Music Wars: The Fringe Strikes Back

October 15, 2015

This week, church leaders met for Annual Council at the Seventh-day Adventist World Headquarters in Silver Springs, MD. These are yearly meetings of all the high level officers of our world church and serves as the highest decision-making body between the General Conference Sessions every five years.

Because I’m weird like that, I enjoy keeping up to date with what’s going on by being an unofficial delegate through social media. I followed many of the proceedings live, or read the reports later on. There were many great field stories shared about the progress the church is making in many areas of the world. These are encouraging signs that there is much good being done.

One area that I felt, let’s say less than excited about, was a series of two presentations by Dr. Neil Nedley, President of Weimar Institute. He came at the request of our General Conference President Ted Wilson to focus on the “sensitive area of music.”  I followed the Adventist Review’s (@AdventistReview) live feed of both sessions and here are a few of the more salient posts.

Nedley: participating in hymn music enhances frontal lobe of brain ( part that regulates morality and where the Holy Spirit works). #GCAC15
Nedley: people who play music all day long tend to get tired of straight harmony. #GCAC15
Nedley: Frontal lobe begins to shut down after 90 seconds with syncopated beats. #GCAC15
If music makes you want to stand up and swing your hips, in 90 seconds your frontal lobe starts shutting down -Nedley #GCAC15
Nedley cites Evangelism 510: “Good singing is like the music of the birds—subdued and melodious.” #GCAC15 #QOTD @QuotesofTheDay
Nanas: Hymns in our hymnal stand the test of time as good music. #GCAC15 @gycweb
Nedley: Nonclassical music causes fatigue, sadness, hostility, and tension, but classical music causes none of these. #GCAC15
Nedley reads Ellen White saying music with drums would be confused with the moving of the Holy Spirit in 2SM36. #GCAC15
Nedley: Going after a false standard, false ideas, allow us to be controlled by the devil. #GCAC15 #QOTD @QuoteOfTheDay
Wilson expresses worries about “Pentecostal” music around the world. #GCAC15
Ted Wilson: Things are happening in contemporary music so you cannot tell difference between what you hear in church & nightclub #GCAC15

Granted, tweets are not comprehensive in their details. However, following several accounts that were live-tweeting the event, I noticed that the underlying themes that informed Dr. Nedley’s presentation come from the following basic premise:

There are certain genres and styles that are inherently good or bad because they can move you closer or farther from a relationship with God.

Truth be told, I once held this exact position which was fueled by ideology and began writing a series entitled The Great Controversy Over Worship with a hidden intention. I had an agenda to prove that there were certain musical instruments and styles that shouldn’t be used for worship because God found them detestable. And by that, I meant drums and everything associated with contemporary Christian music.

I was a “hymns only” guy and thought that even guitars on stage were the gateway to compromise. I wanted to expose the errors of contemporary Christian music. Ironically, in my journey to confirm my bias, I ended up studying my way out of that view and saw God even in drums!

Many years later, I still find it strange that both extremes on the music spectrum (hymnody/chorale vs. contemporary) essentially hold the same argument.  This argument is best summed up in an encounter I had in one of my churches some time ago. A gentleman approached me concerned. He said, “I don’t like the music at church.” He went on to share how he had left the “world” some time ago and said that music was becoming more like what he used to hear before. He ended up by saying, “Worship isn’t about what I like, it’s about what God likes.”

The ironic contrast between his two statements was not lost on me.

In my journey through research and music to my current position, I learned a few lessons along the way.

Not Everything That Glitters Is Gold
I was raised in a pretty traditional, conservative Hispanic Adventist home. I probably know more Spanish hymns by memory than I do any other kind of music. Why? We used to sing hymns every day for our family worship time. Don’t get me wrong, I look back at those days with fondness. However, I was never really allowed exposure to many other styles of music early on and this colored my worldview.

I remember when I became a teenager and had a bunch of mixtapes (literal mix tapes, where I had to listen to the radio and hit the ‘record’ button at the right time to save my favorite songs… ancient history to many of you). My parents were not too happy with the musical selection my brother and I were listening to and gave us lectures about how we were allowing the Devil to come into our home through it.

Fast forward to when I had an encounter with Jesus in high school, I thought that in order to have a vibrant relationship with Him, I had to go back to what my parents told me “good music” was. So I burned or broke all of my CDs and tapes in a series of purges to cut out an area of my life where I felt I had erected an idol.

However, I didn’t realize that my family’s view of “heavenly music” was not as heavenly-centered as I thought it was.

Culture Influences the Way We View… Well, Everything
The Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal went through a major revision in recent years. Yet, before this update, out of the over 500+ hymns that were a part of the “old” hymnal, only one hymn was written by a Latin American born-composer. This was the popular “Mas Alla Del Sol” (Far Beyond the Sun) by a Mexican-born gentleman.

