For decades now, Christians have been arguing among themselves about worship music. And I can see why. Music speaks to the heart and mind in ways that words simply can’t. Two editorials from Christianity Today reveal that this argument is nowhere near an end. In fact, it might only be ramping up now that the religion has begun to decline.
The first, written in 1977, frets that evangelicals are getting too caught up in demonizing certain kinds of music. The second, written in 2023, tries to keep Jesus-feelings wrapped up in church music while still acknowledging the powerful effect music can have on a congregation’s emotions. Both of them miss the same important point, however. We’ll explore that point today.
(From the introduction: The Assassin’s Spaghetti recipe I mentioned.)
(This post originally went live on Patreon on 5/30/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available by the time you read this!)
The Satanic Panic made rock music a demonic enemy
Back when I was a wee Pentecostal lass in the late 1980s, my first pastor refused to allow drums or electric instruments onto his dais. He wanted no part of the Devil’s rock music. His church would only play hymns and gospel music. But then, a huge influx of younger folks—teens and college students—flooded into the congregation on the basis of a Rapture scare. They wanted music that didn’t sound like their grandparents’ faves.
The worship leader wangled from him one magical night specifically reserved for youth worship. Since no older congregants would really be there anyway, the pastor allowed him to set a drum set on the dais. For one night, that church heard drumming. But then, the pastor admitted later he felt convicted for allowing it.
(That’s Christianese. It means that Jesus himself made the pastor feel guilty. Feeling convicted is a big deal for evangelicals, just as it was for us fundamentalists back then.)
Rock music was a big deal even before the general moral panic around Satanism (the “Satanic Panic”) that consumed evangelicals from the late 1970s to the mid-late 1990s. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ had opposed rock music for decades by then.
Before that, rock music was just a general enemy to America itself
This very interesting 2013 paper by Anna Nekola positions that opposition as being based in racism from the 1920s to WWII, afterward focusing on rock’s dangerous appeal to rebellious teens and its challenges to what they conceptualized as an idealized American way of life. She even reprints a chart that contrasted what its creator thought illustrated good music vs. rock music. This guy put a lot of thought into this smear campaign:
Once the Satanic Panic got into full swing, right-wing Christians paid closer attention to rock’s pervasive themes of sexual licentiousness, drug abuse, criminality, and overall depravity. They decided that actual, literal demons were and always had been behind this entire category of music. In her paper, Nekola even quotes Bob Larson, one of the most obvious hucksters in the Christian Right (in my opinion, beaten only by Kent Hovind for sheer ridiculosity). And he made quite the claim about rock music in 1970:
This subordination of the melody line in rock music to a pulsated rhythm has further psychological consequences. [. . .] Any monotonous, lengthy, rhythmic sound induces various states of trance. It is quite obvious to any qualified, objective observer that teenagers dancing to rock often enter hypnotic trances. When control of the mind is weakened or lost, evil influences can often take possession. Loss of self-control is dangerous and sinful.
(You can find a lot more Larson quotes along these same lines at this funny 2011 blog post.)
Of course, since white fundamentalists and evangelicals alike tend to be incredibly racist too, the ones I knew at the time specifically called rock music the demon beat of Africa. Yes. You heard that right. Literal demons from Africa had allowed the thrumming backbeats of rock music to be imported from there to America, all to seduce unwitting young adults into sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll—and away from their morally righteous and pure church communities.
As Larson clearly does, we all thought at the time that music had the power to slip into someone’s mind and heart in ways that speech and observed actions simply couldn’t. Thus, unwary listeners could easily become possessed through engaging too often with such music.
The heady days of fighting an entire style of music
Around that same time, some fundagelicals put out a magazine called Battle Cry. It was originally part of Teen Mania, a popular (and disturbingly militaristic) parachurch ministry backed by some incredibly big fundagelical names at the time like Pat Robertson, Josh McDowell, and Joyce Meyer. This ministry specifically sought to politicize fundagelicals and take control of American culture. Accordingly, their magazine dealt specifically with fighting the agents of Satan on Earth.
A 1986 article in Battle Cry draws clear battle lines for evangelicals regarding music. Ironically, their article begins with them name-dropping Joseph Goebbels’ classic (but probably fake) quote about how easy it is to get crowds of people to believe lies. Then, they offer tons of quotes from the popular rock musicians of their day. And then, they ominously warn readers:
Their [rock musicians’] goal, through constant repetition, is to fill the minds of the young with perverted sex, hatred, rebellion and drugs. It’s open warfare.
