Are All Music Styles Truly Appropriate for Communicate the Gospel Message?

By Roger Marshall*

“ The Contemporary Christian Music side would say that music is neutral. Therefore I as a Christian can use any type of music that I want. Jazz, rock, punk, rap, disco, heavy metal, pop, country, rhythm and blues, etc. reggae, you name it; any thing goes to worship the Lord. It is all appropriate and no lines can be drawn except those of personal taste. As long as my music mentions God in some way and it’s useful for evangelism. The critics on the other hand says music is not neutral it has the capability of communicating imbalance and sensuality. It can confuse the spiritual effectiveness of the message therefore I as a Christian must draw a line. Any music that cannot appropriately communicate the message is unfit to use for the worshipping of the Lord. My personal taste is subject to scriptural conviction. Evangelism is a result of my right relationship with God.” (Tim Fisher, The Battle for Christian Music, 1992, p. 56).
The “any kind of music goes” mentality of many contemporary gospel music lovers finds expression in what is known as The Christian Rockers Creed that was published in the November 1988 edition of Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (CCM). It says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all music was created equal, that no instrument or style of music is in itself evil–that the diversity of musical expression which flows forth from man is but one evidence of the boundless creativity of our Heavenly Father.”

However, this argument fails to take into account the fact that mankind is fallen and his fallenness surfaces in every aspect of his culture including the musical styles he creates. Since our fore parents Adam and Eve partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it stands to reason that their children in all cultures would be capable of creating both good and evil/bad music, and that has nothing to do with the lyrics which is another equally important subject altogether.

Is music truly neutral? Is good or bad behaviour in listening to music only determined by the lyrics or does the music itself play a significant part in determining behaviour? Which side does the evidence best support?

In seeking answers to these questions one should bear in mind that the use of a piece of music in a secular context is not the determining factor that makes it bad, by the same token music used in a Christian context does not make it good. Secular singers can be praised for using good music for their songs, as well as Christians can be blamed for using bad music for their songs. Music should be judged on the merits or demerits of what it incites people to do, however subtle those actions might be. Many music researchers have known for a long time that music can incite anger and violence, stir up courage, cause tears or excite lustful passion etc., and I must stress these influences are apart from lyrics. In short music creates moods.

For example Kisonians wouldn’t use a funeral dirge or a ballad for a road-march tune on Kadooment day or Carnival time, it wouldn’t create the desired mood. Neither do couples use regimented music for romantic evenings of dinner with the lights turned down low, it just wouldn’t create the right mood! Experiments have shown that the right style of music helps to sooth mental illnesses, increase productivity at the office, relax cows thereby making it easier to milk them and even influence proper plant growth. Music definitely is not neutral!

As far back as the 1960’s and into the 1970’s musicologist and neuroscientist Professor Manfred Clynes conducted experiments that showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that music is not neutral. It was in the 1960’s that Dr. Clynes invented the original CAT computer that measures the brain’s responses to particular sensory stimuli. He used it to discover that people’s brains produce remarkably similar patterns when presented with the same colour and SOUND stimuli. From his experiments, which involved people of both sexes from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds from several places around the world, he discovered that there are musical tones for inducing different emotions such as love, hate, grief, joy, reverence, anger and sex.

In light of Dr. Clynes’ findings it would serve gospel artists well to be very careful that the musical styles they employ are not in any way inducing anger and hate or exciting erotic passion.

Dr. Clynes does not stand alone in his analysis of the psychoactive nature of musical sounds. They are many other professionally trained musicians who through the years have attested to the non-neutrality of music, a few examples are as follows:

Max Schoen, 1940 – “Music is the most powerful stimulus known among the perceptive senses. The medical, psychiatric and other evidence for the non-neutrality of music is so overwhelming that it frankly amazes me that anyone should seriously say otherwise” (Dr. Max Schoen, The Psychology of Music, 1940).

Howard Hanson, 1942 – “Music is a curiously subtle art with innumerable, varying emotional connotations. It is made up of many ingredients and, according to the proportions of these components; it can be soothing or invigorating, ennobling or vulgarising, philosophical or orgiastic. It has powers for evil as well as for good” (Dr. Howard Hanson, American composer, conductor, and teacher, Director of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 99, p. 317)

Dimitri Tiomkin, 1965 – “The fact that music can both excite and incite has been known from time immemorial. … Now in our popular music, at least, we seem to be reverting to savagery … and youngsters who listen constantly to this sort of sound are thrust into turmoil. They are no longer relaxed, normal kids” (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Aug. 8, 1965; Dr. Tiomkin is a famous composer and conductor).
William J. Shafer, 1972 – “Rock is communication without words, regardless of what ideology is inserted into the music” (Dr. William J. Shafer, Rock Music, 1972).

