General Introduction
– How did we spend Halloween?
– Mad Dog Gilmour is on the prowl
– What’s on the blog?
– Listener feedback

Let’s Talk Churches
– The praise-band “worship” model
– Eastern Orthodoxy
– The vast number of churches in Omaha
– The acapella Church of Christ
– Small ensembles
Sacred harp singing
– Casting Crowns fail
– Spanish-language congregations
– The deaf choir

Hebrew Sacred Music
– The Rabbinic tradition and the Psalms
– Nearly lost words
– Surviving Samaritans

New Testament Worship
– What the Bible says
– The Christian life as opera
– Songs as teaching aid
– Greco-Roman hymns
– The Ballad of Jesus

The History of Hymnody in Five Moments
– Martin Luther’s one-bar blues
– Fanny Crosby’s sixteen hymnals
– The Jesus Movement, man
– Cædmon’s call
– The oldest non-Psalmic hymn

Doctrinal Content in Church Music
– Get ready to hear us yell
– Changing the words of the hymns
– Why music is so individualizing and communitarian
– The red hymnal vs. the blue hymnal
– How rock ‘n’ roll can get in the way
– Charles Wesley’s insufficient specificity
– The Voice of the Ugly Calvinist
– How doctrinal are choruses?
– Manwich, manwich, we adore you
– And now we will complain about praise choruses
– A Calvinist argument and an existentialist argument (that doesn’t come from Michial!)
– The place for emotional language

A New Kind of Service
– Arguments for and against contemporary worship services
– Does contemporary worship even sound like pop music?
– Our argument about Third Eye Blind
– The seriously anti-rock people
– Nineteenth-century circus music
– An ex-cathedra pronouncement
– Standing in a long line

The Rock-Concert Worship Service
– Why Michial attends a PCUSA church
– The guitar solo monitor move
– Liberal theology, conservative music
– Do rock services make you rude?
– Karaoke church music
– Let’s get our worship on!

Closing Thoughts
– Be ready to hear reasons from the other side
– Wait before you fight
– Develop some empathy, for crying out loud


Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

Callimachus. Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments. Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

The Homeric Hymns. Trans. Susan C. Shelmerdine. Newburyport, Mass.: Focus, 1995.

Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead, 1996.

Wetmore, Robert D. Worship the Way It Was Meant to Be: 15 Biblical Principles for Knowing and Loving God. Camp Hill, Penn.: Christian Publications, 2003.

19 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #32: Church Music”
  1. Michael,

    I don’t own an IPOD. I do own a computer and a cable box; about the only thing I know how to do is unplug the box to reboot. So, its obvious I didn’t listen to the podcast.

    That said, I find myself interested by some of the topics. I will start by saying I grew up in the acapella Church of Christ (no longer attend); I am a Liberal, very much so, who loves traditional, conservative hymns; and I do NOT like the praise band.

    The young progressives don’t know how to figure someone like me. After all, praise bands are supposed to be the going thing. But from what I have heard from many of them they produce a show and celebrity atmosphere, while trying to sneak in a few songs they wrote themselves…most of which are not very good. Give me “Nearer My God, To Thee” any time!

    I use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, but still read the Psalms in the KJV. I read the Psalms of Solomon and Odes of Solomon in the KJV lanquage also. Maybe there’s no more room in the church for me; but, I find being and Old Fashion Liberal a comfort…still a trial when dealing with relatives who are still out there on the right…but, a comfort still the same, especially when I sit down on my sofa at 4:00 AM with my Bible to talk to God.

    1. John:

      If you’d like to listen to the show, you don’t need an iPod–just a computer with speakers or headphones. The mp3 is available through Feedburner: If that doesn’t work, let me know, and we’ll find a way to get the file to you.