Other than that, the rest of the songs could be traced to American or European writers or composers.

As much as we may not want to admit it, our hymnal was (and in many ways still is) a heavily Anglo-Saxon influenced work. The Spanish hymnal basically translated the songs which were in the English hymnal, kept the same melodies, and gave us the end product. This was probably done with the best of intentions and not malicious.

However, this was in essence, colonization. Europeans, when they were exploring and invading the new world, stamped out and moved away Native Americans and forced them to convert under punishment of death. Oh, happy belated Columbus Day by the way.

Nowadays, there is no outright violence, but there is still a subtle colonization mindset when we discuss music. Go ahead and look up the ratio of Hispanic, Black, and Asian authors and composers of our current English SDA Hymnal and tell me that it’s a a good cultural representation or reflects actual membership makeup.

When people suggest the only songs that are appropriate are those which already exist in the Hymnal (White European and American in style), we foster alienation and denigrate all non-Anglo cultures. As a friend, Jason O’Rourke said,

I love this return to colonialistic [sic] Adventism. Euro is equal to the culture of Christ. Rhythm shuts down frontal lobe, so all cultures with rhythm, as well as their people’s, must lack intelligence…nice.
This play on emotions are evil and unreliable
demonstrate a lack of understanding of emotional intelligence, and a lack of the ability to articulate exactly what one means when one implies emotions are problematic. It is stoicism, ergo Euro. Additionally it betrays a Euro linear sort of logic and thought process, which is not the only thought process of logic in existence.
I bore with such Adventism.

Culture influences the way we view everything, especially music.

A Sermon Is Not A Credible Citation For A Reliable Primary Source
One of the biggest red flags that I started coming across in my search for “heavenly music” was the alarming scarcity of verifiable scientific or scholarly evidence for statements that I’d heard from pastors regarding music. The most prominent example was where one well-known Adventist pastor spoke about a concept I’d never heard about: syncopation.

He said that syncopation was a musical phenomena that described how, in Africa, the spirits of their ancestors (whom we all knew were demons) would possess people who danced around their tribal campfires honoring their dead while they played their drums. This amalgamation of the spiritual and the musical was called syncopation.

Not only that, this phenomenon supposedly also affected you physically. According to this pastor, syncopation had the power to throw off the rhythm of your heart if you listened to the music too loud.

This sounded incredible to me; people had to be warned! The only problem was that in all my research, I have never found a single piece of evidence to support these claims. I also started noticing that the people who actually knew and understood music and music theory usually didn’t hold to the same ideas of the pastors and speakers that I listened to.

Turns out that syncopation is just a term that describes a certain rhythm in music.

Plus, as I interacted with people outside of my faith, I met many men and women who were fully-committed followers of Jesus Christ who listened to music with drums in the background and somehow did not have horns coming out of the sides of their head.

We don’t even have to go outside of Adventism. Has Dr. Nedley ever been to a Sabbath morning service at Oakwood University?

Working Towards My Conclusions
It’s troubling to me that ideas about music which used to be relegated to the fringes of Adventism are, nowadays, trying to become mainstream. Especially concerning is when these ideas are given “prime time” exposure at the highest level of our church.

To not sound like such a critic, I do agree with a few basic principles when it comes to music:

1) We should be aware of the worldview that a genre espouses.

2) The mission of the church should be well-served by the music.

Many musical scholars agree that not every genre of music is acceptable for individual groups:

“Is the devil in the music? It’s not always that simple. A specific rhythm or beat can take on different meanings in different musical contexts. If a style hinders your walk with God, as much as possible, avoid it! Individuals troubled by certain associations should listen to their conscience.” Barry Liech, The New Worship

There are some musical styles that automatically trigger associations for some people, good and bad. For example, rap music may suggest bad language, gangs, and the like. Rock music may evoke images of delinquency and anger. A hymn may trigger memories of a loved one (or the abuse that they suffered at the hands of the church), a gospel song a conversion experience, or a symphony a group of fancy, rich people dressed with tuxedos and bow ties.

The problem is that these associations are stereotypes and generalizations that are true for the individual.

I could say that the people I’ve met that have held extreme views of music all share one or more of the following characteristics:

  • They have had a traumatic experience happen to them at some point in their lives.
  • They were heavy drug users and music was a significant feature at this point in their lives.
  • They had very little self-restraint or boundaries in other areas of their lives.
  • They tend to be impulsive, negative, or critical of others/themselves.

This may or may not be true; the point is that I don’t base this on any evidence. These are generalized conclusions that I’ve arrived at as I’ve grown up with this debate for almost thirty years.

If something is a stumbling block to you, fine. To suggest that your stumbling block is my stumbling block makes you the stumbling block.

