Treacle, Dreck, and Schlock

As the fellow said, one of things we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. And this was true on its own terms, back in the day when when history stayed more or less the same. How much more is it the case when we have seen a transformation of history in terms of sheer scale — and speed?

What I mean by “transformation” is this. George Washington got around pretty much the same way that Julius Caesar did, and at approximately the same speeds. Since the Industrial Revolution, along with its cascading consequences, we have seen radical changes in how things look and sound. We have frequently made the mistake of thinking that this has altered the foundational principles, which it has not, but it has altered the appearance of everything drastically enough that we need to pay much closer attention in order to learn from history, and we had a hard enough time doing that back when everything stayed pretty much the same. The constants are still constant, for that is what they do. The variables have gone on a bender.

Take the question of music, for example. I think it would be difficult to deny that our generation is producing massive amounts of treacle, dreck, and schlock. And I do not deny it. Indeed, I have made this very point multiple times myself. At the same time, we are living in a time of golden opportunities when it comes to music. Things have never been better. Do I contradict myself? No, but you may think that if you like.

On a recent trip, I had occasion to listen to the music that different drivers were taking in. One was listening to avant something something jazz, and another guy was listening to classical. Now what were people in their (relative) pay grades listening to (all day long) five hundred years ago? The answer is nothing. The wealthiest would get to listen to good music on particular occasions, and the poor would get out their instruments, also on particular occasions. Music was the sonic wallpaper of no one’s life back then.

Now some might argue that this is to our disadvantage — music inflation to the point of ubiquity might mean that we are now hearing all the time but listening to nothing. I understand the argument, and think there is an appropriate warning for us in there somewhere, but at the end of the day I don’t buy it.

What are we comparing our situation to? In many ways, this is not an apples to oranges thing — it is an apples to nothing thing. We shouldn’t be such purists that we think that a stable hand five hundred years ago, who was never serenaded while he worked, somehow had a musical advantage over a stable hand today who has seventeen playlists at his disposal, and who uses them all. And I don’t care if his playlists have labels like George Jones, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, and Loretta Lynn. My driver who was listening to classical had better music at his fingertips than Nebuchadnezzar did. In the interests of full disclosure, I am listening to Asleep At the Wheel performing Route 66 while typing this sentence, a song that I am convinced could also have held Nebuchadnezzar’s attention.

All our technological developments have resulted in the democratization of music, sure enough. And those who are musically trained are tempted to look down on the rising tide of multiple voices trying to find the pitch. But this gap is nothing new — we have always had it. The thing that is different is that the gap is steadily closing. The musically trained and able are about where they always were. But behind them, still at a distance but closing, there is a great multitude — listening to their music, almost all the time. Vox populi, vox progressus.

Now I grant that there have been certain enclaves in history where musical literacy was present from top to bottom — certain ethnicities, certain religious movements, and so on. That is what we are laboring for here in our little section of the great choir practice room of history. It is a worthy endeavor — with a lot of work to do, but also with a glorious opportunity handed to us. One of the worst mistakes we could make right now is to misread the nature of that opportunity.

While I have your attention on this most important topic, let me tell you about a forthcoming album by Brother Down. The album is called Old Paths New Feet, and is set to release this coming Reformation Day. It consists of ten Reformation-era psalms, with original melodies, and contemporary instrumentation. It is just one sample of the kind of thing I am talking about here. Canon Press is starting a record label, and when they are ready to unveil the name and location of it, I will provide all the appropriate links.

Theology That Bites Back



Opt-in here and you'll receive a weekly digest of the thoughts and musings from yours truly that wend their way into blog posts. In addition, from time to time, you should also receive notices of new book releases, upcoming events, and continent-sized cyclones on Jupiter.

Congratulations. You did it.

  • MIchelle

    I would reverse your verbs: “listening all the time but hearing nothing.” Hearing is the sense by which we are aware of sound. Listening is the active attending to sounds with our minds and hearts. I would say we are hearing all the time, but listening to nothing. And unlike you, I think it is a serious problem.

