Uncertain Sounds

Whether we like it or not, we are on the battlefield of a spiritual war. Bullets are flying all around us. Planes soaring above us are dropping bombs, and field artillery is shelling us. Orders are being shouted at us from all sides, and to make matters worse, the orders are confusing and contradictory. Many of them consist of uncertain sounds.

What is an uncertain sound? Let us begin at the beginning. Sounds communicate; they send messages. We can all agree on that. Paul directs our minds to sounds used in military procedures. These sounds are all produced by the same instrument, the trumpet, but they do not all mean the same thing. There is a sound that says “Wake up,” and a sound that says “Go to sleep.” There is a sound that says “Advance,” and a sound that says “Retreat.” There can be great confusion if, instead of these clear signals, the soldiers hear a sound that they do not recognize and cannot identify. If they hear two contradictory sounds, such as “Advance” and “Retreat,” at the same time, the situation is much, much worse. The poor soldiers will not know what to do. They will be the victims of uncertain sounds—Which brings us to the subject of Christian music. We are being barraged today by music that purports to be Christian, but it sends two contradictory signals, one sensual and one spiritual, at the same time. One who makes this observation and comments on it can expect to stop some bullets being fired at him or her by enthusiasts of the “contemporary music.” They forcefully, if not fiercely, insist that the music does not communicate anything in particular. According to them, it is only the words that matter. “If the words are religious,” it is said, “they can be sung to any kind of music with the same results.”

But is this true? Can this statement bear up under investigation? Do sounds actually not communicate any message of their own?

Sending Contradictory Signals!

If sounds do not communicate a message of their own, why do we find in written materials so many references to persons who spoke in angry tones, etc.? We have no difficulty understanding these words. We are sure that no man has ever proposed to a lady in angry tones. Even the words “I love you,” if spoken in angry tones, would be unconvincing. The words and the tone would contradict each other, resulting in an uncertain sound. The lady would be perplexed and would doubtless reject the proposal.

When I was a boy, our family had a Border Shepherd dog whose name was “Pat.” He was normally quite a well-mannered dog, and when I would say to him, “Pat, come here,” he would come bounding joyously toward me. But I found that if I were displeased with him because he had dug in a flowerbed, or something of that nature, the command would not work. I would use the same words, but he would tuck his tail between his legs and slink away in the opposite direction. The words were nice, but I was not fooling him. He was reading the tones, the sounds. The argument that “sounds do not communicate a message of their own” would have been lost on him.

At Interesting Experiment

What about patterns or arrangements of tones, into what we call tunes? You can conduct a simple experiment to satisfy your mind on this question. Hymns that have the same metrical patterns can be sung to the same tunes. (See the metrical index in the back of your hymnal.) All to Jesus I surrender (number 573 in the older hymnal) can be sung to the tune of Watchman Blow the Gospel Trumpet, (number 619) and vice versa. Try it. The results are ludicrous. Here is a short list of other exchanges that can be made. (All numbers are in the older hymnal.)

630 Some Day the Silver Cord Will Break

585 The Lord’s Our Rock

123 There Was One Who Was Willing

626 Will There be Any Stars?

Again, I invite you to try it. Do it both ways. Sing the words of each to the tune of the other. I have seen people burst out laughing when the words of Watchman Blow the Gospel Trumpet were sung to the tune of All to Jesus I surrender. It just didn’t make any sense. The message communicated by the music, the sounds, was altogether different from the message communicated by the written words. The result is a mixed signal, an uncertain sound. Hearing it, you do not know what to do. You are in the same quandary as the soldiers who are given the trumpet command to “Advance” and the command to “Retreat” at the same time. If you want to explore this subject further, try exchanging the words and tunes in these songs:

223 Come Ye Disconsolate

185 Heir Of The Kingdom

130 O Sacred Head Now Wounded

279 Live Out Thy Life Within Me

The results will range from the ludicrous to the utterly blasphemous. You have now discovered a very important principle of truth. Words and music can communicate different, even contradictory, messages. For a final bit of evidence, consider this situation. There is in the hymnal a song (167) that should be greatly loved, for two reasons. First, it is the oldest Christian song that we know of, having been written by Clement of Alexandria about the year 200 AD. Second, it expresses the church’s concern for its young people, as evidenced by its title, Shepherd of Tender Youth. But I have never heard it used, and I doubt that you have either. Why? Because, although the words are appealing, the tune is hopeless; it is just “blah.” But, try a comparison. Sing the words of this song to the tune of number 510, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. It immediately becomes very singable and satisfying.

Cultural Conditioning

But that will introduce another problem. You and I will not be comfortable with this combination of words and music, because we have so long associated the music with the words of our patriotic hymn, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. We have been culturally conditioned. But is this the entire truth? Are all of our responses to music just the result of cultural conditioning? We must admit that some are, but certainly not all. There is a distinct difference between responses to tones or tunes that are universal and responses that are cultural. Responses that are universal are true for all people at all times. This is not true of responses that are cultural.

While I was teaching at Atlantic Union College, I sometimes heard the students singing a song that they obviously appreciated, entitled, Search Me O God. I thought it was nice, but it did not mean the same thing to me that it meant to them, because in Hawaii I had first learned the tune as the Maori Farewell, with entirely different secular words. In Hawaii, at that time, the Maori Farewell and Aloha Oe were sung to close every social gathering. I never troubled the students about it, because it was not a universal principle, only my own cultural conditioning. I have the same problem when I hear the Christian song Down From His Glory, because I first heard the tune as O Solo Mio. Again, this is my personal problem, and not a universal truth, affecting all people alike. I have been told by a missionary who had served in Africa that in the area where he lived, someone had written Christian words to the tune of Old Black Joe. He could not appreciate it, because of his cultural conditioning, but the local people valued it highly.

