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. ‘