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Pop Music, Pragmatism, and Christianity

May 2017 Feature

In February 2016, Singapore’s Catholic archbishop Goh urged his fellow Catholics to differentiate “pseudo arts” from “authentic arts that lead us to God.” The criticism was directed toward the “Queen of Pop”, Madonna.

In everyday discourse, the term popular music can generally be described as types of music of lower complexity than art music, having wide appeal, and ready to be enjoyed by large numbers of musically uneducated people rather than only by a certain élite. Its identifying elements can include the use of simple melodic tunes and repeated choruses.

How should Christians view and evaluate pop music along with the culture it spawns?

In order to understand the phenomena of popular art, we must understand a certain philosophical background that has helped these phenomena to flourish, that is, the philosophy of pragmatism.

According to the pragmatist philosopher Dewey, the special function of art lies above all in the enhancement of human immediate experience. The supremacy of the aesthetic is that art can be immediately enjoyed. The final standard in pragmatism is not truth but experience.

Pragmatism criticizes the modern conception of art that has detached art from real life and send it to a separate realm like the concert hall and museum. Instead of associating aesthetic experience with normal processes of living, art has been compartmentalized in an élite realm accessible only for certain people.

Dewey disapproves such elitist tradition and want to bring art back in everydayness. He therefore rejects the dualism of high versus popular culture by insisting on the fundamental continuity instead.

According to pragmatism, the so-called ‘high’ art music performed in the concert halls (and in some traditional churches!) has removed art from human lives. Pragmatist aesthetics therefore privileges art experience over the art object. The way to this enhanced art experience is through popular art.

We can appreciate Dewey’s genuine concern about the elitist tradition. Indeed, the Bible does not advocate elitism but opts for universal inclusion. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We also appreciate Dewey’s effort to bring art back in everydayness.

However, there are serious difficulties in the pragmatist solution of popular art viewed from the Christian perspective.

First, the immediacy of aesthetic experience as the ultimate goal of art is highly problematic when viewed from biblical perspective. Christianity is not an immediate (read: instant) way of life. There is no easy and convenient truth without a long process of learning and struggling.

If we agree that there is a strong relation between the kind of art that we consume and our spirituality, then one of the dangers of popular music lies precisely in its immediacy and instantness. The unformed life is not worth living. Popular music tends to produce instant (pseudo) spirituality.

Secondly, the strong emphasis on experience at the expense of truth is hardly compatible with the biblical view. Biblically speaking, there is no truly satisfying experience apart from truth.

Popular music cares little for its content since it aims primarily for enhanced experience (of feeling good, for instance). This kind of experience, however, imprisons humans in subtle addiction.

On the contrary, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

The Swiss reformer Zwingli related the idea of Christian freedom and true happiness when he said, “Truth wears a happy face.” Happy experience cannot be separated from truth.

Thirdly, due to its goal to bring music to large numbers of listeners with little or no musical training, popular music frequently, if not always, displays lack of depth and along with it, of deep quality.

Any complex music is suspected of succumbing to the elitist tradition. The absoluteness of simplicity, however, can be considered as a denial of growing and becoming mature seen from the biblical perspective. The celebration of simplicity that avoids the process of growing can easily lead to the celebration of triviality and naïveness.

The Bible, on the contrary, teaches humans to give up childish ways to become an adult and mature (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:14).

Fourthly, the problem of sharing the complex art and music, the so-called ‘high’ art, is not resolved by replacing them with easy-to-listen music. If that were the case, then there would have been no incarnation. Replacing high Christology with low Christology is never an orthodox evangelical way of settling the problem.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christianity commits to believe in the incarnation of the Most High. Pragmatism teaches us to discard everything high coming from the idealistic realm while replacing it with popular concrete experience.

Christianity celebrates not only the possibility but also the certainty of the Logos that has become flesh. Christianity concurs with pragmatist criticism of Platonic idealism but comes up with different solution.

If we believe in the way of incarnation, then we don’t have to replace the ‘high’ with the ‘low’ but to teach and edify our children and ourselves so that we can grow from childhood to adulthood.

The reformers believed in the power of catechism. Luther translated the Bible into German. Zwingli applied the university method of teaching in his Sunday service expository preaching, that is, chapter by chapter of the Gospel. He did not oversimplify the life of Christ through popular preaching; rather, he edified his congregation in the way theological students were taught at the university.

