[The Lord said to Moses…] “Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, in order that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel… Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants)” (Deutronomy 31:19, 21a)

Because yesterday’s entry about songs seems to touch off a nerve, I want to write another thing about songs that I’ve recently come across while studying Deuteronomy. It was interesting that the second-to-last thing that Moses did before he died was that he wrote a song for Israel. After all the commandments he gave Israel throughout the book of Deuteronomy, it wasn’t enough. God told Moses to condense the teaching in a song which will not be forgotten. Wouldn’t it be nice if God told you to write a song and told you the song wouldn’t be forgotten for generations?

The impact of songs on our lives and our thinking and our theology is more than you would think. That’s why someone coined the term “theomusicology,” which is the study of music and its impact on our theology. Let me tell you my favorite case study of theomusicology.

In the Western Solomon islands of Melanesia there used to be a bunch of tribals that were converted to Christians. But after World War II, 3,000 of them turned and followed a cult. Studies were done to find out what was going on, and to the researchers’ surprise, they found that the major reason for their leaving the faith was because of the inadequacy of the music and hymns used by the missionaries. The missionaries that first evangelized that place made three mistakes: (a) They sang only the missionaries’ favorite hymns; (b) Those hymns did not convey theology systematically, leaving huge gaps in the tribals’ theological understanding; (c) they never encouraged the local tribals to write their own hymns. On the other hand, the cultists wrote songs using the local culture and local ideology and local music style and contain systematic theology of their cult. (Source: “The Sound Of The Harvest” (1998) by J. Nathan Corbitt, pages 183-184)

This case study always helped remind me what a huge responsibility we have as worship leaders in church.

6 thoughts on “Theomusicology

  1. back to the topic of old/new songs.  I used to listen to lots of chinese secular songs back in the 80s, I do notice that the lyrics back then are more innocent and yet can be very creative.  Where many modern songs just dance around the topic of “I love you, you love me”(the old songs have many “i love you” songs as well, but very often they are creative and used metaphors in their lyrics so they are not very obvious), and the moral standard of the songs today in general seem to be taking a dive as well.  I for one can never recall/imagine any songs back then would say something like “if you don’t love me I’m going to kill you” or something like that…    do you think so..? =)

  2. Remember what I said: “Each generation of song speaks to their generation.”

    Back in the 1500’s-1600’s, the hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and John Calvin were criticized as songs that prompt people to sin, that they’re overly-sensual tunes that promote people to get drunk, that they used vulgar words. Interestingly, actually what prompted these great hymn writers to write songs was because they were bored with the music of their day and they criticized the old songs and they decided to write new songs that speak to their generation.

    Today’s songs specifically speak to postmodern people. That’s why you find more emotions expressed in the songs. Are older songs more “innocent” than today’s songs? I would say that “I love you” is a more raw and innocent expression of love. Are today’s songs less “creative”? Muscially today’s songs are way more creative than older songs, and you also have to admire how some new Christian songwriters paraphrase Scripture in their songs and bring out new meaning, while older choruses either just present the hym writer’s own (sometimes unbiblical) ideas, or just state the bible verse verbatim.


  3. Now, please don’t misunderstand me… I’m not all new and no old… I love many old songs and continue to use most of them in worship. In fact, the recent publishing of many hymns-tribute CDs by many worship artists is a great testament to the fact that we need both the old and the new, and I certainly love that movement. But it is when people are only seeing that “old is always good and the new will never be as good” that I feel sad to hear, and I try to make them see (a) sometimes people are wrongly only comparing the best of the old with the worst of the new; (b) if you don’t have the attitude and belief that the best songs are yet to come, we wouldn’t have any improvements at all, and Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts certainly had this same attitude during their days or else we wouldn’t their wonderful hymns today.

  4. I hear ya :)
    If you are talking about worship songs, I side with the new more since morality usually isn’t too much of an issue in these songs. I think worship songs do need to be speak to today’s generation and be catchy at the same time(in addition to being biblical). I’m certainly not an “old is alway and will always be better than new” guy(I’m not that old haha), or I wouldn’t be pushing my church to sing more new songs as well as re-arranging the hymns so they speak to today’s generations more. I think I’m kind of a middle guy. I don’t want to sing old hymns or even old ACM /Maranatha songs in their “organic” arrangements all the time(it puts me to sleep too), yet I don’t want songs to be overemphasizing on being new and original that they throw the audience off from trying to catch/relate to the song and therefore defeat the whole purpose of ministering to them. Of course, usually it depends on what type of audience you are trying to speak to as well.

  5. Actually my main concern is worship songs, but I think in general I want to call people for more focus on the future than on the past (worship songs, secular songs, arts, state of the human race, or anything for that matter), because complaining about the present is no use if you don’t hope for a better future.

  6. agreed! each generation has it’s own pros and cons. what we can do is try to gather all the pros from all generations and try to mix them into the next generation…. :-)

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