This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Can a Person of Faith Appreciate Secular Artistic Expression? A Discussion

Anyone that knows me will also know that since I was around ten years of age, I have collected vintage big band recordings.  I love the great music of bandleaders such as Freddy Martin, Guy Lombardo, and other legendary figures of this era and genre of music, and there is an appeal about it that just resonates with my own personality.  However, I have also been a committed Christian since I was 16, and being my original religious background was a fairly conservative Evangelical Protestant environment, I had inherited many convictions - some good, some that are not so good - which have shaped my worldview on things.   As an avid collector of big band recordings, I also take an interest in learning about about the people who create the music, and at times it can be sort of troubling when I discover something about certain musicians, bandleaders, or arrangers that conflicts with the convictions and worldview I have.  This happened fairly recently when I learned something that troubled me for days.   In the mid-1940's, a very well-known bandleader by the name of Woody Herman gathered a group of young, talented musicians together (including the "Four Brothers" reed section of Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Stan Getz) and formed a new orchestra called the Herd.  Herman's Herd was a very trendy band for its time, and the young talent it contained later sprouted some very notable jazz legends.  One of those people was his pianist and arranger Ralph Burns.  Burns was a master of orchestral arranging, and many of the classic Woody Herman Herd recordings between 1944-1947 owe their success to his talents.  However, there was a private side to Ralph Burns as well that was troubling - he was a practicing homosexual.  The dilemma this poses for a Christian who may appreciate this music is essentially this - can I enjoy the talents of an artist who lives a reprehensible lifestyle and not contradict my faith?  It must be remembered that although a lot of good musicians were produced over the decades, they were not angels - for example, Stan Getz was a heroin junkie, two legendary trumpeters of the era (Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan) died as chronic alcoholics, a whole book could be written on Billie Holliday, Jelly Roll Morton was at one point a pimp, and even the great Louis Armstrong indulged marijuana at least once a day.  The Bible equates all sin as equal - sin is sin, for all intents and purposes.  So, why then would a practicing homosexual like Ralph Burns or Billy Strayhorn be any worse than, say, a drunk like Beiderbecke or a heroin junkie like Charlie Parker?   It isn't so much that the concept of sin is the problem, but in human understanding the more bizarre the sin, the more troubling - someone binge-drinking or popping a pill is not as bizarre as a male musician being romantically involved in a same-sex relationship.  This was particularly true in the times that the Big Band Era took place - the mindset was generally more conservative, and although homosexual artists were a small minority, often the bizarre aspects of their behavior were kept a private affair due to the potential scandal it would have caused.   So, the sin is not necessarily worse in that case, but just less comprehensible.

In today's world, the freakish is often touted as "normal" (take, for example, Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga - you can't get any more bizarre than those!), and for those of us of a more traditional mindset, that is troubling enough.  But, to discover someone you appreciate is as bizarre in behavior, it can be very disconcerting.  That is why I want to write this article - it is both to encourage others, but also was laid upon my heart to give me discernment about these issues, as I have been shocked by several things and it takes a while sometimes to come to terms with something like that.  This will be an involved piece, so be prepared to absorb a lot of information.

Metaphysically, goodness and beauty are considered to be transcendant properties of being, and from a Christian perspective this means that they are endowments God gave us at our own creation.  A transcendental property of being is defined by Fr. Norris Clarke as "a positive attribute which can be predicated of every real being, so that it is convertible with being itself." (W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many.  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. p. 290).  As Aquinas taught, a thing is not beautiful because it is loved, but is loved because it is beautiful (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1996. p. 46).  What this means then is that beauty radiates from the talents of those who produce them due to the fact the perception and expression of beauty is something inherently given by God as part of His creative economy.  This therefore means that it is indeed possible for a non-Christian person, in sin, to produce something of true beauty, and it means there is nothing wrong with appreciating it and enjoying it.  After all, even sinful man is still created in the image of God, and endowed with the same properties of being that God gives all of us - remember Genesis in the first three chapters as God is creating various aspects of the earth and universe, and upon creating each thing He pronouced Himself that "it is good."  So, in regard to appreciation of Ralph Burns' arrangements of Woody Herman's records such as Bijou, The Good Earth, Northwest Passage, and Four Brothers, it is not inherently wrong to listen to and enjoy the tremendous richness and creativity of those recordings.  Joe Dallas, who is a past president of Exodus International (which used to be one of the most effective and compassionate outreaches to homosexuals) and a Christian counselor, says this concerning that very issue: "Their contributions (he is speaking here about openly homosexual artists and musicians such as Elton John, Leonard Bernstein, Jim Neighbors, Rock Hudson, Johnny Mathis, and others) have enriched us; their achievements are remarkable.  Not only is it possible to appreciate them while disagreeing with them, (but) it's downright illogical not to!" (Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the "Gay Christian" Movement.  Eugene, OR:  Harvest House, 1996. p. 138).  Adding to what Dallas says, it also gets across an important point - it shows that while Christians are in disagreement with the practice of homosexuality, it is totally possible to give credit where credit is due when it doesn't deal with faith or morals, and therefore this should dispel the common "progressive" accusation of Christians being "homophobic."  If many of us Christians were as bad as certain segments of society think we are, then wouldn't we be throwing our all our Duke Ellington records just because Billy Strayhorn composed and arranged Duke's famous recording of Take the A Train, and wouldn't we also be boycotting Gomer Pyle USMC just because Jim Nabors is the star of it?  Many of us would not think of doing that, because despite Jim Nabors' lifestyle as an example, Gomer Pyle was actually a wholesome show and no one will "turn gay" from watching it either.  At the same time, we also need to pray for the deliverance and salvation of Nabors and others, and that is the greatest act of grace and charity we can do.  And, it is that which leads us into what I want to discuss next.

