We do not see ourselves clearly. We also do not see our culture clearly. This problem is particularly acute for 21st century American Christians, because though we know that there is a history to our faith (after all, this is AD 2012), we have little idea of what that history is. Just as we don’t understand ourselves without knowing other people well, and we don’t understand our families and homes without seeing other people’s families, we cannot see our age with any accuracy unless we give our attention to other ages.
This is true in all kinds of areas, one of them being music. We are in a time of great confusion among Christians about music. Not only confusion about what music to perform in the setting of church worship (psalms? hymns? choruses? a cappella? organ? rock band? jazz?) but larger confusion about the meaning and value of music. Does the style of music matter? Are there good and bad styles of music? We live in a time saturated with music, much of it full of nasty stuff, and we don’t know how to think about that. Is it “just a song,” without power to shape lives, or is it more? What does listening to a song do to us?
It’s hard to approach these questions head-on. It helps to leave our own era and listen in on the conversations of Christians in another time on the same subject. Maybe human nature and the Christian struggle to be faithful don’t change as much over time as we might expect. And it might be extra helpful to listen in the the church in ancient time that is more like our time than you might think – Christians in the Roman Empire, a time when Christianity was clearly a minority and paganism powerfully shaped the surrounding culture.
Calvin Stapert is a music professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He is not a scholar of the early church, but he has been reading the “church fathers” (pastors, bishops, and theologians of the first five Christian centuries) for years, and has put his notes together in A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
Most of the book gives a bird’s eye view of the lives and teachings of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom. These men are separated by language (Tertullian and Ambrose are Latin-speakers, Clement and Chrysostom are Greek-speakers), region (different parts of North Africa, Italy, Syria, and Greece), and varying degrees of friendliness toward the pagan world (Tertullian radically rejecting it, Chrysostom hardly less so; while Clement and to a lesser degree Ambrose embraced non-Christian learning and culture and affirmed all they could). They are also spread out over three centuries (AD 200s-400s). The differences really are striking at times, especially between contemporaries Tertullian and Clement. While Clement was an expert on Stoic philosophy, Tertullian famously raged, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, or the Academy to do with the Church?” While some viewed the non-Christian world as a place where God’s light was to be found (though less clearly than in the gospel of Jesus Christ), others approached it as a cesspool to be rejected and avoided.
With these radical differences in the overall approach to the pagan world and its politics, literature, and philosophy, we might expect similar differences in the fathers’ thoughts on music. This is actually where the book gets interesting. Across the board, the Fathers were consistently antagonistic toward the music of the pagan world. They spoke of it much like an old-time Fundamentalist preacher might speak of rock and roll: it is frenetic, it is demonic, it is sexual, it is intended to stir up the passions (not merely the emotions, but ungodly desires taking control of the listener).
There are differences between now and then, of course. Much of that ancient music was explicitly tied to pagan ceremonies and practices. Pagan ceremonial music was designed to (1) cover up any other sounds, (2) shoo away interfering demons, and (3) interest the gods in the ceremony going on down below. Little of modern music is intended for those purposes. But it was also intended to excite the passions and take hold of the listener, something that our music is absolutely intended to do. Like our music, theirs focused on themes of illicit sex, partying, jealousy, and violence. Another difference we might point out is that we usually listen to recorded music (I have some thoughts on this too), where their music was always live. But even in our culture, recorded music is second-best to live events (like rock concerts), or events where music is played, loud, to a crowd (like a dance party or a rave).
I am summarizing pretty severely, but I think you get the point. The early church (or their representatives, these different church Fathers) viewed the music of the pagan world around them as powerful, spiritual in nature, and damaging.
So what’s the alternative?