Q&A: Is music a cult?

Is music a cult?

Question

Is music a cult? Is there any value in it?

Answer

Music: An Art of the World’s Culture

Though it’s not normally spoken of as one, it's possible to view music as a cult, and as such it would be one of the largest in the entire world. Various types of it are in every culture. "Preaching artists" are welcomed in homes, automobiles, theaters and stadiums. As of 2020, turntables and vinyl records are making a comeback; tapes and compact disks (CDs) are still around, but especially common are the streaming media such as Amazon, Qobuz, Spotify and Tidal. Amazon alone boasts of some 60 million songs [1] with some 55 million subscribers. [2] This is a rather large following, and will only grow with future recordings.

Music: Its Fall

Sometime after God began creation and before the time period of Genesis 3, Satan fell from heaven (cf. Isa. 14:12; Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9). Most theologians believe he used to be a chief angel who led the worship in heaven (cf. Ezek. 28:14). Though it is actually depicting a historical king (the prince of Tyre), most think Ezekiel 28 is at least illustrative of Satan. Look at the descriptions found in Ezekiel 28:12-15 (ESV):
You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty … you were in Eden, the garden of God … you were on the holy mountain of God … you were blameless in your ways.
These don’t really fit any natural human being, do they? And being present both in Eden and on the mountain of God sets time limits for whom this could be. But if it’s not Adam or Eve, then who is it? Most likely these statements are to be understood as being about the fall of the angel who is now known as Satan or the Devil (compare, Isa. 14:4-27). And he is a real being.

Besides other important features in the text, there is an emphasis on musical instruments in Ezekiel 28:13 (NKJV):

You were in Eden, the garden of God;
Every precious stone was your covering:
The sardius, topaz, and diamond,
Beryl, onyx, and jasper,
Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold.
The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes
Was prepared for you on the day you were created.”
Satan had a wonderful gift. It was music. Angels sang over God's creation (cf. Job 38:4-7). Did Satan direct this? If there was a director, perhaps so.

From what I observe in Scripture, angels love music. Singing and musical instruments are mentioned in numerous places (Isa 6:2-3; Luke 2:13-14; 1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 4:8; 5:11-14; cf. Rev. 5:8). The Lord himself loves it too (cf. Zeph. 3:17; the inspired Psalms, etc.). And since the fall of both himself and man, Satan has sought to ensure that music doesn’t honor and glorify God. Instead he desires to glorify sin — sex, violence, drunkenness, even murder. And increasingly so. You name it and there are many songs out there that cover every topic under the sun in some form. Yet, good music can still be found, secular as well as religious. Yes, there is some good secular music out there - wholesome love songs you may sing to your spouse, songs about nature, and so many others too numerous to mention. And even within the religious, music can also be divisive. At times churches can have "worship wars" when unable to peacefully decide between traditional and more contemporary music. While there was a unifying chord in heaven, this fallen globe offers discordance that delves into the depths of depravity.

Music: An Avenue to Evangelism

Music is one aspect of true worship of God, and the Lord still seeks true worshipers today (John 4:23). While the Christian looks forward to the redemption of all music to the glory of God alone, at present there is much that may be used in proper, genuine, godly worship.

But what about other music? Can it have a use for the Christian? Yes, I believe it can be used in an evangelistic sense. It can be used as a communication bridge to the gospel. Similar to how Christians may study Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness to recognize and know their severe theological errors, music needs to be studied as well for insights that can guide responses.

Because music has meaning and provides an emotional attachment, people typically make genuine connections with it. It can become their religion, their truth, their teacher. Christians should be prepared with an answer for when this happens. As Peter wrote, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Here is an example to consider. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is a beautiful arrangement of words and instrumentation released by Warner Brothers in 1970. Through the years many have made an emotional connection with it, and it reflects genuine talent as well. But what is it about? Of the three verses, one is about Taylor’s female childhood friend who committed suicide. Another concerns his depression and personal addiction to heroin. And the last is about a mental hospital where he personally attempted to come to grips with his sudden fame and fortune. [3] Each verse is followed by the same chorus, “I've seen fire and I've seen rain …” Pretty depressing, right? But this is part of James Taylor’s life story. It’s fantastic that he overcame so much and was able to write and sing about it. However, when he uses the phrase, “Won't you look down upon me, Jesus,” it is simply a response to being in pain and not a sincere appeal to the historical Jesus? Taylor overcame many things, but has yet to learn and put to song what being a real overcomer in Christ is all about? Does he and those who listen to his well preformed music realize that one can’t ultimately save themselves? (cf. Eph. 2:8-10).

