Once...there was a tune and everyone knew how it went, but as time went by, people began to forget, until at last no one could remember.
(The Tune, 1971 by Larry Norman)
From the discovery and development of music by Jubal (Genesis 4:21) and the psalms of David up until modern time, music has been used to worship, praise and proclaim the majesty of God. Today, most of us think of the hymns as holy songs - both the melody and the lyrics written as a direct inspiration from God. We think of the hymns as totally separate from secular music, but in reality, when many of the traditional hymns were first composed, they represented the sound of their day, just as "Jesus Rock" might represent the sound of today.
In 1524, then Martin Luther borrowed popular drinking song melodies and grafted Christian lyrics onto them, he outraged his spiritual colleagues and no doubt gave new ammunition to his critics; but today these same songs, such as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and "Away In A Manger" are considered among the Christian classics.
A young boy complains to his father that most of the church hymns are boring to him because they are so far behind the times. His father becomes angry and states that "the hymns are good enough for your Grandfather and me, and they will serve you just as well". But the teenager says that not only are the tunes boring, but the words are meaningless ... the songs are just too old fashioned. Putting an end to the discussion, his father says to him, "Well, if you think you can write better hymns, then why don't you?" The son says that he will. He goes to his room and writes his first hymn.
The year was 1690, the teenager was Isaac Watts, and the hymn was "Behold the Glories of the Lamb". During the next few years he wrote other songs. "We're marching to Zion", "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", and "Joy to the World" are among the almost 350 hymns he created. The lyrics were his own but sometimes the melodies were similar in origin to Luther's ... seized from the streets or from popular theatre.
A few centuries later, William Booth was moved to update the music of the church. Only, instead of writing all new songs, he remove the fabric of religious music by discarding the organ and the piano, and in their place putting trombones, trumpets, tambourines, drums (drums??!!!), tubas, piccolos, clarinets etc. and the took this menage a brass out into the streets. His marching Salvation Army Band disgusted and outraged many of the Christians in his day, but he was confident that Christian music should be taken where it was conspicuously absent ... to the people ... and played in a fashion that non-Christians could understand.
Music is a powerful and spiritually persuasive art form. The young shepherd boy David soothed the tormented mind of King Saul with his songs, and his lyrical psalms are still among the most poetically uplifting that we have. The music of the teenager Isaac Watts supported the large evangelistic thrust of his day. William Booth took his band out into the streets and reached thousands that had been overlooked by the religious community. His music and message helped harvest the soul of many a businessman as well as the skid row mendicants. And these are but a few examples from Christian church history.
The lesson is clear, or should be. Continually embracing the current musical forms to present the Christian message, religious music has again and again become relevant to a contemporary world that would accuse it of being outdated. Today, the new Christian music (Jesus Music, Jesus Rock, etc.) is accessible common ground between the religious and secular world. With the advent of the vinyl 45 and the non-stop disc jockey, music has become the second language of the youth. It has the power to lead or mislead. Just as it once influenced the misdirection of the youth into drugs and campus revolution, it can be (and is being) used to proclaim in a modern tongue a message that is almost 2,000 years old.
There are some who wrongly feel that contemporary rock music is a satanic, destructive force and is not conductive to communicating the gospel. Some feel that the innate sensitivity and nobility of quieter musical forms, such as "classical music" is more calming and more appropriate for religious worship. This is not necessarily true. They are overlooking the fact that much of classical music, opera, etc. relies on murder, jealousy and immorality for their themes. When Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" was first performed on May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, the audience rioted and tore up the seats and curtains of the theatre. Yet, classical music can no doubt be used to glorify God when it chooses to. Handel did it with "The Messiah".
Music is one of the most strategic art forms we have today. It is more widely popular than literature, theatre, cinema, poetry, or any of the other art forms. It is also the most portable. Radios fit into back pockets, cassette players weigh less than a text book, and almost every car has a radio. Most people have access to some kind of a record player. And for many, the live concert has become the height of social excursion ... a place where you can not only see your favourite group, but be with your best friends and somehow feel close to the forty thousand other people seated around you.
Today, Christian writers like Andrae Crouch, Randy Stonehill, Malcolm and Alwyn, and Steve Camp are redefining the cultural context of Christian music and often find themselves facing the same resistance that Luther, Watts, Booth and others have had to face. Innovation and creative direction are not always appreciated, because they are both often misunderstood. But the critics of modern Christian music should keep in mind that today's young Christians may be writing the hymns of tomorrow.
larry norman - january 1975