And now, “Christians” who want to look as much like the world as possible, are bring the primitive “beat” into churches. The result? Christian young people are developing an ever-stronger rock sound so much alike, you will find them listening to both.
Slowly, but ever so surely, the message of today’s rock stars oozes into the mind and soul, for repetition is the essence of brainwashing. And they’re doing it to your kids.
You will, I’m sure, be utterly shocked to learn that I couldn’t confirm a single one of their offered “from the horse’s mouth” quotes from the likes of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Frank Zappa, and Alice Cooper. Their writer offers no sources whatsoever for these quotes beyond names.
Segue: Evangelicals don’t care about fake quotes
For many years now, a number of similar-minded fundagelicals have re-quoted those fake quotes. It’s abundantly clear that they truly believe them to be real. One frantic-sounding fellow even asks, “How is it [rock music] not a conspiracy?” Another Christian offers a somewhat critical review of a 1986 book, Can We Rock the Gospel?, which uses those same exact quotes. (Both titles’ questions can be answered, of course, with a resounding NO.) The paper writer and the reviewer don’t even question these quotes’ legitimacy.
That 1986 article wasn’t even the only one Battle Cry published on the subject of rock music. They’d tackle the topic again in 1993 (rock beat vs song words), 1996 (trumpeting the unhappiness or tragic ends of various rock stars as PROOF YES PROOF of rock music’s harmfulness), and 1999 (more manufactured quotes about the evil beat, including one super-racist quote about it being “pagan and primitive, and very jungle”).
If you’re collecting false quotes for your collection, incidentally, don’t miss the attributions listed in this Cult of Before Stories testimony. I chose the Gene Simmons quote at random to fact-check. David Cloud sourced it to the December 10, 1987 episode of Entertainment Tonight. In a 1987 short from the show of uncertain date, Gene Simmons briefly appears but doesn’t say the line attributed to him. Meanwhile, the Metacritic summary for that episode only mentions an interview with Heather Locklear. At the time, she was one of the stars of the popular TV show Dynasty. One would think that an interview with one of the best-known rock musicians of that decade might have been mentioned as well.
The anti-rock music crusade worked grandly on evangelicals
At the time, this wholly-artificially-engineered moral panic galvanized and agitated fundamentalists. It gave them an enemy to fear and hate. And then, the architects of that moral panic told the panickers that they could easily defeat that enemy through the power of their Jesusing.
That said, a divide was forming between them and white evangelicals.
When Christian contemporary music (CCM) made waves in the 1980s, many white evangelicals lapped it up.
Obviously, fundamentalists rejected it. It was one of the reasons they felt that evangelicals were just Fundamentalism Lite. When the very evangelical Christianity Today decided in 1977 to embrace a “musical pluralism” of musical influences, fundamentalists’ sneering could be heard from anywhere on Earth:
Evangelicalism offers all the feel-good smugness of fundamentalism, but only half the emotional rigor and none of the heaven-bound correctness—for Christians who are too scared and uncommitted to go all the way for Jesus!
Yeah, evangelicals were just too worldly for us fundamentalists. The term worldly simply means not focused 24/7 on Jesus. It manifested as an affection for un-Jesusy clothes, entertainment, behavior, and yes, most especially music. CCM sounded way too much like worldly music to us. All those Jesus-words plastered into the songs didn’t change our minds at all. Alas for us, they only snickered at our warnings that this music was created with the help of real live demons.
After evangelicals finally fused together with fundamentalists in the 1990s, though, their CCM became part of the overall cultural markers of the new fusion mix. Quite a few of these new fundagelicals accepted their new normal fairly easily. By then, rock-style music was familiar enough to them that it’d lost a lot of its demonic (and racist) associations.
However, the new fusion mix caused problems of its own
But even amid that fusing-together, the new music style became a point of argument between old-school, more fundamentalist fundagelicals and the newer, more evangelical fundagelicals. Even as both groups found common ground in opposing out-of-bounds secular music, within the new tribe itself they couldn’t find agreement regarding where boundary-pushing music became unacceptably out-of-bounds music.
In particular, they had a bone to pick with the entire idea of Christian rock.
In 2009, Equip.org felt that Christian rock music’s lyrics mattered more than the beats it used. With what seems to me a very hopeful tone, they suggested that fundagelicals avoid “simplistic answers.”
But opponents of CCM felt the opposite way. This was a simplistic question and it did have a simplistic answer. The music itself was the problem here, not the songs’ lyrics.