Steven Halpern, 1978 – “Words are incidental at best, or monotonous and moronic as usual. But the point is, that they don’t matter. What you dance to is the beat, the bass and drums. And with this mix and volume, not only is the beat sensed, but literally felt, as this aspect of the rhythm section takes precedence over melody and harmony” (Dr. Steven Halpern, Tuning the Human Instrument, 1978, p. 14).

Simon Frith, 1981 – “Most rock records make their impact musically rather than lyrically. The words, if they are noticed at all, are absorbed after the music has made its mark” (Simon Frith, sociology professor at University of Warwick in England, Sound Effects, 1981, p. 14).

Eddy Manson, 1983 – “Music is a two-edged sword. It’s really a powerful drug. Music can poison you, lift your spirits or make you sick without knowing why” (Eddy Manson, Oscar-winning film composer, quoted by David Chagall, Family Weekly, Jan. 30, 1983, pp. 12-15).

Adam Knieste, 1983 – “Music is a two-edged sword. It’s really a powerful drug. Music can poison you, lift your spirits, or make you sick without knowing why. Whereas mellow tones can relax you, loud grinding music can cause blood pressure to rise, leading to headaches and an anxious feeling” (Family Weekly, January 30, 1983; Dr. Knieste is a musicologist who studies the effects of music on human behaviour).

David Tame, 1984 – “Music is a form of language … music is more than a language. It is the language of languages. … Like human nature itself, music cannot possibly be neutral in its spiritual direction” (David Tame, musical researcher, The Secret Power of Music, 1984, pp. 151, 187).

Carol Merle-Fishman and Shelley Katsh, 1985 – “Music is a form of non-verbal communication” (Carol Merle-Fishman and Shelley Katsh, music therapists and instructors at New York University, The Music Within You, 1985, p. 206).

Gilbert Rouget, 1985 – “… what we need to remember is that music has a physical impact upon the listener and that it produces a sensorial modification in his awareness of being. This physical impact, of course, is what pop music is consciously striving for” (Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance, 1985, p. 120).

Bob Larson- “…There is evidence, for instance, to suggest that when the beat overrides the other elements in a song the communication level is significantly changed to one which is primarily physical and often specifically sexual” (Bob Larson, cited in John Blanchard, Pop Goes The Gospel, 1983, p. 17).

Leonard Bernstein, 1990 – “Music is something terribly special … it doesn’t have to pass through the censor of the brain before it can reach the heart … An F-sharp doesn’t have to be considered in the mind; it is a direct hit, and, therefore, all the more powerful” (Leonard Bernstein, cited in Katrine Ames, “An Affair to Remember,” Newsweek, Oct. 29, 1990, p. 79).

Robert Shaw, 1998 – “I believe all the arts are moral. I can’t see how any of the arts can be neutral” (Kurt Woetzel, “Is Music Neutral? An Interview with Robert Shaw,” distinguished choral music director, FrontLine, September-October 1998, p. 11).

Having established the fact that music is not neutral it would be instructive for the seeker of truth to honestly look at the impact which utilising certain contemporary musical styles has had on the gospel music arena. Even the secular world has been realising the conflict of interest, one wonders why many Christians cannot.

Time Magazine once observed: “In a sense all rock is revolutionary. By its very beat and sound it has always implicitly rejected restraints and has celebrated freedom and sexuality.”(Time January 3, 1969, emphasis mine). Bearing this in mind consider a Newsweek article which did a feature on contemporary gospel music some years ago. The artist being featured at the time was Britain’s Sheila Walsh. Following is what the article had to say about one of her stage performances: “Your love has taken hold and I can’t fight it’ – keeping it unclear whether or not the lover is Jesus. At the Estes Park concert Britain’s Sheila Walsh – who has her own BBC television show – artfully mixed the sacred and sexy. Emerging from clouds of machine make smoke on a darkened stage … Walsh held her arms out to form a shadowy crucifix. But when the beat quickened, bright lights suddenly revealed a strutting Walsh in shinny white spandex pants, an oversized white shirt, white lace gloves and glittered hair.” (Newsweek, August 1985, emphasis mine).

