It has taken some time to consider how to respond to the suggestion that – as both an ‘academic’ and ‘performing’ Seventh-Day Adventist musician – I offer some thoughts about 10 music regulations from the bad old days of the Nazi Party that may yet become even more notorious than they already are. Given the spectacular limitations regarding certain types of understanding in global Adventism, I am going to try to ensure that what I write in this SDA-specific blog post can be as widely understood as possible (without watering my vibe down too much). And some people are going to like me even less than they do already; fidelity has often come at the expense of popularity.
This blog post is going to require at least two parts, possibly three. Let’s see what happens.
Click here to read the blog post in question; it contains 10 stipulations regarding jazz (with reference to other musics) that were handed down by an official of the Nazi Party during the Third Reich. Now, this is the ‘easy-read’ version, but it seems a fair few people have been reflecting on both the 10 regulations cited therein. If you were to follow the link at the bottom of the online article cited above, you will uncover some very interesting insights by J.J. Gould. I will respond to all ten regulations in the course of this (multi)post, but for now I want to start with one of Gould’s most penetrating observations:
“If you’re a Nazi, and you can pass something you don’t like off as a “Negroid excess” or a manifestation of “Jewish Freemasonry,” it helps you with the kind of Nazi cred you need [to] insulate yourself from having to justify what’s wrong with the music as music.”
One of my best friends in ministry (it’s all his fault that you’re reading this as he tagged me into ensuring that I actually saw this in the first place) has already observed:
“Yeah, what’s scary is not so much the rules but the line of reasoning. I have literally heard a very similar line of reasoning used when discussing music in worship…”
He’s not the only SDA clergyperson to tell me that this is familiar territory in terms of the types of value-led thinking that characterise the approach of numerous SDA churches to music. This is about to get very bad indeed for several conservative SDAs who sincerely believe that the only safe and acceptable (as in, what God Himself would accept – as far as they are concerned) forms of music just happen to be those which fit a very specific proto-European aesthetic which is by definition not universal. None of these folks would argue for one second that the Bible is only valid in English – even if some would argue fiercely about which English translation is best trusted – despite the fact that a literal word-for-word translation is impossible. Now, for those SDAs who think that all theologians and Biblical scholars (those two things are not actually the same) are the handmaidens of Satan himself: while it is true that some scholars have done some very damaging things to our church, you would have no commentaries to read if some people had not invested into learning Biblical languages so you do not have to. And those of you who depend on concordances also benefit from the work of scholars. This means that most of you will not have personally invested into getting a technical understanding of the complexities of linguistic verities – and you’re in excellent company as many of the most popular conservative SDA speakers who pontificate on music don’t know that stuff either. My personal experience of English speaking Adventism includes the kinds of speaker/teacher/preacher who hold that the KJV is the only English translation worth reading but whose mastery of the English language is so weak they make the kind of arguments that would make a grammatically-literate person laugh uproariously into their (generally-speaking) non-decaffinated coffee.
This means that the church is full of people who are incapable of grasping the real ramifications of the fact that the grammatical schemas of the Biblical languages are so incredibly different to that of English that at times the very best we can do is a distortion of the original by definition. They would all be excited about the concept of the Bible being translated into every conceivable language and dialect, regardless of the ‘grammatical’ challenges – not least with various idioms that simply don’t translate!
So with ‘language’ – it is accepted by SDAs that the Islamic ideology regarding classical Arabic as the only valid language in which to understand the revelation from Allah is not the one. Likewise, the Mormon ideology which holds that the Book of Mormon and the Bible (KJV, of course!) are best read and only really properly understood in English would be thrown out immediately. Irrespective of the fact that most of us do not really understand the structures of the languages that we speak as ‘natives, ‘ we do recognise that every language that people speak matters. But we cannot ignore the fact that the West colonised the world by imperialist expansion – conquer, divide, conquer – and then imposed Western values (it is an unassailable fact that even some of the missionary endeavour that took place also did a huge amount to impose Western values). It so happens that music is one of the most important ways in which we understand (in practical reality) Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony which in turn helps us understand the way in which Western musical values have been exported – then accepted – and now embraced – all over the world.