If a specific genre of music isn’t leading you to love God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself, there is a possibility that we are listening to a musical genre more because we like it, rather than because it is actually bringing glory to God.

3) Acceptable instruments change over time. True worship comes from the heart and is timeless.

Here are some interesting facts about music history:

  • Harps were like guitars (small and portable) in the Old Testament.
  • Asaph, David’s chief musician, was a percussionist.
  • Puritans in England took axes to organs, sang no hymns (only scriptural psalms), and prohibited instruments in worship in 1630.
  • The Pope banned the piano as a secular instrument unfit for worship in 1903.

4) Maintain an open mind to another’s perspective.

There IS room for cultural expression in everything that we do. However, as I have mentioned, what should guide us in musical selection are principles, not pseudo-science.
Also, just because someone may disagree with you doesn’t mean you two can’t still be friends and discuss the issues as fellow believers in Christ. Younger and older Christians alike may have different tastes when it comes to music, but God’s grace is still extended to both groups and therefore both should have access to the same Spirit that brings understanding, if we give it the opportunity.

In conclusion, Adventism needs to relax on the music wars. This isn’t a relativistic conclusion: there is no denying that music is something deeply personal and has more emotion tied into it than we’d like to admit.

Please do not believe or assume that I am proposing that we all sing Gregorian chants in our worship services. I also don’t think that every church needs drums. Neither do I believe that every worship style around the world should be exactly the same.

Worship is something that comes out of your heart, not something that comes out of your musical instrument. Both sides of the musical spectrum need to keep this clearly in mind. The reality of the heart is simply communicated through whichever instrument you use. If your heart is corrupt and not right with God, even hymns can be detestable to God (and that’s the point of Amos 5:23, “take away from me the noise of your songs.”).

The question for us is whether we will recognize this and search our hearts, or else hide behind the worship wars.

  • Thanks for broaching this subject. It is not surprising that the neocolonialist mentality is alive and well in Adventism. Truth be told, Nedley is a quack! Neuroscience confirms that our processing of “spirituality” takes place in the lambic regions of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus. Neuroscience aside, some Black folk like me have had it with White folk dictating what qualifies and what does not qualify as “acceptable” in the context of music and worship. It’s the irresistible exercise of White privilege (intentional and unintentional racism), the assumed right to name, calm, own, legislate, and dictate. If Nedley is right, poor king David probably had an aneurysm after he danced before the Ark of the Covenant, with all his might, and his frontal lobe probably resembled the settled dust after a good moonwalk. But I am curious as to which genres espouse unacceptable world view (Author). Any minimally informed musician knows that even most of the “acceptable” music today uses tensions (7th, 9th, 13th, etc), rhythms, and forms that come from “unacceptable” genres. Maybe we should all go back to singing hymns and drinking brew like the good old days of Martin Luther. And while we’re at it we can take those savage drums that elicit the bass passions of our primitive natures and cast them out of every church lest we start peeling off our clothes during the praise and begin dancing around the communion table, having succumbed to its hypnotic syncopation. Neo-colonialists (perpetuators of White privilege), get a life, preferably a new life in Jesus!

  • Bing Alabata

    Here’s one study confirming Mike’s comments:

    “The data support the hypothesis that listening to a preferred genre of music produces
    greater alpha wave amplitudes than listening to an unpreferred genre. Because significant results for genre were found only when recoding the data for preference, it is suggested that it is the preference in music that mediates the change in brain activity,”

  • Patience

    So is the conclusion of the matter ‘everyone should do what seems right in their own eyes?’ (Judges 17:6, 21:25)

    • I see it more like 1 Corinthians 9:19, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.”

  • As a white man who attends a black church, I may be biased. But if the purpose of every part of the worship service is to bring our minds and hearts into connection with God, I must say that the black worship experience does so for me much more effectively than the Caucasian experience (in general). Worship including music is to integrate the left brain, logical rational part of humans with the right brain creative, affective side of us. God is a perfect integration of both cognitive and affective. I think he would encourage us to do the same. David Sedlacek

  • I really appreciated your point about colonization. It is such a striking point, yet often overlooked. It pains me!

  • Nedley’s “research” regarding frontal lobe activity runs exactly contrary to every major study done on frontal lobe activity and musical genres. Every major study contradicts his statements in this area. The most extensive study concluded that the music that produces the most frontal lobe activity is the music you happen to like. I’ve sent this information to Dr. Nedley but he has never responded. Too bad he presents it as fact when in fact, it is not.

    • Thank you for pointing this out, Mike. Dr. Nedley is not the only one who touts these supposedly scientific claims, but like all the others, he fails to provide sound evidence to support his claims. I would like to know why we should accept these arguments without evidence. I would also like to know why they are now being presented, without evidence, at the highest levels of our church organization, apparently at the behest of our GC president.

    • Interesting. Thanks for sharing, Mike!