When we talk about the history of Christian music, we are immediately confronted with difficult terminology. What exactly do we mean when we say “Christian music”? Do we mean – in the rather unorthodox parlance of the modern evangelical movement – that there was an F sharp that one day went to a tent meeting somewhere in Alabama, heard a particularly moving sermon, and walked down an aisle to invite Jesus into his little F sharp heart? (Ironically, F sharps are boys while G flats are girls.)
If the notes themselves don’t have any specific religious commitments, what do we mean when we say that there is such an animal as “Christian music”? Do we mean that the words, the lyrical content is Christian and the music may be having it’s own secular thoughts? So, the words have gone to the tent meeting in Alabama, but the music has been out at a club somewhere all night. The music wakes up with a bit of a hangover, and the words wind up sharing a cab with the music back to the airport. The words are talking about Jesus, and all the while the F sharp is thinking about the really cute G flat that he met last night?
In some ways, this is an excellent paradigm for viewing the history of Christian music. While untangling the thorny, Gordian knot of what “Christian music” may actually be is extremely difficult, taking a look at the actual musical artifacts is fairly easy. It should be noted, however, that this uncomfortable cab ride to the airport has been part of the story from the beginning. In the late 390s, St. Augustine mentions the problem in a famous passage of the Confessions. He says,
“I see that our minds are more devoutly and earnestly inflamed in piety by the holy words when they are sung than when they are not. And I recognize that all the diverse affections of our spirits have their appropriate measures in the voice and song, to which they are stimulated by I know not what secret correlation. But the pleasures of my flesh–to which the mind ought never to be surrendered nor by them enervated–often beguile me while physical sense does not attend on reason, to follow her patiently, but having once gained entry to help the reason, it strives to run on before her and be her leader. Thus in these things I sin unknowingly…Sometimes I go to the point of wishing that all the melodies of the pleasant songs to which David’s Psalter is adapted should be banished both from my ears and from those of the Church itself. In this mood, the safer way seemed to me the one I remember was once related to me concerning Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who required the readers of the psalm to use so slight an inflection of the voice that it was more like speaking than singing. However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom. Thus I vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise. I am inclined–though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject–to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood.”
St. Augustine is worried that his congregation will be more drawn to the beauty of the creation, the music than to the beauty of the creator. For the sake of “weaker minds”, however, he decides that he’ll allow them into the cab to listen to the F sharp and the word having a conversation on the way to the airport. In the end, that conversation produced some earth shaking results that have transformed the very way we conceive and think about music. Indeed, it is hard to think of music – any music – apart from the results of that conversation.