Dr. Albert Mohler recently entered the debate over “Holy Hip Hop” (hereafter “HHH”) with a post comparing the Baroque music of J. S. Bach to today’s rap music. I want to offer my own imperfect response to Dr. Mohler, in response to both his unusual comparison and, in what I believe is a more serious problem, his apparent belief that Christians should not make judgments about the way human beings communicate through music.

Bach ist Weltliche?

When I first received email links to Mohler’s article, friends of mine were lamenting that he was comparing rap music to J. S. Bach. In some respects, Mohler is doing that. And to whatever extent he is, of course, it is absurd. It is like saying that because Attila the Hun had two eyes and Billy Graham has two eyes, that the two should be compared. Rap music is not the music of J. S. Bach. Mohler needs to stop playing the master composer in the background and start following along with the music and the words. He should attend again to the descending bass line in the second movement of BWV 12 (“Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”) and how it colors the words. He should listen again to the way Bach expresses the essence of lullaby throughout the second part of the Christmas Oratorio (I’m thinking here of the Sinfonia, its reprisal in the final chorale, and then, of course, the lullaby in “Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh.”) Or Mohler maybe should pull out the Mass in B Minor once again and see how in even the structure (let alone the music) of the “Credo” Bach depicts and centralizes the crucifixion of our Lord. In Bach’s sacred works the music marries or communicates the words. This is the way Western music operated for centuries before Bach, and for some time after him, until the debauch degradation of music through popular music.1 Johann Sebastian Bach himself firmly believed that music itself communicated above and beyond the lyrics.2 Bach was a composer, not a lyricist, and he very much believed (indeed, it was second nature to him) that in his compositions he was “painting” a musical picture representing the words being sung to that music.

As for the statement that some people thought of Bach as “worldly,” it’s hard to know exactly what Mohler is thinking of.3 Most people know that Bach (like any one of us in our respective fields) received a number of rebukes in his career as an organist and then as a church musician. Indeed, as a young man Bach was reproved for his organ accompaniment of the hymns for having “curious variations” and ”strange tones,” because this “confused” many congregants.4 Is this what Mohler has in mind? If it is, such complaints are far (very far) from saying that Bach was perceived to be “worldly” by the Christians of his day. To say so would introduce a definite anachronism. Instead, if this is what Mohler is referring to (citations would have been helpful), all we can conclude from such contemporary criticisms is that Bach was at times not a good (or “a too good”) church accompanist.

Perhaps getting closer to Mohler’s point is the criticisms that some of Bach’s contemporaries may have leveled at his passions (perhaps the St. Matthew Passion). This critique is more common to the criticisms leveled by old Calvinists against Lutheran music in general (ironically enough for our setting and our debates–now it is the Lutherans who to a far greater extent than the young, restless Calvinists withstand the populism and denigration of Christian music). Indeed, although we are not entirely certain that the criticisms are of Bach’s passions in particular, some people may have seen not too distant connections between Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and the opera. (Noted Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has noted that the St. Matthew Passion was “worlds away” from the opera style.5 ) They preferred their lent and Holy Week music to be a cappella, and, of course, Bach scored many instruments for all his passions. Bach’s critic also said the passion was considered “theatrical” and “sensual.” Yet Bach scholars tell us that this lonely critic missed some pretty obvious clues from Bach (if he was criticizing Bach) for the sake of finding fault.6

Even more significant to understand the relationship of Bach and HHH, it is not Bach’s music that is considered “worldly” or “sensual,” but his use of instruments and the so-called “theatrical” form of the passions.7 Once again, to say Bach’s music was considered “worldly” totally misses the point of such criticisms. His music a se was not considered worldly. Instead, it was his instrumentation for a certain occasion that some believed only a cappella music should be used (it seems clear that instrumental music at other times would have not have been similarly criticized). In other words, if Johann had written the same music for voices only, such criticisms would likely not have been leveled. The critics were not addressing the style of Bach’s music, but the way he put the Passions together. Since Bach’s music was thoroughly rooted as a development of the musical heritage of Reformation Germany, his music in itself was in no way offensive to the conservative, traditional, and aged congregants of that period like HHH is today.

But this is beside the point. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that some people regard Bach’s music as “worldly.” We do not accept music simply because Bach’s name is attached to it. If Bach wrote a piece of music that communicates dispositions or affections unworthy for holy worship (a criticism which might be leveled, for example, on a piece from the Coffee Cantata or the opening for Cantata No. 180, “Schmuke dich”), then they should not be used in worship. The suitability of accompanied instead of a cappella music during Holy Week is a discussion I’d much rather be having than whether or not we should use hip hop to offer worship to the true God who is a consuming fire. I love Bach very much, and my world would be much darker without his music, but I’d rather have a world without Bach than a world with music that is irreverent.

