A response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Four)

Aha, you kept your word about not waiting light-years to meet up again!

Praise God, here we are. But I’ve come to share another conversation with you, which I am sure we’ll talk about in and of itself.

Cool. So who is this other person? Well, she is a lady who heard our conversation and got in touch to start another one herself. I think you’ll find that it relates entirely to what we are talking about.

Okay, great. Bring it on!

[Hi, and thanks for getting in touch!]

It is very interesting to me that as a conservative Christian who was raised against rock’n’roll and drums in all forms, I was also conditioned to believe that ‘charismatic’ Christians were long on their desire to experience a ‘worship high’ and very short on biblical literacy and doctrinal awareness. As it is, my chaplaincy activities have brought me into contact with a number of young Christians attending charismatic churches who have ended up on my radar because they wanted to study the Bible much more. They had clocked that ‘worship’ was not enough.

All of us in whatever our traditions have to be honest enough to stop and critically evaluate what we are doing in our churches from time to time. I salute you for doing this. I do not want to come across like some sort of know-it-all, but let me pick up a few things from your first comment now.

“Desperately wondering what God thinks of drums and middle of the road rock music as worship;”

These are two different things. What does God think of drums? Good question. What does He think of any of our ‘modern’ instruments? I am not going to make the mistake I have made in the past of launching into a technical diatribe. I am going to point out that Western harmony as we know it did not exist in Bible times – over 1000 years after the NT canon closed, we have the origins of modern hymnody with harmony in four parts. So the assumption that keyboard instruments cannot be a problem but drums might be a problem is an assumption that has opened itself to critical attack from the outset. So whatever position anyone adopts, they need to be able to defend it. My viewpoint in a nutshell: God is less interested in WHAT is being played than with HOW it is being played. Psalm 33:3 exhorts the musician to play with “skill.” That is a musical value that in an ultimate sense is not dependent on individual aesthetics. Something is either in tune, or not. Or in time, or not. Etc. And then, the musician either has a sincere desire to worship God with their whole heart – or not. Only God is qualified to judge, but there are times when human beings can have a pretty good idea about the motivations of others; ‘by their fruits ye shall know them.’ If the worship setup really does resemble a rock concert, complete with smoke machines, people whipping up the crowd and a style of playing that showcases technique over God’s grace, people will know.

As for ‘middle-of-the-road’ rock music, I guess you mean a style, right? Actual ‘middle-of-the-road’ rock music is secular music, not contemporary Christian music in a mid-rock style. What about that style? Does God like that? Similar question to last time: what would make God favour one musical style over another? I am NOT saying that ALL styles of music can be used to worship God, but there are mid-rock songs and groups who write wonderful music. And it’s not that loud and it is never all about the drums. What would make God favour contemporary ‘black’ gospel over contemporary ‘white’ CCM music? Or classical music over hymns? The internet is full of people making cases for and against one style over against another and most have the kind of biblical/theological reasoning that if applied to other questions would guarantee heresy on doctrinal matters that are in fact salvific.

“no drums in OT worship, and no timbrels in the sanctuary, despite drums being used by surrounding countries. Was it because they stir up the flesh, which is at war with the Spirit, too much?”

Interesting. I studied Jewish music traditions in some detail as a postgraduate student. It is a massive area of study; Jewish culture is more diverse than many realise and their musical traditions are hugely wide-ranging. And all of them go right back to temple traditions. This is not the kind of historical overview that I can right easily (it will take too long to type) but I am interested to know which of your authors (or whoever) is arguing that what can be defined as a ‘drum’ was used in neighbouring countries. Which countries? And what is the language in which they have gotten this information? There are several ‘Semitic’ languages, but what is the word that is being translated as ‘drum?’ And what is the definition of that word in the original language?

