Part One was anything but brief. Part Two is shorter (some of you will be pleased to note). However, this post won’t provide the same value for money unless you are aware of what came before. So, if you need it, click here for a link to Part 1.
I promised that we would deal with my friend ‘B’s response to my last response, as well as clarify a few things. So let’s jump right in. Part 1 ends with my friend ‘A’ making a statement of understanding. But before then, I had said this in response to ‘B’:
The nature of the Bible as an entity is very different to anything else that we could attempt to compare it to! So while it is indeed the case that anything good can potentially be used for bad purposes, I am not sure that particular plane of thought would hold in every dimension. At some point the Bible has to emerge as a distinct entity that does not even fit the archetypal boundaries of ‘literature.’ Genres are fully within the domain of human creativity. Death metal is a genre created by humans that uses the God-given gift of music. So in strict logical terms, it would be sounder to compare ‘music’ and ‘the Bible’ as both come from exactly the same source.
Here is what ‘B’ said in response:
A quick clarification:
1. When I used the example of Satan quoting Scripture, a clearer argument is: if something as clearly good and God-given as Scripture can be used for evil ends, then how much more can musical genres be subjected to this frustration. I too would be wary of equating music and Scripture – thanks for the opportunity to clarify.
2. After a little thought, I think I still contend that any musical genre can be used to glorify God. I don’t know if another quick analogy over lunch will be helpful, but since drugs have been mentioned: If heroin can be usefully and helpfully employed in a hospital, but at the same time destructively abused by a drug dealer or an addict, then couldn’t we say the same about certain club music genres or hip-hop? After all Jazz came under huge criticism – particularly by “religious” types – in its infancy… and given our topic of conversation, the origins of the word “jazz” are shady at best! The same might be said of the roots of Gospel music in general – do I remember rightly that it has its origins in music originally used to worship African deities (AD, please correct this if you know otherwise)? Basically, I need to go and rehearse now (!), so my argument is essentially to ask whether ANY man-made art is beyond God’s redemptive power.
Here is a brilliant thing about dialogue and exchange – we can all learn something new even while defending our point of view. Before I did a little research, I would have said that it is not heroin that is used as a painkiller, but morphine, and built an argument from there. However, this would have been less than accurate. Morphine is legal in both the UK and the US, but heroin is also a legal painkiller in Britain (in strictly controlled clinical care settings), whilst the US bans it (despite allowing opiates even stronger than heroin).
This means that ‘B’s argument that “any musical genre can be used to glorify God” takes on a slightly newer dimension – particularly as he goes on to position himself on a stronger conceptual footing by asking “whether ANY man-made art is beyond God’s redemptive power.” I really like that question, and it has caused both the artist and the theologian in me to come together and think about that question all over again.
But I cannot deny that these days, the theologian sets the agenda and not the other way round. This includes in the arena of thought. As such, I had to ask myself if I believed a theological justification existed for the argument that literally any genre of music could be used to glorify God.
Even if one casts this question in a theological mould, a Christian musician’s answer is not likely to be the same as a theologian’s answer. And I now know that this question is even more complicated than I had already understood. The mere fact that general Christian expression exists on such a vast continuum (and some would say more than one continuum, such are the discrepancies between some denominations and traditions) means that a watertight argument for any position on this issue is particularly hard to make.
But a watertight argument is exactly what I propose to try and make – there would be no point in academic endeavour of any description if one were not striving to achieve that end as often as possible, given the inevitable and ineluctable limits of human cognition. So – ‘B’ proposes the possibility that no man-made art is beyond God’s redemptive power. The musician (or artist of whatever description) can stop there if they choose, but the theologian must keep thinking. If one allows for that possibility, then by logical extension one can and must allow for the possibility that there is nothing man-made – full stop – that is beyond God’s redemptive power. Not just art, but in the whole scope of human output.
That sounds really nice to many Christian ears. Nothing whatsoever that a human does, makes, says, thinks – nothing is beyond God’s redemptive power.
