all the reMarks newsletters.
Secular or sacred?
were in Cedar Rapids this past Friday night and Minneapolis
Saturday night. I got home around 3 in the morning.
I checked my e-mail before going to bed and had a new
article from Reverend J. He answers the question, "What
makes music secular or sacred?" It's very thought-provoking.
I thought I would forward it to you, since I've been
asked that question so many times.
Dear Reverend J:
There is a big controversy in my church over what kind
of music is acceptable to use in our services. Some
are objecting to certain kinds of Contemporary Christian
Music as sounding too 'secular' for church. How do you
determine the difference between 'secular' and 'sacred'
music? Where do you draw the line between what is profane
and holy? Does the Bible give any specific guidance
on this subject?
- Music Minister
Dear Music Minister:
The Bible simply says, "Let everything that has
breath, praise the Lord." The Psalms are full of
encouragement to use all kinds of brass, woodwinds,
strings and percussion instruments to offer praise.
The fact that these instruments were used rhythmically
to get the body to move and feel the joy of being alive
him with tambourine and dancing." (Psalm 150: 4)
Hebrews were normally quite phobic about adopting the
customs of their 'pagan' neighbors. The Mosaic laws
had 613 rules, many of which spelled out in exact detail
how NOT to behave like the nations surrounding them.
Rules about diet and dress codes and all kinds of things.
But when it came to music, absolutely nothing is forbidden.
They used the same musical instruments and styles as
anyone else. The only difference is that they used their
music to worship the one true God and to celebrate life.
wrote that song?
- A reMarkable Challenge
Test your reMarkable knowledge!
You know how I love lyrics.
grab some paper and a pen and take this reMarkable
challenge. Try to match the song title with
Did You Know?
In The Arms
Just A Glimpse Of You
Started With A Kiss
Big To Miss
Was The First One To Carry The Gospel
is the language of the heart. The language itself is
neither holy or unholy. If the heart is profane, then
what comes out of the heart is profane. If the heart
is pure, then what comes out of the heart is pure. (Matthew
15: 18,19) It's not the sound of words that makes them
holy. It's the intention and motive behind the communication.
We now have historical evidence that the Hebrew language
grew out of Canaanite dialects. So did their music.
They borrowed from their contemporary culture and made
it their own.
we have no record of music being a source of controversy
in the Old Testament (or the New Testament for that
matter), the history of the Christian church has been
full of controversy over this issue. At one point, only
unison chant was considered 'sacred'. Harmony was considered
too sensual. Worship was perceived at that time as being
only contemplative and sober and the music of the church
controversy runs like a sticky thread through the entire
history of the institutional church. It has no basis
in Scripture whatsoever but in tradition and culture.
Calvin condemned the pipe organ as being profane. Luther
loved it. Today, we all consider Handel's Messiah
as being one of the greatest works of sacred music of
all time. But, when he composed this masterpiece, he
was roundly condemned in conservative pulpits all over
London. How dare he profane the Word of God by using
the same musical motifs employed in Italian operettas?
And to make matters worse, he premiered this work NOT
in the church but in the theater - a house of secular
entertainment. To many Christians, this was shocking
music was just as controversial. His most famous lyric
A Mighty Fortress was set to a beer-drinking
tune straight out of the pub. Today it's considered
traditional 'sacred' music of the finest order. Charles
Wesley had the same mindset that Luther had. Make church
music singable, hummable, simple and melodic - but with
profound theological lyrics.
forward to the last century and we see the emergence
of Gospel songwriters who hijacked popular music and
did the same thing. Songs like In the Garden
were considered too romantic and sentimental to be sacred
for some. John Peterson's Gospel songs like It Took
A Miracle were pure pop musically, and even landed
on the hit parade in the fifties. Stuart Hamblen combined
Country Western and pop musical motifs during that same
period to write such standards as Until Then.
His best-known song, This Ol' House, became a
the sixties, Ralph Carmichael scandalized the evangelical
church by using the same sensuous orchestrations with
Gospel songs that he used when arranging for Nat King
Cole, Peggy Lee, Roger Williams, and other pop artists.
He had his feet in both worlds and the church didn't
like that much either. How dare he use the rich sensorial
harmonies of jazz and pop music to interpret sacred
themes? And he didn't stop there. While scoring the
Billy Graham movie, The Restless Ones, he was
pretty much the first Christian musician to push the
envelope further into using rock motifs. He's Everything
To Me comes from that movie. Today that song is
a standard and most of Carmichael's music from that
period would be considered classic and traditional now.
knows Bill Gaither's enormous legacy in Gospel music.
