true and only worship leader). No, it is chiefly a lubricant of the contemporary Christian music industry, which should come as no surprise since Worship Leader is a product of CCM Communications, Inc. "First-year subscriptions are free to all qualified Church personnel (staff and lay leaders, worship team members, etc.) who complete and return subscription card (elsewhere in magazine)."10 How kind of CCM Communications, Inc.!
While Worship Leader carries the obligatory handbell and carillon advertisements in black and white, the periodical's raison d'être is to promote and sell contemporary Christian music within the church. The big four-color ads are from Hosanna/Integrity Music, Word Music11, Maranatha Music, vineyard Music Group, and a host of other CCM peddlers, many of which are within the Manifest Destiny and Kingdom Now camp. Ironically, Crossway Books took out a full page advertisement for John MacArthur's Ashamed of the Gospel, a book which shoots what Worship Leader stands for right in the foot. No problem! As Allan Bloom noticed, people are moved by music, not books.12
The editor of Worship Leader is Chuck Fromm, CEO of "The Corinthian Group" (which, quite coincidentally, owns Marnatha Music). Fromm's regular column, "Fromm the Editor," sets the latter, Fromm said, "Did you realize that the high percentage (70 percent) of the music heard was supplied by evangelical contemporary Christian artists?"13 Later, Fromm said:
My partner had a seat near the Pope at Cherry Creek State Park. He watched John Paul tremble with feeling and verve as he shouted the ancient yet contemporary invocation "Maranatha Maranatha! Jesus is here. Jesus is coming. He is our Hope! Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life!14
Isn't it a tragedy that "the ancient yet contemporary invocation" has a registered trademark after it, that we reduce God to a hood ornament?
I do not believe that Chuck Fromm is devious. He is doing what good business does, namely, make a profit. If his enterprise were under the close and vetoing scrutiny of ecclesiastical authorities, the product might be different (and would probably not turn such a handsome profit).Indeed, it is Marnatha Music which publishes the above mentioned John Wimber heresy. If it feels good, it sells well.
As long as ecclesiastic authorities remain so cowardly, the contemporary Christian music industry will continue to do unobstructed business inside the church.At present, the pastor, church musician, or worship committee member, is bombarded by a steady stream of whatever parishioners have heard on the radio or bought at the local Christian music and video store. The well-meaning parishioner approaches, tape in hand, saying, "I heard this on KRAS Christian Radio and thought we could sing it in worship." It's like receiving a "Greetings!" from the draft board. This is how I received a call to accompany Amy Grant's "I Will Remember." Observe a bizarre spectacle here: The hypertrophy of the contemporary Christian music industry (born inside the evangelical church) has provided the liberal church with its music! (Remember, it also provided 70 percent of the music for the Pope's visit to Colorado.) Style has become an ecumenical force with power beyond the ardent ecumenist's fondest dreams.Now, when church goers move from town to town, they are more likely to choose a new congregation on the basis of musical style than on doctrinal positions. They can no longer differentiate between preludes and quaaludes.
If, however, the Baptist General Conference, the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, etc.—if each of these various denominations came to the public official position that nothing would be sung in their congregation which was not first filtered with a dragnet and approved by the annual denominational conference, church attendance might shrink for a few months for loss of consumers. Contemporary Christian music would lose its biggest host and go through some of the same upheaval which has beset other major industries in recent years. Still, we dare not be swayed by this potential cataclysm. God seeks those who worship in spirit and in truth. It is imperative that orthodoxy return to its place of authority over orthopopstyle. Perhaps this is a component, a fore-runner of the revival we so desperately need.
Dr. Leonard Payton has served as Chief Musician at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas, since January 1996. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, and has done advanced study in Germany. He contributed to The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody, 1996), and is a frequent contributor of both reviews and articles to Reformation & Revival Journal.