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Friday, April 8, 2016

The Unpardonable Postmodern Sin

The Church around the world just celebrated Easter. And in case you did not notice, music was a big part of that celebration.

You can tell a lot about a worldview by the kind of music it produces.

If you visit a Muslim mosque, you will not see an organ or a piano. Nor an acoustic guitar. No choir will sing, nor the congregation. Why? Because devout followers of Mohammad believe music is heram, which means "illegitimate." Some mosques make an exception for vocal sounds that come out sounding like non-melodic chants. Westernized Muslims are not as strict when it comes to music, but in traditional Islam (by this I mean "fundamentalist" Islam), music-making is intentionally absent.   

Buddhists view life as a cycle of suffering caused by human desire. Salvation, for the Buddhist, is escape from suffering through extinction of desire. Joy To The World is not something you would hear in a Buddhist temple. Life is not something you celebrate. There is no personal God to sing about. The closest thing to music coming out of a Buddhist's vocal chords would be a single-note drone. Some Buddhists incorporate Western-style music into their practice, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon, introduced by Westerners converted to Buddhism.

Do you know of any music stores with a section called, "Pure Hindu Hits?"

Westerners take melody and harmony for granted. But "Western" music did not spring from a vacuum. It came from a Christian motivation that viewed music as a way of worshiping the Almighty God who dresses flowers with more colors than a King's robe. It came out of a worldview of hope and joy, which produced harmony and melody as a means of praise, thanksgiving and celebration.

Yes, "Western" music came out of Christian worship. Worship that birthed single-voice melody called “Plainsong” [which later developed into Gregorian Chant] starting in the 3rd century, then in the 9th century developing into two-voice melody, and eventually polyphony [multi-voice music]. Out of this came Handel, Bach, Beethoven, and that remarkable phenomenon we now call “Western" music.  

The next time you download that favorite song from i-Tunes, you can thank a Christian monk. Better yet, thank the living God who inspired the monks who worked to develop polyphony. Then think about what this world would be like if Christ had never been born.

In this post I have committed the unpardonable postmodern sin. I have compared the Christian worldview with others, and found the others to be wanting. In postmodern times, all worldviews are supposed to be equally good. Frankly, I don't buy it. The music tells a different story. 


  1. I am enlightened to a new facett of God's great eternal purpose. Thanks, Christain.

  2. Thank you, Christian! I did not know this and am excited to share it with others, particularly daughters and granddaughters. I, too, do not buy into the idea that "all worldviews are supposed to be equally good."

  3. Literacy has been a big part of Christianity, starting with its Jewish roots. Even now Bible translators are creating written language forms in illiterate people groups numbering in the mere thousands. And it was a musical writing system that made polyphony and complex music possible.

  4. [Posting here after Mrs Nancy Pearcey asked me to post this here as well as on Facebook.]

    1) There are sects of Christianity that also prefer to only use vocal music in worship. Are we going to throw them under the bus as not part of the West's musical heritage too, or accuse them of worshiping God less perfectly?

    2) A quick browse of the Wiki actually finds the idea of all Muslims unless "Westernized" considering all instrumental music to be haram flatly false. For example, in Java, you'll find Muslims worshiping to music played on a gamelan (encouraged by one of their Muslim saints). You'll find Somali Muslims writing songs on their traditional pentatonic scale, accompanied by oud playing. These are not "Westernized" by any means - and similarly the Muslims playing them can be rather against the influence of the West (and have been for centuries) but still use music in their faith. There are several different types of Islamic music, from things resembling 'passion plays', to praise music used in services, to songs of traditional mourning for their saints. The idea of what musical instruments are permissible and to what extent varies greatly from sect to sect. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_music See more here for your perusal.

    3) Any musical store who gives a nod to Bollywood probably has a couple of 'Hindu Hits' in there - heck, there's probably even some on my ipod, given that I still have the soundtrack to Rangeela on there. It's not unusual for Hindu characters to reference their religion in film in Bollywood - and as Bollywood produces largely musicals, there is going to be singing, after all. Classical Indian music is also very much a thing, though I only superficially know it through my interest and very small knowledge of Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance), which often calls upon or is used to honor Hindu gods as an extension and form of worship. (Continued)

  5. (Continued from previous, apologies for the double post.)

