Monday, March 19, 2007

Music and Discernment

As a general rule, I don’t care for CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). I used to really enjoy Southern Gospel, but I’ve come to dislike most of it as well (although the song, I Fell on my Knees and cried Holy moves me to tears and motivates me to want to learn more about Christ each time I hear it). Most of it (Gospel) is shallow, “feel-good” music with no bite to it. That being said, I have a problem with dismissing an entire genre as bad just because some – perhaps even most – of it is “bad”. It makes me ask the question, “What makes music bad?”

Several years back I first heard a song by the group Mercy Me that began to change my opinion that all CCM is bad. I Can Only Imagine is perhaps one of the greatest songs I have ever heard. In the song, the singer is pondering what his response will be when he finally enters Heaven:
Surrounded by Your Glory,
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you, Jesus?
Or in awe of You be still?

Will I stand in Your presence?
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing “Hallelujah”?
Will I be able to sing at all?

I can only imagine….

At the end of the song, we hear the following lyrics:
I can only imagine
When all I will do
Is forever
Forever worship You

I can only imagine…

It was this song that first caused me to readdress my contention that all CCM was bad. I’d already come to the conclusion that there was some great Gospel music out there, but that always seemed like more of a “gray area” anyway. CCM, however, was always black and white to me. It was categorically wrong. But….how could a song like this be wrong? Furthermore, I began to realize that by claiming something was “wrong”, I was dismissing it as being displeasing to God. How could this particular song be classified thusly? I began listening to a little more from the CCM genre. There was so much P&W (Praise and Worship), that I quickly became annoyed. The artists would take a single phrase – maybe two – and repeat it over and over and over again. Some of the stuff I was finding was shallower than anything I’d encountered on the Gospel music scene. But some of it….

I came across another “artist” (for some reason, I dislike that word) who had been around for a long time. His style was unique. He told stories with his song. The man’s name is Ray Boltz, and the song that blew me away was Watch the Lamb. The story of the Crucifixion of Christ told from the perspective of Simon – the man who was enlisted to help Christ carry the cross. It speaks of his sons and the obvious impact that this had on them (by the way, it obviously impacted them since at least one of them is mentioned by name by Paul in the last chapter of Romans). Again, I found myself in tears as I reflected on what Christ had done for me. Again, a song that I couldn’t dismiss as “bad”. I began to find more and more music that was wonderful, Christ-honoring music. Music that had solid theology and lyrical depth. Music by groups like GLAD (how can anybody have a problem with them?). Music that had more “bite” than half the stuff you find in the typical church hymnal (Trust and Obey? …Sunshine in the Soul?).

So back to the question. What makes music “wrong”? I’m not sure that music – in and of itself – necessarily has a moral value. I’ve asked that question in several different places (online discussion boards as well as “face to face” discussions). Typically, the ensuing discussion borders on the ludicrous. An example of this is the old myth that rock music makes plants die, while classical makes them grow. I watched an episode of the program MythBusters on the cable channel Discovery that sufficiently dispelled that myth. As a matter of fact, their testing seemed to prove that exposing your plants to loud heavy metal music and insults was a better way of producing healthy vegetation than exposing them quiet classical music and “nice talk”. Another example would be the entire “beat argument”. This one has seemed a little nuts to me since the time I first heard it more than 20 years ago. I have a number of friends who would come home from camp and destroy all their CCM tapes because of a “sermon” on the evil beat. I never went for that. But I digress.

I asked a pastor friend about this music conundrum 3 or 4 years ago. This was a man who has been a pastor in two ultra-conservative IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) churches over the last 35 or 40 years. I would consider him as being to the right of me in almost everything! He exposed me to a word that I had never once heard brought up in the plethora music discussions I had been involved in or witnessed over the years. That word was…DISCERNEMENT. Here was a man who I had once heard (when I was a youth) preach that CCM was sinful! Obviously, he’d changed a bit over the last 20 or 25 years. I found that we were in agreement that some music might be good, quality, Christ-honoring music even if it was part of a genre that was crowded with "junk".

Discernment. I began to realize during our conversation that it is more important to teach our youth to become more discerning than it is to give them a list of things to avoid. As I cruise around the internet and witness some of the conversations that young Evangelical and Fundamentalist adults are currently having, I’m struck with the fact that there is often little discernment displayed. If we fail to teach our children discernment, we shouldn’t be surprised when they grow up into teens and adults who aren’t discerning!