Sixteen years later Newsweek carried another article featuring the gospel band Pillar. Following is what the article had to say about one of their performances: “ Are you ready to rip the face off this place screams the lead singer of Pillar. A hyped up crowd of teens 6000 strong goes nuts. The aggressive rap/rock band launches into a pummelling kick off number. The surly singer pounds the stage with his steel toed boots sweating right through his baggy army fatigues and black bandana. He jesters like the member of some vicious street gangster as he screams and roars into the mike his arms swinging low as if on the way to some rude phallic move. This crude move is as integral to rap-rock as a blown kiss is to a lounge act and is usually accompanied by a testosteroned explosion of expletives. The singer’s hands slaps down on his thigh and it stays there and gripping his pants leg with conviction he screams ‘Jesus Christ is he in your heart!’…” (Newsweek, July 2001). By the way Pillar is a group that has been favourably identified by CCM Magazine as sounding much like the secular group Rage Against the Machine a group that promotes rape, rebellion and incites anger and destruction.
Speaking of rebellion, lead singer of the ‘gospel’ rock band Audio Adrenalin which has sold more than 2 million albums since 1992, Mark Stewart said: “I think rebellion and Christianity go together…singing about sex and drugs is the easiest thing you can do its old by now. So pretty much the most rebellious rock and roll person you can be is a Christian rock front man because you get people from every side trying to shut you down.”

These images of sensuality and rebellion are further portrayed on several gospel music album covers and in the music videos where the artists, as in the case of some of the women, sometimes express themselves with very sultry face, lip and eye expressions (see for example the cover the album The Kiss by Trin-I-Tee 5:7) and with the sultry voice to go with it just like their sexy secular counterparts, or some times, as in the case of some of the men the artists may look more like thugs, rebels, or rude boys rather than ministers of the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. There is even a group that calls themselves the Gospel Gangsters!

What is the reason for these kinds of developments in the gospel music arena you may ask? The answer lies in an uncritical acceptance of any and every music style, all the while ignoring or downplaying the intrinsic peculiar cultural baggage that inevitably goes along with the art form. Charisma magazine traced the origins of these developments in an article written by Dr. Richard Lovelace, a Pentecostal minister and professor of church history at Gordan Cornell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton Massachusetts. He said: “As I worked to bring teenagers to Christ I began to encounter the new rock culture. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the rest. I was fascinated by the skill and creativity of these songs the most popular music since Johann Struss…I began to pray that God would some how give us a Christian Woodstock. Since the late 60’s, God seems to have been answering”(Charisma, Feb. 1985). For those who may be unaware, the 1969 Woodstock concert has been described as 3 days of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. People made love right in the open on the grass as they partied day and night.

I don’t suspect that Dr. Lovelace wanted to see that kind of activity being conducted in his vision of a “Christian Woodstock” but there can be no denying that there is a moral decline being witnessed in contemporary gospel music circles, and a lot of it has to do with certain music styles that are being employed as well as the decline of clear Biblically based lyrics. Musician Danny M. Sweatt made a very insightful statement when he said: “The obscure meaning of most gospel music is both a symptom of and a contributor to the general decline in our nation” (Church Music: sense and nonsense, 1981, p.11).

He also said: “Some churches that would never allow heresy to be preached from the pulpit allow it to be included in the lyrics of songs. Error is no less damaging when it is sung. Falsehood so couched may actually be more damaging because of its subtlety”(Church Music: sense and nonsense, p.7).
Of course, as pointed out before, they are those who will argue that the adaptation of all musical styles and even the employment of ambiguous lyrics (known as cross over music) in gospel music is all about “redeeming the culture” and converting the lost. But in light of the effects being witnessed in the gospel music arena one is forced to ask, as one researcher did, “Who is really converting whom?” I think the evidence speaks for its self.

John Fisher and Richard Taylor were also men of great insight when they said: “Some art forms have been created to express certain philosophies and are so wedded to those philosophies that they convey that kind of out look…we can’t assume that we simply plug in a Christian message and every thing will be okay”(John Fisher and Richard Taylor, Solid Rock)

Richard M. Taylor said it this way: “We cannot foster an erotic type of music and expect to succeed in avoiding the erosion of standards and ideals. Rock music has a message and it is the message of sexual permissiveness. As music affects your body you instinctively want to put motions to it. So what kind of motions fit rock music? Basically sensual motions. If the message of rock produces that sort of response, then it’s not good music for the Christian”(Richard M. Taylor, A Return to Christian Culture).

He further said: “We cannot change the basic effect of certain kinds of rhythm and beat simply by attaching to them a few religious or semi-religious words. The beat will still get through to the blood of the participants and the listeners. Words are timid things. Decibels and beat are bold things, which can so easily bury the words under an avalanche of sound. … There are music forms, whether secular or sacred, which create moods of pensiveness, of idealism, of awareness of beauty, of aspiration, and of holy joyousness. There are other forms of music that create moods of recklessness and sensual excitement. Surely it doesn’t take much judgment to know which forms are most appropriate for religious functions” (Dr. Richard M. Taylor, The Disciplined Lifestyle, 1973, pp. 86, 87).

