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John MacArthur on Music

John on September 18, 2006 at 1:57 am

Not long ago I wrote about some of the Pope’s comments about musical styles that are appropriate for worship. I found his comments disappointing. For some of the same reasons, I found this article by John MacArthur of “Grace to You” fairly uninspired.

Unlike the Pope he is not asking for a return to Gregorian chant, he is only trying to take us back to sometime before the 20th century and the decline in “didactic hymnology.” According to MacArthur, we have been on a steep downhill slide since the introduction of more personal and emotion-laden lyrics. As an example he offers the following “insipid” gospel song:

In the Garden
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

He comments:

Aside from an oblique reference to “the Son of God” in the last line of the first stanza, there’s no distinctly Christian content to that song at all.

Really? This song, written by Austin Miles, was a reflection on Mary arriving at the tomb that first Easter and discovering Jesus risen. It is meant to convey the joy she must have felt with poetic imagery. The chorus is also suggestive of Christ as the 2nd Adam restoring our relationship with God and, in effect, allowing us back into the very garden from which Adam was cast out. The last stanza refers to Jesus telling Mary to bear the message to the disciples.

I find it hard to understand how MacArthur can read this song and see no distinctly Christian content. Is Easter not distinctly Christian? What I believe he means is that the song has “no distinct doctrinal content.” If he’d said that, his statement would make sense. But as it is, not so much…

When it comes to discussing worship, we have to turn to the Psalms as the best Biblical example. The Psalms do not read like carefully crafted doctrinal creeds set to rhyme. They are intensely personal (Ps. 4), emotional (Ps. 9), allegorical (Ps. 1, 23, 40), and relate plenty of honest struggle (Ps. 10, 22, 73). If these things represent a downturn in our worship, then it’s one that happened long ago.

In truth the song MacArthur dismisses as an example of insipid worship sounds a lot like the Psalms. Compare this:

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

To this, one of the most beloved passages in scripture:

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

They are nearly opposite in emotional content — one expressing joy and the other trust in spite of life threatening circumstances — but the use of allegorical language is very similar. And yet, if read according to MacArthur’s standard, the 23rd Psalm must be said to have zero “distinctive Christian content.” My point is this: Any standard of worship which would exclude most of the Psalms is a standard in dire need of reformulation.

MacArthur goes on to say:

Modern musicians have pushed this trend even further and often see music as little more than a device for stimulating intense emotion. The biblically-mandated didactic role of music is all but forgotten.

No citation for that mandate. In any case, the author of the Psalms danced naked (2 Sam 6) in the streets, suggesting to me that worship is indeed about stimulating intense emotion, not solely perhaps but it is certainly an acceptable component. Both Psalm 149 and 150 say that we should praise him with dancing. Not didactic dancing so far as I can tell, just dancing.

It’s always disappointing to see men of sound faith offering their personal stylistic preferences as if they were, well…”biblically-mandated.” I think this article does just that. John MacArthur’s view of what constitutes good worship, while certainly acceptable for some, is far from the only approach. In fact the New Testament admonishes us to:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)

These are not synonyms. They represent a variety of different musical approaches to worhsip, starting with the Psalms. John MacArthur’s views on this topic could benefit from some reflection on the Psalms and on their author.

You turned my wailing into dancing you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:11)

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Category: Music, Religion & Faith |

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