Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

If you really want to touch off a good argument among church musicians, this quote is a great place to start.  Most people attribute it to Martin Luther or John Wesley, but the consensus of opinion is that it actually traces back to a sermon delivered by Reverend Rowland Hill in London in 1844.  In context, the sermon was not so much a call to bring secular music into the church as a plea for improvement in the quality of church music.  Hill went on to write hymns himself, and compiled and published five collections of hymns and psalms for use in churches and schools.  Few people argue that he drew inspiration for his hymn tunes from songs he overheard in taverns.

Break that quote out in the average small church in the USA, and you can almost sense the rise in blood pressure.  People immediately starting to form alliances and prepare for battle.

The traditionalists believe the hymnal of their denomination to be divinely inspired, and are horrified when the church has to replace a set that has become worn.  They howl in rage when they find that songs by Amy Grant and Andre Crouch have been included in new editions.  Right next to standards by John Wesley or Martin Luther?  How dare they?! 

To traditionalists, this quote is an unholy twisting of words to justify the sacrilege  of bringing the devil’s music into the sanctuary.  Singing Christian lyrics to heathen styles of music is an abomination which stinks in the nostrils of God.  They wonder at God’s mercy in refraining from striking the offensive musicians to their deaths with well-cast bolts of lightening.  Surely it would only be what they deserve.  

Opposite the traditionalists are the ultra-contemporary proponents.  These people believe that the lyrics are all that matter, and often show little concern whether or not the lyrics can be understood.  Heavy Metal?  Why not?  If people enjoy the style, they should be given an alternative with a Christian message.  Where in the Bible does it say that the electric guitar is an evil instrument? 

They have a hard time understanding why other members of the church worship team are reluctant to perform a favorite Metallica tune with lyrics rewritten to glorify God.  After all, wasn’t it God who inspired them to rewrite those words?  The congregation may sing the hymn, “Just as I am,” but these progressives don’t believe the traditionalists really mean it.   In their opinion the church might as well sing, “Just as we want you to be,” instead.

Those are the extremes, but you can find people lining up all along the spectrum of opinions.  Who is right? I think we can find the truth where it usually lives, somewhere in between the two extremes.

While it would be a mistake to toss out two thousand years of tradition, it would be just as much of a mistake to allow ourselves to become so entrenched in it that we are unwilling or unable to change.  What we call traditional, classics hymns of the faith are certainly far removed from Gregorian chant, but if the church completely rejected change, that is what we would still be singing.

Styles of music change over the years.  Was it sacrilegious when J.S. Bach encouraged us to move to the equal temperament system of tuning after such a long tradition of the just and mean-tone temperaments? Should it be surprising that developments in opera influenced oratorios and visa-versa?  Techniques of composition changed drastically from the baroque to the classical period, and yet again during the romantic and impressionist periods.  

New instruments are invented;  old instruments find new venues and take on new roles.  Styles of music are born, combined with other styles, and fade away as time brings new ideas to the forefront.  This is neither good or bad – it’s just the way things are.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t exercise caution in the music we choose to use during worship services. Changing for the sake of change alone is just as dangerous as refusing to modify our worship service at all. Finding a sense of balance between traditional and modern forms of worship is a daunting task, but it’s a task that we must face if we are going to continue to minister to those already in God’s kingdom while reaching out to those on the outside.

Rob Pearce