From Aristotle to St. Augustine to the present day, many conservative cultural leaders have taught that music influences listeners’ moral characters and behaviors, both for good and for evil. I research debates within Evangelicalism about the validity of these claims, especially as they relate to pop music and worship services. I focus on conservatives who believe that pop music styles promote immorality and false worship, but that some kinds of music can reflect God's nature and draw them closer to God.
Want to know more about it? Check out my dissertation (available for download here), the blog posts linked below, and these FAQs:
Fundamentalists have an extensive discourse about music, its effects on listeners, and what kinds of music they think Christians should listen—what they call their “philosophy of music.” This philosophy has three main premises.
First, all music has either positive or negative influences on people who listen to it, and is therefore good or bad in and of itself. Fundamentalists often express this belief by saying “music is moral” and support their views by pointing out music’s emotional effects on people and its commercial and therapeutic uses (think of soundtracks, background music in restaurants, and music therapy).
Second, listeners can learn to tell the difference between good and bad music. Based on their interpretations of specific musical elements like rhythm and vocal timbre, fundamentalists classify classical music, traditional hymnody, and some folk music as good, and most popular forms of music as bad.
Third, Christian listeners can use good music to strengthen their spiritual lives and to be a witness to unbelievers. Since good music influences listeners in good ways, it follows that listening/performing/composing good music will help a believer become a stronger Christian. And, choosing good music is a testimony of a person's faith because it shows how God has the power to change their actions (and the desires that motivate their actions) from bad to good.
Fundamentalists aren’t alone in thinking this way about music—people have been making the first argument at least since Plato lived about 2,500 years ago. But they apply their philosophy in distinct ways, and their philosophy has a direct impact on the music they listen to, perform, and compose.
From among the many subgenres of fundamentalist music, I focus on a cluster of musicians, music companies and writers who are loosely connected with Bob Jones University—entities like SoundForth, Majesty Music, The Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team, and The Wilds.
My sources include:
My criteria for including these sources is:
I loosely prioritize sources in descending importance based on those three criteria, with items in the third category far below the first two. So for instance, Tim Fisher’s writings take precedence over Dan Lucarini’s because Fisher has both earned and honorary degrees from BJU and directs the music program at a fundamental church, while Lucarini is a conservative evangelical who has spoken at BJU and whose writings are endorsed by fundamentalists. But both Fisher and Lucarini’s ideas have far greater weight than, say, T. David Gordon’s, whose books are merely sold by fundamentalists.
Today, there are many circles of fundamentalism that overlap but are distinct from each other, especially in term of their cultural practices. When I say “fundamentalist” in my writing, I am mostly talking about the circle of fundamentalism that surrounds Bob Jones University.
Fundamentalism can have a variety of meanings depending on its context. In the area of American Christianity, fundamentalism refers to the beliefs and practices of evangelical Christians with historical roots in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. During this controversy in the 1920s and 1930s, conservatives (“fundamentalists”) separated out of mainline Protestant denominations to form their own independent churches, parachurch organizations, and denominations.
Since then, fundamentalists have been known for their ecclesiastical separation and their personal separation. In other words, they and their churches are not affiliated with people and churches they disagree with, and they endeavor to be distinct and apart from “the world” in daily life.
Fundamentalists hold many beliefs in common with other conservative evangelicals. For example, they believe the Bible is inerrant, inspired by God, and should be read in a literal way. But they practice separation in a way that most other conservative evangelicals do not. So, a fundamental church might refuse to be affiliated with any denominational organization, or it might not invite a speaker who had shared venues with more liberal speakers. A fundamentalist individual might, as a practice of personal separation, choose to avoid restaurants that sell alcohol or might not pursue friendships with people with more liberal lifestyles.
Today, many individuals and churches self-identity as fundamentalist. They might also refer to themselves as “biblical fundamentalists” or “Bible believers” or "biblicists." These terms all place the emphasis on their belief that they are “following the Bible,” holding to “biblical views,” or otherwise “doing what the Bible says” because they interpret the Bible in what they see as a literal way.
Some people prefer different terms, though they still have a historical connection to fundamentalism and attend churches with separatist policies. They describe themselves as “conservative Christians” or “culturally conservative Christians.” One major reason they dislike the term “fundamentalism” is that it can refer to other religious groups who see their scriptural interpretive methods as literal—Islamic fundamentalism, for example. But even though "conservative Christian" can mean something very precise to fundamentalist Christians (and I often use the term "conservative music" when speaking with fundamentalists), it has any number of meanings outside of fundamentalist circles. So, I use "fundamentalist" because of its specific historical meaning in the context of American Christianity.
The fundamentalist musicians and pastors that I interview often wonder what my angle is—what am I *really* interested in? Do I want to make fun of their views? Champion them? Something else entirely?
When I attend services at fundamental churches, the folks I meet tend to assume I’m there to champion—Here’s a researcher from Duke! She's writing about our music!
But those outside of fundamentalism often find fundamentalists’ arguments about music to be unsound, partially due to the textbook-ready examples of logical fallacies found in many fundamentalist texts on music. They laugh, they poke fun, and they assume I’m in on some joke with them.
So what’s up? What IS my angle?
First, in my analysis of fundamentalist texts, I try to take authors on their own terms. By taking them on their own terms, I’m arguing that these authors’ lines of reasoning are legitimate to them. But I’m not interested in how those arguments conform to many rules of logic.
Second, I’m curious about internal contradictions in fundamentalist thought—the contradictions that are contradictions to fundamentalists themselves. For example, if solo singing is a form of preaching (and fundamentalists say it is), then why can female fundamentalists sing solos in church when they certainly can’t preach? To me, that is a much more interesting question than, "How many false dilemmas can I count in this chapter?”
Finally, I explore fundamentalist ideas from the perspective that even though these ideas may seem to be about changing a person’s mind, they are really about reaching that person’s heart. Most fundamentalist texts about music are not written by professional writers—they are written by musicians and pastors who care deeply about changing the spiritual destiny of their readers.