A Question of Accessibility
Emerging Confessions Part One

What Should Worship Sound Like?: Dusting Off an Old Story

Back in July of '06, I wrote an blog post entitled, "The Pope's Rift with Riffs" on my blog, relevintage.com.

I would like to dust it off for the sake of conversation here on Worship Helps.  Here it is:

It's official.  The Pope has entered the worship wars.

From the New York Sun this past week:

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI has called for an end to electric guitars and modern music being played in church and demanded a return to traditional choirs and Gregorian chants.

The Catholic Church has been experimenting with new ways of holding Mass to try to attract more people. The recital of Mass set to guitars has grown in popularity in Italy; in Spain, Mass has been set to flamenco music, and in America, the Electric Prunes produced a “psychedelic” album called “Mass in F Minor.”

However, the use of guitars and tambourines has irked the pope, who loves classical music. “It is possible to modernize holy music,” he said at a concert conducted by the director of music at the Sistine Chapel, Domenico Bartolucci. “But it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music.”

His comments prompted the newspaper La Stampa to compare him with Pope Pius X, who denounced faddish classical and baroque compositions and reinstated Gregorian chants in 1903.

Uh oh.  Get your camo on...

As I have been in ministry and encountered with the idea that an earlier musical form is a more Biblical form of worship, I can’t help but feel like we are actually talking about something extra-Biblical. In fact, it borders on elitism.

Does the Pope really have scriptural grounds for his comments? Is he saying that Gregorian chants are a more purer form of worship? Eh?

It is amazing to me that one will elevate one form of worship music style over another, claiming it is more Biblically appropriate, when in reality, it is just their preference [the article says the Pope ‘loves’ classical music].

Sorry Benedict, all musical styles are affiliated with some form of cultural expression. Further, music has no inherent spiritual content. In other words, it is amoral. Music is a message bearer. Lyrics are the message.

Here is the rub. There are those of us who prescribe to the idea that it is Biblical to be missional to our culture [just read Acts 13 [+/-] & 17].  So for me, cultural relevance, as it pertains to music, is a non-negotiable.

But I don’t claim that it is a non-negotiable for everyone, depending on their context.

What I struggle with is those who have deemed that a certain musical form from a certain time is the only acceptable form within the context of corporate worship.

Now, can those who endorse contextual worship border on snobbery? Yes. I am concerned that for the sake of being relevant, we diminish the rich tapestry of all musical styles. So fellow contextualizers, in defending the Bible’s liberties, we have to be careful not to fall into the same elitist trap.

Here is the bottom line:  Can’t we appreciate of the many diverse musical styles that help individuals engage with God in worship? Can’t we agree that different people respond differently to certain worship styles? Can’t we affirm that we need the full breadth of worship expressions within evangelicalism?

The issue of music styles falls into the category of a non-essential. Let’s not condemn, globally, something that is against our preferences!

Especially you Benedict!


Taylor Burton-Edwards

Just one comment here... the notion that music itself is amoral may not be quite correct. Certainly you'd get a good argument about that from folks in ethnomusicology, neurophysiology, and, yes, a good number of ancient philosophers, Christian and non-Christian, east and west.

I'm offering some broad strokes here, but ethnomusicologists would point to the role that different kinds of music play in specific cultures-- and that from a sheer socological perspective of "mores" and "folkways" that means that we're talking about "morality" as well. The wrong music or the wrong beat in the wrong place in many cultures would be understood as what we might call "sinful"-- an affront to the human and divine world.

Neurophysiologists (and some of the more savvy marketers!) would point out that certain types of musical tones, patterns and frequencies can influence choices that people will make about particular things-- and therefore also, in that sense, have claim to a kind of moral content. What they cannot measure (and the best of them usually claim to measure only in the context of their experimental data) is the degree to which those tones, patterns, and frequencies are culturally defined and to what degree they are hardwired, as it were. But in either case, if you're talking about choices, you are talking about morality.

And then a variety of philosophers of the ancient world, including Aristotle, have argued for specific aethestics regarding music as precisely moral concerns-- and one sees signs of those sorts of arguments throughout the history of music in the church as well-- whether it's an argument against polyphony, or for only triple meter, or against the "diabolus in musica" (the tri-tone interval) or at the Council of Trent whether music that is "troppo molle" (too complicated) ends up affecting not only the text, but also the souls of the hearers, and so the development of homophonic polyphonic style for church music which lies behind the chorale and eventually the hymn tradition that has been so prevalent in Protestantism.

I'm not trying to defend Benedict's dictum at this point-- only to note that it's hardly a given that music itself is or should be considered to be a-moral.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards



Wonderful response! You have such a great handle on history, one that informs my view on the issue. I have heard many of these arguments before but not so well stated.

I think where I diverge from the ethnomusicologists, neurophysiologists, and, philosophers is they are talking about more aesthetics, not morality.

I would agree that music does have a certain aesthetic, especially depending on the cultural context. But, it seems to me that in issues of morality in music, the cultural 'take' is imposed upon the music. Any 'hard wiring' is imposed as well.

