A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Four)

Aha, you kept your word about not waiting light-years to meet up again!

Praise God, here we are. But I’ve come to share another conversation with you, which I am sure we’ll talk about in and of itself.

Cool. So who is this other person? Well, she is a lady who heard our conversation and got in touch to start another one herself. I think you’ll find that it relates entirely to what we are talking about.

Okay, great. Bring it on!

[Hi, and thanks for getting in touch!]

It is very interesting to me that as a conservative Christian who was raised against rock’n’roll and drums in all forms, I was also conditioned to believe that ‘charismatic’ Christians were long on their desire to experience a ‘worship high’ and very short on biblical literacy and doctrinal awareness. As it is, my chaplaincy activities have brought me into contact with a number of young Christians attending charismatic churches who have ended up on my radar because they wanted to study the Bible much more. They had clocked that ‘worship’ was not enough.

All of us in whatever our traditions have to be honest enough to stop and critically evaluate what we are doing in our churches from time to time. I salute you for doing this. I do not want to come across like some sort of know-it-all, but let me pick up a few things from your first comment now.

“Desperately wondering what God thinks of drums and middle of the road rock music as worship;”

These are two different things. What does God think of drums? Good question. What does He think of any of our ‘modern’ instruments? I am not going to make the mistake I have made in the past of launching into a technical diatribe. I am going to point out that Western harmony as we know it did not exist in Bible times – over 1000 years after the NT canon closed, we have the origins of modern hymnody with harmony in four parts. So the assumption that keyboard instruments cannot be a problem but drums might be a problem is an assumption that has opened itself to critical attack from the outset. So whatever position anyone adopts, they need to be able to defend it. My viewpoint in a nutshell: God is less interested in WHAT is being played than with HOW it is being played. Psalm 33:3 exhorts the musician to play with “skill.” That is a musical value that in an ultimate sense is not dependent on individual aesthetics. Something is either in tune, or not. Or in time, or not. Etc. And then, the musician either has a sincere desire to worship God with their whole heart – or not. Only God is qualified to judge, but there are times when human beings can have a pretty good idea about the motivations of others; ‘by their fruits ye shall know them.’ If the worship setup really does resemble a rock concert, complete with smoke machines, people whipping up the crowd and a style of playing that showcases technique over God’s grace, people will know.

As for ‘middle-of-the-road’ rock music, I guess you mean a style, right? Actual ‘middle-of-the-road’ rock music is secular music, not contemporary Christian music in a mid-rock style. What about that style? Does God like that? Similar question to last time: what would make God favour one musical style over another? I am NOT saying that ALL styles of music can be used to worship God, but there are mid-rock songs and groups who write wonderful music. And it’s not that loud and it is never all about the drums. What would make God favour contemporary ‘black’ gospel over contemporary ‘white’ CCM music? Or classical music over hymns? The internet is full of people making cases for and against one style over against another and most have the kind of biblical/theological reasoning that if applied to other questions would guarantee heresy on doctrinal matters that are in fact salvific.

“no drums in OT worship, and no timbrels in the sanctuary, despite drums being used by surrounding countries. Was it because they stir up the flesh, which is at war with the Spirit, too much?”

Interesting. I studied Jewish music traditions in some detail as a postgraduate student. It is a massive area of study; Jewish culture is more diverse than many realise and their musical traditions are hugely wide-ranging. And all of them go right back to temple traditions. This is not the kind of historical overview that I can right easily (it will take too long to type) but I am interested to know which of your authors (or whoever) is arguing that what can be defined as a ‘drum’ was used in neighbouring countries. Which countries? And what is the language in which they have gotten this information? There are several ‘Semitic’ languages, but what is the word that is being translated as ‘drum?’ And what is the definition of that word in the original language?

1 Chronicles: 4000 instrumentalists. 288 singers. Some argue that David was not authorised by God to bring instruments into the temple. They use certain texts. Problem: if God wanted us to know that David should NOT have introduced instruments into temple worship, why do we have an injunction in Exodus 20 insisting that the priests not raise the altar beyond a certain height and also ensuring the dress modesty of the priesthood, but not a clear injunction as to what instruments were banned? Anytime a person makes a theological case using an ‘argument from silence’ they are on terribly thin ice – it is a flawed methodology of Scriptural reasoning that cannot bear scrutiny and cannot be consistently applied. So it fails the smell test theologically, but many of us STILL use this way of thinking and then wonder why people don’t find our Christian reasoning to be persuasive and compelling. If one is to argue that the only instruments that God approved of were the ones mentioned in Scripture, it is not just the organ/piano/keyboard/saxophone/drumkit that would have to be ditched – it would have to be all the songs and repertoire that can only be played on those instruments…so our hymns would need to go as well. And I can make this point much more rigorously and with more teeth if a genuine occasion arises.