I have one final point of response. I have already shown that Bach really was not considered as edgy or “worldly” as Mohler says. One further proof of this is the relative obscurity in which Bach remained as a composer for a nearly a half century after his death. His music was not an immediate success. Bach never really saw the fame of his contemporaries. Telemann was much more popular during Bach’s time than Bach. Moreover, Bach was initially remembered, not for his composing, but for his keyboard playing and teaching. Much of this is likely due to the fact that his style was considered out of fashion and “overladen.”8 So, in the end, the charge that Bach’s music was worldly is very much without merit. Yet, there is a more significant issue with Mohler’s article, and that is his refusal to acknowledge the place of aesthetic judgment in the life of a Christian.

The Lack of Aesthetic Judgment as a Virtue

Far more problematic than Mohler’s criticism of J. S. Bach is his refusal to acknowledge the Biblical mandate for Christians to make judgments, including aesthetic judgments. He says that he does not want to say his preferences are absolutely correct. In some respects, such intellectual humility is to be commended, yet, in saying such things, he not only contradicts other public statements he has made, but also he neglects the Biblical warrant for making exactly the kinds of judgments that he decries.

We usually find Al Mohler resisting the impulses of our age, but here the relativism that so marks our often-dubbed “postmodern” age has seeped into this thought.9 He believes that he is incapable of making value judgments of music, and of rap music in particular. He says that to discern what music is communicating  is to “absolutize my preferences and satisfy myself in the righteousness and superiority of my own musical taste and theology.”

But the Bible tells us to make such judgments, even if we do not “absolutize” them in the end. We always admit that our judgments are fallible. Even so, Christ, by his apostles, has commanded us to be discerning (Phil 1:9-11Rom 12:1-2Col 1:9-101 Thess 5:19-24Eph 5:7-11Rom 14). I wrote a whole series of articles for the Religous Affections blog on this very topic (beginning with this post). In fact, discernment is a mark of Christian maturity (Heb 5:11-14). The New Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ commands Christians to be able to judge between good and evil in this world. We believe that music is a form of communication, and, as such, is subject to the same discernment as other moral matters.10

Mohler, by contrast, extols the (rather postmodern) virtue of a lack-of-discernment as somehow a good thing, despite the specific, repeated commands of Scripture to do the contrary. This leaves believers in the unenviable position of being unable to judge anything not specifically articulated in Scripture (making the Bible a kind of stunted rule book), and this at a time in history where discernment seems to be more lacking than ever before in both secular and religious realms.

Let us take Mohler’s comments another level. To what extent am I not permitted to “absolutize” my preferences concerning communication? I can only conclude, with all due respect to Dr. Mohler, that, when my son raises his voice to his mother, I dare not rebuke him, for how can I rightly judge what the tone of his voice intends? When my daughter dances around while someone is praying, I cannot instruct her in the proper postures of prayer, for how can I judge or discern or “absolutize” my preferred ways of praying upon her as what properly attends reverence in prayer? When I see a pastor imitate a “shock jock” in his preaching, I must not say a word.

Mohler has, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps knowingly, cut off from us all value judgments about human conduct and communication. Instead, we must not judge. We are left only judging the bare words (as if this was all that was bound up in communication!). The only aesthetic judgments we can make are those specifically articulated in Scripture; since the Bible has very little if anything to say concerning such matters, and everyone disagrees with the interpretation anyway, there is nothing for Christians to say about music, whether secular or sacred. We dare not “absolutize,” for such knowledge is ultimately unknowable. This sadly illustrates what is true for larger evangelicalism as a whole. There is a crisis of epistemology concerning extra-Biblical human culture. We have a found a way to echo the larger, relativist culture around us, by telling ourselves that we cannot judge anything the Bible does not specifically address. We are no longer able to speak to such matters. Unfortunately, this means we are forced to disobey clear Biblical commands to the contrary.

Moreover, this new found aesthetic agnosticism is clearly in conflict with Mohler’s own earlier views. While I have respected Dr. Mohler for his repeated articulations against the doctrines of postmodernity, I find this new-found agnosticism concerning the world confusing. Was not this the same man who interviewed Roger Scruton a couple years ago? Perhaps he should return to this interview. In this interview, Mohler “absolutized” his taste of architecture:

But you know you talk about ugly I just have to tell you an anecdote. In Washington, D.C. very close to the White House as a matter of fact within almost a visual sight line of the White House there is a building that the local architectural committee has just designated historic so it cannot be torn down. It is what they call, and they say this straightforwardly, the classic example of the brutalist school of architecture.