Classic Thomistic thought asserts that God is the author of two "books," Scripture and Nature.  Both in their being are good because God created them so, but with the Fall as described in Genesis 3, sin and death entered the world, and a virus called concupiscence corrupted nature.  Therefore, this is why God provided the element of supernatural grace - He gives that to heal, perfect, and elevate nature (including our own human nature, which He created but it is corrupted by sin) and help us to be the best He created us to be.  Ultimately, that supernatural grace is personified in Christ, but on occasion the potentiality of our created nature as God intended blossoms even in the worst of sinners - it does so through artistic expression and other aesthetic endeavors.

When Christians often express legitimate concerns over certain types of music (in particular those types that are sometimes "baptized" into the Church) it is often assumed that we are against all secular music.  However, in a recent article, Landon Schott of Rev Ministries notes that the real issue is not so much about Christian music vs. secular music, but rather it is about endorsing profane music (Landon Schott, "Is Secular Music OK for Christians?" at, accessed April 29, 2017).  Not all secular music is necessarily profane, but neither is all "Christian" music wholesome.  As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that some forms of secular entertainment may actually be more wholesome than some "Christian" forms!  Dr, Gene Edward Veith, who is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University, also notes in a recent article that it is perfectly fine for a Christian to enjoy, perform, and get involved in secular art forms, and although such things need not be religious in nature, they are still subject to God's law.  If it incites temptation to sin, or I would add if it in any other way violates God's created order, then a line needs to be drawn.  Even rock music - which does violence against true art, as I will discuss momentarily - can be appreciated by Christians, but it doesn't mean that rock music should be demanded as part of a church's worship menu.  Aesthetic law and moral law are therefore important factors, as Veith further points out, and if a secular music selection adheres to aesthetic law, this means it can be enjoyed and appreciated by a person of faith.  There are two ways that Saward notes which constitute sin against God's aesthetic laws on the part of an artist (Saward, p. 81):

1.  Failing to achieve an artistic goal
2.  Producing something bad in order to deceive others

The first is seen as a sin against aesthetic law, while the second is a violation of moral law.  In this context, rock music cannot be called "art," although it is not a cardinal sin if someone listens to it necessarily.  Rock music fails by and large to achieve any artistic goal simply because it focuses on an inbalance of melody, harmony, and rhythm.  It also fails in that a rock musician often doesn't even take the effort to master an instrument properly - many only know one or two chords on a guitar.  When "Christian Contemporary Music" is taken into consideration in this equation, it creates a bigger dilemma - by selling off rock music as "worship" and also focusing on the personality of the performer with little or no artistic development, "Christian rock" fails miserably, and not only becomes a violation of aesthetic law but also of moral law.  It goes back to a secularist mindset that T. David Gordon calls "Aesthetic realism," and essentially what this entails is that there are no standards by which artistic creativity may be measured, but it is merely a matter of taste (T David Gordon, Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns. Phillipsburg, NJ:  PRP Books, 2010. p. 53).  This means, as Gordon also points out, that God is our aesthetic standard as well as our ethical standard (p. 54).  As Saward also notes, the virtue of art gives a man the capacity to do good work, but it doesn't assure that he will use his art well, hence the necessity of moral virtues (Saward, p. 81).  Jaroslav Pelikan notes a similar misuse of aesthetics in the theology of Nietzsche, when he writes that Nietzsche essentially espoused the tenets of the aesthetic moralist that Gordon discusses, in that goodness and truth had to be recast in the criterion of the Ubermensch - what serves the "Superman" is good, and what stands in his way is bad, irregardless of universals.  The true and the good, in other words, were redefined to fit the whims and fancies of the Ubermensch, which is both moral relativism and aesthetic relativism personified (Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ.  (Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock, 1955. p. 138).  To counter Nietzsche and the aesthetic relativist, I would incorporate the points that Tony Reinke notes in his article "Does God Delight in Non-Christian Art?" (, accessed 4/28/2017):

1.  The origin of human artistic impulse cannot be humanly explained
2.  The artistic impulse is spiritual
3.  The artistic expression of man is a reflection of God's artistic expression in this world
4.  The artistic gift in man is intrinsic
5.  The artistic creativity of God is on display in His creation
6.  Non-Christian artists, while remaining in a state of enmity with God, will never achieve their fullest artistic potential.