Now, theologically – based on Scripture, we would indeed say that there is nothing that a human being can do that would put them beyond the scope of God’s redemptive grace – IF (and only if) the person in question is serious about their desire to make things right between themselves and God. So that means that there is what Christians refer to as the unpardonable sin – the sin of saying no to the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 12:31).
Immediately, we see issues. Is there an action that humans can do that is beyond the scope of God’s redemptive power? Yes. There is. A person’s refusal to acknowledge the entreaties of the Holy Spirit eventually means that if God is not to force them to obey Him, He has to leave them to live as if they are god to themselves. So, a man named Judas made up his mind to do what he thought was best for Jesus – and for his people – and betrayed Jesus. It is argued that Judas may never have thought that Jesus would go to the cross the way He did, and the result of his actions was a terrible, terrible guilt that could only lead him to the conclusion that his life was now worthless. By refusing to listen to the Holy Spirit, he had placed himself on Satan’s territory – because we are not the masters of ourselves. We either serve God, or Satan. And the sad and tragic thing is, if we choose not to serve God because we want to be God, we automatically serve Satan – for he has more power than we do and he controls and manipulates – unlike God.
So here is a potential objection to what I have just said: Judas betrayed Jesus, and he died at the hands of both Jews and Romans – but that death was a victory, so Judas’ actions were ultimately NOT beyond God’s redemptive power!
No disagreement here at the theomusicology blog. But we do have a question.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, who then lied to their father. Joseph was later used by God to save many, many lives. Does that mean that we actively choose to sell people into slavery and tell lies – because God can make it all OK in the end?
Judas betrayed Jesus and took his own life as a consequence of terrible guilt. Does this mean that we are justified in choosing to betray someone, or in taking our own lives – because God can make everything OK in the end?
What God chooses to redeem and chooses not to redeem is beyond our capacity to determine. But we have been called to live according to the guidelines that he sets out. With that in mind, let us go back to what ‘B’ said:
“…I still contend that any musical genre can be used to glorify God. I don’t know if another quick analogy over lunch will be helpful, but since drugs have been mentioned: If heroin can be usefully and helpfully employed in a hospital, but at the same time destructively abused by a drug dealer or an addict, then couldn’t we say the same about certain club music genres or hip-hop? After all Jazz came under huge criticism – particularly by “religious” types – in its infancy… and given our topic of conversation, the origins of the word “jazz” are shady at best! The same might be said of the roots of Gospel music in general – do I remember rightly that it has its origins in music originally used to worship African deities…?”
See how complex this is? As I pointed out earlier, heroin itself is indeed “usefully and helpfully employed in a hospital” but at the same time “destructively abused by a drug dealer or an addict.” Can we make a correlation between a) a discovery of man about a natural object that is not created by man (the poppy plant) from which we can make a synthetic compound that gives us an antidote for pain as part of medical care; and b) the discovery of man about something not created by man (music) from which all manner of different genres of music emerge – some of which are designed to enoble and uplift, others to entertain, and still others to actually wash away your control in the moment – bypassing the cerebral cortex and blasting straight into the emotive psyche?
The pain-relieving properties of morphine-related substances are arguably something GOOD that mankind has abused. Satan likes nothing more than taking God’s good gifts and getting us to abuse them to our destruction. Now here is where my argument takes flight: in order to be saved, a person has to make a choice. [This creates major questions about those born into the world with major mental health problems, but we can never answer all those questions to everyone’s satisfaction.] If our choices did not matter, then God could choose to save us regardless of what we choose – which would beg the question as to whether or not we were really free.
Some music is made to stimulate active thought – intellectually and emotionally. But some is expressly designed to bypass the natural thinking capacity and target the emotions directly. Does that sound like something God would actually call a Bible-believing Christian to do? Are we called to force people into accepting the gospel? Manipulate them into accepting the gospel? Satan is the one trying to force us to do anything BUT follow God. God is the one calling to us, offering us a choice at the same time.
So if we are not to force-feed the gospel down people’s gullets, how would it work to emotionally manipulate them using music that is designed to manipulate people?
In Part Three we will pick up this argument and follow it through to its conclusion.