      I suspect the three of us are probably more conservative than you theologically, but one of the common threads on the episode was that we’re all disturbed by the shallowness of much modern praise music and even more disturbed by the concert atmosphere of most worship services. I’m with you–“Nearer My God to Thee” and “The Old Rugged Cross” over “Shout to the Lord” and “Heart of Worship.” And the Bible over all of them.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. The only thing missing from the show was comment on the elevation of youth culture and the acceptance of the generation (gap) narrative that churches have bought into lock, stock, and barrel. The music wars are a reflection of and direct consequence of it.

  3. I’m smacking myself, Robert, now that you mention it, for not bringing that up.

    I think we did go into detail about that elevation in another episode–maybe Youth Ministry?–but I wish I’d pointed out how much contemporary worship is bound up in hipness and youth.

  4. Once again, Robert reminds us of what we should have hit. 😉

    You’re right, though, Robert. Although it’s the single driving force in our contemporary youth ministry movements, that whole mentality does drive worship wars and rumors of worship wars.

  5. I like to see hit what needs hitting. 🙂

    It was a good show as is, of course. And Gilmour, I can confirm your impression of Spanish-language praise music. It reminds me of Anglo converts chanting Orthodox hymns.

    By the way, have you guys done a show on Christian community and culture (local and macro) vs. assimilation into the secular Liberal order (I’m thinking Cavanaugh here)? It would tie together a lot of your discussions, I think.

  6. Ok, almost made it through the episode (still listening). Since this is from you guys, I was interested in hearing what you had to say. Mostly I’ve left most discussion of Christianity and art far behind me (well, it feels like it is far behind me. Probably only a year or two by now). Most discussions break down to things that I think are mostly irrelevant and pointless or otherwise just don’t matter. Some thoughts, some random, some less so.

    As for the Ephesians passage (and I would like to hear some actual Greek language thoughts about how those words were translated), I am not certain that emotional content and intellectual content was all that separated in that time period (although that type of separation might have started to creep in with Helenisation. Don’t know, which is why I ask you guys). Why would we diminish an important aspect of our created being, i.e. our emotion? I find being anti-emotional as odd as being anti-intellectual. It’s seems to me one risks telling God he didn’t know what he was doing when he created us with emotion such a powerful part of our nature.

    As for theological content, what is theological about Song of Solomon? Seems rife with emotion. Talk about “Jesus is my boyfriend”. As a matter of fact most of the Psalms are lamentations. David was a blues man.

    I appreciate the historical context you framed much of your discussion. Can you find any example where music style utilized for church actively pursued styles that were not contemporary to the time they were written? Do you think the psalmist argued about contemporary styles of music?

    Sustained discussion is going to depend on with whom I am having the discussion.

    Ephemeral forms. I would say dance is probably the most ephemeral art forms. At least with music there are ways, other than recording, the form can be documented.

    An interesting thought. Music is the original abstract/non-representational art form.

    Skill. The Levites were chosen because they were skillful.

    A great book for thought—Selah, a guide to music in the bible. It surveys all the passages that reference music, musicianship, or instruments. Interesting study.


  7. Joe,

    As David noted when he brought in St. John of the Cross, there’s certainly a place for the affective and even the erotic in Christian devotion. The concern I was trying to articulate (poorly–I was all over the place for significant stretches of this episode) was the assumption that certain kinds of corporate song services make at the outset that the emotional states are already there for every person gathered for corporate worship. My argument was not that such songs celebrating already-present emotional states are only going to drive home the fact that I, in that moment, have no real desire “to know You more.” It’s a matter of binding-together (religare) by means of doctrinal content or atomizing by means of making an emotional state the bar for admission. The scope of the episode was supposed to be limited to that context, though, as I fully grant, my own discussions at least did not make that clear.

