Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Rock n’ Roll

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I had an interesting exchange with Rick Warren the other day — but only made possible by some sort of flux in the space/time twitterverse.

Rick started it by tweeting this: “There’s no such thing as “Christian music” -only Christian lyrics. The words,not the tune or music style make a song sacred.”

This is a very common sentiment in the Christian world, and so I replied, “But does this mean the world is only Christian if we happen to be talking?”

Much to my surprise, Rick responded. “Ha! Good comeback Doug! The style of music we choose says more about our personality& background than theology.”

Pressing my luck, I responded yet again. “Morning, Rick! But if the heavens declare God’s glory, how could Bach’s Bradenburg, or the solo in Freebird, not do so?”

Thereafter, the exchange languished, mostly because we ran out of beer.

But it got me thinking — and remember what Wodehouse said about some minds being like the soup in a bad restaurant, better left unstirred — but I got to thinking, and wanted to make a few comments about the nexus between music/words/culture.

Let me start with my base line principle. The world (and all it contains) is Christian because Jesus is the Lord of it. If something is expressly prohibited by Him, then that rebellion will be punished because He is Lord. If He did not prohibit it, then hearts full of gratitude may do as they please with it, and His lordship is extended over the enterprise for blessing.

That said, there are two basic ways that music can accompany lyrics. I leave out of the discussion those instances where the music and the lyrics collide — as when people try to sing the words of Amazing Grace to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island.

The first way is when the music is interpreting the lyrics by means of tone painting — when the sheep are gamboling in the meadow, so are the violins, for example. The second way is when the music is simply a delivery platform for the lyrics, in the same way that a flour tortilla is the delivery platform for the meat, beans sour cream, and peppers. The tortilla just has to not contradict the interior of the burrito.

This latter option is the way most popular music is — rock, country, blues, pop, or folk. Major key versus minor key is like the difference between flour tortillas and corn tortillas. But if you are creative, you can put all sorts of concoctions in there.

Now the reason I differ with Rick Warren’s sentiment above is not because I think that a flour tortilla is the same thing as the spiced meat. It is not “meat” the same way that meat is meat — it is not explicitly Christian in that way. But it is still Christian because Jesus is Lord of the whole thing, and He wants us to have a burrito, not a handful of ground beef. In other words, the delivery platform approach to lyrics is just fine. It is part of the design.

Now I want to argue that the ungodliness of the rock culture does not contaminate the form of music that it uses most commonly — just as the rampant homosexuality in many university music departments does not contaminate the music that they use most commonly. This helps create certain cultural connotations that we should take into account, of course, but there are no automatic connotations.

Of course, some forms of music are so associated with ungodliness (like a stripper’s bump and grind music) that they should not be compared to a flour tortilla at all. That is more like a cake that a barely clad girl jumps out of. But music that has frequently been connected to immorality — like renaissance madrigals — can still be used in other, more wholesome settings.

And this is where the odd image from my title comes in. Nebuchadnezzar flummoxed his wise men by upsetting their normal little game. It was as though he had a room full of wine critics who knew how to swirl the glass, and pronounce on the fine shades of meaning between the aromas and the bouquet, but who would be utterly lost if you subjected them all to a blind taste test. If he gave them the dream, they could all interpret like crazy, and no accountability. But if he knows the dream, and asks them to tell him what it was, then he would that this would be an interpretation worth listening to — which is precisely what Daniel did. Daniel took the blind taste test, and correctly identified the wine, the year, the vineyard, and which slope of which hill the grapes grew on. The spirit of the gods was with him, and he was no formulaic Chaldean plug and chugger.

So play the music. Play the song, but play it without the lyrics, and see if you can tell whether the lyrics were moral or immoral simply from the music. I would submit that in almost all cases, the answer would be no, but not because music is neutral. The answer would be no because flour tortillas don’t taste like much. But Jesus is still the Lord of them.

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Joe
Joe
6 months ago

I’ve read this a few times still struggling to fully draw conclusions from it. I am interested in the aesthetics of music at the moment and the hierarchies of goodness that we should respect in these things. Does there not seem a greater godliness and greatness to Tchaikovsky than piece of lyricless prog rock? Beyond dissonance or lack thereof is there not an aesthetic value that is itself good, and should be desired over other music? Does much have one telos in aesthetic value, or multiple Telos (dancing for example)? Can we say definitively what music is for, and therefore… Read more »

Joe
Joe
6 months ago

Further to my below comment, if music is grounded in absolute aesthetics, could a devil’s advocate snake out of the hold by asserting that music, if intended aesthetically, must comply with these values, but there is such thing as music for an end other than beauty? Can my sister enjoy vaccuous pop beats to her hearts content insofar as these things claim not to be artistic but simply entertaining? Further again, in art, can something that doesn’t attempt to be beautiful still claim reasonably to be art, just as pop music, though not directed towards the beautiful, claims to be… Read more »