How do we know that there were no ‘drums’ in OT worship? How do we know that other countries had ‘drums?’ What is the logic in arguing that there were no drums when there were percussion instruments? Cymbals can make a very loud noise and can be played in all sorts of ways rhythmically…

2 Chron. 29:25-30, “King Hezekiah then stationed the Levites at the Temple of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres. He obeyed all the commands that the LORD had given to King David through Gad, the king’s seer, and the prophet Nathan. The Levites then took their positions around the Temple with the instruments of David, and the priests took their positions with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah ordered that the burnt offerings be placed on the altar. As the burnt offerings were presented, songs of praise to the LORD were begun, accompanied by the trumpets and other instruments of David, king of Israel. The entire assembly worshipped the LORD as the singers sang and the trumpets blew, until all the burnt offerings were finished. Then the king and everyone with him bowed down in worship. King Hezekiah and the officials ordered the Levites to praise the LORD with the psalms of David and Asaph the seer. So they offered joyous praise and bowed down in worship.”

We have no idea what those ‘other instruments’ were. We are not told. But it was not quiet. This suggests that volume is not the issue. You use a very important word: ‘sensuous’ to describe the effect of the drumming in various contexts.

The fact that the drums can be played that way is undeniable. But when you hear ‘sensuous’ drumming, do you only ever hear drums? Think about it. Yes, drum solo features take place and they can and do whip up a frenzy. But no-one would listen to 3/4 songs in a row of just drums. What makes some tracks more sensuous than others? The bass has a huge role. The keys/guitar can also really create excitement and emotion – harmony is so powerful that some church musicians have gotten laid because of the chords they can play. Forget drums, some girls (and boys) are excited by harmony in very unspiritual ways. And the vocals are ALWAYS involved in the most sensuous songs. So the drum beat may be especially compelling, but all the other things on the track are complicit too – which means that to single out the drums because it is easy to pick out the beat is easy, but susceptible to major criticism as an interpretive outcome.

“What about rhythms derived from pagan, spiriting and animist rituals such as Latin rhythms and rock and roll, see Robert Palmer, Rock and Roll, an unruly history.”

I would be the first to agree that some rhythms are just not suitable for a church service. But what are the grounds of biblical and musical principle for any assertion of this nature? We can talk about the unholy origins of all sorts of things (the story of the organ goes back to pagan Rome). We can talk about the inappropriate use of all sorts of things (the Bible has been used to justify racism). Does any of that automatically make those things totally null and void? If I want to refer to a person as being happy and carefree, it is still technically within my rights to use the word ‘gay.’ But the difference between what gay ‘denotes’ (‘happy’ etc) and what it ‘connotes’ (homosexual) is considerable. We have a framework for certain things in our societies. The same is true of rhythms. Some immediately evoke a nightclub dance stage. Others, a military march. Now we are happy to use march-style rhythms in our sacred music – but not all Christians believe that our modern, geopolitical wars are endorsed by God and some choose never to bear arms even though we accept that war is a reality of our world. Would we suggest that a marching beat to ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ was an endorsement of human warfare?

I hope that the principles of thought I am employing are made clear. I think I want to draw attention to this business of ‘African music’ – it seems to receive very bad press. Again, as an ethnomusicology student I studied some of the musics of the African continent. Some of the cliches used in anti-drum Christian music arguments are dire beyond comprehension…

Okay okay okay!

This has definitely given me something to think about, Theomusicologist. I’m going to think about this before we meet again. I like this journey we are on very much.

So do I, my friend. So do I. Until next time!

12 thoughts on “A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Four)

  1. Feel free to pull down this comment if you like. I’m putting this here because I’m too lazy to look up your email or Facebook or whatever.

    Your credentials and critiques are solid, but you haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter, as far as I can tell, in a clear and direct way. By which I mean that I couldn’t find a single statement in this series that could complete the sentence, Berdahl is wrong about syncopation because …, in a manner that directly shows his argument is fatally flawed.

    I could try to finish that sentence myself based on what I read, but I, the reader, shouldn’t have to do that work. The author needs to make it explicit and prominent.

    Also, picking apart a loosely worded expression does not count as a devastating take-down of the argument.

    It hurts me to say this because I appreciate your point of view. Perhaps putting a tl;dr at the top of each post would force you to focus on a main point.

    That said, it’s not as if anyone is paying you to write this and at least you’re out there trying to counter poorly though through yet emotionally resonant teachings on music circulating in our church. Please take my above comments as a call for all of us to keep our public communication clear.

    And thank you for your music ministry and passion. I enjoyed reading your posts about that.

    Also, read this: http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/10/david-foster-wallace-quack-this-way/

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write an honest and critical comment which involved actual thought. This is the kind of thing that I wish we had much more of here at the Theomusicology Blog.

