What kind of music is “Christian”?

I just read a blog about music in the Latin American church. He noted that there is a strong tendency to emphasize the music over the text of the song; that the lyrics are often shallow and repetitive; that the sound system tends to drown out the congregation; that the worship leaders seem to be putting on a show more than directing worship. With much of this I was in agreement, and I plan to blog on contemporary Christian music. He continued on, and argued that much of the style we hear in the Latin church is by nature carnal. He criticizes salsa, jazz and rock rhythms, and he cites John MacArthur as his authority. And so I responded with the following:

Nevertheless, I must take strong objection to the point made by John MacArthur, which you in turn quoted with approval: “The pulsating rhythms of native African music mimics the restless, superstitious passions of their culture and religion.” [1]

I do not know how many times we’ve heard repeated from the pulpit the “urban legend” about African music: one person reports that, when the children of missionaries played rock music, the Africans exclaimed “Hey, that’s the music that we use to summon up the demons!” Other Africans supposedly say, “We know that kind of music – it’s the kind that homosexuals use!” No-one has ever given me details of who this happened to or where, it’s always something vague like “a friend of a friend said so, and he’s very reliable” or “everyone knows that it really happened.”

John MacArthur might be a famous expositor, but he has no expertise in the area of music (and I less so). And it saddens me to hear that he is repeating pseudo-scientific charges that have circulated in the United States for years and years. They’ve denounced the African is by nature sensual, degenerate, superstitious, full of lust, a fount of cultural and spiritual corruption. Some declare that rock music is the equivalent of apostasy, since it comes from Africa, the people of Ham, who was supposedly put under God’s curse (see Gen 9:25 for a reminder that Noah never cursed Ham). [2]

May I suggest that it is no coincidence that one fundamental argument against jazz or rock is precisely this connection with Africa? When they speak of the African culture, they are speaking of the African or African-American people. Racism is the original sin of the USA, and it has always manifested itself in the marginalization of the African and his/her music. The question of what kind of music is appropriate in the worship service is indeed one worthy of consideration; nevertheless, we should not exclude one genre or another, simply because of its African roots.

MacArthur cites the story about how plants exposed to rock music withered and died. So far as I can tell, he refers to the experiment from Dorothy Retallack in 1973 (http://www.dovesong.com/positive_music/plant_experiments.asp). Unfortunately for the anti-rock argument, modern classical music also seems to have dismayed the plants, where they most liked Indian music – the very Asian music MacArthur regards as un-Christian.

Update: google “John MacArthur”, “rock music” and “apostasy” and you´ll get an eyeful. Irony of ironies: it turns out that many people are now attacking MacArthur for compromising with Satanic music and other worldly practices.


[1] This is taken from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Chicago: Moody, 1986), p. 260. In other sources, MacArthur is quoted as saying “some African music”; in the commentary he clearly states that all African music is inherently so. He also says that rock music by its nature “creates pride in the musician rather than humility.” I suppose it can, and does, although I’ve known some traditional organists and pianists who rate supremely high on the pride scale, not to mention folk singers.

[2] http://www.brothermike.com/study.html. Brother Mike shares: “Why are fundamental Baptists singing music written by the charismatics? [My] book warns about the way fundamental Baptists are allowing music from Egypt (type of the world), Africa (land of Ham) to infiltrate and dominate their services, providing a breeding ground for unclean spirits.” For my part, I seriously doubt whether Brother Mike has ever heard any music from Egypt.

Related posts:

For the urban legend about the African missionary:

Christian urban legends

Christians and myths

“What kind of music is Christian?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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