Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sola Scriptura versus Calvin Johansson

Many years ago, my family attended Kingsway United Methodist Church in Springfield, Missouri. At the time, the choir director there was a man named Calvin Johansson. He subsequently went on to become a professor in the music department at Evangel University, which is run by the Assemblies of God church.

On virtually every occasion that I can remember, my interactions with Calvin were pleasant. He was always nice to me and the rest of my family. I have no personal animosity whatsoever towards the man.

Nevertheless, it pains me to see that he continues to undermine the work which God is doing in the lives of people who believe, as I do, that popular music styles are compatible with deep Christian devotion and heartfelt worship of the Creator.

What makes the whole thing particularly ironic is that I seem to recall that Calvin was involved at one time in the music program at Evangel Temple Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri.

For those who aren't familiar with "ET", it was once the unofficial church for the "Jesus freaks" who spent a great deal of their free time at the New Wine Coffeehouse in Springfield during the early seventies. More than any other church in Springfield, Evangel Temple was the church where one was most likely to meet young believers in Christ who enjoyed listening to Christian rock music. I like to think that the pastor of Evangel Temple, David Rees-Thomas, was the Chuck Smith of the Ozarks. Not only did he look a bit like Chuck (with a similarly bald head), but his open embrace of people who dressed like hippies was similar as well.

(For those who don't know, Chuck Smith was the pastor of Calvary Chapel, which was probably the most prominent and successful church during the years known as the Jesus Movement. Chuck visited Evangel Temple once, when I was attending that church, and he delivered a very potent message pertaining to the power of love.)

I still remember feeling particularly blessed when Larry Norman visited Evangel Temple and performed in the remodeled barn where they met for worship services, prior to building the sanctuary which they now occupy. In fact, "ET" was my primary church throughout most of my high school years. That was a direct result of having been introduced to the church by a shaggy-haired "Jesus freak" named David Thomas, who was one of my closest friends even though he was quite a few years older than I was.

I also recall that Evangel University hosted concerts by some of the earliest contemporary Christian musicians, such as Chuck Girard (for whom I was the opening act at Evangel in 1977) and Andrae Crouch & The Disciples. Andrae really rocked the house when he performed at Evangel! It was one of the best Christian concerts I'd ever attended. I also remember attending an excellent concert at Evangel, back in the 80's, featuring DC Talk and DeGarmo and Key. Come to think of it, Evangel is also where I heard Christian rock musician Randy Matthews in concert.

The idea that one of Evangel University's primary music professors has chosen to spend so much of his time attacking a style of music which has often been featured in various events sponsored by his own university just doesn't compute for me.

From the very first, the use of rock music in the church was controversial. Some Christians claimed that such music was "of the devil". A lot of very hostile words were written by those who opposed rock music in all of its manifestations. Interestingly, very few of the Christian rock musicians who were attacked by their brothers and sisters in Christ responded in kind. In terms of the fruits of the Spirit, my observation was that the people who believed that rock music was morally neutral were far more Christ-like in their behavior than the ones who sought to discredit their music.

I read the anti-rock arguments and the claims about various things such as "backward masking", and I have to be honest: I thought that most of those arguments were irrational and scripturally unsound.

Don't misunderstand me. I would be the first to admit that Satan has frequently used rock music throughout the years. But then again, Satan has also used books on many occasions throughout the years in order to promote evil doctrines, beliefs and practices. Does that mean that books are inherently evil? Of course not. Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, the medium is not the message. Whether one is talking about books or a particular musical style or the cinema (which many Christians have also opposed), the medium is precisely that: A conduit which can be molded to serve many different purposes, depending on the user's intent.

Yes, each medium has its own unique qualities, but most of those qualities are flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of worldviews and agendas, for good or evil.

Winkey Pratney, Pastor Rees-Thomas's brother-in-law, once came to Evangel Temple. I got into a discussion with Winkey, and it turned out that he was adamantly against rock music at that time. He said it was "angry sounding" music, and therefore, it couldn't possibly be godly.

I admired Winkey's devotion to the Lord, but I thought (and still think) that the argument was lame, for several reasons.

First, rock music doesn't all sound alike. Some rock music does indeed sound angry to some people, but even in such cases, it could be argued that what sounds "angry" to one person might sound "jubilant and victorious" to another.