    Incidentally, that’s why I stressed the point about the reconstructed character of the Psalms’ sitz im leben: we can speculate that many of them were temple-worship songs and that others were coronation songs, but many of them have the literary character of individual lyrics rather than corporate hymns. And as I tried to note later in the episode, because so many of the Psalms root their laments and praises not in emotive vocabularies but in real historical phenomena (the wicked do in fact prosper; YHWH has indeed delivered Israel from Egypt; the Torah does in fact make wise the foolish), they’ve got a range of potential authentic responses that “I want to know You more” simply lacks. I’d argue that the best blues music does likewise–certainly the genre isn’t afraid of using “the blues” as shorthand for emotive states, but the really fun blues numbers name and revel in the real material conditions of the song’s persona.

    Thanks again for listening and responding.

  8. “the assumption that certain kinds of corporate song services make at the outset that the emotional states are already there for every person gathered for corporate worship. ”

    The difficulty with this kind of analysis is that there are two things being discussed and conflated that are related, but not necessarily the same. There is a particular song (I want to know you more) and the context (hopefully thoughtful) created by the minister charged with the organization of the song selection. Yes, one can make an argument that a particular song makes assumptions. Even the Psalms do that. But then, are you always emotionally positioned to want to feast in front of your enemies? To see your enemies destroyed and eaten by worms? Are you never in an emotional condition to want to know Him more?

    The other assumption is the one made by the music minister, that your presence at the service is hopefully at least an indication that you acknowledge you SHOULD want to know him more, even if you don’t feel that way during that particular song. Maybe the song serves of at least that reminder.

    Or maybe you feel that music should remain as the primary means of retaining historical events? Is that the only legitimate use of music in worship? Of art in general? Theology is about history? I’m just trying to get this straight. The consensus seemed to be that theological content is of primary importance. But your position here is that since “I want to know you” (seems) to lack historic content versus the Psalms (like Psalm 13?) that is of lesser value emotionally and in corporate singing. (I will admit that I can find nothing theologically suspect in the lyrics of “I want to know you”).

    Understand, I absolutely believe that if “I want to know you” doesn’t do it for you, no big whoop. Most of the traditional hymns I grew up with never did it for me either (and still don’t). Actually neither do any of the contemporary songs when I am part of the congregation. The only music that captivated me as a congregant was the jazz services of Redeemer in NYC. (I say as a congregant because it was far easier for me to worship as a musician playing the contemporary stuff).

    But then I love Rothko’s art. For some people, its hardly more than blotches of colour on canvas. And I find myself more in communion with God when I am visiting an art museum than most any church service I have attended. To others that is far too superfluous.

    And my response may come across more accusatory than it really is. These are simply questions that came up as I read your note. Your reasoning is far more lucid that most of what I have come up against in the church. At least you aren’t saying the only painting that has value is three crosses on a hill or that the only sculpture of value is praying hands. Your tastes and that of your co-horts are far more sophisticated.

    Thank for your response,

  9. Joe:

    As Nathan said, thank you for your response. I’ll probably do a post on this subject this weekend, but for now I want to reiterate that we’re talking merely about Church Music here and that I am operating chiefly from the perspective of the New Testament in general and St. Paul in particular. Certainly I believe emotion has its place in music; I just think that music used in corporate worship should not be primarily based on emotion.

    But I don’t want to scoop myself, so I’ll save it for the post.

    Thanks again for listening and writing in; I really appreciate your making us think further about this stuff.

  10. ” I am operating chiefly from the perspective of the New Testament in general and St. Paul in particular.”

    The implication is that I am not?

    “I just think that music used in corporate worship should not be primarily based on emotion.”

    I have yet to see it demonstrated that this is actually the case.


  11. I’d suggest that your references primarily to the Hebrew scriptures would suggest that you’re working from something other than a New Testament perspective, yes.

  12. When Paul references psalms, then what else do we have as an example? Are there psalms in the New testament we can refer to when discussing his reference? When you generically and universally apply theological and doctrinal content subjugating emotion as a value for songs used in worship, are you only talking about Paul’s writings? Were the New Testament writers writing abstractly with regard to their Hebraic influences? I suppose all that is possible, but highly unlikely.

