Tag Archives: Christopher J. H. Wright

On borrowing pagan musical forms

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

I find hard to believe that heavenly music will be restricted to the styles of 16th to 19th century Europe. The Bible itself demonstrates the appropriateness of borrowing from other musical cultures:

“It is clear that Israel’s psalms have in some places happily taken over Canaanite poetic meter, imagery, and even aspects of their mythology and utilized it all in extolling the unique sovereign and providential power of YHWH.” – Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (footnote on page 443)

I’ve done some study of how music “means,” looking both at music history and at some scientific literature. I’ve concluded that there is some intrinsic emotional meaning to some sounds (for example, sudden, loud or fast sounds tend to increase the excitement level–or, more accurately according to scientific literature, it is unexpected sounds that do this, so an unexpected silence can achieve the same), but that most of the meaning/affective power of music comes from the extrinsic associations we bind up with a particular kind of sound, thanks to our past history and teaching regarding that kind of sound. What we hear and enjoy in our adolescence/youth tends to become the norm by which we experience and compare all other musics we subsequently hear throughout life.

(I’ve heard a story of an ex-Satanist fleeing a church because of the organ music of Bach, which had been used in his Satanic cult, and another story of a mother and infant in severe distress during birth, until medical personnel were convinced to play her favorite heavy metal music–at which point the baby’s heart rate calmed down, as did the mother, and the birth proceeded successfully.)

I think much fundamentalist/conservative Anabaptist teaching regarding music is a reactionary theology, developed on the “battlefield” in response to the rock and roll music revolution, during which time certain sounds were connected quite closely by a majority of musicians with an evil lifestyle. Those concerns were valid for the time. However, such music today is does not carry those evil associations to a majority of listeners and performers, being innocent enough to be useable for radio jingles and children’s educational songs.

The suitability of musical sounds is an important question, yes, but the deeper question is whether the musician is using sound to bless God and neighbor. David used pagan poetic meters to praise Yahweh.


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