Once David Cloud published his influential 2011 booklet The Transformational Power of Contemporary Praise Music, fundagelicals grabbed for it with both hands. Online at least, I found this book mentioned everywhere. In it, Cloud argued that churches’ adoption of more contemporary styles of music was “sinister,” and the Christians approving of it were “undiscerning.”
(Discernment is a supernatural gift. It allows Christians to tell the difference between demonic and divine stuff. So obviously, someone calling a Christian “undiscerning” is a major diss.)
In the wild: Church music squabbles
In 2012, Northside Baptist Church’s leaders came out against CCM. Their main objections:
- CCM musicians apparently openly compare themselves to worldly musicians. (For a while, I remember that record shops kept a chart on hand with such comparisons.)
- Secular rock musicians completely reject the idea that their music is at all suitable for churches.
- They felt that CCM was suspiciously ecumenical. (During the Satanic Panic, fundagelicals thought demons were behind ecumenism.)
- As well, CCM “is weakening Biblical standards” and “Biblical ministries” alike. (Biblical is Christianese for a doctrine or culture-war stance that the judging Christian likes.)
Identifying some “soft” CCM is difficult, but listen for the beat. When exaggerated, if it moves you to dance, it is rock music and wrong.
It’s got that DEMON BEAT, I tells ya!
Speaking of which, a hilarious 2016 post offers a number of dubious testimonies to support their contention that even if rock music were fine (WHICH IT TOTALLY IS NOT), fundagelical parents’ mere disapproval of it still should take it off a teenager’s play list. But all too many teens play such music anyway. Therefore, rock music encourages teens to disobey the Fifth Commandment—the one that says “obey your parents.” And therefore, rock music is demonic in nature.
(If you check out that link, don’t miss another awesome Satanic Panic testimony from one David Pratt. I’ve never heard of him, but a lot of Christians mistakenly think he’s telling the truth about, well, anything.)
That somewhat-critical book reviewer I mentioned earlier (relink) tends to agree that quite a lot of rock music should be off-limits. But he’s not willing to go as far as to forbid the use of rock-style music in worship.
By 2023, it seems like rank-and-file Christians had largely forgotten that old fight. At a forum called the Puritan Board, I got a kick out of their discussion about it. They seemed alternately dismissive and amused by the notion of rock music being some huge problem.
But some Christians still took rock music super-seriously.
This time, the fight centers not on demons strumming African drumbeats to seduce teens to Satanism. This time, it centers on the emotionally-manipulative quality of certain kinds of music.
There’s just something insufficiently-Jesusy about some church music
Christianity Today’s recent story asks a poignant question in its title: “Worship Music Is Emotionally Manipulative. Do You Trust the Leader Plucking the Strings?” Its subtitle is equally ominous: “The Spirit is at work, but so are the mechanisms around high-production sets.”
DUN DUN DUNNNNN!
The story opens with a newbie worship minister leading a megachurch in song. I guess her boss thought she wasn’t getting rowdy enough, because he instructed her (via an in-ear monitor) to make her performance “bigger.” So she began to jump, clap, and overall be “more physically demonstrative.” Later, she’d discover that the songs available for her selection were ranked by their “energy level.” For some services, she couldn’t select anything above a 3 (out of 5).
These discoveries made her wonder if maybe, just maybe, she was emotionally manipulating the church congregation with this music and its associated performances. She seems to have decided that yes, she was indeed.
Immediately afterward, she clearly decided that this isn’t a bad thing—as long as it was done by appropriately Jesusy people and for the correct reasons.
Her story for Christianity Today explored the apparent difference between ickie “exploitive emotional manipulation” and wholesome, Jesus-approved “emotional shepherding.”
Antiprocess in action
I really loved how this story reveals antiprocess shields in action. Christians don’t want to give up emotionally-manipulative tactics. Such tactics are, after all, demonstrably effective in an age when very few things evangelicals do are effective at all.
However, it feels very un-Jesusy to visibly accept that a tactic is emotionally manipulative. After all, Jesus himself is supposed to sprinkle over them the magic fairy dust that makes evangelism and preaching (occasionally) effective. Admitting that it’s all a lightshow designed to manipulate the unwary comes way too uncomfortably close to admitting that Jesus Power isn’t real in the first place.
So now, we have the most hilarious hair-splitting on earth to entertain us: this mythical difference between emotional manipulation for the wrong and sinful reason, and manipulation for the right and Jesusy reason. And here, that difference derives entirely from what the manipulator does with their manipulated audience:
Rather than a worship leader seeing the crowd’s emotional response—raised hands, closed eyes, or tears—as a sign of a successful set, [author Zac] Hicks argued that a thoughtful shepherd will use what he calls the “emotional contours of the gospel” (“the glory of God,” “the gravity of sin,” and “the greatness of grace”) to shape musical worship and avoid manipulation.
