January 17, 2021

Guest Post: WTH on “There Is neither Art nor Pop, neither Indie or Mainstream…”

World Music, Nancy Calef

Note from CM: Long-time friend of IM and fellow at Michael’s Boar’s Head Tavern, Wenatchee the Hatchet is a classical guitarist and composer who blogs HERE. He is always thoughtful and thorough in what he writes, so I am delighted that he could contribute a post to our “Church Music Month.”

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There Is neither Art nor Pop, neither Indie or Mainstream…
by Wenatchee the Hatchet

Galatians 3:28
There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus

Colossians 1:19-20
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His Cross; through Him, I say, whether things on heaven or things on earth.

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In his song “Sir Duke,” from Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder opened with the joyous lines, “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” For musicians expressing optimism about how music can cross cultural, racial or religious boundaries this optimism can be persistent and, as a way to reveal what people have in common and what experiences are shared, music is a powerful art form.

But we all know that music has the power to alienate either because we don’t understand or recognize what another person may call music or we do not want to understand or recognize it as music. As a signifier of linguistic, cultural, economic, racial, sexual, political and religious boundary markers you or I can instantly decide that a person is not worth even speaking to depending on how he or she is dressed, what he or she looks like, or on what kind of music we imagine (or hear) a person listening to. Now while in the United States there remains a history of defining American music in white or black terms, this is a nomenclature of convenience rather than a prescription of separation.

The more musicological work gets done the more it can seem that the distinctions between “white” and “black” music were developed by the commercial recording industry more steadily than by the actual performing musicians who defined and refined a variety of musical styles. We seem to be largely past the point where it would be assumed that a rapper must be black, that a jazz pianist would be black, or that a cellist or composer of classical music would be white or from a Western culture (the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu expressed optimism about the possibility of the musical styles of the East and West finding a friendly fusion). While traditional regional, ethnic and racial associations in musical styles do still tend to hold on account of the weight of history and cultural identity it is no longer a given that you or I have to be of that cultural group to enjoy that culture’s music.

Nevertheless there are musical styles to alienate everyone. Some find country objectionable as a whole. Some refuse to consider rap and contemporary R&B to be real music. The disdain with which classical guitarists have often looked down on popular music can be astonishing both in its display of musical ignorance and its snobbery, while fans of popular music can find a later Beethoven piano sonata bloated, overlong and possibly incomprehensible. As the German composer Paul Hindemith wrote more than half a century ago, the first reaction a person will have to a piece of music he doesn’t understand is often going to be the laughter of disbelief. The person can’t quite believe that whatever this is could really be music and may find it funny that someone else WOULD consider it music and even like it. Let’s face it, you and I have all been that laugher.

While worship wars come and go, and debates about the suitability of “popular” music compared to traditional music in liturgy will always be with us, we are situated now, more than any previous era of humanity, to more fully appreciate the significance of the apostolic affirmation that it pleased the Father to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. If it pleased the Father to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ then “all things” does not merely include people but the kinds of music they create, even the musical styles we might be inclined to dismiss as “not music”.

Elsewhere in the Scriptures we are told that “once you were not a people but now you are the people of God”. We know that through Christ the Gentiles were made part of the people of God with Jews so that the two who were separated were united through Christ. As Christian musicians have already been exploring for generations, there does not necessarily have to be a “high” or “low”, an “art” or “pop”, or an “East” or “West” in music that can be used to praise the Lord. It can also be said that if we take seriously that the Father was pleased to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ that this should inform not merely how we consider worship wars or musical styles within the church but, beyond our weekly church services, that Christ has reconciled all musical styles to the Father.

What would this look like in daily life? For musicians the answer is fairly simple, there is no longer a set of culturally or traditionally dictated laws that establishes that this or that approach to music is incapable of being music. Give or take the limits of what is feasible in the world and the physical and mental limits of the human body and mind, we can consider any musical style as one in which the potential to praise the Father, Son and Spirit may happen. Among Christian musicians Colossians 1:19-20 may serve as an invitation to meditate on God the Father reconciling every musical style to Himself through Christ. It would be a mistake to presume that though Christ’s death brought people near to God that this could not be said of the music those people make. Think of it this way, Jesus abolishes the Law as a barrier to people and if that was true of the barrier the Law presented between Jew and Gentile it’s also true of the “Law” that is so often brought out to separate musical styles across time and place and people.

