In Defense of “Secular” Cultural Forms in Worship, Part 1

Zac HicksUncategorized5 Comments

PART 1: THE PSALMS AND THEIR PAGAN COUNTERPARTS

Ooh…was that title provocative or what?  Though many modern worshipers feel that the worship wars are past us, I don’t think the fight is ever going to be over.  And if that’s true, discussions like these are still worth having.  I still hear the now age-old argument against modern worship (usually directed at modern instrumentation like electric guitars, drums, etc.), which can be basically summarized in this way:

Modern worship is wrong because it takes forms from the secular culture and uses them in sacred worship.  Worship should be other-worldly and unique from cultural expression.

In refuting this argument, many go to the high ground by pointing out the fallacy of one’s understanding of “culture.”  In a very true sense, all worship is “cultural” because in every worship form, a culture is expressed.  A boomer-oriented contemporary church might express a 1980s culture.  Traditional, low-church worship may express a 1950s culture.  An Eastern Orthodox service* may very well express the Greco-Roman culture of the Middle Ages.  Just because they’re not rocking out with SM58’s and tube amps does not mean that they’re not expressing worship through cultural forms. 

However, let us grant the ground that the accusation seeks to lay and meet the argument on its own turf.  The counter-argument is simple: God did it, and therefore we can, too.  Exhibit A: Psalms 20, 92, and 104.  All three of these psalms contain shocking similarities to pagan poems which parallel these psalms.  The similarities are linguistic and poetic.**

Psalm 20:1-10 contains verbal and sequential parallels to an Aramaic hymn dedicated to the Egyptian god Horus, unearthed from papyrus dating around the 2nd century B.C (which isn’t necessarily an indication of the date of the poem, but the date of when it was written down).***

Psalm 92:9 parallels a line from an ancient Ugaritic hymn (what has been unearthed from Ugarit dates from between the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., well before the time of David, even under the most conservative scholarship):

Ugaritic hymn:
As for your enemy, O Baal, as for your enemy, you’ll smite (him),
You’ll destroy your adversary.

Psalm 92:9:
For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish;
All evildoers will be scattered.

Psalm 104, perhaps most shocking of all, contains multiple linguistic parallels to an ancient Egyptian song: Akhenaten’s hymn to the Sun.  In this hymn, for instance, Baal is named a “rider on the clouds,” just as YHWH is in verse 3 of this psalm.

It appears that we have at least three instances of “sharing” worship texts between the “secular” world and God’s sacred worship.  Put it another way, it looks like God has not only allowed, but inspired, the writing of praise songs which are “Christianized” versions of worldly song (I understand that “Christianized” is anachronistic, but you get my point).  What are we to make of this? 

The only conclusion I can draw is that God is not uncomfortable with the world’s expression of worship being imported to Christian worship.  Now of course this needs all kinds of qualifiers.  We can’t just wholesale import the world into the church without a lot of wisdom and biblical discernment.  However, the evidence above is enough to convince me that those who say that the worship of the church should be marked by an expression which is disassociated with the cultural forms of the world (its poetry OR its music) are wrong.  Tabling the fact that there are major philosophical problems with the concept of a sharp sacred/secular distinction, it seems obvious that God would have his people express their worship of Him through cultural forms (again, not without wisdom, holiness, and other qualifiers). 

Getting down to brass tacks, the above evidence to me grants an allowance (and maybe even encouragement) of supposedly “worldly” instruments such as drums and electric guitars. Many traditionalists have lodged this whole no-world-in-the-church argument for why such instruments are wrong in the church.  Ultimately what they’ve done is mask their personal preferences in a poor biblical-philosophical argument.  Stripped away, their issue simply becomes: “I just don’t like those instruments.”  That’s fine.  I’m fine with preferences.  I’ve got them myself.  But let us separate preferences from moral imperatives so as to not create division in the body of Christ where there does not need to be division.

There are two more brief posts to follow, offering additional evidence toward the same conclusion.

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*I’ve had several friends who have joined the evangelical exodus to Orthodoxy.  Many times, it’s been motivated at least partially by a desire for worship less tainted by culture.  Ironically, Orthodox worship, regardless of its antiquity, is no less cultural.  Its liturgy, like any other, carries its own set of positives and negatives from all the cultures and eras involved in shaping its worship over time.  So while they are for the most part escaping the trappings of modern culture in worship, they are not immune from the inevitable result that occurs when sinful humans mold Divine liturgy. 

**The observations which follow are indebted to Dr. Richard Hess.

***Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Parallactic Approach (London and New York: Continuum, 2001), 669-674.