      I also appreciated the David Foster Wallace link! I’d not come across that, so very happy to have encountered that.

      I am not sure if you are familiar with andragogy, but in a nutshell, I spend a lot more time than I find ideal dismantling the opinions of people in churches. You may be familiar with this quote from Don Marquis: ” if you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you. But if you make them think, they’ll hate you.” I find this to be especially true of religious people including Christians of all stripes, but it applies universally. I have very mixed feedback as a travelling speaker, because the force with which I prefer to think is too much for most. But I am rarely bested in an argument, because I have already invested hours in attacking my own ideas LONG before I say them aloud.

      I am in fact pretty good at what you describe as ‘devastating takedowns’ and this blog is full of them – an example being the almost total failure of music ministers in my local church conference to live up to a basic musical standard. I have had to dismiss an entire group of people in terms of their view of music, and when they came to read the posts, no-one argued. Because there was nothing to say.

      However, that is exactly what I have tried to avoid in this particular post series, and yet lots of people on my side of the Atlantic have described this series as ‘heavy-handed.’ We do read differently here in the UK, but some US observers have also pointed out that my slow-burn takedown is in fact already more devastating to Berdahl than I had thought. I am working quite intentionally by implication, and forcing the reader to do more of the work, because I am in fact a philosopher who thought that he was a humanities geek in the body of a musician until very recently. No, I think a certain way, and my faith exists precisely because I thought my way to it and I can respectfully say that as a African-born South American Caribbean with an Anglo-European education, I do have serious issues with language, syntax and semantic constructions in American English – be it academic writing or more generalised writing.

      The thing is: I am also a pastor who desires to teach, and I am nowhere near as good at teaching Adventist church members as other people. But I’m no longer bothered by this. My church has enough speakers and presenters and writers to cover what our members like and in a manner that they appreciate. The weird irony is that I am not a SDA specifically because of Adventist preaching and teaching. Other theological thinkers have connected me to the gospel itself in deeper ways, but in the theological gaps I have found, the MESSAGE of the Adventist church has shone with startling brightness. And in that context, even EGW has made more and more sense. Outside of Adventism, here in the UK, almost no-one ever complains about my lack of clarity.

      This post series is not an easy read for some people. It is also nowhere near finished, because I am not really interested in dismantling Berdahl’s ‘argument’ – I want to help people understand that the whole trajectory and the entire ethical foundations of his method of reasoning is entirely corrupt – and I need them to find their way to that for themselves.

      He seems a nice man and his testimony is touching. How hateful to have had such a terrible childhood. But this cannot ever be an excuse for the unwarranted, emotional pseudo-theology he is propagating. Over here, my church members are much poorer at independent thinking than would be ideal. I will not comment any more on my experience of Americans, as I am not one. But I knew that I would need a summary post, and you have confirmed that I must find a way to boil down the whole argument into one blog post. This, D.V. will happen at some point.

  2. It is interesting to me that the pagan origins/spirit worship of African music are attacked but I never hear about the pagan origins/spirit worship of European music. Music is rooted in the culture of the region it arises from and even the music and instruments of ancient Isreal parallels that of the surrounding pagan/spirit worship nations.

    Is there an easy way to see all your posts in response to the Berdahl videos?

    1. Thanks for this. Your observation is absolutely spot-on as far as I am concerned; the pagan origins of various European music forms is pretty neglected. Rock music might be seen as an exception to that, but modern rock could not exist without ‘rock’n’roll’ which itself would not exist without various musical innovations originating from ‘Africans in America.’ So rock will get subsumed into the ‘anti-African’ vanguard of arguments.

      This issue is on an ever-growing list of things I hope to address here at the theomusicology blog.

      As for your question, I think the best way is just to put ‘Berdahl’ into the search field on the blog home page and all five posts so far will come up…

  3. You never defined syncopation. It is simply dividing a whole pie (referring to a measure of music as a pie) into some number and size of pie pieces other than 4 in a song written in 4/4 (4/4 time requires 4 equal beats/ pieces of pie per measure). Lets say you are singing a hymn that is using one beat per syllable of lyrics/words; suddenly you have a measure where you have to fit in more syllables of words to get the authors message across. The music continues in four four but you may put five or more words or syllables in a measure, cutting the measure into five pieces for example, but arriving at the end of your 5 beat measure on the same calculated moment that the other musicians do while playing 4/4, four beats per measure. This actually happens in hymns and classical music. It does not damage the piece but can add interest, actually PREVENTING “hypnosis” (a word used by would be music critics; preventing boredom and monotony actually would be a better word choice).

