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Volume 12, Issue 1: Musica

Good Vibrations

Duck Shuler

When sentimentality reigns, truth is soon lost. I have spent many idyllic summers at my parents’ cottage on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The owners of thesae cottages are part of an association originally founded as an academic and religious community. Memories abound of the rolling surf, the fragrance of pine, the love and joy of family fellowship. One particularly strong memory is going to the association’s Sunday evening church service called the “Sing.” It is the most widely attended activity of the week. The hymnal for the Sing contained all the chestnuts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I had grown up on Lutheran chorales, so singing these hymns was peculiar to my experience at the cottage. Even to this day when I hear a hymn from this hymnal, a flood of early childhood memories washes over me creating many pleasant sensations.

The odd thing about all this is that the people of this community tend to be theologically liberal. The church board actually banned one preacher, a member of the association whose parents were founders, because he dared to call people to repent of their sins. Yet these same people will sing “Torrents of sin and of anguish Sweep o’er my sinking soul” . . . “Broader than the scope of my transgression”. . . “Repeat (repeat), repeat (repeat) anew the story o’er again, Till all (till all) the earth (the earth) shall lose its weight of sadness” . . . “Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord, To the cross where Thou hast died; . . . To Thy precious, bleeding side.”. . .“Though your sins be as scarlet,” . . . “How can He love such a sinner as I” Sunday after Sunday and not be struck or bothered by the thought that the words they are singing mean nothing to them. They are reveling in the childhood (and childlike) memories created years ago. The melodies of these hymns have become no more than sentimental trappings. They are trying to recreate their childhood memories so that they may live them repeatedly. They have lost the truth of the Gospel in trying to retain their warm fuzzy feelings.
Music has great power to instill sentimentality. I am not talking about emotion. It would be a Platonic heresy to deny the power of emotion which music evokes as we sing hymns and psalms. A full range of emotion should be found and employed in our hymnody. We should be able to rejoice with great exuberance and joy over God’s glory in one hymn, and weep over our sin in another. Some hymns should be fast, some should be slow. Some hymns should be loud, some should be quiet. This is not sentimentality.
Herbert Schlossberg writes, “(Sentimentality) stresses feeling rather than thought. That is what makes sentimentality so vicious. People can get good feelings from almost anything . . .”1 I have often been criticized for suggesting that a particular hymn is of a poor musical quality. The person criticizing me will say that the hymn was the inspiration that led him to the Lord, or that it was the hymn sung when he “walked the aisle,” or that it was his godly mother’s favorite hymn, or that it has touched the hearts of so many people. Who am I to tell him that this is a poorly written hymn? But people are saved and hearts are touched in concentration camps. Do we reconstruct the camps so that people may relive these experiences over in the same way they originally experienced them? Is the feeling that important? As such, sentimentalism leads to antinomianism because standards of right and wrong or good and bad are given up, making the value judgment of the individual more important than the truth of God’s word.
Ken Meyers lists four hallmarks of popular culture: 1) lack of ambiguity, 2) sense of familiarity, 3) celebrityism, and 4) sentimentality.2 These hold true for popular music. The hallmarks are all related in that they do not require thought as much as feeling from the listener. Although the danger of popular music is inherent in the music itself, it is not the music but the listener who is tempted to sin. The question then is how vulnerable is the listener to being sucked into the trap of these hallmarks. In the case of sentimentality, does it mean that the listener loves the music more than God loves it?3 It hinges on the listener’s attitude, not the music. Our attitude should not be different from the standard set by God.
How does one know if he loves the music he is listening to more than God does? First, let me say that sentimentalism is a trap that anyone can fall into over any style of music, whether high art, folk, or popular. In high art and folk music, the susceptibility is lessened greatly because of the nature of its purpose. Its appeal is to emotions rather than sentiments. Thought is crucial to a proper understanding and performance of these. But because popular music appeals specifically to sentimentality, there is a greater danger of being snared by its trap. I cannot give an absolute answer to the question posed, but I submit and will defend in coming articles the following proposition: If you want to see popular styles of music used in corporate worship, you love popular music more than God does.

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