The argument for musical diversity, part 3

05 Sep

And we now return to our regularly scheduled discussion.

In my previous post in this series, I argued that the proposed benefits of musical diversity in worship present an interesting conundrum, in that these advantages are inversely proportional to one another. This observation does not undermine the argument for diversity in worship (ADW); however, by showing that the proponents of ADW have created a “heads we win, tails you lose” situation, I hope to have shown that diversity is not as perfectly glowing as it might seem at first glance.

What I’m going to do in this post is set up some background discussion about how we might evaluate diversity as a good. This is an important discussion before turning to Kaulfin’s specific arguments, because this discussion creates the boundaries on our potential agreement with him. So, for instance, even if we agree with Kauflin that God’s immensity and incomprehensibility suggest that one style of music is not sufficient to reflect his attributes, we need to know whether his argument thereby justifies every single style of music. Does diversity have limits?

With that introduction, I now offer three propositions (two of which will be forthcoming):

1. Diversity is a proximate, not ultimate, good.

I am somewhat hesitant to articulate this point publicly, because I haven’t yet found a set of terms that satisfies me. However, I will sketch my point here, and hope that I am saying something coherent.

That we are both fallen and finite is abundantly evident, and one result of these limitations is that some things that would ultimately be desirable in themselves create problems for us. For instance, for an unfallen, infinite being, perfect certainty is not only good, but is an essential component of knowledge. We would like to be perfectly certain about all of our beliefs (thus, certainty is a good goal in itself), but we recognize that such certainty in fallen and finite beings can create significant problems. And so humility and correctability in our believing is a good, but not an ultimate good; it is only good because of our limitations.

What happens when this proximate good is made into an ultimate good? Emergent.

Another example: religious freedom is not a good in itself. When our Lord establishes his Kingdom on the earth and reigns, religious freedom will be abolished, and this is a good thing. However, in a fallen world in which power often corrupts, most of us would prefer a society in which a variety of views are tolerated, even if the ultimate philosophical foundation for permitting multiple religions in the state is shaky.

Or consider theology. One advantage of modern communication technologies is a prodigious increase in the variety of theological positions to which one can be exposed. We are no longer bound to hear only those opinions of those around us (who are, most often, quite like us); we can listen to the theological musing of brothers in Christ from all over the world, and from ages ago. The accessibility of this theological diversity is a good inasmuch as exposure to positions not our own allows us to see our theological blind spots.

(Consider, along these lines, C. S. Lewis’s essay on the reading of old books.)

However, those of us with any sort of conservative theology see trouble lurking in this good. For instance, while a number of oppressed minority groups have, in their distinctive theologies, drawn attention to the liberation theme of the gospel, liberation theology (as a governing structure) is outside the bounds of orthodoxy. So while we might learn something from a theology not our own, we cannot accept this theology on a par with orthodoxy without disastrous consequences for the church and the gospel. The misguided step of making diversity in theology an ultimate good results in the sort of ecumenical dialogue that reduces all the world’s religions to a blank moralism.

How does this relate to the music debate? It seems to me (this is opinion) that some have made diversity in music a goal in itself. I will explain why I think this is so in a later post, but for now, I simply want to make the point that diversity does not carry its own justification; the examples above should show that, in many cases, even when diversity is desirable (because of our fallen condition), making diversity an end in itself creates serious problems.

Diversity can only be a good in itself if no style of music is better suited for worship of the Christian God than any other sort of music. This is, it seems to me, a very debatable claim (although I recognize that I am in an increasingly tiny minority on this point).

Note, here, however, that I’m not even suggesting which musical style might be better suited for worship. Let me advocate a position that is not my own, just for illustration’s sake. Let us suppose that the governing principle of choosing corporate worship music is that it allows people to worship using a culturally familiar idiom. If a person buys this argument (and many do), throwing a Bach motet or a big organy setting of “A Might Fortress” into the corporate worship, although such actions might be diverse (from the perspective of a church using contemporary worship music), they are not good. The Bach motet is so foreign to most people that (given the criteria), it just isn’t worth the work to that it would take to allow people from a different culture to own it.

Now, I have a very different set of principles for determining what is good in corporate worship. My point here is not what principles that we ought to have; rather, I am suggesting that if we have any principles at all, diversity is only a proximate good, and we cannot justify the inclusion of music into our services merely on the basis that it is diverse.


Posted by on September 5, 2009 in Fundamentalism, Worship


3 responses to “The argument for musical diversity, part 3

  1. Scott Aniol

    September 7, 2009 at 8:17 am

    So, you’re saying that diversity is an ultimate good only if you assume that music is neutral, correct?

  2. Michael Riley

    September 8, 2009 at 9:33 am

    That may be a bit too simple, but it’s close enough. I’d modify your statement this way: “diversity can be an ultimate good only if you assume that music is neutral.” In other words, the neutrality of music does not, in itself, make diversity a good.