    I suppose if I am talking beyond the scope of the scope of the New Testament and Paul in particular, I don’t see doing so any more than your own discussion. But OK, if I am going to be so restricted, let’s do it. There are 380 passages in scripture that address music, about 340 in the hebrew scriptures and about 40 in the New Testament. Col and Eph are not the only place where Paul discusses music. There is also Corinthians 1 14:15 “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” Paul clearly places BOTH emotion and intellect (if that is how one wants to bifurcate the elements) on equal footing, not one over the other.

    But then, how does on consistently achieve that balance? Do they always both have to be present in the same song? Cannot the balance also be achieved in diversity of programming?

    He goes on to say “Let all things be done for edification”. Would not people need to be edified emotionally as much as intellectually?

    Let’s look at Ephesians. Is he restricting his admonishment of singing to church service? Is that what this passage is concerning? Or is tis about something else or in addition? Let’s look at the passage previous to the referenced verse:

    15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,

    Would this not have a bearing as to how the passage is referencing music?

    If one goes on from there:

    19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,

    We have three forms of music mentioned. Based on any of your understanding of Greek and the historical context of the time, does all this implicate either a style or form that restricts the music to doctrinal/theological/emotional content?

    Also note the channel of the music to the Lord—the heart.

    So, if I am confused as to how a focus on the New Testament and Paul’s writings was the basis of many of your positions and elucidations stated in the podcast, either regarding style or emotional content, please forgive me.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, and as you say it is not worth splitting over, merely discussion.

  13. I will address most of these concerns in my post; if Nathan or David wishes to talk about them beforehand, they are welcome to do so.

    Thank you for raising these issues.

  14. OK, i am going to try to out-curmudgeon you.

    One of the criteria that I use to evaluate a healthy church is “what percentage of their budget do they spend on those who do not give?” If the number is low the members are just paying for services rendered. It demonstrates whether they are a missional community or a Jesus club.

    I think there is a music analogy here as well. The reason so many of us ‘elevate youth culture’ (which I unapologetically do) is that youth worldviews are the ones most in play. Worldviews harden past 25 from what I can tell (with a brief reevaluation window after someone has a kid). The main problem I have with music in the church lagging culture by 25 years (or by 300 years) is that it has the feel of services rendered to the paying members (most finances come from the 35-55 set) rather than innovative, missional artistry to contextualize the gospel to those who are actually ‘in play.’ Musical worship is fundamentally an act of contextualization (which gels with your idea that it is pedagogical). I love hymns, but love contextualized sung worship more.

    I really do enjoy your discussions…but mostly because I am an enormous nerd. And it seems to me that by eschewing attempts to contextualize sung worship (which, admitedly, are usually done with little artistry or theological reflection) and your famous declaration that cool pastors are anathema, you are not asking the church to be Biblical…but to cater to nerds (i.e. contextualized to the very small portion of the laity that is like you, you, you and me).

    Anyway, thanks, as always for your thoughtful and entertaining discussion.

    Postscript: Your cool pastor declaration is the only one of your ex-cathedra pronouncements I disagree with. Family Guy is, in fact, not funny and “God told me to break up with you” lacks imagination and courage. 🙂

  15. I often wonder about that last point, Joe. I will say that I’m more of a hipster than I let on, as will become clear when I post my “Best Songs of 2010” next month. I maintain that something gets lost when a person tries to make Christianity hip, if only because you can’t be both hip and a stumbling block, and it seems pretty clear that Christianity is meant to be the latter.

    I’ll reiterate this in my post, but I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I think everyone should be an intellectual or a theology nerd. But I do think that all Christians should know a certain amount of theology, and music has historically been a method of getting that knowledge across. A song like “Amazing Grace” has a certain amount of theological content, even if it’s not particularly heavy; ditto “The Old Rugged Cross,” which we used as our intro music in this episode. Those are still emotional songs for a lot of people. But I’ll get into this later today.

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