Catechism is a Christian protest against the pragmatist easy solution that often leads to uneducatedness and ignorance. Calvin famously stated, “We know that where there is no understanding, there is certainly no edification.”

We need not only theological catechism but also catechism on good Christian arts and music. May God help us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.



Rev. Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean of International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta and a part time lecturer at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. He received a doctorate of philosophy in musicology and a doctorate in theology Systematic Theology both from Heidelberg University. He lives in Singapore since 2002 with his Family.

Music and Morality

November 2016 Pulse

In February this year (2016), Pop Queen Madonna held her controversial Rebel Heart concert in Singapore amidst concerns expressed by religious groups.

In his pastoral letter, Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh urges his 300,000 strong flock not to support ‘pseudo-arts that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths’.

The influence of modern pop and rock music on society and culture is a question which scholars – philosophers, theologians and sociologists – have been debating for quite some time. Although a consensus on the extent of music’s impact has not been reached, many are of the view that music does in some ways influence society.

The educational uses of music are, of course, already quite well documented. Children find it much easier to learn the alphabet if it is set to a song. This raises an important question: if children can be taught the alphabet or how to read through music, can they be taught what is right and wrong through the same medium?

To help us to reflect on these questions, we turn to the writings of two of the most eminent philosophers of Greek antiquity – Plato and Aristotle. What they have to say on this important subject is not only enlightening, but also surprisingly relevant.

Plato believes that far from being morally benign or neutral music has a profound if subtle ability to sway its listeners either positively or negatively. Thus, in The Republic Plato argues that music can be subversive and that certain kinds (or ‘modes’) of music can even engender a spirit of lawlessness.

The persuasive nature of music, Plato maintains, its ability not only to arouse particular emotions but also to habituate them, means that it can even shape the character of its listeners.

Now, the claim that certain forms of music produce certain effects in the listener is hardly controversial. It is obvious that listening to the Gregorian Chant and to Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death’ produce quite different effects in the listener.

But can listening to music mould the character of the listener (for the worse), as Plato claims? And if it can, how does it do this?

Rock music may influence the character of its listener – especially its teenage and young listeners – by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages it conveys through its lyrics but also through the sensibilities it generates.

Laced as it often is with themes of anger, frustration and self-indulgence, rock music presents the message of anarchy that is often very appealing to young people. For example, heavy metal contains such toxic messages of hatred against parents that it is sometimes described as music to kill your parents by.

But rock also urges the view that all social conventions and values must be overturned: nothing is sacred. A good example of this is Madonna, who throughout her career has attempted to desacralize sex and vulgarise (and even pornify) Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic variety.

Rock does not do this only with its provocative and damning lyrics. It does this by the music itself.

Here is where what our next philosopher, Aristotle, has to say about music is instructive.

According to Aristotle, music works on the will and the soul through representation. By this he means that music directly represents certain passions or emotional states such that by listening to certain types of music certain passions – courage and temperance or anger and rebellion – may be aroused.

Rock often arouses anger, angst and rebellion in the listener. As one commentator puts it, ‘One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to boiling point’.

As Aristotle has taught us, we are not dealing here only with the lyrics but the whole emotional arc that the music creates. As (re-)presentational rather than discursive language, music abstracts feelings from lived experiences and impresses them powerfully on the listener.

As John Dewey has put it, ‘Music, having sound as its medium … expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life’.

That is why Plato emphasises the importance of proper education in music. ‘Education in music’ he writes, ‘is most sovereign because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold of it’.

What sort of music, then, would contribute to the healthy moral development of an individual?

To answer this question would require another article. But briefly put, it is music that is wholesome, music that celebrates the good and the beautiful and music that tells the truth. It is music that is firmly rooted in a community, music that tells a story that captures the profoundest human experiences and emotions, and music that has stood the test of time.

We find such qualities in the music of Bach, Mozart and Handel. We also find them in varying degrees in Joan Baez’s ‘Barbara Allen’, in spirituals such as ‘Go Down, Moses’ and in ballads like Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul writes: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).

