The Right Kind of Music: Fundamentalist Christianity as Musical and Cultural Practice
Fundamentalist Christians loosely affiliated with Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) teach that music influences listeners’ faith and moral characters for both good and evil, expounding their views since the evangelical Worship Wars began in the 1960s over the use of popular music styles in church services. In their dichotomous moral view, good music reveals God’s nature, allowing born-again listeners to draw closer to God and witness their salvation to unbelievers, and bad music pulls listeners away from God by promoting immorality and false worship. Fundamentalists also prioritize mental engagement with music over emotional and physical responses to it because they believe that people more directly relate to God through their conscious minds and only indirectly with their bodies, as when fundamentalist musicians make music with their bodies, an activity that they believe glorifies God. Considering their discourse and practices from ethnographic and theological perspectives, I argue that these reveal a view that all musical sound is dangerous in its insistent entrance into listeners’ bodies: music is like fire—useful under control but devastating if unrestrained.
I examine the outworkings of their beliefs in three primary areas: recorded music, congregational singing (both aloud and silent as congregants practice inner singing while listening to instrumental hymn arrangements), and solo and soloistic vocal music. Musicians’ invisibility on recordings underscores how fundamentalists’ beliefs are primarily about musical sound, not performers’ movements or appearances. Robust congregational singing reflects believers’ “joy of salvation,” but their collective emotional affects are limited, and they are physically constrained to small movements that almost never bloom into something fuller. Finally, although fundamentalist leaders consider classical music and its associated performance practice to be “excellent,” even this musical style must be restrained for classically trained vocalists to minister in their churches. These arguments are based on my fieldwork and my analyses of fundamentalists’ extensive written and recorded discourse on music.
philosophy of music
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