I am taking music back to its basic form. The notes and the combination of those notes have no inherent morality. They just don't...aesthetics, yes, but morality, no.

I agree that its not a given that it is generally held that music is amoral, but I do think that it should be considered that it is.

Help me understand something. When you say that when we are dealing with choices, we are dealing with morality, what do you mean?

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Glad to continue the conversation!

I understand morality as a social construct, an agreed upon set of behaviors that are considered acceptable or even positively good and a set of warnings and consequences when behaviors considered unacceptable are performed. We're surrounded by many moralities all the time in US culture, since the cultures that form us here are very diverse. Some of these moralities, or moral structures, are more comprehensive than others. Others leave wide berth-- claiming some things commendable, others things reprehensible, and still others (or those it doesn't enumerate under the other two categories) as indifferent. US "popular" culture, broadly described, tends to leave very wide room for "things indifferent," and that would probably include music itself.

People make choices about all sorts of things all the time. And they do this always in the context of the morality structures that surround them or may have been internalized by them. Choices have moral value depending on the moral structure that is used to judge or evaluate them.

Many Christian morality structures have generally tended to assume that every choice we make about anything is, to some degree, a moral choice, and so has to do with morality. Christian theology, when it has dealt with aesthetics, has most often done so also from a moral/ethical perspective, and not as if aesthestics could or should be considered as having no particular moral content. Though aesthetics as a matter for theological contemplation has been rather neglected in Protestant discourse (perhaps the notable exception being in Anglicanism), I would hope that as Protestants do take this up again, we would do so with reference to the substantial body of Christian reflection, mostly Roman Catholic and Anglican, that has preceded us.

Peace in Christ,

Greg Scheer

Hi Brad,

I think there are a few points you need to think about more thoroughly.

First of all, I think you may be putting words in the Pope's mouth. You quote the New York Sun's interpretation of what he said, but the only quote from the Pope himself seems to indicate that he was simply reiterating what Rome has always encouraged: modernization based on tradition. Chant, choirs and the organ have served the church well in the past. It seems reasonable to encourage their continued use and suggest that modern musicians build on this foundation. It didn’t sound like he was condemning all music but Rome’s historical repertoire—that would directly contradict Vatican II. I would be interested to read what the Pope said in its original context.

The New York Sun makes a connection between the Pope’s love of classical music and his statement on worship music, but the two may have little in common. It sounds to me that his statement is less about aesthetic preferences, and more about appropriateness for corporate worship. I think the Pope is mature enough to separate the two. He’s not the only one. A number of studies have shown, for example, that many young people who like pop music find it inappropriate for worship. So rather than enforcing a stylistic preference, he may be showing deep pastoral and theological wisdom. Not every music style is equally fitting for the context of worship. For example, if one of the primary goals of worship is communal singing, it would be silly to think that a 12-tone fugue would be an appropriate music style. In my estimation, one of the biggest issues facing the modern church is the difficulty of adapting pop music styles for worship. Pop music styles have developed as a medium for personal expression from an artist to an audience. There are only a handful of examples of “sing along” pop. So the Pope may be on to something.

Evangelicals have traditionally asserted that music is amoral, but I see some problems with this view. At best it elevates word arts over every other art, at its worst it says that music is meaningless. First of all, we need to consider what the Bible says about music. When David played his harp for Saul, it’s clear that something was happening on a spiritual level. There are a number of other places where the Bible affirms music without conveying that its worth is based on its ability to support words. Harold Best argues that words are more important than music because they convey meaning, but I’m with Jeremy Begbie in thinking that all the arts contribute to our understanding of the Word. Following Best’s philosophy to its logical end neuters music of anything more than a utilitarian role—it brings people in the door, it sells CDs, it warms up the crowd for the preacher.

This is not to say that we can make absolute judgments about music. There are certainly cultural aesthetics at play in every musical decision. Those who ignore culture when assessing music, or make sweeping, universal judgments will always fall into aesthetic elitism. Perhaps even cultural racism. But there are theological and aesthetic issues that go deeper than specific cultural manifestations. Certainly the Bible should inform our worship theology in way that allows us to reject (or simply not adopt) our culture’s art forms when necessary. And we know from science that humans have certain musical universals hard-wired into our brains. (Higher sounds are more exciting, lower sounds move more slowly in comparison to higher, etc.) But these universal meanings will play themselves them out differently in each culture. Maybe we could agree that music is not amoral (meaningless), but also not universal (absolute meaning)?

These issues are important to me as a musician, but they’re important to all of us as worshipers. Churches have tended to gravitate towards the poles of cultural elitism or cultural relevancy without being tempered by opposing arguments. We’ll all benefit from thinking more deeply about the role of music in worship.

Greg Scheer



Just to add a little fuel to the fire (producing, I hope, some light -- as opposed to heat), here and here are a few sites that provide some more contextualized thinking from Benedict about Music and Liturgy.

Bernice Parker

What is your view on clapping following a solo or special music?

pandora charms

Churches have tended to gravitate towards the poles of cultural elitism or cultural relevancy without being tempered by opposing arguments

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