5 Comments on “In Defense of “Secular” Cultural Forms in Worship, Part 1”

  1. Hmm. Dunno Zac. I am on your side of the argument for modern worship completely. Not sure those 3 apparent influences prove anything though.

    1. Parody and mockery of Baalian hymnody does not necessarily imply that the instrumentation or pagan melodies were employed. Your argument began with types of instruments and styles but here you are talking about lyrics.

    2. Even if these reasons are valid, 3 out of 151 is not a strong enough reason to unilaterally approve of employing all cultural norms in our set-apart worship service to YHWH.

    Ultimately I believe the context for using specific instruments and styles is the theme of the words. The music must always be subservient to the theology and message of the text.

    Heavy electric guitars and drums are fitting for songs of warfare, and victory.
    Laments require melodic swells, chorus and delay effects, etc . . .

    Usually, if you narrow the argument to this, it does not have to be cultural, it taps into the natural feelings we all share when listening to different styles. The cadence, emphasis, and drive of specific melodic and rhythmic phrases in different modes can envoke in us.

    For instance, everyone knows Darth Vader’s Imperial March right? Few would hear it and not know it implies, the "big bad" is coming. But know one would say that because it is so culturally accepted as a theme representing a dark priest of some new age dualistic force of evil, that we should no longer use brass or strings in our worship service.

    The real problem with those who reject modern instruments is that they are rejecting the power of the gospel. They are really claiming that the devil still holds dominion over some aspect of the physical world. Christ is Lord over musical instruments, not Satan, and not Caesar.

    Also, there is Genesis 4:21 : "His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe." Did David not use pipes or lyres because the inventor was a descendant of Lamech and Cain? Of course not.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks. I wrote a response to this several days ago and don’t know why it didn’t post. Ultimately I don’t think you’re understanding my argument. My argument is ultimately about cultural forms, which could be lyrics OR instruments. You’ll see in a later post why there’s actually good archaeological evidence to believe that Israel did, in fact, use instrumentation found in surrounding pagan cultures.

    Even so, all I was saying was that the fact that we have an import from pagan culture in at least one of these instances is enough to disprove the argument as stated in the beginning, namely, that God desires worship which is other-worldly, and that worship which is tied to culture is inherently wrong. And I believe that if we have even just 1 out of 150 psalms (I’ll go with my Bible’s rendering of psalm numbers on this one), we have enough to refute the argument as stated.

    Again, you’ll note that I was careful to mention that, even with my provocative title, I’m advocating that we match the importation of cultural forms with all kinds of important, wise, biblical qualifiers. But nonetheless I believe my point holds.

    I love your comment about rejection of the power of the gospel. That’s an excellent and important point.

    Z

  3. Of course, we believe that there is a holiness (set-apart-ness) to be associated with worship. It is part of God’s character, it is commanded of us. The question then becomes: What about worship does God desire to be set apart and unique? All I was pointing out in my post is that we can’t say "God wants us to be set apart from cultural forms and express our worship wholly [and the key is wholly] in unique, alien-to-culture ways." There will be aspects of culture we must abandon, but the argument that all of it is to be abandoned for sacred worship seems to work against God’s inspiration of the aforementioned Psalms.

  4. Good responses Zac. I follow your intentions. I would like to know more about how we know these were imports from Ugartic, Egyptian poetic forms etc… Can you recommend a good book?

    I think we have a responsibility to reclaim cultural forms that do not betray beauty, or sound reason, back for Christ. If we are to pray and sing with our minds, this must carry over into the mediums of prayer, suah as music, and other expressions of our worldview, such as art.

    Art that reflects the beauty of a redeemed world is certainly not lewd or pornographic. But, as we have discussed a long time ago, could there be a setting where the image of a naked woman is totally appropriate?

    Music is a bit more broad. In form and sound, generally, it should not reflect nihilism or cacophony, unless it is set in a context to represent the ultimate state of rejecting God’s love.

  5. Thanks for this post, Zach. I bookmarked it for future reference. My first thought in reading it was that God was using irony in some of those Psalms, showing that He is the true God and not Baal. Since His word is inspired, He has the authority to do things we cannot, like import content from pagan sources into worship. Christian worship should be based on God's revealed will, not on human trends or styles.

    On Eastern Orthodox worship, yes, there is a culture to it, for sure, but you would still find marked distinctions between what was considered popular culture in Midieval Byzantium and what was used in the liturgy. There is a whole history of Christian sacred culture and music which has influenced pop culture, but which had its distinct development, with origins in theological and liturgical reflection. One of the dangers of importing aspects or methods of pop culture into the church today is that we don't put enough thought into why we are doing it. We just assume it's a good idea because people like it, without giving enough thought to what is most honoring to God.

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