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Music, the Media, and Me
Publish date: Jun 27, 2009
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Our worship services look more like rock concerts. The depth of our relationships with God and each other are at an all-time low. How did we get here?
The elements that caused our once-Christianized Western world to become a secular society could fill a book. The rise of spiritualism in the 19th Century and its acceptance by many Christians blurred the distinction between the godly and the demonic.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and her Theosophical blending of Eastern and Western occultism laid the foundation for the New Age movement and its key prophets such as Annie Besant and Alice Bailey.
These women promoted the idea that humanity is essentially a god and, thus, we ourselves are the real solution to our problems. Added to these developments were Darwin’s theory of evolution and the rise of communism.
Moving along with these trends was the rapidly transforming world of the arts. While impressionism grew in the visual arts, North American music evolved from classical, to blues, to jazz, swing, be-bop, rhythm and blues, and then, by the mid-50s, to rock and roll. With the help of the technology boom in media and communication, a once-Christian culture transformed into a secularized society.
The Religion of Me
Secularism is supposed to be non-religious. Yet, it becomes an idolatrous system by placing trust only in human emotions.
We as Seventh-day Adventists face the question of how to live in this secular social structure. How do we reach the secular mind with the eternal Gospel? How much of our culture’s philosophy and lifestyle should we absorb into our daily experience?
How are we to be in the world and not of the world, maintaining the high principles of our faith while staying relevant to those whom we are trying to reach with the precious truth?
Is it possible—in this world where MTV culture seems to rule the lives of our youth and where the “plastic reality” of Hollywood has found inroads into our own homes—to stay true to what we believe? These are profound questions that need to be answered.
In 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Paul describes a people that would exist in the last days:
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, truce breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
At first glance, this description seems to be about a people without religion—perhaps an accurate description of a neo-pagan secular society. However, verse five clearly states that these are a people that have religion, “a form of godliness,” but without the power.
Paul’s first description of these deceived believers is that they love themselves—the very attribute that contributed to Lucifer’s fall from grace. Humankind, while believing that it is worshiping God, is in fact making a god of itself. All the other attributes such as covetousness, boasting, and disobedience to parents grow out of this foundational evil—love of self.
People seem to be ruled by the overpowering master of passion. The slogan of our society is, “if it feels good, do it.” The media, through movies, sitcoms, commercials, games, printed material, and the music video culture has led society—even Christians—to make decisions based on how they feel rather than the higher, eternal guide of Scripture.
Who do You Worship?
A culture has developed that is counter the culture of Christ, that has brought Christians, even Seventh-day Adventists, to the point where they may be practicing godliness without the power. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the radical changes that have taken place in our music and worship practices.
It would be naïve to imagine that while we Christians eagerly absorb so much that pop culture has loaded on us, our expression of worship could remain untainted. Indeed, music has become the emotional vehicle for so much of the media’s communication. Without the use of physical force, a revolution has replaced a Biblical value system with a system that elevates self-centeredness.
Consider the words of 18th-century British Statesman, Edmund Burke. He outlined the most successful method used by revolutionaries to overthrow an established cultural and political system:
Cultural and political revolution always go hand in hand, because revolutionaries understand that if a people can be persuaded to abandon their traditions, their mores and their cultural and religious norms, they can easily be led to accept radical political changes.1
If a once-godly nation would reject its moral and religious position in the name of liberty and freedom, why would it not allow the laws of “humanistic passion” to become its system of value?
Edmund Burke contributes some sobering comments to this discussion:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to put moral chains upon their own appetites...Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.2
In 1889, Ellen White wrote to a young girl named Belle. She highlighted some of the same concerns expressed by Edmund Burke. The world had become Belle’s standard—the wisdom of humanity and its desire to please self had brought her into deep moral and spiritual danger.Try to imagine how much worse is the problem today thanks to the media and intense indoctrinization of counterculture philosophy. Consider, too, the remedy suggested by Ellen White:
Belle, your disposition and temperament is such that I greatly fear for your soul...The sensational and emotional is more fully developed than the intellectual. Everything, Belle, should be avoided that would exaggerate this tendency into a predominating power...The mind may in this crisis of your life take a turn, a bias of grossness rather than refinement. The contaminating influences of the world may mold your habits, your taste, your conversation, your deportment...The counsel of parental affection is lost upon deaf ears...Your passions are strong, your principles are endangered, and you will not consider and will not follow advice which you know to be good...
In order to gain that which you think is liberty you pursue a course which, if followed, will hold you in a bondage worse than slavery. You must change your course of conduct...place your will on the side of the will of God.. But if you are determined to listen to no counsels, but your own and you will work out every problem for yourself, then be sure you will reap that which you have sown...Remember every action and every course of action has a two-fold character, be it virtuous or demoralizing (Letter 47, 1889, Battle Creek, Michigan).
The New Age counter-culture revolution of the 50s, 60s, and even 70s directly opposed the values of European and North American Christian laws and ideals. Free love, free sex, and rebellion against the established value system became the order of the day. Although it is true that the existing status quo was flawed, it at least was established upon Biblical morals and values.
