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"
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,
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
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
Only then can we begin to speak of
"transcendence." Only then can we say, "Our music is Christian."
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt