Is An Evangelical Art Music Possible?

by Matthew Raley

The father of Christian contemporary music, Larry Norman, recorded a song decades ago quoting Martin Luther: “Why should the devil have all the good music?” It was push-back against those who said rock and roll was inherently devilish.

Ever since, the quote has been a favorite of youth pastors who like to think that Luther was talking about tavern drinking songs that were turned into hymns. Take the music of the marketplace, they say, and make it preach Jesus.

Sorry. Martin Luther never thought the devil lived in taverns. The man liked his beer. As far as Luther was concerned, the devil lived in Rome. Specifically, the devil had taken over St. Peter’s, with its architecture, its sculptures and frescos … and its choirs.

In fact, Luther’s quote was about the most eminent composer of that time, one-time member of the Papal choir, Josquin des Prez. He it was who wrote “all the good music” that the devil had — art music, developed over the centuries from Gregorian chant. This music was pre-Palestrina, having many independent parts, so florid in their mutual imitations that the text of the mass tended to get lost.

Luther himself was a well-trained singer and a composer. He wrote many of the Lutheran hymns himself. They were not tavern tunes at all.

Larry Norman’s little artifact comprehends the scope of my argument over the last few months. Evangelicals have ditched their folk singing tradition (music from life) in favor of pop music (music from the store). In doing so, they leveled the varied and authentic cultures of churches all over the country into the wasteland of Christian radio. Evangelical leaders committed this blunder because of musical illiteracy, and turned their movement into a cultural parasite.

I have argued that the folk singing dynamic can be recovered, and the richness of local church cultures gradually restored.

But there is one last consideration. The art music descended from Josquin and from Luther’s heir, Johann Sebastian Bach, ran aground in industrial society. Philosopher Theodor Adorno said that the only thing left for modern music to express is the alienation of the individual.

Contemporary, newly composed art music (mostly from secular academia) has no mission to edify people, that is, to bring them together on the basis of shared things. The mission of new art music seems to be that of presenting very personal pieces that, it is hoped, will be “accessible” to listeners. It has institutional support, for now, but no philosophical basis.

I may be alone among evangelicals in thinking this is an important problem. But here goes: Evangelical composers could produce what academia cannot, a renewed development of art music from living folk traditions. This art can begin by adding emotional range to a worship service to glorify God, replying to folk singing with artistic affirmation. (An example from Bach here.) An evangelical composer can do this by exploring three mandates:

1. Modernist alienation from the listener is evil.

The musician is a servant of God to the community, not a prophet of his or her own selfish passion. God’s musician should not affirm sentimental delusions in God’s people. He challenges perceptions and assumptions. But he does so within the confession of truths that are prejudicially shared.

New art music, following Adorno, has restricted itself to the tools of deconstruction and shock so long that it now exhibits a pathetic inability to relate. Whatever its brilliance as art — and the brilliance is often real — it is frequently not humane. When it does reach out, it offers the tentative comfort of the emotionally distant.

Overthrow the Beethovenian priesthood of the artist. Reconstitute Bach’s guild of pious craft.

2. Bypass pop music and mine a living folk tradition in a local church.

Pop music is, in the vast majority of cases, dead commercialism. It sometimes renews itself with an act that comes straight from the street. But the market usually softens the act. Renewal may come with the Beatles, but what gets stuck in your head is the Monkeys. There is not enough raw material in pop music to interact with meaningfully.

Evangelicals have a folk tradition. Once they resuscitate it, they should speak to it. The interaction between art composition and folk singing is so long and fruitful that it needs no more than a few names to fill it in: Bartok, Kodaly, Katchaturian, Copland, Shostakovich, Chopin, Paganini, Haydn, etc., etc., etc.

American evangelical folk hymns are fertile ground. They only require a composer who believes what they say.

3. Employ forms that live in the broader American tradition.

An audience responds to form before it responds to style. Form is prejudicial. A composer who aims at edifying an audience shouldn’t waste his time with surface-level stylistic mimicry. Form says “we.” The 12-bar blues and the 32-bar song are both suited to unbelievable stylistic flexibility. And, with Americans, they retain the unconscious power of a Sarabande in Bach’s day. (Bach took care with his stylistic etiquette, yes. But his dance movements are harmonic and contrapuntal tours de force.)

