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Krieg Barrie/WORLD

Joyful noises

Different notes for different folks-even in churches

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

To answer readers' questions: Yes, I do travel to give speeches sometimes, but the person you should contact for an educational and entertaining evening is Bill Edgar, the Westminster Theological Seminary professor who is also a jazz pianist. I stand at a podium and talk. Edgar sits at a piano and punctuates his explanations with riffs. Can't beat that.

What Edgar says is important in an era when some churches sing only praise songs and think hymns are terrible, while others conclude that classical music is virtuous and guitars are anathema. Edgar shows how truth and beauty are possible in many different genres-classical, folk, jazz, roots, and others. He quotes Duke Ellington: "There's good music and the other kind."

Edgar spoke and played one evening at an Austin church-sponsored event and introduced four musicians, one of whom exulted, "y'all brought rock 'n' roll and Jesus together." Some church elders would retch at that union, and it's clear that our goal should not be liveliness for the sake of liveliness-but if it's a byproduct of worshipping God, is that terrible?

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King David's wife, Michal, thought so: "As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart." Some church leaders who prefer solemnity despise those who leap and dance. But David insisted to Michal, "I will make merry before the Lord," and some evangelicals rightly say the same.

What's important to remember: There's good church music and the other kind. Some soporific or lugubrious hymns should be put to sleep before they put congregations to sleep. Some mantra-like praise songs should be shuffled off to a Buddhist temple. But both genres can glorify God, and we should look for the good in both kinds, instead of crusading to ban one or the other.

What content should the good include? Edgar told his Austin audience, "Some Christian music is happy rather than joyful. It wants to get us to the banquet table without first going through the valley. . . . Music should be profoundly joyful, and it can't be joyful unless it looks at evil. We want music to be profoundly realistic, but it can't be realistic unless it contains hope. . . . You can't have hope or joy unless you can face the darkness as it is."

Edgar riffed particularly about good jazz, which he called "a window into the deep issues of life, capable of taking us from deep misery to inextinguishable joy." He spoke of the blues, arising from African-American experience and becoming a theodicy, "a crying out about the pattern of evil . . . not just an empty cry, an existential statement, but a cry to God." The blues singer, he said, was a kind of preacher, and Jesus was the great blues singer, asking on the cross, "Why did You forsake me?"

(A partial answer to the theodicy problem is found in a spiritual Edgar quoted: "Now Lord, don't move my mountain, / But give me the strength to climb, / And Lord, don't take away my stumbling blocks / But lead me all around." YouTube has renditions by Mahaliah Jackson and Inez Andrews, with small variations: The point is that God in the Bible speaks of moving mountains, but frequently He leaves the mountain where it is out of compassion to us, since we need the climb to get in spiritual shape.)

Does this mean that Christians can have musical variety within worship as well as outside church walls? Yes, in Edgar's view, and mine also. Does this mean that Christian musicians should merely pick up a violin or guitar and cacophony the night away? No: Edgar noted that music to be good "needs to be made in a well-crafted way." Good intentions by themselves are no substitute for talent and practice-but we should appreciate well-crafted music from all genres.

Edgar concluded, "It matters what music we perform and listen to. It can make our lives redemptive or debauched." But our Father's house has many music rooms, and no genre has a monopoly on redemption.

If you have a question or comment for Marvin Olasky, send it to

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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