It was certainly not my desire to delay this long in answering your letter about music. Please forgive me. In setting it aside for an easily opportune time, such a time never appeared—but is that not common to all busy individuals? It simply shows that I did not make your concerns a priority, and for that I apologize. Perhaps the Lord will show us a gracious and good surprise in this negligent delay. May it be so!
Regarding your categories, I would like to reduce them to two: Text and Tune. It is my understanding that there should be “a happy marriage between text and tune,” as one British hymn-writer once said. In general, what is right conforms to what is true, and what is true corresponds to reality; therefore, the right tune will be one that conforms to the message (and not the other way around), and the true text will be one that corresponds to reality.
In application, this means that the words must be true. For church music that is offered to God (holy music), the Bible tells us explicitly, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell among you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). The content must not only be biblical, it must be gospel, that is, centered on Christ (“the word about Christ,” cf. Romans 10:17). Moreover, the content should be rich in the message of the gospel. Honestly, I think we strive for that at Countryside Bible Church. Finally, this text tells us that worship music would fall under the teaching ministry of the church. Like an echo, the songs sung in public worship often remain with us throughout the week to speak to us when we need it. Like the water that surrounds sand, songs fill up our inner lives behind and around our thoughts; therefore, it is necessary to make them rich in the word about Christ.
Before moving to the tune, let me add that lyrical content is poetic. It is more than words. It has form as well, and form matters. Of the three typical meters for hymnody, the common meter (188.8.131.52) of “Amazing Grace” is iambic (typical of English poetry) and carries enough measures to sustain a thought without compromising it. Short meter (184.108.40.206) is more difficult and, as a result, is not found much in hymnals. Long meter (220.127.116.11) works well with more meditative themes, as does another fairly common meter (18.104.22.168) found in (e.g.) “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” As with tunes, the meter of the poem has to fit and serve the message of the content. The Hebrew prophets make their poetry do this, as the quick lines in Nahum 3 show, and so should we! If the psalm wants to stress order (as in Psalm 2), then make the form orderly. If the psalm wants to stress disorder, then break the cadence, as in Psalm 82:5. Do you see? We do not even know the music of the Hebrews, but we see how they crafted their poetry, and poetry has intrinsic rhythm. And by the way, the rhythm of a poem is largely determined by the natural rhythm of a language. When Martin Luther wanted the church service to be spoken in German rather than the Catholic Latin, he realized that new music would need to be written—not just new words. German, I believe, is more like English, but Latin is typically dactylic, with a HARD-soft-soft cadence instead of the iambic soft-HARD. Very different!
When it comes to poetic form, our text in Colossians encourages a variety. That is good, because we have a wide range of themes that we would like to communicate. The text also encourages the singing of Psalms. Ironically, some of the Reformed churches most into the regulative principle (only offer to God what He has prescribed) still abide by the original Puritan and Presbyterian principle of singing only metricized Psalms, when the Bible explicitly commands us to also sing hymns and spiritual songs. (I suppose they assert that these are simply other forms from the biblical Psalter.) At any rate, I like Isaac Watts approach of not being tied to only singing Psalms, but to sing songs in imitation of David, which to me means striving to have the same breadth and quality of both themes and forms as the Psalms, yet with the same Christ-centeredness, as the Psalms are through and through Messianic.
Now, you will notice that we have not even touched modern music. There is so much to say with hymns and it is a great place to learn because it typically involves no controversy. For example, to learn about the happy marriage of text and tune, take the words of the following hymns (all of them are 22.214.171.124) and switch the tunes: “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” “Away in a Manger,” and “How Firm a Foundation.”
Do you see how some of them feel ludicrous, such as singing “How Firm a Foundation” to a lullaby (either tune of “Away in a Manger”), and yet some of them feel better (e.g. “My Jesus, I Love Thee” is much more confident with the tune of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”)? You can easily do this with Common Meter hymns, because there are so many of them. In doing so, you will gain a feel of how the tune must serve the text for it to be right. After all, for most of our hymns, the poem was written without a tune, and then only later did the church grab a tune for it (e.g. we sing Newton’s poem “Faith’s Review and Expectation” to an American hymn and call it by its first words “Amazing Grace”).