    I think listening to music, like listening to poetry, has the capacity to tutor us in the art of listening. If it is just a commodity that we thoughtlessly consume, that capacity is not realized. Whatever musical advantages you perceive to come with our living in a day where music is easily accessed and ubiquitously present, they are simply lost on us if we gluttonously and thoughtlessly devour them. We have the same problem with food. Cheap, fast, and convenient are not virtues in the kingdom of God. Real food is not cheap, fast, or convenient. Neither is real music.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Micehlle, I think you are right about those verbs. I switched them.

  • Nick e

    It’s worth pointing out that people generations ago used to sing considerably more. So much so in fact that some of the first advertisement “jingles” were printed bote by note in newspapers and were intended to compel the reader to hear the arrangement in their heads. I can’t imagine that working on today.

    Stable hands had working songs and drinking songs etc. I guess the modern equivalent would be an exercise playlist or a marching cadence.

  • Robert

    Think about the history of jazz.

  • juan

    I think we are missing taste, a good taste in music as subjective as that sounds. I believe this awesome accessibility of music will benefit those that already have a God given talent for composing, possibly making them better because of the pool they can tap into for influence. I think you can listen to Mozart and the Beatles till the cows come home but I don’t think it’ll help your music composition be grand if you don’t have that natural talent as it seem. Mediocrity won’t get better, perhaps worse.

  • Valerie (Kyriosity)

    New music from Brother Down! Yay! It’s been a long decade’s wait.

  • Timothy

    A happy, hopeful, toe-tapping message to start the day. Thanks!

  • buckyinky

    “The musically trained and able are about where they always were.”

    I don’t think this is true – we have many who are technically proficient in reproducing great music, even on the instruments for which the music was intended to be played, but we lack inspiration, probably because of the noise in our day to which you allude in the entry here. We have access to Bach’s and Brahms’ music like never before, but where are the Bach and Brahms of our day? Nothing great is being created today because the Source is all but drowned out.

  • Roy

    Nothing great being created? I could not disagree more. As a lifelong music lover, my recent conversion left me to “do without” for quite a while. My library, simply, was not honoring to God or edifying for me. After some suggestions from brothers and no little research, the months of quiet ended. There is a vast array of quality, God honoring music out there; from rock to rap to bluegrass. As in most other things, effort and discernment pay off.

  • Rich Hamlin

    I’m probably not the best judge, but I really like Hilarion Alfeyev’s (sp?) St. Matthew Passion.

  • Brendan

    @buckyinky, I think I disagree. There’s a ton of wonderful music being created today, the difficulty lies in that we — general audiences — tend not to expose ourselves to it. José Antonio Abreu, John Adams, Michael Alcorn and William Bolcolm just to name a few favorites from the past, oh, 50 years or so I suppose.

  • Timothy

    Vox Popoli recently posted this quote from Plato’s Republic:

    “When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”
    – Plato, Republic

  • buckyinky


    Nothing on the scale of the works of Bach or Brahms is being created today. That’s what I meant by great. This doesn’t mean there is nothing edifying or worthwhile being created today, but simply that music being produced today is inferior in a significant way. The comparison is simple. What among today’s works will be known 300 years from now to the extent that Bach’s Mass in B Minor is known today?

  • Roy

    Buckyinky, Still respectfully disagree. I believe the inferiority you reference is highly subjective. Also, not sure that a 300 year time-test is any guarantee of greatness. Longevity is, without a doubt, a genuine marker but certainly not the only one. Either way, no worries. Appreciate the dialogue.

  • Robert

    I think that Juan is on to something and it is not limited to music. Think of how many books are published each year. How many times have you seen people reading books on their cellphones during lunch?

  • RFB

    In skills that require both precision and accuracy, there are two (among others) sayings that accompany the instruction thereof: “Repetition is the mother of skill” and “Amateurs practice to do it right; professionals practice so that they cannot do it wrong”. I think that Michelle and Juan are symbiotic in their responses. Regarding Michelle’s paradigm of “the capacity to tutor” in relationship to the aforementioned skills, another seemingly ubiquitous rule in training is that “you will get good at whatever you practice, even if its wrong”. Submitting oneself to a poor “tutor” results in poor learning. The ornamentation of the tabernacle was not accomplished by saying: “I need volunteers…you, you and you.”. There were specific individuals selected on the basis of their skill. Egalitarianism demands that everyone gets a blue ribbon but gravity is tone deaf to such demands. And Juan’s point is also in play as referenced by the above. The mediocre are the only people who are always at their best. The phenomenon, as Pastor Wilson observed, is not new, and finds itself in other disciplines: “For every one hundred men you send us, ten should not even be here. Eighty are nothing but targets. Nine of them are real fighters; we are lucky to have them, they the battle make. Ah, but the one. One of them is a warrior and he will bring the others back.”
    (Heraclitus, circa 500 B.C.; Warriors’ Words: A Dictionary of Military Peter G. Tsouras)