1 Chronicles: 4000 instrumentalists. 288 singers. Some argue that David was not authorised by God to bring instruments into the temple. They use certain texts. Problem: if God wanted us to know that David should NOT have introduced instruments into temple worship, why do we have an injunction in Exodus 20 insisting that the priests not raise the altar beyond a certain height and also ensuring the dress modesty of the priesthood, but not a clear injunction as to what instruments were banned? Anytime a person makes a theological case using an ‘argument from silence’ they are on terribly thin ice – it is a flawed methodology of Scriptural reasoning that cannot bear scrutiny and cannot be consistently applied. So it fails the smell test theologically, but many of us STILL use this way of thinking and then wonder why people don’t find our Christian reasoning to be persuasive and compelling. If one is to argue that the only instruments that God approved of were the ones mentioned in Scripture, it is not just the organ/piano/keyboard/saxophone/drumkit that would have to be ditched – it would have to be all the songs and repertoire that can only be played on those instruments…so our hymns would need to go as well. And I can make this point much more rigorously and with more teeth if a genuine occasion arises.

How do we know that there were no ‘drums’ in OT worship? How do we know that other countries had ‘drums?’ What is the logic in arguing that there were no drums when there were percussion instruments? Cymbals can make a very loud noise and can be played in all sorts of ways rhythmically…

2 Chron. 29:25-30, “King Hezekiah then stationed the Levites at the Temple of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres. He obeyed all the commands that the LORD had given to King David through Gad, the king’s seer, and the prophet Nathan. The Levites then took their positions around the Temple with the instruments of David, and the priests took their positions with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah ordered that the burnt offerings be placed on the altar. As the burnt offerings were presented, songs of praise to the LORD were begun, accompanied by the trumpets and other instruments of David, king of Israel. The entire assembly worshipped the LORD as the singers sang and the trumpets blew, until all the burnt offerings were finished. Then the king and everyone with him bowed down in worship. King Hezekiah and the officials ordered the Levites to praise the LORD with the psalms of David and Asaph the seer. So they offered joyous praise and bowed down in worship.”

We have no idea what those ‘other instruments’ were. We are not told. But it was not quiet. This suggests that volume is not the issue. You use a very important word: ‘sensuous’ to describe the effect of the drumming in various contexts.

The fact that the drums can be played that way is undeniable. But when you hear ‘sensuous’ drumming, do you only ever hear drums? Think about it. Yes, drum solo features take place and they can and do whip up a frenzy. But no-one would listen to 3/4 songs in a row of just drums. What makes some tracks more sensuous than others? The bass has a huge role. The keys/guitar can also really create excitement and emotion – harmony is so powerful that some church musicians have gotten laid because of the chords they can play. Forget drums, some girls (and boys) are excited by harmony in very unspiritual ways. And the vocals are ALWAYS involved in the most sensuous songs. So the drum beat may be especially compelling, but all the other things on the track are complicit too – which means that to single out the drums because it is easy to pick out the beat is easy, but susceptible to major criticism as an interpretive outcome.

“What about rhythms derived from pagan, spiriting and animist rituals such as Latin rhythms and rock and roll, see Robert Palmer, Rock and Roll, an unruly history.”

I would be the first to agree that some rhythms are just not suitable for a church service. But what are the grounds of biblical and musical principle for any assertion of this nature? We can talk about the unholy origins of all sorts of things (the story of the organ goes back to pagan Rome). We can talk about the inappropriate use of all sorts of things (the Bible has been used to justify racism). Does any of that automatically make those things totally null and void? If I want to refer to a person as being happy and carefree, it is still technically within my rights to use the word ‘gay.’ But the difference between what gay ‘denotes’ (‘happy’ etc) and what it ‘connotes’ (homosexual) is considerable. We have a framework for certain things in our societies. The same is true of rhythms. Some immediately evoke a nightclub dance stage. Others, a military march. Now we are happy to use march-style rhythms in our sacred music – but not all Christians believe that our modern, geopolitical wars are endorsed by God and some choose never to bear arms even though we accept that war is a reality of our world. Would we suggest that a marching beat to ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ was an endorsement of human warfare?

I hope that the principles of thought I am employing are made clear. I think I want to draw attention to this business of ‘African music’ – it seems to receive very bad press. Again, as an ethnomusicology student I studied some of the musics of the African continent. Some of the cliches used in anti-drum Christian music arguments are dire beyond comprehension…

Okay okay okay!

This has definitely given me something to think about, Theomusicologist. I’m going to think about this before we meet again. I like this journey we are on very much.

So do I, my friend. So do I. Until next time!

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