On that last point in particular, Saward also notes that a Christian artist who is in a state of grace has his art transfigured by moral virtue and thus be fully that which God created him to be (Saward, p. 81).  In short, a morally virtuous person (from this context, one transformed and perfected by supernatural grace in Christ) will be a better artist.  However, this begs the question of "Christian music."  How can substandard popular "worship music" reflect moral and aesthetic transformation?  There is truly something amiss in this case, and that is what the biggest objection to CCM is.  For one thing, a lot of CCM is theologically suspect, as is noted by Bryan Spinks in his book The Worship Mall (New York:  Church Publishing, 2010) - on page 114 he notes that writer Martyn Percy has critiqued many of the Vineyard denomination's contemporary worship songs in particular, and found them to be lacking of Christocentric theology and the depersonalization of the Holy Spirit seems to be a miscommunicated idea in many of these "choruses."  Theological weakness doesn't encourage spiritual growth, and thus much CCM, by compromising its artistic integrity for popular acceptance, also "dumbs down" theology to those who listen to it.  Dan Lucarini notes that the cause of much of this theological anemia is due to the fact that essential elements of Biblical truth cannot be incorporated into the narrow and aesthetically-deficient (my term) confines of the rock idiom, and the result is a watered-down Christology, theological ambiguities, and the miscommunication (or noncommunication in many cases) of transformative supernatural grace to those who indulge it (Dan Lucarini and John Blanchard, Can We Rock the Gospel? Darlington, UK:  Evangelical Press, 2006. pp. 62-63).  Using what Saward observes, this both fails to achieve an artistic goal as well as purposeful deception on the part of the artist, thus making the CCM artist guilty of both aesthetic and moral sin.  I would agree with G.K Chesterton in this regard when he asserted that imagination (and the arts that generate from it) reach their highest form when they are dogmatic - in other words, when something is unapologetically true to the convictions that produce it, it will be a quality creation (Thomas C. Peters, The Christian Imagination: G.K. Chesterton On the Arts.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2000. p. 48).  A further note here that Chesterton asserts regarding the writings of Ruyard Kipling in particular is that creations that have a purpose are superior (p. 49), and thus worthy of the aesthetic appreciation of the patron.  Great art comes from great passion, and that passion will drive the artist to mastery of his art.  CCM performers fail here because they are sloppy - they often compromise art to make bucks, and that is a tragic development because a professing Christian artist should be striving for more excellence in their craft, and many contemporary religious performers fail.  Tragically, there are secular artists, many of whom are non-Christian and sinners, who shame the Christian artist because they understand this passion and drive for excellence, although they may not fully understand its origin.  This is another reason why it is sometimes more aesthetically satisfying to listen to a Guy Lombardo record from 1942 than it is to listen to the "Top 40" CCM record by Michael W. Smith.  It is also why someone who is openly homosexual and non-Christian like Ralph Burns was can excel artistically although morally he was lost.  This then begs the question of what is better to listen to - all "Christian" music that may be actually intellectually unhealthy, or a decent non-Christian composer who writes a breath-taking symphony that uplifts the spirit?  Ideally, I will take the latter over the former any day.

The final leg of this lengthy discussion is what of sub-par music in the worship of the Church?  First, I would say that if one chooses to listen to "Christian rock," they by all means have the freedom to do so - I am personally not against people enjoying it, although like a 5-pound box of Hershey bars it is probably not the best thing to be feeding either your mind or spirit.  However, there is a time and place to listen to such things, and in worship is not one of them.  For Protestants, this seems to be an open-ended thing, but for those of us who are Catholic and/or liturgical Christians, the issue is very much closed.  The Mass, in particular, is meant to bring people to Jesus, and to do so there is an order to how things should be done, and "Christian rock" is inappropriate.  As Gordon says in his book, it is not a matter of legality, but rather one of appropriateness.  All our worship in those settings - music, prayers, and readings from Scripture - serve to point us toward receiving Jesus, which we believe is via the Eucharist.  A "Contemporary Christian" song about how one feels about God and is poorly written with a bunch of "uh-oh-oh-oh!" syllabic utterances thrown in because the composer lacked the artistic ability to articulate himself better has no place in the celebration of the Mass.  If one wants to listen to it and sing along in the car to the top of their lungs to such a thing while driving to work the following morning, more power to them.  It is just not appropriate for the worship setting, despite what one calls it.

I have said all I needed to say - and also chased a lot of rabbits! - to conclude that good secular music can be enjoyed and appreciated by a Christian, as can any other form of art.  The person creating it may have lifestyle choices that are bad or morally deficient, but this doesn't inhibit the fact God gifted such a person with that talent.  Furthermore, I would even go as far to say that much of the secular artist productions out there are of superior quality and aesthetic value precisely because they were true to their talent and didn't compromise themselves to gain fame or fortune necessarily.  Can many "Christian" artists say the same?  This article also will probably catch some opposition, as some will say "How dare you judge me!" based on their own filters of understanding.  However, I look to God's law, God's direction, and the testimony of His Holy Church for my understanding, and if some have a problem with that, they need to take it up with the proper authorities.  There was so much more which could have been said here, but maybe in the future I will write more on the subject and by then may have even more detailed insight to treat a lot of these issues separately.  Until next time, God's blessings be with you.