  • Blake Law

    Hopefully, Canon Press won’t name the record label “Canon Music”. Here’s some suggestions, all free of charge:

    – Pure Nard Music
    – Not One Square Inch Music
    – Trinity’s Overture
    – Trinity’s Concinnity
    – Stave & Standard Music

  • buckyinky

    Thanks for the cordial response Roy. There is indeed subjectivity in the gauge I am using for the measure of “great” music, if you mean that people disagree on what it is. There are, for instance, people who think it’s a “great” thing to use something up, dispose of it, forget all about it, and move on to a later model, repeating only this process throughout all their life. I should clarify that part of my thought on the matter is formed from observing the results of our society, i.e., I don’t see any musical creations today that compare with the great composers of the past; but part is also formed by what I know of the society aside from my observations of its fruits. I cannot conceive that the individuals who must live in a society that has normalized and begun to enforce the mandatory acceptance of sodomy can but have the inspiration to create great and beautiful works of art squelched before it is able to bear fruit. It is not the fault of the individual; it is merely the fact of living in our society. It is a matter entirely separate from how virtuous or desiring of beauty any particular individual may be. It is simply not possible to see the great beauty that was once visible in the world on account of the darkness that pervades everything at the present. Great inspiration cannot coexist with this darkness, thus I do not expect to see the mark of its presence, aside from the acknowledgement that I have not in fact observed the mark of great inspiration in the works of our day.

  • Roy

    Buckyinky, I was merely opining on the subject of great music. We can bemoan most matters when we view them through the lens of current societal standards and our failings in dealing with them. But much of Gods’ earthly splendor has come from seemingly evil situations and conditions. To say that “great inspiration cannot coexist with this darkness” grants a greater power to the darkness than is warranted. As an aside, I have no idea about the spiritual beliefs of Brahms or Bach, but listen to Shai Linne’s “High Priest” while reading of the tabernacle in Exodus. That’s inspiration. Peace.

  • juan

    I think secularism kills creativity (among other things) for if your worldview consists of an inflated view of atoms how can you create beautiful music that seems almost transcendent in its beauty. Beauty is outside us and secularism cages us in.

  • RFB


    I think that beauty cannot be restricted to the “eye of the beholder” because it then has no meaning; it becomes entirely subjective. I also believe that symbols communicate regardless of intent. If I walk into a bank with a mask on, it is objectively reasonable (but possibly wrong) for the bank personnel to expect a robbery and to act accordingly. Now I know that when I say my next, that your perspective is more than likely not mine, but here is the immediate connection that I make with the sound (without hearing any words) of Shai Linne’s “High Priest”. I immediately think of a “g ride” thumpin down the street at 0100 with all seats occupied as I look around for cover from the AK I see silhouetted in the neon and street lights. This is not, as Eddie Kendricks was wont to say, “Just My imagination”; got the tee shirt and its old worn and tattered. Now I do not extend that behavior set to every perpetrator of that entertainment genre; nonetheless is is evocative of certain realities of its origin that cannot be excluded. Inspirational, you betcha. Of what is the question.

  • buckyinky

    With respect Roy, it appears we are talking about different things. Pursuant to my point, it does not matter what the spiritual lives of Bach or Brahms were like. I’m fairly certain that Brahms for one probably did not even consider himself a Christian. Furthermore, some of the most beautiful works of art known to man have been produced by charlatans. My point is that even if the great composers were men of unparalleled sanctity, they could not create in our day what they did in theirs. Beauty and inspiration have been obscured in spite of what men of good will desire. God has equipped His people with everything they need to forge on even in these difficult circumstances, but that fact remains that evil has gained a foothold in such a way that beauty cannot be present as it might otherwise be. Think of my acknowledgement of such not as an indication of my despair, but as a realistic assessment of the battlefield so that the battle might be waged in the most tactically judicious manner.