In other words, the article amusingly notes, getting an audience completely manipulated and then asking for extra donations will backfire hard. The sheep in the flocks must not ever suspect that their emotions are being manipulated out of less-than-stellar motives. Nor must they ever suspect that maybe their response to music has nothing to do with any imaginary friends. Nope, nope! It must always be tied to Jesusing somehow!
Music is just in our blood
Chances are very good that humans have been making music since we became humans. We’ve found bone flutes dating back to 35k years ago.
(And in the same area, we’ve found the earliest so-called “Venus figurine.” Found in 2008, it’s the earliest known representation of humans in figurative art. A few years earlier, archaeologists found a phallus sculpture from there. That particular cave, called Hohle Fels, has been a treasure trove of ancient finds.)
Even if we know a little about the kinds of instruments used or even the words to their songs, we don’t know much about the melodies they played. The famed Greek poet Sappho might have been known for her wedding songs, but we’re not sure at all about how they sounded. (Not that people haven’t tried to figure that out!)
It wasn’t until about 1400 BCE that we uncovered any ancient notations for music. The “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” has been widely adapted for modern ears. Here’s a beautiful one:
I don’t think it took humans long to adopt the practice of making and listening to music and songs. Researchers consistently find new ways that our brains respond to it. Now we know that when people listen to music, our brains are doing all kinds of neurochemical stuff.
As this 2018 paper notes, different parts of our brain activate when we’re improvising music, playing something rehearsed, or just listening to it. These researchers speculate that certain kinds of music might even become part of disease treatment or brain optimization. Also, it turns out that there is at least one very good reason to support music education for schoolchildren. Our brain structures change when we learn music as children. Our executive functioning even improves!
Maybe our affinity for music derives from recognizing the patterns in our own pulse, breathing, and heartbeat. So rock music and its unexpected spicy backbeats and tempo changes likely makes our brains light up like Christmas trees. It’s no wonder so many church leaders want to use it in worship. It’s also no wonder that others react like their music minister just suggested naked orgies at the pulpit.
Music calms the anxious
beast Space Princess
Whatever is behind it, musicians have long known how to manipulate people’s emotions through their music. They’ve known it since long before rock music, too, I suspect. The first people to hear “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” must have responded to it in some very emotional way.
When I was in college, a psychology professor of mine told an amusing joke to his class. He claimed that he (or some colleague of his, I can’t remember now) would go to a honky-tonk country-and-western bar on the weekend. It had a jukebox, as many such places did at the time. He’d put a lot of quarters into it and have it play nothing but sad, cry-in-your-beer songs. Then, he’d load it up with rowdy ruckus-raising songs—and watch the bar fights break out. These weren’t rock music; they were classic country songs. But they still had the desired effect.
Nowadays, I’m willing to bet this story was just an urban legend. But at the time, we all thought it was hilarious.
That said, right after college I discovered that listening to certain music helped me drive. At the time, I suffered from a terrifying phobia of driving. However, it had to be music I knew very well for it to calm me. Random radio songs stressed me out worse. So I played cassettes or CDs whenever I had to drive.
Eventually, I bought a Miata. That phobia finally melted away forever! But years earlier, music carried me through a highly stressful task.
When researchers talk about shared rituals bonding groups of ancient humans together, singing religious songs might well be one of the most important examples of it.
(I’m thinking right now about a touching quest end in Elder Scrolls Online. At one zone’s major quest completion, a bunch of characters enter the area. They sing a short song mourning the lives of those they’ve lost in the recent fight. They sing of their resilience and their intention to rebuild whatever they can. And they celebrate their identity as Nords. I’ve done that quest several times, and still I tear up every time I hear them sing that song. Here it is, starting at 27:44.)
The Big Problem Here is not the one Christians imagine
When it comes to Christian churches using music to manipulate their congregations, though, the problem isn’t what they think it is.
The Big Problem Here is not goal-less manipulation vs purposeful manipulation. And the answer that Christianity Today writer proposes to that non-problem, making sure music ministers are as Jesusy and pure-hearted as possible, won’t fix what’s actually wrong.