Another example is “Hotel California” by the Eagles. What’s it about? Some say that the title spells out the principal components in marijuana – THC. So, to them the whole song is a metaphor for a drug trip. Others say it refers to the Church of Satan in California and its first high priest, Anton LaVey. [4] However, according to Don Henley, drummer and co-lead vocalist for the Eagles from 1971-1980 when he appeared on 60 Minutes, "it's a song about the dark underbelly of the American Dream, and about excess in America which was something we knew about." [5] The band had a hedonistic lifestyle (drugs, sex); they could "check-out at anytime they liked [i.e. die] but could never leave" [i.e. ultimately escape]. Applying this to any of the song's listeners, can anyone naturally escape the traps of the world? Do they know it takes a supernatural intervention? [6]

Why do people enjoy these songs? Why is there such an emotional draw to them? After many decades the Beatles continue to “rule the industry all-time with 20 No. 1 singles (on the Billboard Hot 100) and 19 No. 1 albums (on the Billboard 200).” [7] While many songs definitely have an enjoyable pitch, rhythm, and tonal color to them, such songs have an immediate connection with people because they often describe what’s present in their own hearts (cf. Matt. 5:18-20; cf. Jer. 17:9). The msicians somewhat comprehend the trials and traps encountered in their personal lives and of those around them. They know about their experiences, excesses and injustices. They may know about “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life,” (1 John 2:16) but not the justice, salvation, and divine rest that is available in Christ alone (cf. Matt. 11:28). What an evangelistic opportunity music offers!

Jesus used many effective illustrations, pictures, and parables to introduce and explain the gospel (cf. Matt. 13:34-25). He used bridges of communication that people understood, such as birds and lilies (Matt. 6:26-34), architecture (Luke 14:28-29), earning wages (Matt. 20:1-16) and pearls and swine (Matt. 7:6), etc. Today, music can be a convenient medium to build bridges of communication; it can be a good segue to introduce someone to the gospel.

While the reader may already be somewhat familiar with a lot of music, I suggest taking some time to study lyrics and compare them to verses of Scripture. Study some of the songs from the top billboard charts of your preferred eras and the ones many of your friends listen to. Ask yourself how they can be used to evangelize others, and be prepared with an answer (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).

References

[1] Amazon Music (https://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=15730321011). Last Accessed 4 June 2020.

[2] Reuters. “Amazon Music crosses 55 million subscribers globally, trails Apple Music.”(https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-music/amazon-music-crosses-55-million-subscribers-globally-trails-apple-music-idUSKBN1ZL2GE). Last Accessed 4 June 2020.

[3] Wiki, “Fire and Rain (song).” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_and_Rain_(song)). Last Accessed 5 June 2020.

[4] The lyrics of the song include the phrases, “I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell” … “You can check-out anytime you like but you can never leave” … “we haven’t had that spirit in here since 1969” – that’s the year LaVey’s version of the Church of Satan was founded. While Don Henley dismissed this as “ludicrous” years later “when Irving Azoff, the manager of The Eagles, received an award, Don Henley took to the presentation stage and said: “He may be Satan, but he’s OUR Satan.” Stewart Stafford. “Does Satan Reside at the Hotel California?” (https://stewartstaffordblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/does-satan-reside-at-the-hotel-california). Last Accessed 5 June 2020.

[5] Song Facts, “Hotel California.” (https://www.songfacts.com/facts/eagles/hotel-california). Last Accessed 4 June 2020.

[6] Some within the music industry have professed Christianity; Alice Cooper, Al Green, Nicko McBrain, Ringo Starr, Rick Derringer, Ringo Starr, Little Richard, Mark Farmer, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, to name just a few.

[7] Showbiz Cheat Sheet. “Will Anyone Ever Pass The Beatles for Most Billboard No. 1 Hits?” (https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/will-anyone-ever-pass-the-beatles-for-most-billboard-no-1-hits.html/). Last Accessed 5 June 2020.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).