Before We Begin…
In this particular series of posts, I am dealing with worship style, not worship music – though worship music is a part of the overall style. I want to be clear on that point because some Facebook readers did not seem to understand that, especially some who read my article on Tom Brennan’s Facebook page (at https://www.facebook.com/tom.brennan.58/posts/10214908523539365). I intend to deal with worship music eventually, but first, I want to establish a foundation for style in general, and for worship style in particular. In previous articles, especially my article called “Gothpel Style,” I was attempting to show from Scripture that God cares about style, that style is not merely a matter of preference, a neutral vehicle for conveying a somehow disconnected message. The Scripture passages I used were not intended to speak specifically to the subject of music, though I do believe they establish a certain kind of style that should be used in worship.
That said, I hope to advance the discussion here in order to outline a Scriptural worldview regarding worship style. Please note that this series of posts deals with the big picture first, and from there will seek to offer some specific principles.
Rudiments of Style
Style rightly belongs with beauty, the third of what has been called the “transcendentals” of truth, goodness, and beauty. As I have pointed out, Contemporary Independent Baptists like Josh Teis and Robert Bakss argue that style is a matter of preference. That is their major premise in fact, and they believe this allows them so much latitude when it comes to worship style. If God says nothing about worship style, then worship style is merely a matter of preference. If worship style is a matter of preference, then style choices are simply utilitarian. And if worship style is utilitarian, then these men have made the pragmatic choice to appeal to modern culture through a style our modern culture can relate to.
In so arguing, they have made style choices a neutral vehicle for conveying a message. One church drives a pickup truck, another drives a smart car. But both are delivering worship, somehow. This line of reasoning makes style purely subjective and relativistic.
And I am arguing that this is wrong. But in order to explain why I believe it to be wrong, I need to remind the reader of the distinction between the subjective and the objective, and then to demonstrate that there is objective truth, objective goodness, and objective beauty.
Subjective v. Objective
Before we can get a good grasp of the idea of “objective truth, objective goodness, and objective beauty,” we must understand the difference between the subjective and the objective. The subjective is personal — your dreams, your opinions, your hopes, your likes and dislikes, your feelings, your emotions. If you make a truth claim and someone says, “that is your truth,” they mean that your truth claim is subjective. It might be – if, for instance, you said that you have always wanted to be an astronaut. But if you said that Jesus is God, you have not made a subjective claim. You have claimed something as truth that is either true or false without regard for any hopes or dreams or opinions of yours. You might agree with the statement or you might disagree with the statement, but either way, the truth of the statement does not in any way depend on your agreement or disagreement. “Jesus is God” is not a subjective truth claim.
Objective truth refers to those things that are the way they are and were the way they were without regard for me or my personal likes or dislikes. The facts of nature, the laws of logic, theological truth, morality, the colors of the rainbow, these things and more rightly belong to the objective.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
Truth, goodness, and beauty are objective, not subjective. In God’s world, we have objective truth – truth that does not depend on any mind for its existence. We have objective goodness – standards of right and wrong that transcend our personal preferences. And we have objective beauty – beauty that is so without any regard for the highly touted “eyes of the beholder,” beauty that existed before any person recognized it. The Grand Canyon is not “grand” because I say it is, or you say it is, or John Wesley Powell said it was. The Grand Canyon was grand long before any man discovered it, and it goes on being grand without regard for the opinions of any one of the million or so annual visitors to it.
But this does not eliminate the subjective elements of truth, goodness, and beauty. My tastes and opinions belong to me, not to someone else. They are subjectively true – true to me. But my subjective hopes, wishes, and desires have objective meaning. If I am thirsty for a Coke, my thirst is subjective – true for me; but the meaning of thirst and of Coke is not subjective. So, if I say that I am thirsty for Coke and you bring me French Fries, your response would be objectively wrong.
Similarly, “house rules” provide us with one example of subjective goodness. My wife requires our children to remove their shoes in the house. She does not say that Scripture prohibits the wearing of shoes in the house. But in our home, it would be a sin for our children to wear their shoes. The sin would not be the sin of “wearing shoes in the house,” but the sin of “disobedience to parents.” The subjective rules have for a foundation objective standards of goodness.
Our school’s dress code provides another example of subjective goodness. While our academy honors objective standards of clothing such as modesty and gender distinction, it emphasizes a more subjective standard by naming what is acceptable clothing for our school. For instance, we require the elementary boys to wear a solid-colored polo shirt. By this requirement, we do not condemn striped polo shirts or t-shirts as something ungodly. The polo shirt is, to a certain extent, a preference choice. But that choice is made in light of objective standards, not in the absence of those standards. Dress codes illustrate subjective goodness because the standard doesn’t apply universally. In other situations, a t-shirt would be fine to wear, but to class, a t-shirt would not be fine to wear. If a student intentionally violated the dress code, the sin would not be the sin of wearing a t-shirt. The sin would be disobedience to the school dress code. So again, we see that subjective goodness finds its meaning in objective standards.
The same can be said for subjective beauty. Our insistence on objective standards of beauty does not eliminate any kind of personal taste. Some things are beautiful to some people and ugly to others. There are those tortured souls who think the Chihuahua is a beautiful animal, and Van Gogh did have customers. Clearly, that is a matter of personal taste.
But I am arguing that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be fully understood in terms of the subjective. The subjective finds meaning in the objective. Without objective truth, objective goodness, and objective beauty, the subjective would have no meaning. Ultimately, truth, goodness, and beauty have objective meaning in the absolute personality of God. God is truth, and His Word proclaims that truth; God is holy and just and good, and His law displays His goodness; God is altogether lovely, and His creation reveals His loveliness. Those are the ultimate objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Our discussions of worship style must be rooted in the fact that there are objective standards of beauty, and thus of style. If beauty is ultimately subjective, then style choices are purely preference, and style’s main purpose is utility – thus pragmatism is ultimate. But if beauty is ultimately objective, then style choices make objective statements and must be made with a full understanding of what is said by any particular style choice. Because we are commanded to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (I Chronicles 16:29; Psalm 29:2; 96:9), we must submit to God’s objective standard of beauty in our worship.
With that in mind, I intend to offer a series of posts that I hope will provide a firm foundation for objectively holy, reverent, and beautiful worship style. I want to consider the place of style in worship and the Scriptural requirements concerning worship style; then, I want to consider the cultural application of these Scriptural requirements.