Martin Luther on Music and Song Writing

One of Luther’s great contributions to Christianity was that he pointed out that much of the common thinking about Christian living and attitudes comes from Plato and Aristotle, rather than from the Bible.

Plato, for example, was a dualist – who viewed the physical world as inherently bad, and the unseen spiritual world as inherently good. Therefore, Plato taught that physical pleasure should be avoided; it was better to live a life of suffering and eschew pleasure in order to be more spiritual. This thinking worked its way into Christianity, to the point where things intended by God to be blessings for our enjoyment were rejected and forbidden. One such area was music.

Augustine of Hippo had written about music in the 5th century, stating that he was “troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music.” Luther, who greatly looked up to Augustine, responded by saying: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.” He went on to say, “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor,” and “next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

“Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”

“Next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

Luther is the one who introduced, or at least re-introduced congregational singing to the church. It may be hard to imagine, but until Luther brought singing to the church, there had been no such thing for at least several hundred years, if not more. Furthermore, the fact that there is congregational singing in Catholic churches today is directly because of Luther, and most hymns sung in the Roman Catholic Church today were written by Protestants.

Luther also believed that music was a great tool for teaching spiritual truths. He wanted to put good doctrine into congregational songs to reinforce the teaching that was coming from the pulpit. Luther wrote many hymns himself, but he also reached out to others for help. In a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin in 1523, Luther wrote:

Our plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church and to compose songs for the people in the vernacular, that is: spiritual songs so the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music. Therefore we are searching everywhere for poets. Since you are endowed with a wealth of knowledge and elegance in the German language, and since you have polished it through much use, I ask you to work with us in this project.

I would like you to avoid any new words or the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt; and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the [Bible]. You need a free hand here; maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words.

Furthermore, unlike Zwingli in Zürich, who forbade the use of musical instruments, Luther encouraged the use of musical instruments in church.

Martin Luther not only introduced music back into the church, but he defined the parameters of what makes for good Christian church music.

Christian Artists vs. Christians who are Artists

This past Thursday night Lecrae performed a sold out show at the Paramount Theater in downtown Denver along with Trip Lee and Andy Mineo. A lot of my friends went to the show, and I wanted to go, but wasn’t able to make it.

All three of these guys are straightforward about their Christian faith (Trip Lee is a Reformed Baptist pastor), and their music reflects their faith, but at the same time they have wanted to avoid being labeled as “Christian artists”.

Lecrae and Andy Mineo have both won Dove awards, but yet Lecrae especially has been very successful at crossing over into the mainstream market. Lecrae recently performed on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and, most notably, IMO, reached #1 on the Billboard charts with his album Anomaly.

A friend of mine gave me the Anomaly album, and I have to say that I loved it. I’ve never considered myself a fan of hip hop, but what I love about the album is how thoughtful and intelligent it is. Lecrae’s lyrics aren’t shallow and predictable. The topics he covers are deep and sometimes difficult – like in my favorite song off the album: Good, Bad, Ugly.

Today I ran across this video of Trip Lee on the BET website talking about how he doesn’t want to be known as a Christian artist, but as an artist who is a Christian.

Why don’t these guys want to be known as “Christian artists”?   There are several reasons.

One big reason is because they want their music to be heard outside of Christian circles. How can you influence – which is unquestionably one of their objectives – if your only audience is people who already think like you do?

Another reason is because Christian art simply has a terrible reputation for being subpar copycat art, with a capital SUBPAR. If this were not the case, then why do the Dove awards even exist in the first place? Is it not because Christian music is rarely good enough to win Grammys? Sure, the case might be made that “Christian artists” get written off by the pop music community – but Lecrae has done it and so have other Christian artists who are making legitimately good art.

I think it is a much more thoughtful, mission-aware approach to be an “artist who is a Christian”, whether you’re a painter or a rapper or a photographer or a baker.

There are many things about the modern evangelical subculture which are much more cultural than they are “evangelical” in the true sense of the word – and I believe that if Christians are going to be heard by people outside of our own camp, we must distance ourselves from those things.
For example, a friend of mine (who happens to be a pastor) recently recounted a trip to a local Christian bookstore:

My trip to the Christian bookstore on Friday was downright surreal. 10 different Duck Dynasty books, assorted “Christian” candies, a $50 faux pumpkin, a prescription bottle with Bible verses inside and a “legalize prayer” t-shirt…Legalize prayer? Is that a shirt for North Koreans? Wow.
I have to admit I couldn’t bring myself to purchase the embellished Thomas Kincade Painting for $7500:)

These kinds of things, IMO, lend themselves towards an inwardly focused subculture that approaches faith like a hobby rather than a mission from God to save the world. With this in mind, I appreciate the attitudes of those who want to be known as artists who are Christians rather than Christian artists.