These three mandates had their equivalents in Luther’s day. He understood that the Reformation would never thrive as a cultural parasite on Roman Catholicism. So he worked hard at developing his people’s folk singing. And he inaugurated an artistic tradition that produced, in less than two centuries, Bach himself.


9 thoughts on “Is An Evangelical Art Music Possible?

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  1. Hi. My name is as you see. I’ve been greatly enjoying your blog. I subscribe to many blogs, but yours is about the only one such that I read every post carefully. You sound like someone who has read All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, by Ken Myers. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it. He has some very powerful arguments in favor of the things you favor (for example, a de-emphasis on pop culture, and a moving towards folk and high culture, as he defines them).

    Although he doesn’t post all that regularly, I’d also recommend Greg Wilbur’s blog over at:

    Finally, if you haven’t read Greg Wilbur’s book on Bach, called Glory and Honor, I’d recommend that to you as well.

    God bless.

  2. Thanks, Adrian!I checked out Greg Wilbur’s blog, and I’ll look for his books as well. His ministry looks very helpful! Thanks for the recommendations!

    I have heard a lot about Ken Myers, but haven’t read his book. I’ll have to find it.

    Thanks so much for your encouragement! Would you happen to be related to Lane Keister, pastor and keyboardist extraordinaire?

  3. Matthew,
    Wonderful thoughts here. Very encouraging. Both my wife and I are musicians, albeit of a less refined tradition than your own. But, nevertheless, we are working outside of the primary stream of modern evangelicalism. Not intentionally so, as to make some kind of “point”, but because we are attempting to tap into the musical traditions that are not of the current “popular” kind, and to synthesize our interests. This was not planned so much as it comes from our own life experiences.

    I have a question: Bach is, of course, an exemplar. But, is it right to create a sort of second-tier dogmatics of music taken from historical sources outside of Scripture? In other words, what constitutes the “absolute” of acceptable expression? Does it boil down to intent+form? The intent is clearly defined, but the form seems flexible- bounded by intent(?).

    I am currently reading your second book. I must say, I have not read anything as incisive and thoughtful from a modern evangelical in many years. You write like William Gibson (think Pattern Recognition), with a heart like Francis Schaeffer. Great stuff. I keep interrupting my wife’s day to read her something from it.

    Take care,

  4. Chris,

    I’m encouraged to hear about your work! I’d love to hear some examples, if you have link.

    I like your questions about musical absolutes. There have been many attempts to create, as you call it, a second-tier dogmatics of music, some more sophisticated than others, but none successful. I don’t think, for example, that there are physical properties that “prove” diatonic harmony to be “correct.” Nor do I think that God “inspired” certain genres of music. The closest we could come to that would be the Psalms, which of course lack the original Hebrew lead sheets.

    I think the dogmatics of all the worship arts should be founded on the intent of the artist, as I believe you suggest. Form, it seems to me, has to be evaluated for how it serves intent. Same goes for style. It think it’s a mistake to absolutize forms.

    Thanks so much for your encouragement on the book!


  5. This is a fascinating blog entry. I come at this subject from a slightly different direction. I’m a banjo player interested in Old Time American folk music. My real link to a living folk music tradition, though, was from my experience growing up in a rural church in Oklahoma. I’m not a regular church attendee, but it certainly seems that, with the exception of some very isolated churches, this tradtion is dead. You indicated that you “have argued that the folk singing dynamic can be recovered, and the richness of local church cultures gradually restored.” Sadly, I wonder if this is the case. I’m not trying to step on any toes (especially yours, since I agree with a great deal of what you said in this post), but I wonder if the problem isn’t what music ministers are presenting to their congregations, but the fact that there are professional music ministers at all. In the churches I grew up in, music was led and made by ordinary people from the congregation who were “talented.” They didn’t receive formal training and therefore had to draw on the music lore they had gathered “orally” in the community.

  6. Jami,

    I think you’re onto a key thing. The professionalization of music ministry in the last thirty years has been almost exclusively in the pop direction. It has absolutely driven out the kind of orally received music you’re talking about. Indeed, in many places, such traditions probably can’t be restored. A lot depends on how effectively pastors can break down suburban isolation, and I see some good signs there.

    Thanks so much for writing!

  7. Interesting article. I am inclined to suggest that Martin Luther’s condemnation of the sublime music of Josquin to hell might have been inappropriate. Rather, as a Christian musician, might I redeem Josquin’ s choral music, imagining it to be sung by a competent and inspired heavenly choir? Let he or she who has ears hear……

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