So it would be foolish to deny that cultural conditioning exists, but it would be equally foolish to affirm it as a universal principle of truth, applying to all people at all times. It would be worse than foolish to argue that sounds are wholly neutral, communicating no message of their own. This would be an insult to our intelligence, flying in the face of the self-evident realities all about us. It would be like denying that fire is hot, or that ice is cold, or that water is wet, or that band music makes us feel like marching.

Music of Another Dimension

Consider, then, our present condition. We have churches that exist for the purpose of communicating spiritual messages. There are bars, nightclubs, and brothels that exist for the purpose of communicating vile, sensual messages. Both groups have, for centuries, used music to further their own ends, to help them accomplish their distinctive goals. The distinction between the two types of music has been clear and distinct. The churches have used words matched with tunes in such a way that there was no conflict between the two messages. There were no uncertain sounds. The bars, nightclubs, and brothels also used words matched with tunes in such a way that there was no conflict between the two messages. There were no uncertain sounds. But now…

Now we are confronted by an incredible intermingling of the two types of music. I do not mean that spiritual music is now being used in bars, nightclubs, and brothels. The devil, who presides over them, is not that stupid. But the musical forms that have for many years been used in the bars, nightclubs, and brothels are now appearing in churches!

Imitating Our Heros

How has this been accomplished? To a large extent through television. Television has introduced the musical forms, the instruments, the style of performing and the style of singing from the bars, nightclubs, and brothels, into our homes. Our children grow up with these musical forms and accept what they hear as the norm. Thus they become terribly confused. Then when asked to sing for Sabbath school or church, they imitate the singing style of the television artists to whom they have been listening. Witness the heavy breathing into the microphone held close to the lips, the sliding and slurring of notes, the meaningless hand gestures in the air, the facial contortions, the squalling, child-like tones, mingled with half-whispered tones, and the heavy sensual rhythm.

All of these things spell sensuality, which is exactly what the television people want. They are in league with Hollywood, and they are working on the principle that “sex sells.” That is why what they present is consciously and deliberately sensual. They know what they are doing, and they do it very well (from their standpoint). As an illustration of the problem that we are discussing, I once heard a young gospel singer tell of a singing institute that he was planning to conduct. He reported happily that he was going to have some singers there from Hollywood to do part of the teaching. I could scarcely credit my senses. Bringing teachers from Hollywood, the sensuality cesspool of the nation, if not the world, to teach young people how to sing in church! The devil must have been convulsed in hysterical laughter.

Christian Rock?

That is where we are on the battlefield. Some desperately confused church leaders are laboring diligently to bring this mingled music, with its mixed signals and its uncertain sounds, into our own church. Some of the members are deceived by it, while others are troubled but do not know exactly why. The leaders seek to disguise it with high-sounding words such as, “celebration music,” “contemporary music,” “culturally relevant music,” etc., but it is really nothing more than bar, nightclub, and brothel music. Thus the leaders practice deception on innocent church members, whom they mock, deride, and sneer at for their discomfort with the musical selections presented. They stubbornly insist that bar, nightclub, and brothel music can be combined with religious words and be acceptable worship to the God of purity and holiness. Some even go so far as to speak approvingly of “Christian rock.” This is a contradiction in terms. “Rock” music is consciously and deliberately vile. If there can be Christian rock, then there can also be Christian pimps and Christian prostitutes. But angry arguments notwithstanding, there is no such thing as “Christian Rock.”

A closely related phenomenon is the tendency for singers to mangle and mutilate the Christian songs they sing by omitting notes that were written by the composer and substituting notes of their own. This is like walking into a museum where beautiful, historic works of art are being exhibited, then seizing a paint brush and adding some strokes of your own. To do this is to demonstrate an enormous lack of respect for the original artist, along with an equal lack of respect for the people who want to see the work of the artist, not your work. I would earnestly appeal to those who are tempted to do this to write their own songs, and leave the musical treasures of the church alone. They do not need your touching up, your interpretation.

I once listened to a fine sermon on television, after which a singer came onstage. As soon as the pianist started the introduction, I recognized it as The Holy City, and I instinctively reached for the muting button. Then I stopped myself, thinking, “Surely he would not mangle and mutilate that grand old song.” But I was wrong. By the time he was finished I fervently wished that I had made use of the mute button.

In Spiritual Warfare, Content Counts

Let us remember that it is not the label that counts; it is the content. It is not the instrument that counts; it is the manner of playing it. There are many labels being used, such as Contemporary, Country, Nashville, Western, Celebration, Culturally Relevant, etc., and many different instruments are being employed. None of these labels or instruments necessarily indicate sensual music, but it very often appears in all of them. Let us train ourselves to quickly judge them by their content, and as quickly reject all music that is carnal and sensual, regardless of the words. We cannot afford to do otherwise. The issues are too great.

We are on a spiritual battlefield, and the battle is nearing its climax. This is no time for mixed signals, for uncertain sounds. This is no time for the church to listen to those who, in defiance of reality, stubbornly insist that spiritual messages can be communicated with carnal and sensual music. This is the time for messages in words and music that will keep us unperplexed and unconfused, and help us meet successfully the enormous challenges of the time of trouble such as never was.

For further information on this subject, I strongly recommend the two special journals dealing with music that have been published by Adventists Affirm. You can reach them at:

PO Box 36

Berrien Springs, MI 49103

The journals cost $3.00 each, and they are well worth it.