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 The Biblical Injunction on Music?

Music, Religion and some Questions of Scripture


by Alastair McIntosh


Published in the Stornoway Gazette, 22 May 1997, p. 8.   



Recently there have been a number of articles in the national press about some church leaders in Lewis and Harris being of the opinion that the use of musical instruments and the singing in worship of songs other than the Psalms is “unbiblical” (eg. The Herald, 7 May, p. 9). Such reports cause much hilarity to those who are not in sympathy with their cultural context, and a certain amount of puzzlement to others of us who are often asked to explain these aspects of a culture which has, in so many ways, deeply nourished us.


It is written that the daughter of Herodias danced for the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:22 etc.), and I remember being told in primary school that this “proved” dancing to be a sin. This seems to me like arguing that because Jack the Ripper used a knife, we should henceforth dine only with forks.


As far as I can see, in his few mentions of dance, song and music, Jesus himself never even hinted at condemning them. On the contrary, his parables used the imagery of the wedding feast and he made what would appear to be a rather favourable reference to music and dance at the feast for the prodigal son (Luke 15:25). The Book of Revelation, though it is a text that I would confess not to understand well, has several mentions of the heavenly host playing harps.


As for non-Scriptural song, both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 advocate singing not just the Psalms, but also “hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord”.


Likewise with musical instruments. Psalm 33 for instance urges that we should “Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise,” and it specifies that the skilful playing should be with harp, psaltery and “an instrument of ten strings”. What is the problem, then, if a minister of the Free Church or anybody else for that matter plays a guitar in worship? And if the playing is outside of a context of  worship, how is this worse than any other secular act that does not merit special censure?


I happen to be of the personal opinion that no musical instrument can match the unaccompanied voices of a congregation giving praise in Gaelic Psalm. Also, as a Quaker by convincement, I particularly appreciate the value of complete silence in waiting on the “still small voice” (1 Kings 20:12). Music may therefore be desirable, but it is not always essential. Surely, then, there is room in life at appropriate times to have the Psalms, and silence, and also “a new song” complete with the loud strumming of instruments.


It is true that Amos at his most splendid proclaims on behalf of God: “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ... Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” But this was in the context of a passion for social justice where God wanted not a show of pseudo-piety, but wanted people to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:21-27 NRSV).


It would be no more meaningful to derive a universal condemnation of music from this than it would be to condemn church general assemblies because they fit the description of “solemn assemblies”. Amos is quite clear that God’s anger here is directed against those who, as soon as their regular period of worship is over, get back to business where they “grind the destitute and plunder the humble” (8:4-7 NEB). Their music, song and sacred ceremonies were therefore unacceptable because they came from hypocritical hearts.


This offended a God who is always on the side of the suffering. In the presence of suffering, God wants not frivolous displacement activity, but appropriate responses like, for example, songs that salve the wounded heart by sprinkling it with joy, and full-blooded protest songs that fire it up again with the precision targeted passion of a prophetic theology of insistence.


The word, “protest”, originates from pro-testari - to “testify for” something. That is precisely what many of the Psalms are. They are positive testimonies. And so are many “a new song” used by the churches worldwide today, and used also by what might be termed “secular society” but which, bearing in mind Jesus’ warning about those who call “Lord, Lord” too readily, we should be wary of being too judgemental about (Matthew 7:21-23).


Surely there are times when it is right and proper to pick up a musical instrument, or to dance, or to sing a song even, like the bards, with words that may come in the inspiration of the moment? Surely this is a part of humankind’s chief end being about the enjoyment of God, as well as glorification. Yes, idolatry as that which leads away from authentic spiritual reality is an ever present danger. But given Jesus’ theology of serial forgiveness, is it not untrusting to hide away and repress what is hopefully a Providential source of joy, rather than risk putting a foot wrong?


I would actually go as far as to wonder if this understanding of forgiveness is what makes true dance and the deepest flow of music from the heart possible. It is why a popular contemporary hymn calls Jesus the “Lord of the Dance”. Only by relaxing out of our various uptightnesses by accepting that we are acceptable as we come “roughhewn to the carpenter’s bench”, can we dare to start to dance in the deepest sense; can we start to live life, and live it “abundantly” (John 10:10). Incarnation is about embodiment; not distanced otherwordliness (Luke 17:21; John 2:21). Is that not the central Christian message, or am I most terribly deluded and a danger in the columns of this newspaper?


In the light of the above, can some reader please edify me as to whether I have missed something in the Bible? Let me add that in putting forward this analysis, I do not wish to give the impression that I personally live wholly by the gospel and am devoid of motes - far from it! But I would like to understand more about the basis of strands of religious thought that are repressive of the arts both within and outwith the churches.


Music in many of its forms is deeply important to me and when home on Lewis I should like to think that this is a love that does not need sit hidden or uncomfortably, even in the company of esteemed and highly traditional elders and clergy. I should also like to think that children learning music or dance in the schools today have some theological counterpoint to the “dancing is a sin” kind of put-down that some of us were subjected to three or four decades ago.


So, is there a Biblical passage that outweighs all the others in showing these arts necessarily to be “worldly” in the idolatrous sense of that word? Or are the respected religious teachers to whom the national press refer actually raising an issue which might be justified on aesthetic grounds of personal taste, and might be a part of much post-Reformation Hebridean church custom, but is, nevertheless, not Scriptural?





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