BJU Seminary Retreat

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The Father of lights gave a good gift to me this past weekend, a retreat to the Wilds with most of my fellow BJU Seminary students.

I enjoyed the preaching, the God-honoring music, the many discussions with individual professors, the conversations with other students, the faculty testimonies, and even the Q&A session (something I often find myself dreading in similar gatherings).

Dr. Hankins, president of the Seminary, did a fine job of corralling the Q&A, trying to keep it on track while letting students speak and ask plenty of questions of their teachers. Not an easy task! The discussion focused on some difficult areas of Christian worship practice.

As the discussion progressed, I became increasingly convinced that we all could have gotten some good help from theologian John Frame.

Frame looks at all ethical questions from three perspectives, because ethics for him comprises three elements: a person applying a norm to a situation.

So, like my other reader, let’s say you’re asking, “Should I have Christian ska in my church worship? CCM Magazine said in 1999 that it’s pretty cool.” Let’s just ask one diagnostic question in each of the three categories to help us find an answer:

  1. Person: Does it violate your conscience?
  2. Norm: What does Scripture say about the purpose of church music?
  3. Situation: What does ska communicate in the culture(s) of the people in my church?

Remember, that’s just one question for each category. We could and should ask many others. Do I have a history of being defiled by non-Christian ska? What are the norms built into the creation of the human ear (i.e., is there a decibel limit I should probably impose in our church)? What do my elders think about Christian ska?

And, as Frame often points out, the categories tend to collapse into each other. The real reason I knew to ask about conscience is that Scripture tells me it’s important (Rom. 14:23). And I certainly can’t read the norm in Scripture independently from my cultural situation.

I stood up during the Q&A and asked a question focusing on the third category: “Would you agree that music is partially culturally relative—that is, appropriate church music in Botswana will sound different from that of Kazakhstan? If you do agree, how do you select which music in our culture is appropriate for worship?”

I think the answer is complicated by the fact that our “situation” includes, rightfully, a long Western tradition of church music and a shorter tradition of evangelical music. The very culture of the US has been influenced by the church, broadly speaking. This is not true of other world cultures.

What do you think?

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “BJU Seminary Retreat”

  1. Am I the other reader?

    One thought for your consideration:

    All art is capable of expressions that are in themselves evil and under the category of forbidden for the believer. Dirty pictures, dirty books, dirty sculptures, etc. Music has the same propensity. Those who ignore this, it seems to me are simply naive or willfully ignorant.

    There are other factors for deciding as well. Some music that isn’t inherently ‘unclean’ may also be culturally or stylistically inappropriate for church music. But we should not forget the possibility of intrinsic evil. Some music is eliminated just on that basis alone.

    Finally, I don’t know what ska is. I think I am grateful for that ignorance.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Mark,

    Someone asked me a very similar question by e-mail a few months ago, and I responded on my site. Here was my answer:

    Culture is a visible expression of worldview. It is religion externalized. If you want more to read on that, read T. S. Eliot on Culture. He’s spot on.
    So if culture is an expression of worldview, then it follows that those societies that have been more influenced by a Christian worldview will have cultures that express more Christian values. On the other hand, societies that have been for centuries shaped by immoral or anti-biblical values with have cultural idioms that reflect that. Cultures are not created in a vacuum. Societal influences and values shape culture.
    I think it is undeniable that Western culture by and large has been influenced by Christian values more than perhaps any other in the world. That is not to say at all that there haven’t been anti-biblical influences as well; there certainly have been. But by God’s common grace we haven’t been influenced by Satanism or Eastern mysticism to the same extent as other societies. That has influenced the development of culture.
    So each culture (Western, too) must be parsed for its meaning. What worldview does it reflect?
    Then, of course, there is certainly room for difference of preference between one culture and another as long as what is preferred reflects Christian values. There is nothing inherently superior about Western culture over another culture that has been shaped by Christian values, but I wonder if there really is, at this time, another such culture in the world. But if there is, they certainly may sound quite a bit different from one another, although there will be many similarities since art is based on the created order itself.
    There is a difference, in other words, between saying something sounds strange to our ears and saying something is immoral or objectively ugly. The latter is universal, the former is subject to background.
    So do I think Western culture is better than, say, some Satanism-influenced, tribal African culture? Well, I would say in many ways yes, and in others probably not. The high art of Western culture, at least, has been shaped and developed in a crucible of Christian influence. Western high art as we know it was nurtured in the Church; Romanism to be sure, but Christian theism nonetheless.
    On the other hand, there are aspects of Western culture that are deplorable, especially with the influences of secularism and commercialism. There might be some aspects of tribal African culture that has escaped those influences and are therefore superior. At the end of the day, I believe that the inner culture of the Church will never sound exactly like the culture around it. Christians always have to pick and choose (and sometimes invent) the best forms for the expression of Christian sentiment. It’s just the case that in some culture that have been influenced for centuries by Christian values, there may be more from which to choose.
    When speaking in terms of missions, I do think that probably most cultures have some folk forms of art that fit a Christian worldview. But again, if there have been absolutely no Christian influences in that culture, then there may just be none.
    If I were a missionary and that were the case, I would seek to create a new, indigenous Christian culture; not transplant Western culture – that would be crazy. Western culture developed over centuries in particular circumstances with particular people in a particular development of history. Perhaps in hundreds of years, as Christianity influenced the pagan area where I was ministering, the culture would turn out to look something like Western culture, but I would never suggest simply transplanting Western art forms into another culture.
    But I would probably start where Western Christian culture started in terms of church music – plain chant. Don’t think Gregorian when I say, “chant.” I’m talking pre-Gregory. The simple intoning of Scripture. That’s where Western Christian music started, and I think plain chant is almost as a-cultural as you can get musically. The tonal system is simple, built off of the naturally-occurring harmonic series, so it is natural to all humans. And because it’s chanting, the melody and rhythm follow that natural intonation and rhythm of the indigenous language. Then I would see where it went from there, remembering that Western cultured developed over a long, long time.

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