    4) Buddhist music is also a thing, and while it includes chants, it also includes music for traditional wind instruments (like the shakuhachi), and honkyoku music (which utilizes said instruments) is among one of the most popular forms of contemporary classical Japanese music. Buddhist music is also alive and well in China, where some chants and songs are regularly covered by C-Pop artists. Again, this is just a wiki away. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_music

    5) It is important to note that what people these days may typically consider the most western of western music, rock and roll, has its roots in rhythm and blues and jazz and other "race music" which in turns relies very heavily on African American cultural roots. Rock music also started out as a predominantly Black form of expression. To what extent African Americans are being shooed away for their help in creating rock music is up for debate, but it's under debate. Yet again, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_and_roll#Origins for more information.

    We can celebrate God and praise Him without leaning on cheap blows and half-truths to puff up what we're doing. This article loses nothing of its truth when you take out the unfair and often untrue sneering at other non-Western religions. We are saved because Christ is Lord, not because "Buddha is, like, totes gross and stuff", or because "Shiva is a weenie". It becomes important to what this piece is supposed to communicate. How is this meant to help us reach someone who might currently, say, be a Muslim? I don't think they're going to immediately gasp and go, "Gosh, you're right! I need to come join Christianity immediately, because of all the awesome music I'm missing out on!" ...Nah, they're probably going to go "These people really don't know about Muslim music, and want to act high and mighty because of it? Yeesh, how silly." and be further driven from Christ. Are we writing this to reach out to people? Are we writing this to inform them (in which case the untrue comparisons are detrimental)? Or are we just writing this so we can get a bit of an ego boost? Because all I'm seeing is ego boost - all I'm seeing is some puffed up "ra ra ra go team go we're the best". We can acknowledge Christianity and yet still display 'good sportsmanship' and acknowledge other cultures while not spreading falsehoods about them.

    1. It appears I touched a nerve.

      I’m afraid I can’t spare as much time to reply as you took to comment, but let me make a few suggestions.

      Your comments took me back to my days as a music major at the University of Washington in 1968, when the Ethnomusicology department was getting going, having started in 1963.

      As for your question about whether churches that only use vocal music should be “thrown under the bus,” I’m not seeing how this relates to the message of the post. Sorry. I’m missing something here.

      With respect to Muslims, there is as wide of a spectrum among Muslim opinion and practice as there is among Christians. Actually, more so. My comments are a generalization, for sure. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. The brand of Islam you will find in Indonesia (at least the brand of Islam I found when I was there) is a far cry from the Islam of Saudi Arabia, its birthplace. Knowing my own Muslim friends as I do (university students, mostly from Saudi Arabia), I have no doubt they would not feel the least bit minimized by my comments about no singing or instruments in the mosque. They are proud of their faith, and how it is expressed in and out of the mosque. I love them a lot, and have thoroughly enjoyed learning all I can about their faith. But they are not the audience I’m writing for. Hopefully if they come to Christ it will have nothing to do with the kind of music they are not hearing in their mosques.

      C-Pop in China? Buck Clayton bringing American jazz to China in the 1920s is significant with respect to this art form.

      Bollywood? Any Western influence there? The name itself is a give-away.

      Rock ‘n roll, jazz and many forms of “pop” music have been influenced by African-American culture. Very good. Yet even Elvis Presley stood on the shoulders of Christian monks, when you trace things back to the 3rd century, as I did in my 400-word post.

      Did I write the post to get an “ego boost?” I’ll leave that to you and God.

      Thanks for writing.

  6. Splendid, Christian. On target again. I'm going to share this post.

  7. Don't you wonder where plainsong originated? How much of it is derived from Jewish tradition and how much from gentile tradition of the pagan/secular Roman world. Christian music varies tremendously in different parts of the world because of the cultures into which it was integrated. Once upon a time, Christianity also had to be incorporated into Roman culture. I'd love suggestions on further reading on the roots of Gregorian chant - but until then I pose the question: "To what degree is Christian music 'Christian' and to what degree is it 'Latin' in origin?"