  • Roy

    RFB, Not sure if I’m capably following the points you’re making, but here goes.I don’t know that I attempted to restrict beauty in any way or to any eye. I actually felt that limiting inspired music to 300 years and beyond was rather restrictive. I agree with you that symbols communicate. Regarding intent, I intentionally put out what I believe is a valid and juxtaposed example of the referenced “classics”. It could have been any one of a hundred songs from multiple genres. Honestly, if I had said Third Days “Long Time Comin”, would your perception have been any different? Maybe even hear the words before deciding? How about Allison Krause “Down In the River to Pray”? Tears as it played at my oldest daughters baptism. I do believe discernment is important regarding music. I’m no more endorsing an entire genre than you are endorsing jumpy bank tellers. This is one song from one artist. I admit, I sorta went fishing to see what would bite. And “a thumpin, full g ride at 0100” made me smile. I’m thankful that the strike was one of sincerity from a brother.

  • Roy

    Buckyinky, nothing short of respect on my end. This has rolled in a different direction than I anticipated. Initially, I was responding to the issue of music. I see now that for many there is much more wrapped up in this. In my darker moments, I think I get where you’re coming from. I guess I just don’t agree that evils foothold is greater to the point that it can squelch Gods glory. And I know that’s not what you mean, be it in music or art or sports. We find what we seek. I gonna leave it there before I get annoying. Thanks for the discourse.

  • RFb

    I think you followed close but not exactly. What I mean by “restricting” beauty to “any way or to any eye” is similar to “restricting” an aircraft by violating the laws of aerodynamics; you have restricted it to the ground. There are certain restrictions (and I would not necessarily use years, but could add that as one attribute) to a given. An aircraft is only “free” to fly as long as it remains in submission to the laws of aerodynamics. As soon as it violates those laws, it begins to depart from controlled flight. Beauty (good (versus not good) music in this case) must have some defined parameters, or it cannot be defined and therefore has no objective reality. Glad you envisioned the hood; its much better from a distance. And Roy, that was not a strike; just straight up speaking to another man. Striking is kind of like Quigley and a pistol; I don’t have much use for it.

  • Roy

    Post a comment

  • Roy

    RFB, Said I was gonna stop before I got annoying, but, technically that was to BI. You are free to set whatever restrictions you choose. And, aerodynamics notwithstanding, I believe God’s grace and power inspire many men in many walks on a regular basis. If you’re telling me that a particular genre of music is definitively outside of holy blessing, then I’ll just agree to disagree. But if you’re going to put forth a personally interpreted objective reality as objective, then I’ll merely disengage. Once again, enjoyed the discourse. And Quigley aside, that was a strike. You betcha.

  • RFB


    Let me try one more time at this: what I think is that beauty has objective parameters and therefore has a perimeter. I am not saying that I personally know what these are, and where that is, but I do believe that it exists. Kind of like old maps, beyond a certain demarcation line “There Be Ugly”. Turning towards the strike, if that was what you thought I was doing then I must humbly request your forgiveness. That was not my intent.

  • Arwen B


    It is not true that great orchestral music is not being written today, but you have to know where to look for it.

    Try listening to videogame soundtracks.

  • Roy

    RFB, No worries here. If this horse ain’t dead it’s on life support. And the strike was merely a fishing reference, nothing nefarious. All good.

  • Matt

    People in the past were producers and consumers of music, whereas today they are solely consumers. It was partly a function of technology: no recordings meant that playing music was often the only way to hear it. But nevertheless, playing ability took a nosedive once recording came in and especially once the “industry” got going on producing its pop superstars.

    I suppose it’s one of those things that will not change, so however the tradeoffs shake out it’s not something to get upset about anyway. There do seem to be some changes coming. The internet has completely destroyed the value of recordings. They’re now worthless, if worth is to be partly defined by scarcity. I figure in time we will see the “album” become something of a curiosity (as it was when it appeared) and the expectation of making a living playing music will go back to being for the top .1% like it used to be.