Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Debate on Music

A Conservative Blog links to an article written by Kurt Woetzel on the issue of music’s neutrality or lack thereof. In it, the author attempts to argue that music is not and cannot be amoral. I would recommend reading the article before you read my response so as to be able to fully understand the context. As a jumping off point, let me state that it is my belief that music, in and of itself, is indeed amoral. By “in and of itself” I refer to the notes, chords and musical structure and style, not the lyrics of a song.

The author begins by asking some very good questions on the issue of music’s morality: “Is music neutral? Is sound capable of moral influence? Does music alone, with or without text, carry and communicate moral value? Is music amoral?” He goes on to repeat the oft stated axiom that Christians are the only ones who are concerned about the moralness of music, since apparently all secularists accept that it is in fact moral and not amoral. In the article, he quotes a number of secular musicians, philosophers, etc in saying that they each believe that music has moral value to it. The difficulty with this assertion is that it makes a number of assumptions: 1) that each person quoted makes their statement, not out of personal opinion, but of universal fact; and 2) that because a few secularists have given their belief and none quoted to the contrary, it must hold true that there aren’t any secularists who say that music is amoral. (Ironically, the author gives an example of someone who indeed does believe that music is an “object” and therefore amoral, but the example is given in such a dismissive manner as to be an afterthought, hoping perhaps that the reader didn’t catch his attempt at showing both sides.) Further, it must be wondered that perhaps there are more Christians arguing this issue than secularists mainly because secularists have no reason to argue this point in this first place.

Woetzel goes on to debate that the “music is amoral” argument came from Christians wanting to use the “world’s” music, not for worship sake but to appeal to the culture of the day and to “draw people into a living relationship with God.” While this may be true of the intent of some of the musicians and churches who use the music, it is a non-sequitur to say that since some use music in such a way, therefore the music itself is at fault for being used in such a way. It is certainly not a bad thing to want to use music in gospel efforts, but I would agree with the implication that music, as with everything including other art forms, is to be a conduit of worship toward God.

One of the main concerns I have with Woetzel’s argument is found in his statement that because music has the power to move and influence emotions and action, it therefore cannot be neutral and anything to the contrary is illogical. He states, “That which is neutral, obviously, cannot impact character.” This statement is incorrect, however, when you consider that nothing is done in a vacuum, especially music. If music were moral, having a rightness and wrongness about it, it should have the same affect on all listeners, regardless of context, surroundings, etc. Just as other means of communication (which Woetzel rightly compares music to) often find a greater or more specific meaning in what is communicated (spoken vs. written, voice inflection, body language, facial gestures, etc), so too music finds its interpretation in the context in which it is being communicated. Not only do you have the external contexts that can be easily seen and identified, but you also have internal contexts, such as a person’s belief system, world perspective, current mood, or even personal experience, that varies the interpretation of music widely. All these factors can cause two people, hearing the exact same piece of music at the exact same time to have two completely different and perhaps polar opposite reactions. So if, in the hearing of the music, one listener is drawn to think of an immoral activity and the other to think of praise for God, what category then does the music fall into? Using Woetzel’s logic, it must be either right or wrong, but it is obvious that it cannot be indexed as such.

Another concern I have with Woetzel’s argument is the assertion that if music is made to fit the culture, then it is wrong. He quotes with seeming disdain those who say that “We must relate to our culture” along with the subsequent changes in musical style to fit the culture. The problem with this thinking is that it denies the fact that music itself is part of culture. You cannot separate the two. I daresay the music that Woetzel would approve of for Christian usage at some point in time was itself considered too cultural. Someone of my father’s generation would perhaps be appalled at the musical style of Christian artist’s Third Day or even the secular group, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I, on the other hand, enjoy both groups immensely and find that I can worship God in the listening and singing of the music of Third Day just as easily as I can that of Isaac Watts and John Newton.

What Woetzel does in his article is take the attitudes, motivations, goals, etc of the artists and those whose goals are not perhaps what they should be (I’m certainly not denying there are those within the Christian music realm that have less than God-honoring motives) and lay the blame for those influences directly on the music itself, rather than the sin nature found in everyone. Is it the music’s fault that an artist places more importance on fame than on God and thus adjusts his style to the target audience? Woeztel does a pretty good job of completely ignoring those in the “CCM” realm that employ the contemporary music style and do so in a God-honoring way that seeks to only bring God the glory.

I would recommend the article by Dr. Barry Liesch, “Is Music Morally Neutral?” in which he discusses the fact that as Christians, “No style should be considered evil or off limits in expressing the Gospel. I believe that a Christian composer has the freedom to use any style, any materials…Any chord, any rhythm, any instrument should be theoretically acceptable for worship.”

