Whitewashing Cultural Sepulchers

She’s only three, but our differing taste in music is already a source of conflict. When I turn on Johnny Cash or Regina Spektor, she is adamant: “No.  Songs ’bout Jesus.”  In other words, the local contemporary Christian music station.

At first this seemed OK.   Like many parents, I’m concerned about the kind of art my daughter surrounds herself with.  Popular Christian music doesn’t have any obviously objectionable lyrics, so it must be good for her, right?

Not necessarily.  While the lyrics she enjoys are fine, the music itself often is not.  If Plato and Aristotle were correct, listeners should pay as much attention to the sound of a song as to its lyrics.  Yet, in the popular music world, few do that – and it’s probable that few ever have.  Christians have been right to spurn songs that verbally glorify immorality, but unfortunately they have sometimes imported and whitewashed musical styles that may themselves teach bad lessons.  As Carson Holloway wrote recently:

“…music moves the passions, and… this power, exerted repeatedly over time on people who are immature and impressionable, can produce a certain disposition under which it will be either easier or more difficult for reason to see, and for the will to choose, what is right.”

Thanks to the iPod,  music has become one of the most casually consumed art forms.  The entertainment industry has so taken over popular music that much of it is hardly even considered art anymore – and thus the most popular works are seldom examined seriously.  We are so immersed in music that we hardly know how to hear it anymore, and few consider the consequences of blindly opening oneself up to a medium with such tremendous power to sway the emotions.

This wasn’t always so:

“[Plato and Aristotle]…claimed that people generally and the young especially are influenced most powerfully not by the words of a song but by the music itself-the rhythm, harmony and tune. For these ancients, the music itself, not the lyric, causes the stirrings of passion in the soul that show themselves in the movements of the body. Such experiences, repeated often during one’s formative years, leave a lasting mark. And the immoderation such music fosters, Plato and Aristotle remind us, can be harmful, whether or not the words of the songs are objectionable.”

While Plato specified which musical modes were good and which were bad, most find it difficult to be so specific; so difficult, in fact, that it’s doubtful whether such specificity is even useful.  Music is a terrifically complex art form.  Not only does it possess myriad nuances of every conceivable type, but each of these subtleties may have profoundly different effects on each individual listener.  This makes it all the more important that we not ignore the effects that our listening habits have on our moral sensibilities.

When Christian bands stamp family-safe lyrics on songs that sound no different from the latest secular hits, they do their art and their listeners a disservice by failing to account for the soul-shaping forces at work in the very form of their creations. Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, “The medium is the message,” applies to music just as much as to other forms of communication.  It’s a far from neutral medium, though fans and critics alike often treat it as one.

Far from encouraging virtue and inspiring worship, much popular Christian music unintentionally fosters the same vices as secular music.  Music ought to help one learn to cultivate higher pleasures, but instead most popular works tend to encourage listeners to stop and be entertained.  This does not mean we should reject popular music altogether; however, it does mean we should be carefully intentional about the quality of art we surround ourselves with:

“…in their attempt to take music seriously, the conservative critics of pop music do not aim high enough. They oppose music that fosters vice, but that limited aim does not do justice to the full flourishing of human nature or to the key role that the right kind of musical culture can play in fostering that flourishing. By failing to aim higher, modern conservatives ignore, and therefore do nothing to correct, the very social conditions that foster soul- and culture-deforming popular music. To understand this failing more fully, we need to develop the likely Platonic and Aristotelian diagnosis of modern popular music, modern culture and politics, and their effects on the human soul.”

While I’m not about to forbid my preschooler from listening to modern music, I do plan to teach her to treat music as an art that will help her learn to pursue higher pleasures and, ultimately, virtue.  In the mean time, we talk about the “songs ’bout Jesus” she likes so much – and the neighbor girl who frequents our home is beginning to wonder why we listen to so much Bach. ‘

Published by

Rachel Motte

Rachel Motte is a freelance writer, journalist and editor specializing in social issues, educational affairs, and international religious freedom. Her work has appeared at CNN.com, The Evangelical Outpost, The New Ledger, the Daily Caller, and in Jonah Goldberg’s recent anthology, Proud to Be Right. She is an alumna of Biola University, the Torrey Honors Institute, the Leadership Institute, and the World Journalism Institute. Rachel may be reached at rachel[at]rachelmotte[dot]com.

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  • Doug Robinson

    There are a number of issues to consider here…

    (1) The relationship of popular music in America to commercialism and propaganda.

    Popular music is written with the intent of being sold. This qualification produces a lot of problems. The sincerity of popular music is rightly questioned, as is the depth or challenge. Music that is wanted by the masses is not necessarily music that is good for the masses. Here music loses its ability to shock or rebuke us, a power that can be effectively used to build virtue. We are not always supposed to be comfortable or pleased with ourselves and our situaton. Music can draw us out of this shallowness just as much as it can lead us into it.