    I have heard Contemporary Christian music pieces (Blessed Be Your Name is an example of the type of song I’m talking about) which were somewhat boring to me, until I heard it played by my friend from Chile who has a Masters degree in classical guitar and who finger picks through it, using arpeggios rather than strumming. His playing of the same song I found boring transported me to the Heavenly places. Does that mean we should criticize the author of the song and tell him he’s of the devil? Whoa, no way my friends. How many churches have Masters degree trained musicians? Just a few fortunate ones. But when someone gets up and gives their all for Jesus the appropriate response is “Thank you” and “Praise the Lord”.

    1. Lawrence, I am glad to read your comment and you are absolutely right, I have as yet not defined syncopation. In part, this is because in strict technical-musical terms, it is a word that is much more easily used than it is understood. I am afraid that your noble efforts at a definition here are fall well short of how this word needs to be understood by actual musicians – listeners can make up whatever concepts they want without bothering themselves with technicalities. However, although I had made up my mind not to finish this post series for the simple reason that the only people who are really confused about this issue are Seventh-Day Adventists with limited musicological knowledge and substandard theological awareness – and they have more than enough to keep them happy enough to ignore blogs like this – I will now complete this post series for my own sanity. Only three people in the world will complete the posts, but it is unfinished and that now bugs me for different reasons.

      Perhaps – when I do define syncopation properly in ways that would not render my professional musical credibility into mush – you might come back and see of what I have written makes sense to you. God bless!

      1. Thank you for writing. I am a musician, and I understand what syncopation. It is used or misused like anything else. But not every musician in church is equally gifted either. To criticize the simplistic repetitive song of a beginner may be to criticize his best effort. The only options are to get up there and do a better job or else shut our mouths.

        As for syncopation it is: the beat coming at an unexpected time through subdivision, while not breaking the underlying rhythm. Variety and surprise add interest, but the underlying rhythm should never be broken, be it 4/4 or 3/4 or 6/8 or whatever time the hymn is written in. To make the use of syncopation (which is found in great music from Bach to hymns) repetitive throughput a piece is not so much sinful as it is bad taste, or perhaps just lack of education.

        I play bass. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass are the 4 timbres necessary for beautiful music.
        It has hurt when my bass guitar (which has 4 strings of the same notes as a bass violin but much more economical, easier to transport and easier to play in tune due to the frets on the neck) is considered “of the devil” just because it is an electric guitar!

        I’m the bassist for Enrique Sandoval by the way. He has a masters degree in classical guitar from Andrews and it teaching Music at the U of K Lexington.

      2. Well, I much prefer the definition that you have given here in your second paragraph! ‘Unexpected’ is a useful/appropriate word, despite being relative to context. And ‘underlying metre’ (or ‘meter’ in the US) is more accurate than ‘underlying rhythm’ given that syncopation is the word we are using for the actual sonic reality of what is taking place in the rhythm itself (you refer to 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8 and those are expressions of metre, not rhythm). I love the music of JS Bach greatly and try to conduct it whenever I can. And of course Bach used syncopation – as did Brahms and Beethoven who followed him, as well as following him back to Palestrina. But I am also a professional jazz pianist and I also work as an associate artist with the Research & Development unit of the National Health Service here in the UK where I am able to develop my interests in the arts and mental health. So I know that people like Neil Nedley who are against drums and syncopation have not done the homework and in these moments, science becomes ‘ideology.’ This is the stuff that Berdahl is peddling – ideology, not theology. And his musical knowledge is clearly very limited – technically speaking – so why does he behave as if he is an authority?

        The people who condemn the bass guitar say more about themselves than anything else when they do what they do.

        And I certainly make a point of doing my best work through the music – not merely by talking and writing. I can put my money where my mouth is, and I do. We are each responsible for what God has given us and I have spoken about that elsewhere on this blog…

      3. I have used good quality smooth Jazz to keep me awake on long car trips. I definitely can’t stay awake listening to Mozart, soft music etc when driving 12 hours. My Daddy loved John Phillip Sousa marches. Different times and purposes require different music types. It is useful to have some easy to learn praise choruses as well as the more challenging hymns.
        I am glad we don’t all look the same. There are many different flowers, fruits and voices God created.
        Likewise, I am glad that all music is not the same.

  4. I believe Christian’s own mistaken generalities concerning syncopation was a mistake. He gave an example of his own performance to show there are exceptions. But if we use a statement like that to discredit him, we might be in danger of discrediting ourselves.

    1. Um.

      Yes, if that were to be the sole means of arguing against him. But there is so much more to what remains an unfinished argument on my part. What he has offered is not an argument, and his more recent attempt to offer exceptions is weak and impoverished. The only people taking Christian Berdahl seriously are Seventh-day Adventists whose technical knowledge of music would struggle to fit on the back of a postage stamp. My credibility as an academic musician is not at stake here, and my argument remains unfinished because the only people who need it are those who appear to have decided that they can’t understand it (see other comments if you have not already).

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