    1. It is believed that plainsong was influenced by the modal system of the Greeks, but had little or no influence from the Romans. What is most notable [pardon the pun] is that plainsong developed the first system of musical notation after the Greek system was lost. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plainsong

      As for the Jewish influence, it is clear from references in the Old Testament that the Israelites had choirs and used musical instruments in their worship and warfare, including some kind of “trumpet,” “cymbals,” “harp” and “lyre.” To what degree there was influence of Jewish music on the development of plainsong is unknown, but it is certainly possible. I have to think that the example of musical worship written about in the Old Testament must have been as inspirational to the early Christian monks as it is to Christians today. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_religious_Jewish_music

  8. This is GREAT! I'm right in the middle of writing a talk I will be giving to a women's group on the idea of praise. My premise is that praise can only take place in relationship. And it only happens in Christianity because we are in relationship with God. You cannot praise what you do not know and you cannot know something impersonal - ie Allah, Enlightenment, 3 million Hindu gods, etc. Your examples are stellar. Thank you for your insights.

  9. I guess I'm not sure I quite understand what your argument is: "I have compared the Christian worldview with others, and found the others to be wanting." The superiority of the Christian worldview is seen in... the amount of music it produces? The quality of music? The 'complexity' of the music?

    And can you clarify for me where this leaves Eastern Christian populations that, if I understand correctly, primarily use mono-tone chanting for their worship?

    1. Thank you for your question, Kyle, and the spirit in which it is written.

      I am referring to the quality of music, not quantity. Specifically, I am thinking of the qualities of joy, inspiration, and the indescribable “connectedness” with the Prime Music Maker that comes by engaging directly with God through Christ-inspired music.

      “Complexity” could also be part of the picture, in so far as I am suggesting polyphony is a more pleasant and inspirational experience than mono-tone. This is not to say followers of Christ cannot express joy, inspiration and “connectedness” through mono-tone. They can, if they prefer.

      This brings me to the essence of your second question: Is it possible to worship God through mono-tone chanting?

      Yes, it is possible to make a joyful noise unto the Lord with a single note. God looks on the heart, not the quality of the vocal pipes. Any one of us who “sing unto the Lord a new song” (Psalm 33:3), or “come into His presence with singing" (Psalm 100), whether it's in mono-tone or polyphony, bring pleasure to God. But from a musician’s point of view, using one’s gifts to make music as full and rich as possible is good. I once heard a man worship the Lord by making music with a carpenter’s saw at church. But a steady diet of carpenter’s saw would be boring. I’m sure even the man who did it would agree.

      Polyphony provides a richer palate of color in sound, and in this respect one might call it “superior,” but I prefer the term “richer.” Black and white movies are great. I’ve seen a few. But most people around the world prefer to watch films in living color, most of the time.

      Having said all this, I feel compelled to add another comment beyond the issue of music. Some who read my post may think to themselves, “Is Christian Overman actually saying the Bible provides a superior worldview to all other worldviews on the planet?”

      Let me be very politically incorrect here, and answer this question with as much humility as a sinner saved by grace can muster: “Yes. That’s exactly what I am saying.”

      Do I think Jesus the only way to God? “Yes, I do.” Do I think authentic Christianity has done more good in the world than any other worldview on earth? “Yes, authentic Christianity has done more good in the world than any other worldview.”

      I realize that what I am saying here will offend the sensibilities of most postmoderns, and I understand I am committing the unpardonable postmodern sin, but to the fundamental question [putting music aside] of whether the worldview of Christ, as He has shared with humanity through His Word, is a superior to worldview to all other worldviews, I must conclude: “Yes.”

      Unashamedly, humbly, and unreservedly. I do not mean this is a haughty, “superior” way, but an honest and truthful way. It doesn't make me better than anyone, and it's not my idea.

      Thanks for the question, Kyle.