These qualities are of paramount importance to good music, music that will form its listeners into people of virtue and substance.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

 

Celebrating Easter With J. S. Bach

For more than a decade I have made it a point during the holy week to listen to all of the extant Passions of the brilliant Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, and also his magnificent Easter Oratorio on Resurrection Sunday. Not only was Bach a musical genius who brought Baroque music to its zenith, he was also an astute theologian, with a profound grasp of the Lutheran tradition to which he belonged. As the composer and musician in the great Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, Bach was not only steeped in the great musical tradition of the Reformation, he also possessed profound knowledge of the writings of the Reformer Martin Luther and the tenets of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. His commitment to the Lutheran tradition is further evidenced by his long friendship with his librettist, Erdmann Neumeister, Leipzig’s most eminent defender of orthodoxy and author of 400 books.

Bach’s familiarity with and creative appropriation of Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Book of Concord is evident everywhere in the sacred cantatas of the composer. The characteristic JJ (Jesu Juva, ‘Jesus Help’) at the beginning of his scores and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God be the Glory’) at the end indicate the profound piety of the composer. Schönberg is surely right in asserting that J. S. Bach is tied with religion in a way that no other composer was.

Bach wrote at a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Europe was tightening its grip on both university and church in Germany, with the goal of expunging from religion all claims and dogmas that fail the test of reason. For instance, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a brilliant contemporary of Bach, challenged the traditional interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross by arguing that ‘it was clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die’. Rather, Jesus’ intention, according to Reimarus, was to build an earthly kingdom and to free his people from the bondage of Roman rule.

When he realized that his bold preaching had offended the authorities and put his life in jeopardy, Jesus began ‘to quiver and to quake’, and tried to hide from sight. When Judas betrayed his hiding place, Jesus, believing that he was a messenger from God, expected God to deliver him from the hands of the authorities. But when deliverance did not occur, the crucified Jesus uttered the bitter and desperate cry recorded in the Gospels, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remairus concluded that ‘It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated’.

It is therefore not surprising that Reimarus would propose a bizarre theory that challenges the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Christ. The disciples, who had attained fame through the ministry of their rabbi, stole the body of the dead Jesus, hid it and then fabricated a tale of the resurrection and the return of Christ.

Against this sinister distortion of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Bach boldly declares that the death of Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the greatest expression of the love of God. Thus, in the soprano aria in his Matthew’s Passion, ‘In love my Saviour now is dying’, Bach could declare: ‘It is out of love that my Saviour intends to die, / Although of sin and guilt He knows nothing, / So that my soul should not have to bear / Everlasting damnation / And the penalty of divine justice’. Jesus did not recoil when he realised that his ministry had offended the authorities; he did not fear for his life, and tried to escape arrest. Rather Jesus presented himself willingly in obedience to the Father’s will, setting his face towards Jerusalem and Golgotha.

Furthermore, the death of Jesus was not the tragic death of a deluded revolutionary, as Reimarus had argued. Jesus died as one who bore the sins of the world, so that we should not have to bear the ‘everlasting damnation’ and ‘the penalty of divine justice’ that we rightly deserve. Against the revisionist approach of his contemporaries like Reimarus, Bach unwaveringly presented the atonement as satisfaction, thereby aligning himself with the Reformers and the eleventh century theologian, Anselm. As Jaroslav Pelikan has rightly observed, ‘the Anselmian doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew from beginning to end’.

Just as Bach would reach back to the Reformers (especially Luther) and to the medieval theologian, Anselm in his Passion According to Saint Matthew, so he would appeal to the Greek Fathers, chiefly Gregory of Nyssa in his Saint John Passion, which celebrates the great theme of Christus Victor. Bach’s Saint John Passion is infused with this theme, from the choral shouts proclaiming Jesus as ‘Herr’ (‘Lord’) to the transformation of the sixteenth-note figures of the strings to a crescendo, a grand, rising sequence. In the ‘deepest lowliness’ of the incarnation and the cross the lordship, power and glory of the Son of God is made manifest.

Through the cross and resurrection, the incarnate God confronts and defeats his enemies. Musically, Bach uses the turba choruses (i.e., choral pieces that contain the words spoken by the characters in the story) to emphasise the role of Christ’s enemies. These choruses, to use the description of Karl Geiringer, were used with good effect because of their ‘strongly wild, passionate, and disturbing character’. The cross and resurrection signals God’s triumph over the forces of evil, the defeat of the ‘prince of this world’ (John 16:11) and the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Like Luther, Bach took the devil very seriously, and would not acquiesce to the demythologized and abstract accounts of evil that is often presented by the rationalists of the Enlightenment.