    Incidentally, Theodor Adorno rebuked the use of popular music by the hippie movement of the 1960’s because they tainted their message by putting it into a form that supported the economic structures in power that they were protesting. He even went so far as to say that popular music was a form replete with fascist ideology.

    (2)Kitsch is not necessarily the harmless pleasure that we think it is.

    Kitsch (that is art that is cheap and nonfunctional) has been called by some “a beautiul lie.” I’ll leave it to everyone to debate what qualifies as kitsch; nevertheless, we should beware of music that seduces us into shallowness and mediocrity. What is art telling us about what is real? Is it being realistic about the complexities of life or is it smoothing them over into a blissful landscape that cannot and, even perhaps, should not exist? This is not because there is no beauty in the world, but precisely because there is. Kitsch has a way of becoming not only “a beautiful lie,” but an insipidly ugly and deceptive manipulation. We should ask ourselves the question: Does this describe what is real?

    (3) This third and final issue is a warning for future critiques: Do not confuse style or technique with idea!

    I myself am training to compose music in the classical tradition and this is one of the truths that has become especially apparent to me. I regularly have musicians ask me questions like: Do you write tonal or atonal music? Which is better? I repeatedly tell them that I write both and that you can’t judge a technique or harmonic structure as being inherently good or evil. This would be similar to Plato’s judgment of the modes. Do they matter? How you use them matters. It is far too abstract to judge technique when you need to consider the actual piece of music and the idea that it is putting across, whether that is merely musical or encompasses other things. This is point that should be made clear from the beginning.

  • Ben Ritch

    I don’t like the use of bad. Should you understand that the music is important for the emotion conferred by the song- yes.

    Temet nosce- thine own self thou must know. Understand how things affect you and look at what influences your actions.



  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606116906 Doug Robinson

    There can be a dissonance between Truth in verbal prose or poetry and a lack of Truth in the musical setting. Better tunes are someitmes called for. Then, something such as Handel’s Messiah resonates on every level with the better aspirations of our souls. Then there are wonderful tunes with obviously idolatrous lyrics, such as Imagine by John Lenon and I did it My Way as performed by Frank Sinatra or the Gypsy Kings.

    We often hear from those who want to confuse and blur the lines, those who tell us: if sex is inherantly good, created by God, than pornographic art is beautiful, just on it’s own terms, and we as Christians should not be uptight moralists, rather we must appreciate the meaning and beauty of pornography for it’s own sake, or, Idolitry is like the true worship of God–just worshiping something else instead of God–but it is still a valid form of worship–As if God himself were secondary and not central, optional and not necessary to true worship. “Imagine no religion . . .” Screwtape would be proud.

  • http://facebook Will Rowley

    I’m afraid of homogeneity in taste, the overly simple, and especially the dumbed down. I can’t think of a worse sin than recording children singing out of tune on purpose. Countless kiddie Creeschun CD’s are guilty of this. Little Einsteins is an example of this most horrible kind of travesty. Of course, my son LOVES it, but since he loves all sorts of other things, I put up with it for short runs, but gently shove him over to the Backyardigans. We were out eating and my daughter proclaimed, “I love this music”, upon hearing a particularly pathetic and machine like hip hop track. Since it’s less than one percent of one percent of her palette, I’m not going to fret. She’s liking the Beatles’ “Help”. This is a simplicity I can get behind.

  • http://rachelmotte.com Rachel Motte

    You’re right, “good” and “bad” are probably much too simple to do this discussion justice. Thank goodness for the comments box!

  • http://rachelmotte.com Rachel Motte

    Brother Doug,
    Well said! It seems like art frequently becomes less excellent when it is bought and sold. Would it be better to keeps the arts separate from the economy, or is the system OK as is?

  • http://rachelmotte.com Rachel Motte

    Other Doug (as opposed to Brother Doug!),
    I agree, but how does one know which music is OK and which isn’t without resorting to a subjective approach to art?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606116906 Doug Robinson

    Starting with the obvious, music should compliment, counterpoint and reinforce the content of lyrics worth listening to. It may seem counter intuitive to some, but in film and video, audo usually has a greater impact than visuals–the sound track makes or breaks the movie. And it usually does this best if it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself–it can’t ursurp the visuals.

    Regarding songs, maybe we need to bring back the old idea of good taste. Bad tasting food may be very healthy, but there is something wonderful about enjoying the color, aroma, taste, and texture of a well prepared meal or fresh picked fruit.

    Pop music tends towards the high on calories and presentation, but low on nutrition for the soul. Coupled with biblical lyrics it is akin to spiritual junk food.

    There are certainly better meals to enjoy–and they absolutely need not leave a bad taste to be substantial.

  • http://facebook Will Rowley

    I love the “spiritual junk food” concept. We quite literally listen to McDonalds music and deep fried songs dripping in sugar. Compare to this:


    I contend that this one movement expresses the fullest meaning of our lives. And to think that the genius Mozart could achieve this even without speaking a single word…