Music That Nurtures the Soul (Part 2 of 2)

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In Part One, I tried to establish that music affects the health of our souls (mind, will, and emotions) for good or ill. The common belief that music is neutral has falsely reassured many in their musical choices, turning them aside from wise discernment. There is another common hindrance which keeps many from accepting better criteria for healthy music choices. Frankly stated, that hindrance is a commitment to idols. 

What is an idol? In Colossians 3:5, Paul writes that covetousness is idolatry. Covetousness is an intense, misplaced desire. It is idolatry because it means something has taken a higher status among our passions than God. Things that become idols are often not wrong if kept in the right place. They become idols when elevated to a rank more important than God. A common symptom of idolatry is when someone knowingly makes spiritually unhealthy choices. 

Three common idols hold sway in the musical choices of many. They are: 

  1. Entertainment 
  2. Coolness factor
  3. Emotionalism 

The entertainment idol says, “If it’s entertaining, it’s good; if it’s boring, it’s bad.” Though good music is sometimes entertaining, this is an inadequate criterion for choosing music that nurtures the soul. Those who esteem this idol will end up with a musical diet that is the aural equivalent of stuffing their mouth with Twinkies and potato chips and washing it down with a Red Bull energy drink. 

The coolness factor says, “If the music makes me more accepted in popular cliques, it’s good.” I remember, as an eleven- or twelve-year-old, being with two friends who were discussing their favorite country music songs and artists. I remember being unable to contribute to the conversation and fearing they would turn to me for my opinion. I could not have named one country song or artist. To my relief, they did not ask me. But I still remember the dread I felt of being exposed as a country music illiterate. The “coolness factor” idol had beckoned, pressuring me to get with it. 

The idol of emotionalism declares, “If the music makes me feel good, it is good.” It does not matter if the feeling is connected to reality. It is better if it is not connected to reality and instead provides an escape from unpleasant reality. 

To be clear, it is not wrong to be entertained by music. It is not wrong to gain social acceptance by appreciating the same music as your friends. Neither is it wrong to be emotionally moved by music.  

It is unwise, however, to hold these as the highest criteria for evaluating music. It is wrong to ignore criteria that would guide one to music that is more spiritually enriching and soul-nurturing. It is idolatrous to persistently follow a set of criteria that often endorses spiritually unhealthy music while excluding soul-nurturing music. 

So, what criteria should be used to identify soul-nurturing music? The following table contrasts characteristics of soul-nurturing music with characteristics of idol-nurturing music. Admittedly, the criteria are not black and white but present broad principles. Coupled with the Spirit’s guidance, however, the criteria can help us curate our playlists to benefit our souls. 

Soul-Nurturing Music Idol-Nurturing Music 
Teaches truth Undermines truth 
The music and text agree, pointing to God The music and text do not agree in pointing to God 
Encourages reflection on God and our relationship to Him Promotes escapism 
Integrates mind and emotion Elevates instinct, frenzy, and ecstasy over reason 
Encourages a spirit-controlled life Reduces inhibitions to sin 

First, soul-nurturing music will teach the truth. Music is an effective teaching tool. The Bible tells us to teach one another through song (Col. 3:16). The powers of darkness also understand the teaching power of music and have used it successfully to undermine truth. A brief survey of the Billboard Hot 100 chart reveals a list of songs with lyrics not fit to print because of bad language, racism, and sexual innuendo. These are the current most popular songs listened to by millions. 

Are Anabaptists among the listeners? In 2017, Tim Stoltzfus surveyed 650 young people from various Anabaptist churches. According to the survey, 36% listened to Country, 34% listened to Pop, and 12% listened to Secular Rock.1 Based on this survey, I believe that too many Anabaptists are listening to music that deliberately and systematically undermines truth and the foundations of our morality. We must wake up! Has the throbbing beat of this music anesthetized us so much that we do not know or do not care what the lyrics are teaching? 

Second, in soul-nurturing music, the music and text agree as they point to God. In idol-nurturing music, the music and text disagree or do not point to God. Composer Lyle Stutzman points out that tone of voice matters when we speak. We respond to it naturally. Relationships can be damaged by saying the right thing the wrong way. People can be held in contempt of court for how they say something. 

Music is the same way. Stutzman concludes, “When combined with words, it [music] colors and empowers or overpowers the content of the words. If words and music get in an argument, the music always wins.”2 

How can you tell how well the music and text agree? Start by asking, “If you just had the text, what kind of music would fit with it?” Then ask, “If you just had the music, what themes or moods would a complimentary text have?” This will be a hard call sometimes, but this will help filter out the worst of the uneasy unions. 