    2. Thank you for your response, Christian. It is helpful to get a little more detail on what exactly you are arguing.

      I must admit, though, that your explanation only makes me less confident that it is a viable argument. Your claim is that Christianity is superior to other worldview because of the music it creates... your primary evidence is the Western musical tradition, and have outlined why it is superior (quality and complexity). Yet, I am inclined to think that the argument fails here because it only takes account of a small subset of Christian musical tradition, if we take a long view of history. Western Christianity is a relatively small piece of the Christian tradition, only for a small chunk of time has the West been where the majority of Christians live and create culture. I'm glad you admit that mono-tone is a viable way to praise God, but that's not really what I'm wondering about. If it is not as good of evidence (because it is less complex and, it seems you are saying, of lesser quality) for the superiority of Christianity as the Western tradition it must take the whole argument down with it because it is arguably the dominant form of Christian musical expression in history. Instead, this seems to be an argument for why Western music is superior to others (including other Christian forms of music), not an argument about religion.

      And if that's the case, fine, I'm not concerned with whether or not you are committing a postmodern sin or not; I'm concerned with whether it is a legitimate argument. Proving the superiority of Western music over others is a different ball-game, and I think a difficult argument to make (because the standards of judgment are always going to be culturally conditioned...and it certainly gives credence for suspicion when the argument feels rigged to prove the superiority of the arguer's culture by using that culture's premises) but I'd be curious to see it.

    3. Actually, I am not saying “Christianity is superior to other worldviews because of the music it creates” [your words]. If this is the message that is coming through, then I am not writing clearly enough. These are the pitfalls of communication in the “twitter age.” What we really need to do his have a cup of coffee together.

      What makes Christianity “superior” [if this is a word that must be used] is its Total Truth. And this Total Truth is not dependent upon music--of any sort.

      The word “superior” is not a word I used in my post, nor would I use it at all because of the haughty connotation that comes with it. I do believe, however, that polyphony provides a more varied and rich tapestry of sound than what is possible through monotone, drone, or chant. But if a person prefers to worship God in monotone, or chant, I’m fine with that, and I have no doubt the Lord is pleased, as was mentioned.

      What makes authentic Christian music “extraordinary” [still not the best word] is that it is a means for a very personal connection with a very personal living Being, who [because of what Christ did on the cross] is able to be known by human beings at a personal level.

      Through music, Christians celebrate this relationship. We celebrate His love, His sacrifice, His presence, His wisdom, His beauty and His willingness to commune with us. To the best of my knowledge, this personal relationship is not something that is claimed (or even desired) by an Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist worldview...or any other worldview I am aware of.

      Next time, call me for coffee.

  10. Thanks a lot for this post Christian and I deeply appreciate all who took time to comment on this beautiful post. I see an book here Christian, preferably an audiobook with different music tones as background. I volunteer to read some of the comments absolutely free😊

    1. How about if you sing in the background, too, Dot? :-)

      Thanks for your encouraging note.

  11. Good point, I love the black gospel choirs with the band charged up, and the congregation engaged in a hand clapping "shout!" But why is there no ritual dancing in the Christian Church? I discovered through Sacred Circle Dance that complete spirituality is the celebration of "spirit", "mind", "and "BODY"! The ritualistic movement of several people joined together, typically in a circle, singing, or dancing in coordinated steps to appropriate music. It is a non verbal prayer. A powerful and completely experiential prayer. It's hard to explain, but when one participates in such a dance with others, it becomes a consuming inclusion of everyone and everything, and there are many divine themes. Also, an energy is generated. A mysterious force, that seems greater than the sum of the individual parts. I wonder if the reason Christianity excludes the complete body from it's spiritual celebration is because of the outdated teaching that the body is the temple of sin. Fear, I guess. It continues to suppress spiritual growth even in modern times.

    1. Like anything else, dance can be done for the glory of God or for the glory of self. When it is done for the glory of God it is a beautiful thing. My wife and I attended a church for many years that incorporated dance into the worship service on occasion. The closest thing we came to a "group dance," however, was joining hands and swaying back and forth--just a bit! We never did quite get into it like a black congregation would. I think they are on to something.

      Here is a balanced article about dance in the church that I think is worth reading: http://www.gotquestions.org/dance-in-worship.html