The chosen vehicle of expression was music that proclaimed that generation’s angst and their overwhelming desire for new freedoms and a new way of doing things.
How was it possible that a seemingly neutral medium such as music contributed to radical moral and political change? Let’s begin by reviewing some comments by great thinkers and philosophers of bygone years. Their opinions clearly contradict present notions about music.
Aristotle made these observations regarding music and its ability to change the emotional states of humans:
Music directly imitates the passions or state of the soul...when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a longtime he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.3
Not only did Aristotle recognize that music communicated emotion, but he believed that those exposed to music that encouraged impure passions would be molded in a similar way. Socrates held an identical view:
When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.4
Ellen White also wrote about the profound influence of music. Regarding its effect on the youth, she says this:
They have a keen ear for music, and Satan knows what organs to excite to animate, engross, and charm the mind so that Christ is not desired. The spiritual longings of the soul for divine knowledge, for a growth in grace, are wanting... Music, when not abused, is a great blessing; but when put to a wrong use, it is a terrible curse. It excites, but does not impart that strength and courage which the Christian can find only at the throne of grace while humbly making known his wants and, with strong cries and tears, pleading for heavenly strength to be fortified against the powerful temptations of the evil one. Satan is leading the young captive. Oh, what can I say to lead them to break his power of infatuation! He is a skilful charmer luring them on to perdition (Adventist Home, 407-408).
It is quite clear that Ellen White did not think music was a neutral medium of communication. She understood Satan’s ability to “infatuate” and “charm” the mind and by so doing to lure the youth to “perdition.” She also advised that music could be a curse by the way in which it is played.
The events that unfolded at an Indiana camp meeting, and her concerns about what would again be repeated in the future, prompted Ellen White to say this:
Those things which have been in the past will be in the future. Satan will make music a snare by the way in which it is conducted...God’s work is ever characterized by calmness and dignity (2 Selected Messages, 36-38).
This belief that music has the ability to indoctrinate may be considered the delusion of ancient philosophers and an outdated prophet. But, when we consider the current research, it becomes apparent that not much has changed. The musicians of our present age—those who sculpted the musical vehicle of the counter-culture—certainly seem to believe that the power of music is beyond the ordinary.
The ways in which sound affects the human organism are myriad and subtle. The loud sounds and bright lights [of today’s music] are tremendous indoctrination tools.5
This statement by musician and counter-culture philosopher Frank Zappa expresses a common belief held by secular musicians. However, while this understanding of the power of music is generally held by the non-Christian music world, the Christian music world implicitly denies it.
The amazing thing is that the secular music scene intentionally used the language of music as a counter-culture tool and unashamedly expressed these intentions. For example, MTV made no bones about the fact that they were aiming at changing the way teenagers think. Consider this line from one of their advertisements:
MTV, aggressively reorganizing your brain.6
Even in the early years of MTV, they boasted this:
At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.7
MTV’s founder, Bob Pitman, clearly understood the emotional power of the music-media combination to capture the minds of the teenagers:
The strongest appeal you can make is emotionally. If you can get their emotions going, make them forget their logic, you’ve got them.8
How does this relate to Christian music and worship?
Jesus tells us that His children will worship God in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
The comments in the New Testament and in the Testimonies regarding Christian worship consistently suggest that the Biblical worship experience should be a a spiritual and intellectual exercise, rather than a predominantly physical and emotional state of being. This does not suggest that our worship experi- ence should be devoid of any emotion or expression. Rather, emotion and expression are to flow from the intellectual and the spiritual, instead of the other way around.
It almost goes without saying that the principles that should guide a Christian, in all the choices they make, should conform to the criteria spelled out by Paul in Philippians 4:8 and 1 Corinthians 3:16-19:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.
The wisdom of today’s world suggests that if it feels good, do it. Less than 50 years ago, public pornography would have elicited an immediate outcry. Today we are surrounded by pornographic advertising and entertainment, and, even mature Christians hardly blush or bat an eyelid when confronted by it in its various degrees.
Likewise, it would have been repugnant, even to the rebels of 1954, if instead of Elvis Presley or Little Richard, they had been bombarded with the sounds of Metallica or Marilyn Manson. At that time, many politicians and spiritual leaders denounced even Elvis’ music as “the devil’s music.” Today, Elvis and other 50s-style rock have become kindergarten music. Indeed, many churches are even incorporating heavy metal and other styles of extreme contemporary music into their worship repertoires.
Any thoughtful Christian who will not admit that we have been profoundly desensitized through harmful music and media is either blind or in a willful state of denial. What a price we are paying for allowing our youth and our- selves to enjoy sin without guilt. Let us plead with God for spiritual eyesalve so that we will see our lost, wretched condition before it is too late.
1. As quoted in The New American (April 8, 2002): 16.
3. Aristotle, The Politics (340 BC).
4. Aristotle, The Politics Book 8 (340 BC): 466.
5. As quoted in The New American (April 8, 2002): 11.
6. MTV advertisement, as shown on Hells Bells video series, part 2.
7. MTV’s Rock Around the Clock, Philadelphia Enquirer (November 3, 1982).
8. Bob Pitman as quoted by Eric Holmberg on Hells Bells video series, part 2.