The definitive victory of God over the forces of evil is emphasized in the words of Jesus, ‘It is finished’, which Bach skilfully sets to a descending line to depict the expiration of the dying Jesus. Even in the midst of presenting the final and definitive victory of God, Bach would not casually and hurriedly bypass the death of Christ. Thus Bach invites us to take time to contemplate fully the ‘bad’ on this Friday that we call ‘good’. The death of Christ is real, and the sorrowful, meditative aria follows appropriately his last words. But this aria is not simply the celebration of the death of a hero. If it were only that, then Reimarus could surely also sing its words with conviction. For Bach, this is the death of the Hero, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Thus, the significance of Jesus’ declaration ‘It is finished’ could only be properly understood in the way Luther explicates it: ‘God’s Lamb has been slaughtered and offered for the world’s sin. The real High Priest has completed the sacrifice. God’s Son has given and sacrificed His body and life as the ransom for sin. Sin is cancelled, God’s wrath assuaged, death conquered, the kingdom of heaven purchased, and heaven is unbarred’. That is why in the second part of the aria, a shout of triumph bursts forth as the B minor adagio turns to a D major allegro and the full orchestra now accompanies the alto soloist as she sings: ‘The hero of Judah triumphs with power / and closes the battle’. The death of Christ has conquered death itself, and the resurrection marks the victory of God, the dawn of a new age.

But it is Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio that best captures the victory and joy of the resurrection of Christ. Bach composed music to the lyrics of the famous librettist, Picander, whose poetic paraphrasing follows closely the account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8. Beginning with the instrumental overture which can be divided into two parts – the joy of the resurrection and its melancholy aftermath – Bach masterfully shapes the attitude with which the believer must embrace this glorious truth. After the sinfonia and duet, Bach has Mary Magdalene utter these words in the alto recitative, ‘O cold mind of men! / Where has the love gone, / Which you owe to the Saviour?’ as if directing them to the sceptical rationalists of his day.

It is in the bass recitative towards the end of the Oratorio that Bach unequivocally declares the orthodox faith in the resurrection of Christ through the lips of the evangelist John: ‘We are glad, / That our Jesus lives again, / And our heart, / Just now melted and wavering in sadness, / Forgets its pain / And thinks about songs of joy; / For our Saviour lives again’. The theme of Christus Victor is once again emphasized in the tutti final chorus, which declares that ‘Hell and the devil are overcome; / Their gates are destroyed. / Rejoice, ye redeemed tongues, / So that it is heard in heaven.’

Bach’s Easter Oratorio depicts two responses to the great truth of the resurrection of Christ. There is the exuberant burst of rhythmic energy and the glorious sounds of trumpets which shout ‘hallelujahs’. But Bach knows that there is more than one way to say ‘hallelujah’, and so the Oratorio also invites a more contemplative response as the believer steps back as it were and reflects in overwhelmed amazement at this miracle of miracles. Bach shows that both the flourishes of trumpets and tympani and the somber sinfonia in E minor are appropriate responses to the glorious resurrection of Christ!

  1. S. Bach has through the years taught me many things about what it means to be a Christian and a theologian. He has taught me to be courageous in the face of the shifting sands of culture and the pervasiveness of secularism and scepticism. The truth of the Gospel does not require our defence; it is well capable of standing on its own, and the chief responsibility of the Christian is to bear witness to it with integrity – to tell it as it is. Beneath the architectonic brilliance and complexity of Bach’s music is the unflagging desire of the composer to simply tell it as it is. Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality.

Bach, more than any other composer, has taught me the relationship between worship and theology, between what the Orthodox theologians have termed as the lex orandi (the law of prayer) and the lex credendi (the law of belief). Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality. For the Thomaskantor, liturgy and theology are of a piece. And nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly and powerfully than in his Passions and sacred cantatas which resist the tendency found in Reimarus and others to distinguish the ‘historical Jesus’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. These lessons are still pertinent for the church today, four centuries removed from that in which the Baroque composer lived and wrote.

May we in this postmodern climate of relativism and despair learn from Bach to tell it as it is – to proclaim humbly and courageously the Gospel of the resurrected Christ, in all its profundity, mystery and wonder!


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Trumpet (TTC).