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Thursday, January 27, 2005

What is Contemporary Worship Music? A review of John Frame's defense of CWM

Have you ever heard that music is neutral? that all kinds of music styles should be permitted in congregational worship as long as the lyrics are Christian, and the music makes one feel closer to God? The debate over acceptable worship music has been raging as long as the so-called "culture wars" between the "modernists" and "postmodernists". Much ink has been spilled on the subject on both sides of the debate, with no perceivable end in sight. Some have questioned if music is worth making a stand about in the first place. Aren't there more fundamental issues? Shouldn't fellow Christians stand united over what's common and important instead of separating and quibbling over peripheral issues of the faith? Is music a so-called peripheral issue in Christian doctrine and practice? Are we justified by the Bible to speak of "peripheral" issues in the first place? Leaving aside the last question for now, I shall explain briefly why I strongly maintain that how we worship (what songs we sing, etc.) is a central issue in God's sight, as made clear to us by His Word.

God cares greatly about the manner and media of worship because it shows how obedient to we are to Him. Consider, for example, the remarkably detailed instructions on how his house of worship is to be constructed, right down to the precise measurements of beams and pillars. Consider again His detailed instructions on how the sacrifices are to be made --such as what qualifies as a fit offering, and what is to be burnt, and what kept as food for the priests. God also forbade His people to boil a young goat in its mother's milk, most probably because of the stain of association: this was a practice common in pagan sacrifices and Israel was not to use what was associated with the pagans in her worship of her God. There are many other such examples. God is holy, and commands His people to be holy (sanctified, set apart) as well.

John Frame, well-known 20th century theologian of the Reformed school and a student of the renowned Dutch theologian Cornelius van Til, sets out to give a carefully reasoned biblical defense of contemporary Christian music (CCM), or, as he prefers to call it, contemporary worship music (CWM). Many reviews, largely positive, have been written about his book entitled Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (P&R Pub., 1997). Read this one, for instance.

I enjoyed reading his book and have found it to be, on the whole, very even-handed even as he makes no bones about which side he is on. His work is meant to be a defense of CWM, and one can clearly see how he has made a good case from the Bible against the blanket criticism and dismissal of all contemporary Christian compositions. No fair-minded reader can walk away from his book without being more wary of committing the fallacy of the hasty generalisation--a mistake that too many on both sides of the debate have made. There are, however, several aspects of his book which I think bear further examination.

Frame concedes that there are differences of emphasis between contemporary worship music (CWM) and traditional worship music (TWM). CWM is “primarily a celebration of the Resurrection… a large emphasis on joy, celebration. … The dark side of Christian experience still exists, but it is brought to the feet of the risen Jesus.” TWM, “on the other hand, tends to focus more on our pre-resurrection relationship with God. God is more distant, more disapproving. He is hidden, and we are unclean, unfit to enter his holy place. We are lost, without hope. As a kind of re-enactment, at least, we need to be saved from sin again by believing the gospel and finding forgiveness. Then we hear the assurance of pardon … Then we may experience some of the post-Resurrection experience, until next Sunday." (Frame, p. 80)

Does this description of TWM square with your own experience of it? It does not mine. Frame's presentation of TWM's emphasis is inaccurate and misleading, although it is to his credit that he does acknowledge his loaded language that declares his preference. There are scores and scores of traditional hymns that focus on the joy of Christian living and of victory in Jesus. A cursory look at the index of songs in most traditional hymnals should make that evident.

Frame also contends that the great merit of CWM is that it is "Christian music that is immediately accessible – to the young as well as the old, to the immature as well as the mature. Therefore... it is a valuable tool for teaching the immature, for helping the immature to become more mature. ... it is better that children sing some children’s hymns, rather than adult hymns alone. The same can be said of CWM.” (pp. 163-164) He admits that CWM songs "do not attempt to cover a great deal of doctrinal territory but to cover a small amount of teaching vividly and memorably." (p. 166)

So far as some carefully selected CWM songs can be included in the worship service to complement traditional hymns to make the congregational singing more accessible and varied, I can see the value of CWM. To argue or to imply, however, that traditional hymns are not suitable, or at least not as suitable or helpful to young Christians is to miss out on the fact that the apostles certainly did not eschew deep and sometimes difficult doctrinal truth in their epistles to new believers. Doctrines of salvation, justification, election, predestination, atonement, sanctification and depravity of man, for example, abound in the book of Romans. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul also teaches eschatology, the doctrine of end times. To mature as believers, babes in the faith must not be deemed to need 'protection' or bolstering from deep truths that God deems essential to His children's understanding. If the reservation concerning TWM is the language that many of them use, that's another matter. It is true that the language of many great hymns of the faith is of an older age (containing more passive constructions, for instance), often more literary, and more redolent with complex metaphors that demand or assume more of those singing them. I would contend, however, that most of them are not really beyond the comprehension or appreciation of most believers, given time, exposure and spiritual growth. If language that is apparently more difficult is to be a reason for TWM to be avoided in worship, to what extent do we have to apply the same principle to the Bible itself? What about passages in the Bible that are not eminently paraphraseable in simple, contemporary language that is "not too difficult for the common man"?

I fully agree with Frame that what is perhaps most important is the discretion of the church leadership in using songs (whether traditional or otherwise) that reflect proper biblical priorities and sound doctrine (p. 97). From my experience and acquaintance with several churches and organisations which use CWM, though, the tendency is to rely almost fully on the limited corpus of CWM songs and reinforce the idea that CWM is better than TWM which is dismissed--openly or, more commonly, by suggestion--as stuffy, old-fashioned, and irrelevant in today's world. Frame admits that CWM "emerged in a background of charismatic theology," and is quick to add that "for the most part it does not urge charismatic distinctives upon the worshiper." (ibid., p. 139) A child will take on characteristics of his parents on a very fundamental level, and so, CWM and charismatic theology. And if Frame is right about how CWM does not "urge Charismatic distinctives upon the worshiper," it may be that what it often omits, or neglects to emphasize, is also vitally important to Christian truth and life. We are told to teach the whole gospel. Not to do so on a consistent basis may well constitute a distinctive of a particular group or movement.

Finally, it seems almost too convenient for Frame to suggest, at the very least, that any contemporary Christian song counts as CWM. Surely some contemporary hymn and song writers (such as those at Wilds and Soundforth) would make a distinction between their music and CWM. Labeling is certainly not all, but it is significant because it points to a real distinction. Some songs included in the CWM corpus, like “As the Deer”, “I Love You Lord” and “Shine Jesus Shine” could as easily be categorized as hymns or traditional choruses. No one is denying that some, or even many, good, doctrinally sound songs are written today by contemporaries. The issue is not the date of composition: that should not be the criteria for categorizing songs as CWM or TWM.

What is the precise criteria that clearly distinguish CWM and TWM? I have some ideas about that, but this post is too long as it is. I also suspect that most of us who are professing Christians--and even many non-Christian Singaporean cab drivers I've talked to--do have some instinctive sense about what is "Contemporary Christian Music", and what's not.


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