Another question to consider is, “What lyrics is the style of music commonly associated with?” Can a music style commonly and effectively paired with sexually explicit lyrics or lyrics that promote tearing down authority structures be sanctified by Christian lyrics? I submit that such a pairing will create an argument between the text and music in which the music will win! 

Music should help us see God amid pain, not numb us to it.

Third, soul-nurturing music will encourage reflection on God and our relationship with Him. The Bible calls us to do this in Psalm 46:10, which says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” Soul-nurturing music will draw our minds toward God, help us ponder our relationship with God, and inspire us to move closer to Him. 

Idol-nurturing music, on the other hand, promotes escapism. Technologically enhanced recordings and slick music videos can mesmerize us. They can create a virtual reality that’s better than life. I have known young people who listen to lots of music, but would never sing in a choir though they had the ability. Why sing in a messy choir when you can get an easy pleasure high from high-quality headphones? 

But what happens when the pleasure high wears off, and the reality of living with broken people in a broken world comes back into focus? Do we listen to music that can sustain our souls amid pain? Or does it act more like a drug to numb pain and block out unpleasant circumstances? This is not soul-nurturing. God made us feel pain. Music should help us see God amid pain, not numb us to it. 

Fourth, soul-nurturing music integrates the mind and emotions. Paul sets the example by writing 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” Emotions are good, but they should be grounded in reason and reality and not only be a response to stirring sounds hitting our ear drums. Since we are called to love the Lord with all our mind, we should pursue music that helps us think more deeply about reality rather than distract from it. 

Idol-nurturing music elevates instinct, frenzy, and ecstasy over reason. The prophets of Baal on Mt. Caramel cried aloud, leaped on their altar, and cut themselves until the blood gushed out! Their frenzy continued until the evening sacrifice when Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord and prayed that the people would know Jehovah was Lord God. When the Lord answered by fire, the people responded by bowing and declaring, “The Lord, He is the God.” Arising from the reality they had just witnessed; this emotional outburst was firmly integrated with the reasoning of their minds. 

This is not an appeal to seek out highfalutin, academic music. That approach would be as much a mistake as only pursuing music that arouses the emotions through shallow repetition. The best music expresses profound truth and beauty in a way that connects with our intellect and emotions. Although comparatively rare, this quality of music does exist and can be found by those not willing to settle for trite emotionalism. 

Fifth, soul-nurturing music encourages a Spirit-controlled life. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:18-19, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We are to turn aside from excessive alcohol, which impacts our mind and behavior in bad ways, and instead be filled with the Holy Spirit, who can impact us in good ways. One of those good impacts is an inclination to sing. We should not hold back on this Spirit-given instinct! 

Since we are to sing these Spirit-inspired songs to each other, we can assume they will encourage us to be sensitive and yield to the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit inspires us to produce good music, and good music will encourage a Holy Spirit-controlled life! 

On the other hand, idol-nurturing music lowers inhibitions to sin. Therefore, we do well to consider whether our chosen music affects us like David’s harp music or the chaotic calf music of the children of Israel. 

Those who want to improve their musical diet must do three D’s. They must first dethrone any idols that are dictating their music choices. Their passion for spiritual growth must far surpass their passions to be entertained, be cool, or feel ecstatic. Like the three Hebrews on the plain of Dura, they must stand tall when pressured to bow low before the world’s attractive yet feeble idols. 

Second, they must delete unhealthy music. They must be like the Ephesian converts who burned 50,000 pieces-of-silver worth of occultic books (Acts 19:18-19). Although building a fire was not the hard part, at least that part is not necessary to wipe out digital media. Once the decision is made, all it takes is pressing delete. 

Finally, they must discover soul-nurturing music to replace what they deleted. The temptation to resurrect the old playlists will be strong. The best way to overcome this temptation is to develop an affection for healthier music that crowds out our old, misplaced affections. Our affections can be changed (Col. 3:2), but we must be intentional about it. 

The Billboard charts of popular music will not help in choosing nurturing music since the world is serving the idols from which we must turn away. (The charts may be helpful in learning what not to listen to.) The best way to discover soul-nurturing music is to ask a music lover whose mind, will, and emotions are formed after Christ. Their music listening habits helped them become who they are. The same habits can help you. 

1 https://timothystoltzfus.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/i-can-tell-something-is-bothering-you1.pdf 

2 https://radi-call.com/2019/06/24/musical-notes-with-lyle-stutzman-an-interview/ 

Nolan Martin

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