The conclusion of the matter (at least as far as I’m concerned) is that some CCM is good – some is bad. Some Gospel music is good – some is bad. Some of the music in our hymnals is good – some is bad. Now, I’ve often heard the “slippery slope” argument. “If you say something is good part of the time and something is bad part of the time, you’re going to have people using that argument to justify all sorts of wicked behavior!” Once again, I suppose we’d better focus on teaching discernment. We’ll be better off teaching discernment than we’ll ever be trying to explain to a teenager why knee-length shorts are OK on the basketball court but not at a youth group activity. Or why girls can wear coulottes, but not modest, knee-length shorts… but that’s another article (that I will never write)!


Hannah Slingsby said...

Thanks for the wonderful thoughts on music. They were very encouraging. Discernment is definitely something that needs to be taught more than it has been. I know that there are very few fundamentals in my generation that are very discerning. They have been taught concepts all of their lives without being taught how to think for themselves and so they continue in the same patterns without investigating what the Word of God says about different issues.
Keep up the good work! It is always encouraging to read your blog. Tell the family hello!

Ellis Murphree said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Hannah...I didn't know anybody other than my wife actually reads this thing!

It's important that people are taught to think. There are a couple of reasons that I think logic and true teaching (not just "indoctrination") are abandoned in favor of slamming lists of "do's and dont's" down folks' throats. I might write another article dealing with that.

We pray for you often and are looking forward to seeing you this summer (apparently you found some place better to go over Spring Break???)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this Ellis. I've enjoyed reading your thought journey about Christian music. I went through the same thing for quite a while.
Great article!
Bruce C.

Marty Colborn said...


I finally got this to go through!

I appreciate your candidness on the music issue. There is a lot there to discern, and I guess that for some people it might be better for them to reject all CCM out of hand, because they themselves have so little discernment. Still, how many people really are thinking about what we sing from our hymnals? There are a number of songs in any hymnal that might make you wonder how they got there if you stopped to think about it.

One comment on the song you quoted in your post: I heard it at work, and was able to catch the "Christian" emphasis of it, but it was easy to reject the song because of the rock station it was on. I must admit that I like the words, seeing them in print, and the song itself wasn't wholly repulsive, even with the rock music that carried that message.

I am still out on the question of "Christian rock." There is a lot of sensuality and "out of control" action associated with the rock music itself that it still is hard for me to accept that kind of music. Having said that, I heard a song several years ago on a Christian rock station that had a really good message. It was asking the listener "Who do you say that I am?" as Jesus asked His disciples. The point of the song was the same one that our Lord made: it is not our concern what others think of Him, He is putting the question to us as individuals.

I am kind of wishy-washy on all this, don't you think? What I don't want to do is come down on one side or the other just because somebody has told me to take that position or I'm not a good Christian.

I grew up with country music, and then switched to rock and roll in high school. For me the rock represents the drug use and drinking that went with it, the lust and immorality of the dances I attended and, indeed, the rebellion of my teenage years. While I cannot blame the music for all that, it did go with it, and it is rather difficult for me to separate the rock music from the rest. I realize that all of this is circumstantial evidence, but there are feelings that go with the music, and images that return to my mind, even when I listen to Christian rock.

I know that I am kind of rambling here, and I apologize for the rather long post, but I wanted to express some of these things. Perhaps I will address them further on my own blog in the future.

One more: The rock music seems to have more of a pull to it on me than the country, and while the rock seems to carry with it some extra baggage. I don't mind some of the country-styled Christian music that I hear, even though, for some people, that is a line that should not be crossed either.


Anonymous said...

Hi there!
I would like to suggest that whatever kind of music that leads people to praise God and to a deeper relationship with Jesus really shouldn't be criticised by people of faith but rather supported - even if it doesn't suit your tastes in music or lyrics. In this troubled world we need to encourage musicians to offer their talents to the Lord in whatever ways they feel compelled/inspired by God to do so. There really is no "bad" or "wrong" as long as there is benefit to someone in their relationship to God and to His children. Thanks for posting your opinion but I just don't agree. By the way, I am a Christian "artist"/singer/composer.May God bless you in all you strive to do toward bringing about His Kingdom!