Second, anyone who has ever bothered to listen to rock music knows that it spans a wide variety of emotions. The Beatles song "Yesterday" does not by any stretch of the imagination sound "angry". (Sad, yes. But not angry.) Nor does "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues or "Dust In The Wind" by Kansas. I could go on and on in order to demonstrate that such a characterization was ridiculously simplistic.

Third, anger is sometimes an appropriate emotion for a Christian. In fact, I would argue that any person who does not get angry when reading for the first time about a great injustice such as slavery or the Holocaust or legalized abortion is a person whose conscience has been anaesthetized or severely damaged. The Bible tells us to "be angry and sin not". Jesus was angry when he saw what the moneychangers had done to the Temple. So it's simply false to imply that anger is an inherently ungodly emotion. It's the context of the anger which determines whether or not it's an ungodly emotion. It's the lyrics (and the life of the singer) which give context to a song.

There may well be cases in which rock music is used inappropriately, but even then, it doesn't follow that rock music itself is evil.

Interestingly, I've read some things about Winkey Pratney, in recent years, to suggest that he wasn't completely rigid insofar as his opposition to rock music is concerned. Among other things, Winkie was close friends with Keith Green, who was considered by most people to have been a rock musician, notwithstanding one recent article (in Rolling Stone) in which an unbeliever derisively and ignorantly described Green as a "country musician".

If Calvin Johansson dislikes rock music, that's his prerogative. Every person has aesthetic preferences and aesthetic dislikes. People are entitled to their preferences and dislikes. What disturbs me is when people take their own subjective personal opinions and equate those opinions with the Word of God, in a manner which strongly implies that those who disagree with them are guilty of rebellion against the Lord.

Taking the Lord's name in vain is not something to be taken lightly. When a person says, "Thus saith the Lord," that person had better be extremely confident that he or she is actually speaking the words of the Lord. In my opinion, the test of whether or not a prophecy is legitimate is whether or not the alleged prophecy has a solid scriptural foundation.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of hip hop music. It's partly because of the fact that so much secular hip hop music glorifies moral values which are antithetical to Christianity, but it's also because I just find the music to be so incredibly dull.

Sure, hip hop sometimes has an energetic beat, but the beat is usually the result of digital looping, not the result of a real drummer playing rhythms which derive at least some of their interest from the small variations which make music interesting. Moreover, the lack of anything even remotely interesting or creative in terms of melodies or chord progressions makes me want to tell the creators of such recordings that there's more to good music than rhythm.

It has nothing to do with race. I am a huge fan of jazz, which to me is the exact opposite of hip hop, inasmuch as jazz (particularly bebop) features sophisticated melodies (and melodic improvisations) and complex chord progressions. In other words, jazz usually offers something challenging and meaty for a person's mind to grab hold of.

But just because hip hop isn't my personal cup of tea, does that entitle me to say that hip hop is unfit for use within a Christian context? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding "no"! There are quite a few Christian hip hop groups and artists. Some may be better than others musically, and some may be better than others when it comes to lyrics and lifestyles which are consistent with the Christian faith, but that could be said of Christian musicians playing in virtually any style of music.

I think that we Christians get into real trouble when we begin to equate our own subjective opinions with God's eternal truths. A lot of so-called "fundamentalists" seem to be incapable of sticking to the fundamentals. Instead, they want to make up new rules as they go along, even though those rules can't be found anywhere in the scriptures.

"Thou shalt not dance", for example, is a scripture I cannot recall reading anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the scriptures which do refer to dancing invariably do so in such a way as to suggest that the Lord sees dancing as a good thing! Yet, for many fundamentalists, dancing is absolutely forbidden. That makes no sense at all to me.

Yes, there is a way to dance which is extremely carnal, to the point that I have difficulty understanding how any Christian could participate in such dancing. But it is not dance itself that is evil! Any good thing can be perverted and distorted in such a way as to dishonor God.

It's been almost four decades since Larry Norman recorded "Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?". Isn't it time for Christians to stop sniping at each other about "issues" that ultimately don't amount to a hill of beans? The world outside the church looks at us and laughs, sometimes for good reason. Let's focus on winning the lost to Christ, and not on promoting our divisive little pet theories which have little or no foundation in the scriptures.

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