His premier song, He Touched Me, was roundly
criticized in the late sixties as being too sentimental,
too pop, too country, too simple. Today you can't buy
a hymnal without it being full of Bill and Gloria Gaither's
rich repertoire of Gospel music. They have changed the
way the church sings. And it just doesn't get much better
than Because He Lives. If you can't feel the
Gospel thrill you right down to your bones with that
anthem, then you might as well fold your cards and go
seventies witnessed another shift as Contemporary Christian
Music created a genre all its own that paralleled all
the styles and sounds of the popular culture. Lots of
controversy once again. But as Larry Norman put it:
"Why should the devil have all the good music?"
At last, the pseudo-boundaries of sacred vs. secular
music came tumbling down as artist after artist claimed
their own unique voice. That genie will never go back
into the bottle. It's taken us this long to get back
to what the Hebrews knew millenniums ago. "Whatever
has breath, praise the Lord!"
have an observation about all this. Christian music
today employs all the sounds and rhythms of virtually
every cultural expression. Personally, I think that's
a triumph for the Gospel. No other religion can claim
that. How many Grammy categories do you see for Moslem
music? Buddhist music? Hindu music? It just isn't there.
It is the Gospel that has universal appeal. It is the
Gospel that speaks to young people and old people. Conservative
people. Progressive people. Red and yellow, black or
white. All are precious in his sight. There isn't a
single style of music today that isn't giving praise
to God. That's something to celebrate, not condemn.
those who still hold on to the presupposition that there
is a difference in the sound of sacred vs. secular music,
I would ask this question: Is there a different vocabulary
you use to describe your everyday life from your faith?
Are some words holier than others? Words are neither
secular or sacred. The New Testament was not written
in classical Greek but street language Greek. There
are no sacred words in the Bible that weren't also used
by pagans throughout the Mediterranean world. It's not
the words themselves that are sacred. It's the message
that is sacred. It's all about the intent behind the
have always seemed to have an uneasy time with percussion
and rhythm. But rhythm is nothing more than mathematics.
With today's musical technology, you can program virtually
any beat or rhythm into a computer simply by entering
numbers. It's nothing more than numbers. Are some numbers
more holy than other numbers? How ridiculous is that?
The body was constructed by God to enjoy the feeling
of rhythm. The heart beats in rhythm. The universe pulsates
and moves in rhythm. The seven-day cycle of activity
and rest is all about rhythm. The more rhythm you feel
in your body, the more alive you are. To not feel rhythm
is to be dead.
can also graph and edit virtually any sound or combinations
of sounds on a computer. All the audible colors of musical
harmony and expression are nothing more than vibrations.
Sound waves. Is a vibration of sound either secular
or sacred? Of course not. Sound is simply the audible
perception of physics. Physics can't be subdivided into
sacred vs. secular categories.
in the somber monotone of a sacred chant there are harmonic
vibrations that the ear can't hear. If those monks from
the Medieval period could have heard them, they would
have freaked out. But they're there. They're just not
audible. God can hear them. The universe is filled with
the vibrations of sound that reflect the mind and diversity
of its original Creator. No wonder the Bible says "Let
everything... praise the Lord." It all points back
makes music profane or holy is not the subdivision of
numbers between the beats. It's not in the sound waves.
It's all in the intent behind the communication - the
spirit of the music. All music is sacred if it glorifies
God and celebrates his creation. A good love song is
sacred if it honors the kind of devotional and sacrificial
love that harmonizes with the character of God. The
Song of Songs in the Old Testament boldly celebrates
human sexuality as a sacred gift from God. The Hebrews
were not afraid of the body the way Christians are.
today's musical culture, we are bombarded with musical
expression that is indeed profane. It's profane because
the message degrades human dignity. It's profane because
it ignores God entirely and celebrates self-indulgence.
The images and lyrics regularly portrayed on MTV are
truly disturbing. The message of popular rap artists
like Eminem are beyond deplorable. They incite misogyny
and bigotry. The only good that can be squeezed out
of this kind of material is the wake-up call it signals
to the rest of society. It's really a scream for help.
mission of 'sacred' music should always be concerned
with addressing the human condition with hope. The ministry
of grace. The ministry of reconciliation. The ministry
of healing and mutual respect. Lyrically, you can accomplish
that with good theology that lifts the spirit and inspires
faith. Sonically, you can accomplish that with instrumental
beauty that resonates with the soul. Music is God's
gift to reconstruct the human spirit, not tear it apart.
That's the best way I know how to evaluate what is holy
or unholy. But this criteria is subjective and personal.
What might edify and inspire me might not inspire you.
music minister has the thankless task of pleasing a
whole range of musical tastes in a diverse community.
Many churches have solved this problem by splitting
the services into traditional and contemporary services.
The goal should be to service the cultural diversity
within the congregation. And if there isn't any cultural
diversity, I don't think that church is doing its job
very well. The Gospel unites all cultures together by
its message of inclusion, not exclusion. The Kingdom
of Heaven is made up of "every nation, tribe, tongue
and people." The church should reflect that. The
music should reflect that. The key word here is 'tongue'.
