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WHAT MAKES MUSIC CHRISTIAN?

Pop culture always looks for the "latest thing." Christian Culture included! Market-driven churches parade the latest lingo. Seeker Sensitive evangelists seduce secular senses. Black church imitators "get down," but never "get up." Gen-X bands even break the "cutting edge" in rebellion against the boomers. And moribund denominations risk throwing in a few "choruses."

Still, sensitive spirits ask, "What makes music—separate from the text and title—Christian?" Without this answer, music ministries risk relevance without depth. Churches end not only "in the world," but "of the world." Rather than the "Word becoming flesh," the "Flesh becomes the ‘Word’."

So what is the test? How do we know when we’re grieving God or going with God?

The answer begins with Hosea. Hosea explains in 12:10 that God speaks to us through damah, meaning "prophetic metaphor." Astonishingly, damah was the "art" of the ancient Hebrews. It was—and remains—a perfect model of art. If we understand the laws of damah we finally understand the laws of all the arts. We finally understand the awesome power of worship. And we begin to understand the postmodern language of the digital age.

Scriptural damah demands three dynamics: the "known," the "unknown," and the "transcendent." Without all three, God is not in it.

The "known" is anything familiar, friendly, relevant . . . anything that points to our own identity or the group’s identity. It’s a common language (artistic or literal). It is reality as we know it . . . our way of thinking, our established notions, our traditions. In short, the "known" is whatever is safe, routine, run-of-the-mill, or ordinary.

The "unknown," on the other hand, is anything unrelated to the known . . . anything that contradicts or conflicts with the known. By comparison with the known, the "unknown" is absurd . . . filled with nonsense, and often becomes a play or parody on the known. It is usually obscure, subtle, hidden, enigmatic, paradoxical, or mysterious. In short, it is anything beyond what we expect . . . beyond the normal . . . anything that boldly intrudes into our comfortable world.

We find many examples of the "known" and "unknown" in music: A good rhythm requires both the "known" beat and the risk of unusual or even contradicting rhythms (the "unknown"). A good melody requires both the "known" melodic "idea" and the variations or enigmas to that idea (the "unknown"). A good harmony hovers around its tonal center yet always morphs into unrelated (or "unknown") sonorities before finally resolving into its "known" center.

Tone colors also paint with metaphoric timbres. Though rarely found among bland bands of contemporary worship, contrasting (or "unknown") textures, instruments, and chord structures offer refreshing relief to the drone of the "expected"—the tedium of the "known."

Form, too, offers the necessary contrast between the "known" and the "unknown." A simple ABA song structure—with the contrasting middle section—serves our example. But we find an even "deeper" form that brings us face-to-face to the "Word." First, some background. . . .

In every century . . . every culture, Christian liturgies always stand on three moods: (1) struggle, (2) assurance, and (3) celebration. These moods rehearse the Christian story in its most basic form: (1) There is darkness in the world, (2) Jesus came to bring light, and (3) He triumphed over the darkness. Music conveying that story—that "Word"—stands on the same three moods. (The text, by itself, doesn’t put the "Word" in music if the "Word" isn’t already in the music.)

We seldom find all three moods—especially with dramatic tension—in today’s church music. One mood at a time is the order of the day:

Other than angry Gen-X bands, musicians seldom perform the mood of "struggle" intentionally. But we often experience unintentional struggle through poor electronic reinforcement, poor acoustics, poor rehearsal, and poor performance. Obviously, the mood of struggle—by itself—simply self-destructs. In short, it is demonic.

A more typical mood in our carpeted sanctuaries is wall-to-wall "assurance." We also run elevators and dairy farms with it. Yet, this mood carries a deceptive danger! When music endlessly glosses over the cross with saccharine prettiness and syrupy comfort, it costs listeners nothing! It’s an easy reverie . . . a cheap illusion . . . a passive inaction. Without life-changing resolve, listeners simply refuse their promise. And God warns, "Because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth!"

Many churches, though, live in a continual mood of "celebration." "If we can just get everybody dancing and shouting, we’ve had ‘church’." Not so, if we have forgotten what we are celebrating . . . what we have overcome. Too often, we enjoy the trip without gratitude for the journey. Our make-believe ecstasy proves only natural glee. So in place of true spiritual victory, we indulge only a catchy, bouncy, jolly, earth-stomping, toe-tapping swing. It’s a hollow hilarity . . . a cheap ecstasy. It’s as empty as the bubbles in Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine.

Christian "celebration" should always look over its shoulder. Our resurrection should always remembers its cross. Otherwise (to paraphrase Isaiah) "Woe unto those" who turn themselves on, but "do not regard the deeds of the Lord." (Isa 5:11, 12; AMP)

So it’s the enigmatic combination of all three of these "known" moods–struggle, assurance, and celebration–that conveys the Christian experience . . . the Christian message. It is the "unknown" paradox of opposing moods in the same song or even in the same moment that creates an inner tension and moves us toward the "Word."

When music speaks with this damah—this prophetic metaphor—we begin to do what God called us to do. Yet, not without risk. . . .

The wonder, suspense, and tension in music require risk, surrender, and sacrifice. These are the risks of faith. Without risk, music will remain like a squirrel in a squirrel cage—endlessly retracing the same steps, but going nowhere. Yet with risk, each performance . . . each song will bring a totally new revelation. And it will surprise the performers as much as the listeners.

Only then can we begin to speak of "transcendence." Only then can we say, "Our music is Christian."

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


Future Church Administrator