In Defense of “Secular” Cultural Forms in Worship, Part 2

Zac HicksUncategorized6 Comments


Read Part 1 here.

If you haven’t read the introduction to the previous post, do so, because I’m going to jump straight into Exhibit B.  In the 1920s, archaeologists unearthed an ancient, forgotten city—Ugarit—which lies on the northeastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, on the western coast of current day Syria.  The ruins of Ugarit, dating from between the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., were quite a find, because of their proximity (in both time and geography) to the Old Testament accounts and places.  Understanding the pagan city of Ugarit helps us better understand many things about the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament period.

One of the discoveries made at Ugarit were documents and artifacts that gave a window into viewing the way they worshiped.  They used stringed, wind, and percussion instruments similar to those cited in the Old Testament.  They engaged in solo, antiphonal, and unison singing, not unlike the practices of what went on in ancient Israel.

What?  Israel worshiped God in the musical and cultural forms of “the world”?  But I thought Israel was a holy nation, set apart by God!  I can’t believe that Israel would allow “secular” forms of worship to taint YHWH’s sacred worship!

Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet
Praise Him with the harp and lyre
Praise Him with tambourine and dancing
Praise Him with the strings and flute
Praise Him with the clash of cymbals

Praise Him with electric guitars.  Praise Him with overdrive pedals.  Praise Him with tube amps and reverb units.  Praise Him with the kick drum.  Praise Him with the snare.  Praise Him with microphones.  Praise Him with the djembe.  Praise Him with the cajon.  Praise Him with mandolins.  Praise Him with the shekere.  Praise Him with synths.  Praise Him with loops.  Praise Him with sound boards and XLR cables.  Praise Him with Aviom in-ear systems.  Praise Him with loud, booming subwoofers.

Evidently God doesn’t mind “secular” instruments in sacred worship.  Evidently He wants culture redeemed for holy use (you can see where I fall in Niebuhr’s Christ and culture spectrum).  Evidently, even in all its brokenness and sin, God hasn’t abandoned culture.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  We’ll see you in part 3.

6 Comments on “In Defense of “Secular” Cultural Forms in Worship, Part 2”

  1. I love this subject. And I agree that we should use any musical instrument known to mankind to worship God. But I have to question the reasons you are using to defend this idea.

    All your historical evidence reveals is that the Israel used musical instruments that were popular in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Whether or not Israel "borrowed" these from any neighboring ANE culture is irrelevant. This book is the best on the subject and changed my entire way of looking at the ANE/Israelite world view. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

    What are you really saying by "secular" cultural forms? Because your posts so far are about instruments and not distinct musical styles.

    An instrument is a tool for making music. There are no secular instruments, just as their are no secular flashlights or power drills.

    The cultural "form" is an important thing to question. I think this is where most people have a problem.
    They see an electric guitar, or hear a distorted power chord, and associate it with the worship music of contemporary pagan idolatry. (I do not like the word secular)

    That is where the discussion needs to happen. How can God redeem "death metal" into "life metal"?
    Not, how can the electric guitar be used to write songs for Jesus. The particular type of guitar is as irrelevant as the type of saw we use to cut down a tree. The functional ontology is more important than the material ontology.

    A stone statue, intended to beautify a particular space by mirroring the beauty of the created world, is art. A stone statue manufactured for the specific functional intent of worship is an idol. We can also make an idol of art, and certainly a great deal of art only exists to glorify man’s accomplishments.

    A better question might be. How does the style of music we play, the posture we take, and how do the words we sing, reveal and exalt the resurrected Christ who is our Lord and King?

  2. I love your thoughts and questions, Mark. I don’t particularly like the term "secular," either. I use it because it’s more easily identifiable by readers who are interested in this line of thinking and questioning. I was just reflecting on this idea of "secular" and wondering if "sacred-secular" is a truly biblical distinction. I guess, in one way, it is, because there ARE passages that speak of "worldly" things or things that have to do with the "world" (Latin: "saecula," right?). However those passages are usually dealing with moral issues. The irony, if the church is honest, is that we have moral and immoral things going on in both the sacred and the secular spheres. So in talking about what is proper or improper for worship, I’m still not convinced that sacred/secular is the proper setup. I’m reading through Leviticus (in our One Year Bible track) right now, and I am reminded that God seems more interested in the holy/unholy distinction. If this is the case, it seems like cultural forms (I’m still comfortable with the term) are holy or unholy more often because they are made so by God or His people. I think of all the wood, gold, and silver art in the tabernacle and temple.