That proposal wouldn’t work anyway, even if fundagelicals accepted it. Despite what they like to claim about their end of Christianity, fundagelicals wouldn’t know accountability if it smacked them on the bottom with a subpoena. There’s simply no way for anyone to force any fundagelical leader into accountable structures if that leader doesn’t wanna do it. Indeed, fundagelical leaders have spent decades pruning all hints of accountability out of their social structures and systems.
Nor will fundagelicals adopt that writer’s other suggestion: forthright acknowledgment of church music’s effects as they’re happening. Even if that could solve the real problem facing fundagelical leaders, they wouldn’t do it.
No, fundagelical leaders won’t adopt either suggestion.
But it doesn’t matter either way, because that’s not the issue.
And now, what’s actually wrong
The issue is that music itself sparks profound emotions in listeners. It does so completely independently of religious trappings and words. Like my old psychology professor, any music ministers worth their salt know how to provoke particular responses in an audience. It’s a skill that I imagine is quickly learned and honed through experience.
The first time a Christian experiences music that is profoundly un-Jesusy yet provokes similar feelings, that Christian might start to wonder why music-without-Jesus-frosting feels just as powerful as music-with-Jesus-frosting (or even, dare I suggest, more so). Most of us can only stand so much hand-waving and ad-hoc reasoning! And as any ex-Christian could tell them, those questions rarely lead anywhere that church leaders want them to go.
But long before Christians experience such music, they might face something far more disturbing: Church worship music provoking very strong feelings in and of itself. This manipulation derives entirely from the music itself, not from any attending godlings or demons or ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bum-bum-pa-bump in the night.
Oh, sure, their church friends and peers may well clap along with the music and sing through their tears. Afterward, they may well claim that Jesus totally blessed that worship band that day. But it’ll be obvious to some of them that Jesus had nothing whatsoever to do with the emotions brought forth in the congregation.
Separation just doesn’t sell quite so well in an age of Christianity’s decline, either
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on another insurmountable problem for fundagelical pastors and church leaders. It has to do with everything we’ve talked about so far, but I wanted to name it out into the open.
To someone like me, with a keen interest in history, the idea of music as a shared experience makes me just giddy. The way people respond to music today speaks to our ancient past and connects us to our long-dead ancestors. It’s part of the human condition. From the beginning, we have united with others through music. No gods have ever been required to make that effect happen. It’s a universal thing for humans. And that’s a downright staggering thought.
But fundagelical leaders really like the idea of being separated from the world. Normies should immediately know that they are not just regular schmoes. They’re special. They’re weird. Something makes them just glow from the inside with magic.
But if fundagelicals dress like normal people, talk like them, act like them, and listen to the same kind of music as them, then how will normies know at a glance that they’re different? As one of their favorite Bible verses runs, if salt loses its saltiness, then what can make it taste salty again?
So they really need special music that normies can’t find everywhere else in the world. But it still needs to be very emotionally manipulative music, so fundagelicals can claim that Jesus makes it work that way.
The toughest music lesson for fundagelical youth ministers
That said, evangelical youth ministers began to vaguely understand the problem with Christian music years ago.
They could easily get thousands of tweens and teenagers excited at Christian concerts. I’m talking trivially easy. Those kids would yell and scream and point to the sky and sing along and act all on fire for Jesus, as on fire as anybody could ever possibly get.
And none of it mattered.
A few years later, those kids drifted out of evangelicalism regardless. It didn’t matter how excited that even very Jesusy music made kids feel. It just wasn’t enough to hold them in the religion past becoming adults.
Youth ministers didn’t understand how all that excitement failed to translate into lifelong Jesusing. They only understood that it didn’t. They wrote about it in worried tones because they had no idea what would lead to that desired result.
But that was over ten years ago, before evangelicals really understood that they were in decline at all. Nowadays, they seem to have forgotten that harsh lesson.
Maybe their music ministers could learn it alongside them this time.
And the imagined win that isn’t a win at all
If Christians can’t tell the difference between Jesus-provoked emotions and human-provoked ones, that bodes poorly for their conceptualization of their god as a meddling busybody in their lives.
Christianity Today’s writer lands exactly here. She clearly dislikes thinking that worship music in and of itself provokes those reactions, and that her god doesn’t have anything to do with it. So she tries her best to harness Jesus after the fact to those reactions. Her sleight of hand works fine for most fundagelicals, at least until yet another music minister gets caught in a serious scandal (like this reprehensible predator from last year).
Hey gang, let’s make sure we’re using the natural incredibly-manipulative power of music for only the most Jesusy reasons and be super-responsible with the awesome personal power it grants our ministers, okay?
That’s not the win Christians might imagine it is.
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