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To the Editor

Hymnody: A Question of Propriety

By John Bankson
A response to the recent discussion on hymns and their tunes.

PCANews - I have been reading the discussions about “Indelible Grace” with some interest these past few days. At the prompting of many, I feel compelled to respond to some of the points raised in TE Kevin Twit’s article and some raised in one of the responses to it.

I have no doubt that Mr. Twit is sincere in his desire to improve the state of congregational singing. That is a lofty and important task. I also applaud his commitment to hymns, whose theological depth the church desperately needs in these superficial, pluralistic times. However, I disagree with many of his assertions.

First, Twit mentions that “there is a long history of doing music in indigenous and folk styles.” That is true; however, the “popular music industry” as we know it today did not exist until this century, with the advent of recording and amplification technology. In other times, “popular music” was just that, music of the people. People sang to entertain themselves, to tell stories, to instruct their children, to celebrate important events. Popular music today is a product. There is a vast difference between music that arises from a community and music that is written to sell recordings and concert tickets. The former is truly indigenous: the latter is not. The former is characterized by humility: one need only look at any pop star to see the latter is not.

On this point a word regarding TE Lamkin’s comment: Martin Luther did not use “contemporary song tunes” as he claims. There is an oft-repeated myth that Luther used “bar songs,” but that story comes from a misunderstanding of the musical term “bar form,” which refers to the special form of Lutheran chorales (a “bar” in this context is a musical measure, not a pub). Furthermore, when Luther asked, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” the “Devil” in question was the Pope, and the music he was talking about was the chant used in the Roman Church.

Secondly, in trying to answer the question of high art vs. pop culture, Twit is fond of playing the race card. He did this in his article, “Criteria for Judging Rock Music,” as well. This is an ad hominem argument and an offensive one at that: “Well, if you think rock is inferior as an art form, you’re just a racist, because rock originated in Africa.” Someone somewhere may be raising that argument, but I have not heard it raised by anyone in Reformed circles who is seriously grappling with this issue, so I hope Mr. Twit will give this argument a much needed rest.

The truth is, we profess to have a biblical world and life view, one which says that the presence of the gospel in a culture will affect the entire culture. We are not Pietists: the gospel is for all of life. Is it not proper, then, for us to expect that a culture which had the benefit of centuries of gospel influence (i.e., Western culture) would produce art that is more reflective of a biblical worldview than a pagan culture? To say that one culture’s art cannot be better or worse than another culture’s is politically correct, but does it take seriously the impact of the Word of God on a society? Are we really going to be as relativistic as the rest of the world and say that even if Christianity has influenced a society for centuries, its culture (or the artifacts of that culture) is no better off than a pagan culture? If that’s where we are headed philosophically, then our “gospel” has little to offer our dying culture. In the course of asserting this particular argument, Twit makes a sideswipe at Dr. Leonard Payton, dismissing his work as “absurd.” I believe the church for generations to come will owe much to the patience, humility, and pastoral concern of men like Leonard Payton. He certainly does not deserve such a snide remark.

Thirdly, Twit wants us all to accept rock as a valid art form, worthy of redemption. Fine. It’s worthy. No one (at least no one in this discussion) is arguing that rock per se should not exist or is not worth anyone’s time to pursue as a career. The question being asked (and the question Twit never really deals with) is propriety. Asking whether a particular type of music is appropriate for corporate worship is not the same as saying that music has no place in our lives whatsoever.

An example: suppose someone gives you a very nice, expensive bathrobe for Christmas. Would you wear it to church the next Sunday? How about to a job interview or a friend’s wedding? Why not? What’s wrong with it? Do you think it’s an inferior garment? Do you question the quality of the fabric or the workmanship? No. It was not designed for that environment.

Mr. Lamkin wants us to believe that raising the issue of propriety reveals a sacred/secular dichotomy in the heart of those raising it. Quite the contrary, the argument coming from Twit as well as Lamkin seems to be that the only way to “legitimize” rock is to bring it into the sanctuary! Cannot a rock musician glorify God by being a good rock musician? Must he play “Christian rock” for his work to have significance before God, and must it be in the context of public worship to be kosher? That’s a sacred/secular dichotomy if I ever heard one. In the Reformed world, we believe in the spirituality of all spheres of life. Music does not have to take place in the sanctuary or even have religious words to be worthwhile music. We do musicians a disservice by leading them to believe otherwise.

Fourthly, Twit argues that we are to bring the “fruit of our culture” to God, and that we should do music that is “culturally honest to who we are.” I agree. However, the fact is that our culture is far more vast and deep than commercial pop music. The three-minute pop song is inadequate to express all we need to express about the human condition, much less the glory of our God. Yes we need to be culturally honest, but we are growing increasingly ignorant of our own culture, and we are doing a terrible job of transmitting that culture to the next generation. Just sit through an installment of “Jaywalking” on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno if you doubt this.

Instead of “traditioning” our culture to the next generation, we seem bent on perpetuating the arrogant assertion that the past two millennia of church history are irrelevant. Equally arrogant is this idea that Christian pop or rock is the only “contemporary music.” There are many gifted, dedicated church music composers who are active today who do not compose in the pop music idiom. Because they are alive and working now, they are “contemporary.” Sadly, the training and hard work of these people of God are scorned by the evangelical church today. Are these musicians not at work bringing the “fruit of our culture” to God?

Along these same lines, Mr. Lamkin states, “The next generation appears to be completely unaware of the older form of sacred music.” From what he writes after this, Mr. Lamkin seems to think this state of affairs is all right. Two points need to be reiterated here: 1) Not all non-pop church music is “older.” There is a wealth of truly “contemporary” music which we are completely ignoring; 2) Ignorance, for the church, is never OK. We should be in the business of educating our people, not affirming and confirming them in a state of ignorance.

Finally, in this discussion, the influence of relativistic pragmatism has come to light not only in the idea that one culture can be no better or worse than another, but also in the idea that all opinions are equal. Mr. Lamkin says it’s all depends on what one likes. In other words, all opinions are equal. The ability to judge the relative merits of a piece of church music resides in everyone equally, whether one has devoted his life to the study of music or whether one’s musical education consists of little more than being a regular viewer of “Pop-Up Videos.”

I have been a faithful reader of “News from the World of Medicine” in Reader’s Digest for years, but you wouldn’t want me to treat you for tonsillitis. I have no formal medical training: therefore, my medical opinion would not be nearly as valuable as that of an M.D. No one would argue with that, but when it comes to music, we accept all opinions as equally valid. This reveals the fact that we really do not value music or the trained musicians God has placed in our midst very highly. If we did, we would listen to them. They have a great deal to teach us.

I do recognize that Mr. Twit is a trained musician and as such does have a voice in these discussions. I would like to encourage him, however, not to give the impression in his writings and lectures that he alone has the ability to understand church music, and that those who disagree with him either are racists or are not as spiritual, discerning, or wise as he.

We confess as a church to believe in the “communion of saints.” That communion includes not only the larger church of our own day, but all those who have gone on before us. Part of that collective wisdom is the concept of propriety. The church would do well to look to that collective wisdom before accepting any practice uncritically, no matter how many others are adopting that practice.

TE John Allen T. Bankson
Minister of Education, First Presbyterian Church
Hattiesburg, Miss.
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    God Substituting Himself for Man

    The concept of substitution may be said to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.

    John Stott in The Cross of Christ

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