Mohler goes on to describe this architecture as “hideous.” He, with Scruton, roots in “postmodernism” the tendency to call “beautiful” what is actually aesthetically ugly. Now, he himself is ready to cry foul when someone calls rap music ugly or inappropriate for the worship of the one true and living God.11 The sad irony is that, given his statements on “HHH,” he has no grounds to call architecture hideous.

My point in this section is not that discernment about music and poetry is easy (is anything we are called to do as believers “easy”?), but that it is nonetheless necessary for those who profess Christ to make such judgments. Moreover, we should not only exercise such discernment about music and poetry, but also about architecture, ways of communicating (both on the small scale, with “tone” of voice, but on the larger scale, with “styles” of speaking) (e.g., Eph 5:4), the ways we clothe ourselves (e.g., 1 Tim 2:9), the ways we entertain ourselves (e.g., Phil 4:8), and even the ways we eat and drink (e.g., 1 Cor 10:31).

So, while I respect and admire Dr. Mohler and his legacy of Christian teaching, I believe his response to this “HHH” dust-up to be wrong-headed, not only in its interpretation of Bach, but also in its abandonment of the New Testament mandate for discernment.

Endnotes:

  1. Even in the 1930s C. S. Lewis could lament the modern age that “holds that ‘art means what it says’ or even that art is meaningless.” An Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 1. It is often (though not always) that the modern dogma of “meaningless music” is the first credal article offered by defenders of the contemporary forms by which songs today are “sung” to God. []
  2. One would find proof enough of this by listening to the man’s works, but, in case there is doubt, take, for instance, that he instructed his pupils not even to play chorales casually or “off hand,” but “according to the sense (Affect) of the words.” Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader, rev. ed. (New York: Northon, 1966), 237. []
  3. When you say “worldly Bach,” I usually assume somebody’s talking about his secular cantatas. Makes me want a cup of coffee just thinking about it. []
  4. Bach Reader, 52. []
  5. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York: Norton, 2000), 301. []
  6. Again, Christoph Wolff: “The chorale reverberating from the chancel side of the church warned the audience and alerted skeptics at the outset that what awaited them was not ‘theatrical’ music, but music that indisputably proclaimed its sacred and liturgical character.” Bach, 303. []
  7. For those who don’t know, Bach’s passions put the words of the Gospels in the mouths of different soloists, who in turn sung parts. Although some might consider this operatic, it is worth noting that performances of the passions are rarely (if ever) done in costume, only boys and men sang, and the same soloists may have sung the “parts” of many different characters in the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion. Moreover, acting is not part of the performance. The soloists do not get “in character.” The lines are sung without the vestiges of play-acting, something most Christians during Bach’s time have found very distasteful. []
  8. See, for example, Bach Reader, 237. []
  9. For more on post-modernism and Christian theology, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2003); Myron B. Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005); R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “‘Evangelical’: What’s in a Name?” pp. 29-44 in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, John H. Armstrong, ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1996); and David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). []
  10. Just as Paul decried the form of eloquent rhetoric in his presentation of the Gospel in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians, so certain forms of music are worthy of judgment for their use of communicating the Gospel. We make similar judgments when we say that pastors and preachers should not, in their proclamation of the Gospel, ape the forms of stand-up comedians or lounge singers. I think that music genres are roughly analogous to these forms of oral presentation. Even Shai Linne acknowledges implicitly that music communicates. []
  11. In other places, a younger Mohler shows similar impulses to “absolutize”: “Roger Scruton, a well-known British philosopher, has suggested that worship is the most important indicator of what persons or groups really believe about God. These are his words: “God is defined in the act of worship far more precisely than he is defined by any theology.” What Scruton is saying is, in essence: “If you want to know what a people really believe about God, don’t spend time reading their theologians, watch them worship. Listen to what they sing. Listen to what they say. Listen to how they pray. Then you will know what they believe about this God whom they worship.” My haunting thought concerning much evangelical worship is that the God of the Bible would never be known by watching us worship. Instead what we see in so many churches is “McWorship” of a “McDeity.” But what kind of God is that superficial, that weightless, and that insignificant? Would an observer of our worship have any idea of the God of the Bible from our worship? I wonder at times if this is an accidental development, or if it is an intentional evasion.” []