One of the consequences of this self-same ‘hegemony’ is that Seventh-Day Adventists of many, many cultures/races/educational backgrounds have bought – lock, stock and barrel – into a form of neo-colonial European imperialism. Let me try to quickly explain: ‘Western music’ as we now know it has evolved from the earliest forms of European sacred music into the development of musical systems from which the ‘high art’ musical traditions (of Europe) have arisen – which in turn produced newer European sacred music forms that were not only being practised during the apotheosis of the slave trade [some of you REALLY need to put that into your pipe and smoke it – how can this music be the highest form of sacred music when it was so easy for Anglo-Catholics to sing it whilst enslaving Africans and plundering the Americas?!?] – it was precisely the spectacular proliferation of wealth that came to Europe through slavery that made some of the most important advances in arts, sciences and ‘culture’ actually possible in the first place – and for those of you who have no serious understanding of and involvement with classical music, please understand that for both secular and Christian Anglo-Europeans, what they refer to as ‘European Sacred Music’ is understood as both ‘music’ and ‘culture’ – which in turn helps us to understand why that music is performed by more non-Christians than by Christians – especially in the professional world.
Just in case someone missed that: MODERN ANGLO-EUROPEAN HYMNODY WOULD NOT EXIST in the way that we know it were it not for the slave trade…
This means that the much-vaunted hymnody of Anglo-Europe has come into existence at a VERY, VERY high price indeed. And before anyone is injudicious enough to accuse me of being a hater of classical music or a uncivilised, unsophisticated neophyte who doesn’t understand this music: I have invested more than most into becoming a professional conductor of classical music and to conduct Bach, Beethoven and Brahms is one of my greatest privileges – but this does not mean that I regard that music as more valid than the music of my own African-Caribbean culture, or that of African-Americans who are black like me (my first Masters degree was in jazz piano and I am very proud to be a jazz musician).
Let’s play a little game with the Gould quote cited earlier:
“If you’re a Seventh-Day Adventist, and you can pass something you don’t like off as “spiritually [and therefore biblically] inferior” or a manifestation of “Pentecostal [unbiblical] spirituality” it helps you with the kind of Adventist cred you need [to] insulate yourself from having to justify what’s wrong with the music as music.”
I am going to unpack this in some detail in the next post, I promise you. For now, suffice it to say that I am sick to death of the unbelievable levels of assumption and presumption regarding the phenomenon of music by SDAs who pontificate in public about music having invested absolutely NOTHING into understanding music properly as a phenomenon – social, cultural, historical, technical-musical, even psychological (and wider-scientific) and more. And I have serious issues with the fact that many of our church members – who would yank a preacher off the pulpit who mis-exegeted Revelation 14 and publicly discredit a health speaker who spoke againt Ellen White and the health message – frequently let people with the weakest possible level of knowledge about music and history spout utter bile and folly and fund their ministries. I hate the fact that we have spent so long serving a neo-colonial agenda that we now (in effect) think that everyone must be the same colour/race within Adventism. This now means that we cannot tolerate the idea that a conservative Adventist can think differently about music to most other conservative Adventists but still be a conservative Adventist… The forthcoming exposition of the dangerous ideology propounded in these ten regulations will indeed show just how close conservative Adventism’s musical aesthetics is to that of those espoused by the Nazi Party and how we have sacrificed biblical theology for pseudo-theology built on personal-cultural aesthetics that then masquerades as theology. For the sake of peace I will not name specific names – not now – but I will say that if the standard of our thinking about the Bible and theology was akin to our thinking about music, we would be worse off than the children of Israel were when they lost their way and lost their identity at the chosen people of God.
In Part Two we take up a specific question/objection concerning the link between European sacred music and the slave trade. And just to be clear: given that the contents of this blog post will put me at serious odds with many Adventists with whom I would like to continue positive relations, the labels ‘conservative,’ ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ are highly politicised and often less rather than more useful. However, I am neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘progressive’ in theological terms. This does not mean that I regard veganism as the 11th commandment and I have the most withering contempt for the idea that wearing a tie is holy and necessary. But in theological terms, I am RADICALLY biblically conservative – including in my belief in the prophetic force of EGW. So for those of you who have no idea how to read me – please try that for size.