At this point, we are ready to discuss the musical question of tune.
First, it is my contention that there are no instruments that are inherently bad and off-limits, especially the percussion section. The Psalms exhibit a tendency to use a variety of instruments, including loud, clashing cymbals (Psalm 150). Now, how that instrument is played may determine whether it is right for this lyrical poem or not, but I am opposed to the de facto rejection of instruments, even pipe organs, despite their lavish and questionable expense. (That was a big debate in Baptist circles two hundred years ago.)
Second, music itself is a language of spirit. We know this from both David’s harp (1 Samuel 16) and the request of Elisha (2 Kings 3). Just as some spiritual frames are dangerous to dwell in and give the devil an opportunity, such as perpetual anger (Ephesians 4:26-27) and perpetual sorrow (2 Corinthians 2:7, 11), it would not be wise to have angry or said music lodged in the back of one’s mind playing endlessly and effortlessly. And one does not need to grab hard rock music for anger, when Beethoven may suffice at times in its overdramatic way. Now, just as Jesus was angry in the temple and just as we are told to be angry and not sin, there may be use for angry music with a judgment theme, such as the background music in a movie, but I doubt that we would want to craft a hymn with angry music that repeats over and over again. Does that make sense?
The Bible commands me not only to be renewed in my thoughts but in the spirit of my mind (Ephesians 4:23)—to have the right spirit with the true thoughts. Therefore, I should select my music with that purpose in mind. It is no accident that being filled with the Spirit leads to singing with gratitude (Ephesians 5:18-19, which is the parallel text to Colossians 3:16). And given the psalmist’s desire to bless the Lord at all times (Psalm 34:1), it is hard for me to imagine that ideal being fulfilled by singing about what is false or by singing about what is true with a wrong spirit (i.e. the tune does not fit, serve, or conform to the text). This ideal does not mean that we must only sing about God directly. As we discussed, the book of Leviticus shows us three categories—holy, common/clean, and unclean. Anything clean can be offered to God, even a meal (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-5); therefore, it should not be rejected, but done with an eye to God’s glory in gratitude. I can sing “Happy Birthday” to my children and a love song to my wife (after all, the Bible has one!) and do it to the glory of God, being filled with gratitude for His gift of family.
Music is a powerful force and a great indicator of the spirit of a man. As Shakespeare once said:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirits are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
There are a lot of red herrings in this debate, such as instruments, but there is also a lot of profound reality in how a man’s music reflects and encourages our spirit. Like too much caffeine and junk food, I have indulged in music at times to pick me up and give me a jolt, rather than simply as an expression or encouragement of an inner worship of God. Perhaps the choice is poor or even sinful, at the least in having a missed opportunity, but I wonder if the category of foolish would apply better than wicked to some songs that have good words and a peppy beat, but are musically flat and textually plain. If that is all that I sing, then I am sinfully missing the richness that God wants for His saved community (Colossians 3:16). Certainly, a church service should avoid such a musical climate. And personally, I should strive for a better diet. May the Lord be gracious and merciful to lead us all in His good and right ways!
Your brother in Christ,
Additional Note on Syncopation
The question of syncopation should be looked at historically. From what I have been told, both Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and the tune for the Doxology (the Old Hundredth from Geneva, Switzerland) were originally syncopated, although not in a modern way. The Doxology’s music comes from a collection of French tunes that Queen Elizabeth disliked as “Genevan Jigs.” In the later Baroque era (and possibly, then, the early Classical era), hymns like these were smoothed out and rationalized into orderly marches of rhythms. J. S. Bach himself did this for a lot of German hymns. Therefore, it would not surprise me if we are dealing with a false dichotomy from the Enlightenment, much like the rationalistic-versus-Romantic polarity. As with Baconian science, the older fundamentalism may be enamored with the rationalistic form of music.