So if Christ has reconciled all things to Himself and you and I take this seriously this means that we may find a musical style or two that we don’t enjoy but we should refrain from saying it isn’t music or that it isn’t “real” music. It may be the proverbial “joyful noise” to you or me but for another it is a musical style that can be used to rejoice in the work of God. As far as possible try not to think lowly of anyone for what you think they must be listening to on their iPod. Try not to be too disdainful in what you are willing to declare about music that someone loves. As far as you are able consider that there can be beauty in each and every musical style as a way to express thanks to God for what Christ provides us.

Now if that were actually easy it couldn’t be an opportunity to exercise the spiritual discipline of charity. There can be room for spirited debate and for genuine disagreement. But even within “classical” music a survey of Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective tells us that even within “one” style of music a great deal of acrimony was inspired. These days the battle lines may be drawn between the indie and the mainstream, or the high and low style, or whether something is popular vs. high art culture. Yet there is no singular musical style or way of organizing vibrations in the air that is more “robustly Trinitarian” than any other musical style, just as there is hardly any one explanation of the atonement that by itself could fully express the mystery of divine kindness given to us through Christ.

Obvious though it may seem, if in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female then an application of this could be to say that in Christ there is neither high nor low; neither art nor pop; neither indie nor mainstream for these are united in Christ.


  1. petrushka1611 says

    An excellent article that also happens to reference Slonimsky. You’ve got my attention!

  2. Years ago at a Derek Webb concert, he basically said, “Christian” music does not have to be worship or praise music, but indeed, music that comes from a Christ follower. As a newer believer, that gave me a great feeling of freedom.

    This has been a great series of posts on “church music” to all you contributors. Thanks.

    “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Col. 3:17

  3. Great article. As a musician myself, I’ve learned that I have to be open to learning new things from all sorts of people. And that often means learning things from people I might have written off before. On the other hand, it has always amazed me how music is truly a universal language. I’ve sat in with groups of musicians from other countries who can barely communicate to one another by speaking, but yet they’re able to play music together. It’s really quite an incredible thing when that happens.

    I sometimes think when people have a visceral reaction to certain musical styles, they are really reacting more to the culture surrounding that music than the music itself. Modern pop-country music, for instance, evokes almost an immediate negative reaction from me. I realized a while ago, though, that it wasn’t necessarily the music itself that bothers me, but rather all the stuff I associate with it. To me that music represents a certain type of American anti-introspection that I find very off-putting. I can’t say I’ve found a way to get over that, but I will admit that there are some skilled musicians who make that sort of music.

    • I sometimes think when people have a visceral reaction to certain musical styles, they are really reacting more to the culture surrounding that music than the music itself.

      Wow, nailed it. +1

      • Absolutely! Music is just an expression of culture. We like to think that we are one Body, and in Christ we ARE! But we are also the sum of our parts, and the dominant culture in which we find ourselves is just one of those parts. Accepting each other means that we accept (but not necessarily enjoy) those parts that are different. We will ALWAYS have differences between us.

  4. David Cornwell says

    Wenatchee the Hatchet grabbed hold of my dreary brain this morning and helped me think in some new ways. Of course! The Colossians passage has a power that’s beyond any human reason, and dares speak of an unspeakable peace and reconciliation that comes through Him. And through music of almost every kind we can sing His praise and to His glory.

    In a world of acrimonious politics, war, division, and sin, this can bring great peace to the depth of our being.

    Make music, listen, sing, and give thanks to this God.

  5. To me I am not sure that style matters much. I am eclectic in my tastes.

    Particularly in a worship service I am more concerned with the lyrics supporting and reflecting true worship (that means content, not merely emotional tone) and whether the leader is truly leading us into worship, or performing.

  6. I’ve recently discovered Klezmer music. The interesting thing about Klezmer, is if you listen to pieces from before the 70s, it’s a wonderful fusion of old world Klezmer and Jazz. If you listen to stuff after the Soviet Union collapsed, it’s had a lot of the Jazz elements removed as the Russian Jews who emigrated to the US put their influence on it and they considered the Jazz elements to be an impurity. I don’t, I think it’s perfectly fitting for a fusion musical style like Klezmer to fuze Jazz into it as well.

  7. In a way I agree, and in a way I disagree. In Christ, under grace, I have the freedom to like what I like without worrying about the approval of society. I am already greatly approved in Christ. Liking something obviously entails preference, which means I prefer this music over that music. There is not a thing wrong with it, but inevitably people will think that your preference means that you are making a judgment, not just on their music, but on them. So only in a world of pure radical grace, where everyone is assured of their approval in Christ, can we honestly make an aesthetic choice. The Church thus has the platform for being the most diverse and most free music.

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