Almost two decades ago the Assembles of God in the U.S.A. took a stand against the slide into sensuality that is persistently occurring in the contemporary music industry. It was in 1987 that delegates to the General Council meeting of the Assemblies of God voted to express “concern and disapproval of certain Christian artists whose appearance and stage performances contradict in form, substance and spirit that for which the Pentecostal movement stands.”

The resolution that was adopted at their annual meeting for that year stated further: “The church of Jesus Christ has come under special attack from Satan through the entertainment media and has been provoked to emulate the world in its degraded art form.” Delegates said that the spread of Rock music to the Christian community poses a direct threat to the holiness required by Scripture.

Evangelist Joseph Pyott, an ordained Assemblies of God minister originated the resolution as the result of a Stryper concert in his area. Pyott said the “so-called Christian rock group…dress like devils and wear Spandex costumes…I thought their performance was inappropriate and contradicted everything the Gospel stands for.’ Such performers ‘may use the right words, but in my opinion their performance and their dress contradict the things they say.”

The resolution was passed at the 2 million-member denomination’s General Council meeting in Oklahoma City in August of that year. Over 10,000 church members attended the meeting including 4,673 voting delegates (cited in Battle Cry Nov/Dec. 1987).

Contemporary gospel music lovers would do well to take a leaf from those ministers who had the courage, and the guts to call a spade a spade, as they drew the line as to what was appropriate or in appropriate in gospel music. There is need for all of us to seriously and rationally analyse the merits or demerits of what is taking place these days in the name of gospel music. The copout excuse that sometimes people get saved (which is often used to squelch the concerns raised by the “conservatives”) is really no excuse at all, for as Frank Shafer once said: “…People have been saved in concentration camps because God can bring good from evil but that does not justify the evil.”

While it is true that the Gospel of Jesus Christ in which we stand is a gospel of liberty, it is also true that with liberty goes great responsibility. As the apostle Paul, under divine inspiration said: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh. But by love serve one another” (Gal.5: 13).

Criterions for judging gospel music

Lastly let us consider some criterions that should be used to help us to be more discerning in the area of gospel music.

1. Is it Scriptural? Check the message content to see if it falls in line with what the Bible teaches about sin, redemption and sanctification etc. For example the song Praise On by the group Spiritual Pieces conveys the message that going to church and by extension Christianity is akin to a big party/fete. That surely is not scriptural.
2. Is the message clear? Crossover music that obscures the gospel message whereby the lyrics can mean anything the listener wants them to mean is equally unscriptural (cf. 1Cor. 14: 8).
3. In which direction does the music lead? If the music style is leading the listener to adopt a worldly outlook or attitude e.g. party-hearty, jump and wave revelry type Christians, hip-hop sexy Christians, rude-boy, gangster-rapping type Christians, Rasta/dance-hall type Christians etc. then it is not good music.
4. Does the music agree with the words? The lyrics may be saying one thing but the music could be suggesting something else completely different. For example the song Kadooment Must Go by Vibert Lowe, a song speaking out against wining/wukking-up, has a beat that could very well qualify it for a Road March song to which you could jam and wine down Spring Garden, and mind you the music is still very tame in comparison to many other so called “goscalypsoes.”
5. Is the style of the lyrics suitable for communicating the Gospel? In other words “street talk”, semi-religious words or catchy clichés etc. that may represent an unscriptural message should not be in cooperated into gospel music. For example words such as “Yaga” and “Jah-Jah” are Rasta chants to Haile Selassie as a god. The word “Babylon” in the Rasta/dub culture represents the police and the established order of things in society. Used in this context it is therefore an anti-social term and should not be associated with the Gospel. The ghetto slang phrase “boo-yah-ka”, boo-yah-ka” refers to lickin’ shot or shooting.

The Bible also says: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven”(Ecc.3: 1,NIV). Gospel artists ought to avoid any potentially violence-inducing music styles, as well as sensual music grooves and jams, and those sultry voice tones that could confuse the gospel message with other undesirable or out of context activities. The gospel message is not vicious neither is it sexy. The gospel message is one of pure love, joy (not to be confused with revelry) and reverence. Since, as Dr. Clynes’ experiments have shown, there are musical tones that can induce these joyous and reverential emotions, then gospel music should embody those tones. That may mean hard work for the gospel artiste to research, isolate and then use the said kind of tones, but it will be hard work worth the while as it brings out his/her own creativity, and hopefully brings ultimate glory unto God and not to the artiste, as tends to be the case these days in the gospel music arena.
*Roger Marshall is executive director of Project PROBE Ministries a Barbadian Christian apologetics organisation.