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The Right Kind of Music: "Drawing the Line" Between Good and Bad Music

The Right Kind of Music: "Drawing the Line" Between Good and Bad Music

This post is about my research on fundamentalist Christian music. Read more about it here

Fundamentalists speaking and writing about music generally assume a shared belief with their audience that morality exists as a black and white dualism of distinct and absolute categories: good or bad, with a hard and fast line dividing them.

Imagine a number line with a definite line—a zero—dividing negative and positive, dividing the two categories.

The question is not if but where that line is. If there is good and bad music, then there must be a line between the two because in God’s eyes, there is only music that reflects or distorts his nature

This belief leads authors like Scott Aniol to write in Worship in Song that “there is no such thing as neutral music. Any given song is either good or evil. To deny such a truth would be to deny absolutes.” While people may not always see where the continuum changes from positive to negative, “[i]n the mind of God there is a line somewhere in the middle.” Only our humanity—”our creatureliness and sinfulness”—prevents us from perceiving “the line that God has set regarding music.” 

Neutral music? Moral music?

Evangelicals on the other side of the “Worship Wars” have typically argued that music is morally neutral—the opposite of what fundamentalists argue. 

Here’s how fundamentalist author Tim Fisher deploys the idea of a line to parse out the difference in The Battle for Christian Music:

First, his summary of the other side:

"Music is neutral. Therefore, I as a Christian can use any type of music I want (jazz, rock, punk, rap, disco, heavy metal, pop, country, rhythm and blues, etc.) 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, it is useful to evangelism."

Second, the perspective of fundamentalists like Fisher:

"Music is not neutral. It has the capability of communicating imbalance and sensuality, and 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 to worship the Lord. My personal taste is subject to scriptural conviction. Evangelism is a result of my right relationship with God."

Fisher then sums up these opposing viewpoints with: “Either we draw lines or we do not. Either we use all musical styles or we don’t. … You may never draw the line exactly where I do. … I do insist, however, that you consider the fact that a line must be drawn!” 

Eliminating “questionable” music

Since fundamentalists believe that any sin—big or little, seemingly obvious or obscure—separates people from God, they feel compelled to divide the good music from the bad. But because listeners may not hear the line or even a line, music standards become codified in fundamentalist churches and families so as to eliminate areas that are perhaps questionable to listeners but are certainly not questionable in the eyes of God. 

Regardless, the goal isn’t necessarily to find this sometimes elusive but definite line. That is not “the point,” says Kimberly Smith in Let Those Who Have Ears to Hear, but rather, “the goal is how close we can come to God’s standards revealed through Scriptures so that we may obey and please Him in our musical choices.”

What about appropriateness?

After distinguishing between good and bad music you can then turn your attention to “appropriateness”—the best choice for a particular use. 

Fundamentalists like Fisher aren’t arguing,“Ok just have morally good music and use it whenever and wherever you like.” Instead, first you have to eliminate all bad music, then choose among the remaining good options for music that is best for a specific situation. The consideration of what is “appropriate” allows you to make finely tuned choices for what will work best for this Sunday’s choir anthem (not just a morally good genre with doctrinally solid words, but also what is fitting for Easter Sunday at your church and best utilizes the musical resources you have) or simply what you would enjoy most as the background accompaniment to your dinner.

Curious about fundamentalism and music? Check out this introduction and the FAQs.

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