The Degeneracy of Modern Music

by Glenn Conjurske

I do not aim to speak much of the popular music of the world. I hear but little of it, though I do hear some in stores or other work places, where I am obliged to shop or carry on my business. I can say that there is a great difference between much of the popular music today, and that which existed forty years ago, when I was a boy. The popular music then was degenerate also, but generally more innocent, and more musical, than what exists today. Much (not all) of the popular music of the present is not music at all, but mere noise. The words to much of it are smut and garbage. But I do not speak merely of its obvious moral degeneracy. Even where the music is musical and pleasing, there is no poetic worth in most of the words, or we might better say, no poetry at all, but only a few words strung together, without rhythm or meter, often without rhyme, and often enough without sense. There are of course exceptions to all of this, and I have heard some modern music which contained solid depth of both thought and feeling, and good music also. But this is a small proportion of the whole.

The same degeneracy appears in the music of the church. But observe, I do not speak here of what is called “Contemporary Christian Music.” That was degenerate from its inception—-never has been and never can be anything but degenerate. “Contemporary Christian Music” is not the music of the church at all, but the music of the world. It doubtless contains some half-Christian words, as it is the product of half-Christian “artists.” It is the product of modern Evangelicals who are doing their best to be as much like the world as they can, or as much as they dare. I repeat, this is not Christian music at all. It is the music of the world, copied by those who profess to be Christians. Modern recording and broadcasting techniques have filled the church with this worldly music, and so vitiated the tastes and dulled the senses of real Christians, that the situation now appears virtually hopeless for the mass of Evangelicals. This “Contemporary Christian Music” has now gained acceptance in the most conservative circles, by means of the radio. The Christian stations have little by little introduced music which is more and more corrupt, and the Christian people have little by little become accustomed to it, and accepted it. I was recently in Kregel’s Bookstore in Grand Rapids (certainly a conservative place), and was absolutely sickened by the music which was playing. Even the old and spiritual hymns were sung in a manner so fleshly, and so absolutely devoid of anything remotely resembling spirituality, that I can only describe the effect as most sickening. I would hope my readers would be shocked to hear “Rock of Ages” “performed” in a night club, but the plain fact is, the so-called Christian radio has brought the music of the night club into most of the Christian homes and Christian businesses in the land, and the Christians have accepted it. This of course has been done little by little, for if the music which is now played every day by the Christian radio stations had been played twenty years ago, they would have lost their whole listening audience. Some of those stations, I am well aware, play only the more “conservative” of “Contemporary Christian Music,” but the plain fact is, none of it is conservative. It is all a departure from the old music of the church, which is precisely why it is called “contemporary.” It may contain some good, but what of that? Most every evil under the sun is in fact a mixture of good and evil. The church is not so easily deceived by things wholly evil. At any rate, “conservative” and “contemporary” are opposites. All “Contemporary Christian Music” is evil in its source, its spirit, and its tendency. If Christians wish to be Christians indeed, they may begin by transporting their “Christian radio” to the town dump. By this means they might also be freed from the influence of the shallow half-Christianity of the popular evangelical radio preachers.

But I do not speak in this article of “contemporary” music, which exists only to be “performed” by “artists,” but of the traditional music of the church. This is very degenerate also. I have been much condemned by some for saying so, but I think I know whereof I speak. I have personally read through scores of hymn books, looking for good hymns, and I have long observed that it is difficult to find anything worthwhile written later than about 1900, and very difficult indeed after about 1925. There is of course here and there an individual exception, but I speak of what is certainly the case in general. I have often read through an entire hymn book, examining scores of hymns which were previously unknown to me, without finding a single good one. Other hymn books may yield one or two which are acceptable and usable, but nothing of a high caliber. We find occasionally some very good music, but the words which accompany it are usually trite and empty, or very shallow at the best.

One man of more recent times who did write some tolerably good poetry was James M. Gray, who died in 1935. In company with Daniel B. Towner, he produced some very acceptable hymns. He also lamented the degeneracy of modern hymns. In an editorial in Moody Monthly, in March of 1933, after speaking of the degeneracy of the music of the world, he says, “Speaking of gospel songs in particular, a comparison of the songbooks of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with some that have been published in the first quarter of this century or later, will convince any fair-minded critic that a degeneracy has set in. Bliss, Sankey, Stebbins, McGranahan, Towner, Gabriel, and other composers of the earlier period, have had but few real successors, and we think we can suggest a reason. It is not because their successors are less competent in the sphere of music, but less careful, if not less capable in the choice of words to set to music. The men above-named were in a greater or lesser degree Bible taught men, zealous for the truth, sensitive to heresy or error of any kind, and anxious that their songs be used of God to save souls and to edify His redeemed people. Gospel hymn composition to them was a gift of God carrying with it a grave responsibility. We knew some of these men pretty well, and we knew the spirit of prayer in which they did their work. Theirs was a high and holy calling, and young men and women of our day who know music might well covet to follow in their footsteps.”1

And that degeneracy which Gray claims had “set in” nearly a century ago has certainly not been checked or reversed, but has continued and accelerated until the present day. The degeneracy of the hymns is a reflection of the degeneracy of the church, and it could hardly be otherwise. A shallow and worldly church cannot produce hymns of worth or depth. But as with books, so with music and poetry, modern technology and modern affluence have made it easy to write and easy to print, while Laodicean pride has produced a whole generation of Christians who think more highly of themselves and their abilities than they ought to think. They turn out glibly and carelessly what former generations produced under a sense of “grave responsibility,” steeped in prayer and watered with tears. The church today is therefore flooded with shallow and unsound hymns and books, and the generation which produced them approves and accepts and applauds them.

Nor do we see any reason to expect any general reformation in the matter. Quite the reverse, for in fact the present age has greatly augmented the evils which have contributed to the degeneracy. Modern education has greatly inflated people’s pride, while contributing extremely little to their actual ability. On top of that, the electronic age has put all the capabilities of “desktop publishing” into the hands of multiplied thousands who have no sufficient or legitimate reason to publish anything at all—-no message from God, no gift of God, no spirituality, no depth of thought or feeling, no tears—-nothing at all beyond the common and the mediocre. Yet they must see their productions in print, and send them abroad into the church.

But is there no remedy? We suppose the actual remedy for such a state of things is a very complex one, but I may allow an old prophet to suggest one thing. “Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way.” (Jer. 6:16). Let the Christians of the present day stand in the ways, and compare the old and the new. Let them ask for the old paths. Let them continually steep their hearts and minds in the old hymns and the old books of the church. It may be that they will perceive that the old paths are indeed the good way.

Glenn Conjurske