    I’m in 100% agreement with you, Mark. It seems quite thoughtless to believe that an electric guitar is de facto a demonic instrument. Unfortunately, I encounter this perspective in my congregation among traditionalists who are looking for some arguments to hang their preferences on. So, in my discussions in Part 1 and Part 2 (and in forthcoming Part 3), I’m using terminology and argumentation that I think could potentially persuade an open-minded person who may hold to one of these ideas.

    This reminds me of the fact that in our previous church, we had a brilliant man (PhD in some crazy science field, and very well-versed in theology, Bible, and philosophy), who simply couldn’t get his mind around why we would incorporate modern instrumentation and musical styles. This man was a lover of jazz and loved a loud concert like the rest of us. But when it came to worship, those musical forms were deemed "secular," and he wanted something "sacred" and different. I’m just not convinced that God has particular forms/styles which He has elevated above others in culture (or created outside of culture’s creation), such that we need to be concerned about what forms God is or is not pleased with.

    At the same time, musical anthropology and ethnomusicology have taught us that musical forms can carry strong associations that are difficult for people to overcome, such that a converted formerly drugged-up metalhead may not be comfortable with "life metal" because of the strong associations with his past. This is more a pastoral issue than a philosophical one. Still, it exists, and I think it’s worth bringing up.

    I think your final question IS the question to ask. Hopefully someday I’ll bring it up in a future post. The problem is that some people I interact with are unwilling to think about this question because they are preoccupied with the one I’m attempting to address.

    Keep em comin’, Mark.


  3. Oh, and to address this:

    "Whether or not Israel ‘borrowed’ these from any neighboring ANE culture is irrelevant."

    I understand it’s not relevant to the arguments you think are more important…and I agree with you that those arguments are more important. However, to the issue that I am raising, namely, responding those who think it is wrong to borrow the instruments of the "secular" world for church worship use, I think these points are extremely relevant. For if God allowed it, ordained it, in this instance, here we have a Divine counterexample to disprove the case.

    You and I are talking on two different wavelengths. The wavelength I’m on is to equip worship leaders with good arguments to defeat the bad ones that frequently get marshaled in our parishes.

  4. If you were to look at the entire history of Christian music you would find that initially only non-harmony singing was allowed, then it was okay to sing in harmony, instrumentational accompaniment was only added much later. Remember that many of our popular hymns today are based on common folk songs or drinking songs – secular tunes. By the way, I have always thought that the words of some of the Psalms would be well suited for a blues melody. Even rap "music" with its emphasis on words and rhymes could be an excellent preaching tool. Some of us are old enough to remember that rap started out very positive until the gangstas took it over. If you want to hear some positive souding Jewish reggae rap check out Matisyahu on YouTube.

  5. I dig Matisyahu! I appreciate those comments, and what you point out about the history of music is very true with regards to monophony. I recently read portions of Calvin Stapert’s A New Song for an Old World where much of that is sited and discussed. A lot of it had to do with the influence of Platonic and Aristotelian thinking on Greek understandings of the spiritual and psychological (even if they wouldn’t use that term) effects of music. Thanks, dschram.


  6. So where is Part 3??? Can I make a suggestion? "The Early Church and their Pagan Counterparts" or something like that. Paul told us to sing "psalmos" "humnos" and God-breathed "odes" to God. If you were to ask a Greek at that time what a "humnos" was they would probably take you to Homer’s hymns, which were songs sung to the gods or heroes. They were absolutely steeped in paganism. Pindar’s Odes are still examples from history as to what an "ode" was. So I think it was interesting that Paul’s admonition was to take those forms and sing them to THE God. So while he is probably including songs from the Mizmoor (hebrew word for the individual Psalms) it is wide open to take local forms and make it glorify God. When you take the Gospel out to another culture, it seems that a lot of discussion of "form" falls away and the question of how can I promote music that is going to connect their hearts to God is the best course taken be it some indigenous instrument or a beat box or both.

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