It's talking about communication. And music is a form
is the Creator of variety and diversity. There's nothing
boring or monolithic about his creation. It's full of
surprises. In Creation, he brings order out of chaos.
That is exactly what the artistic-creative impulse is.
Good music is full of surprises. Like good humor, it
employs that 'ah-ha' moment when the lightbulb goes
on and you 'get it'. A great musical artist knows how
to achieve that goal. The worst thing that happens in
a lot of 'sacred' music is that it is predictable and
boring. God is neither. Sacred music should expand the
soul and fill it with grace and insight and the delight
of discovery. Nothing crosses boundaries and melts walls
quite as powerfully as music. It's our most powerful
tool of communication, rightly used.
Gospel embraces humanity with all of its emotional colors.
The Word becomes flesh. The Gospel is incarnational.
If music is truly 'sacred', it will be fully incarnational
as well. It should speak to every human emotion and
yearning. If it doesn't do that, then it isn't very
Christian. It should be both vertical and horizontal
in its scope. Why? Because the Gospel is. The Gospel
isn't afraid to dig its fingers into the soil. It unites
Heaven with earth. And when music does that, it is truly
word 'holy' literally means 'other'. It doesn't mean
stiff, pious and aloof. When the angels sing "Holy,
Holy, Holy" they are marveling at the character
of God - whose heart is fully focused on the 'other'
and not on himself. That's what separates him from false
gods. God is not narcissistic. Jesus came to serve.
(Luke 22: 27) That is what holiness looks like. That
is what charity looks like. That is what a Christian
is supposed to look like. That is what makes the artistic
impulse 'sacred' - to enlighten the soul of the 'other'.
let us not be 'unholy' by demanding that all sacred
music must serve our own tastes. I don't like every
kind of music in the world. I've traveled around the
world and I've heard some things that make my ears bleed.
But I am fascinated by what the human emotion is behind
the artistic expression. It enlarges my world to make
the effort to understand. I think that's all that God
requires of us. Be respectful of others and try to understand
what they hear. You don't have to like it. But, by enlarging
your understanding of others, you tap into a 'holy'
impulse that makes you more fully human in the image
won't be any music police in Heaven. So, why develop
that skill on earth? Aren't there more important issues
to invest our time in? - like maybe calming the storm
in other people's lives, rather than creating new ones?
So much time and energy has been wasted over debating
issues like these. So many unnecessary bruises inflicted.
Just think of how much good could be done in the world
if Christians had their priorities focused on what really
every thing there is a season," the Bible says.
"A time to mourn and a time to dance." Why
is it that Christians are more comfortable with mourning
than dancing? Odd, isn't it? We have so much to celebrate
and communicate. I think the real question regarding
music is: what is the appropriate 'season' for this
or that kind of music. And that is primarily a question
of taste and good judgment... and a sensitivity to the
needs of the community being ministered to. There's
no 'one size fits all' rule of thumb. The Scriptures
haven't given us any.
everything that can breathe... praise the Lord! That's
as specific as the Bible gets. It's very broad and inclusive.
The Gospel challenges us to have hearts that are generous
and inclusive. I think if we're truly filled with the
Spirit, our appreciation of all kinds of cultural and
artistic expression will naturally be expansive - not
restrictive. Of all people on earth, Christians should
be the most eager to expand and grow. In doing so, we
harmonize with the expansive, always-surprising Spirit
Jesus ever experience a 'secular' moment? He was God
in the flesh, wasn't he? How can God have a 'secular'
moment? It's an oxymoron. The Incarnation demolishes
all boundaries of secular and sacred. The "Word
made flesh" confirms that all of life is intended
to be sacred. To be fully human, as Jesus was, is to
live for the 'other' and to discover our true self in
the presence of others. Anything short of that is profane.
true artist gives his soul away to others. That is his
or her gift to the world. It is a sacred impulse. A
holy impulse. That impulse should not be contained and
restricted but encouraged to flower and grow. Christians,
of all people, should be the first to facilitate that
artistic impulse. During the Renaissance period, the
church got it right. That period produced the greatest
art the world has ever seen. What happened? We've lost
a lot of ground since then. It's time to face the music
and claim it back!
we're going to sing, "Oh for a thousand tongues
to sing my great Redeemer's praise," then we'd
better mean it - and get on with it! Let us take our
cues from the Creator himself and fill the earth with
color and delight. With innovation and surprise. With
rhythm and harmony and mystery and humor. When we do
so, we participate in His creative enterprise on earth.
We achieve our fully human potential in the image of
God. The artistic impulse from a pure heart is holy.
Let it go. Let it breathe. Let it dance. Let it flourish.
"Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord!"