I firmly believe that music of any style can lead us to a God-centered worship. If we have dealt with heart issues, we’ll find that we can enjoy God’s creative work and His image can be seen in the musical creation of others.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The “I’s” Have It

One of our birthday “gifts” to Carlos was that he could now stay up an extra 15 minutes later than Jeremiah’s bedtime. Judging by his reaction, you would have thought we had given him the best present ever in the history of birthdays! Every day since then, he has “Do I get to stay up late tonight?”

The main reason for this change is so that I could have some time to work with him in his schoolwork. And let me tell you, you never know how much patience you have (or DON’T have) until you try to teach a 6-year old how to read! It’s a wonder the entire world isn’t illiterate by now. Each lesson begins by having prayer, both for his understanding and for my teaching ability. To his credit, he has learned the letter recognition very quickly (with much thanks and help from his LeapPad thingy.) He knows most, if not all of his uppercase letters, and now we are working on recognizing both upper- and lower-case. The fun and challenging part is learning the sound AND recognizing that sound in a word. He does very well hearing the very first sound of a word, but has been having some difficulty hearing other sounds. For instance, a lesson might go like this:

Me: “What does the letter ‘I’ say?
Carlos: “I says ‘ĭ’
Me: “Good. Let’s see if we can hear the ‘ĭ’ sound in this word: zzz-‘ĭ’-pper” (said slowly and distinctly)
Carlos: “zzzz-ipper (z drawn out, the rest said really fast) No, it’s not there.”
Me: “Say it slowly like this: zzz-‘ĭ’-pper” (said slowly and distinctly)
Carlos: “zzzz-ipper (z drawn out, the rest said really fast) No, it’s not there.”

Repeat 5 times. Bang head on desk.

He gets frustrated easily with himself, but I told him that it takes practice and he shouldn’t get frustrated but to keep trying. I think that’s a lesson I need to remember too!

On a side note, check out some really cute pictures on Sarah's blog (link over there ---->)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Victim Thievery

I’m heartless. Stone-cold hearted, at least. Either that or I just don’t qualify to be a bleeding heart liberal.

I had to do a double-take when I read today’s front page article in the Roanoke Times. There were two articles under the title of “Dance with the devil,” a phrase that utility workers use in describing the dangerous practice of attempting to steal copper wiring due to its value. One article details several of the numerous deaths of people attempting this “dance” and the laws that have been proposed to prohibit such thefts. Just last week, two men in Radford were electrocuted while trying to steal copper wiring, one of whom has died and the other in serious condition.

But what really caught my attention was the other article. It showed the human side of the two Radford men’s lives. Like a eulogy, it detailed the caring side of the men and how they did what they could to provide for their family. In painting the most sympathetic picture possible, the article made the men out to be victims in this tragic affair. The first lines of the article summarize the article quite well: “To D_ B_, her oldest son didn’t die trying to steal copper wire from the Radford Foundry. Instead, she said, he died while doing his best to provide for his family, something he had done since he was a teenager.”

There’s just one problem.

The entire article glosses over the fact that the man died while committing a crime. He was breaking the law and knowingly putting his life at risk. Even the caption under the front page picture of the foundry tries to cast doubt, saying that the men were “allegedly” trying to steal the wire (even though later in the same article, D.B. is said to have known their plans.) Certainly, our hearts go out to this family that has lost a son and brother and friend. Yes, it is terrible that these men felt they had no other option to provide for their family. But these two men broke in (crime #1) with the intent to damage property (crime #2) and to steal wiring (crime #3). This is a textbook case of our current thinking in society of making everyone the victim. No one is guilty and everyone is a victim of our society or oppression. This was evident in news stories earlier in the year about how different individuals, while running from the police, was either injured or killed. Nobody seemed to remember that these individuals were breaking the law, but instead they chose to cry outrage over the fact that the police were doing their job.

Oh wait, there is a possible scapegoat here - high prices of copper. The closing statement of one of the articles is a quote from a scrap dealer: “As long as the prices are high, this is going to happen.” There you go. It’s all the economy’s fault. Or perhaps the foundry’s fault. Maybe it’s Bush’s fault.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Railfanning Trivia

Today I watched as a switcher pulled some empty (at least, I presume they were empty) corn syrup cars from the Coca-Cola bottling plant across the road from where I work. The cars were identified as being from the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company based in Decatur, Illinois. A.E. Staley is one of the largest corn refiners in the United States. Here’s where the trivia comes in: the guy who started the company back in 1898, Augustus Eugene Stanley, also started a company football team in 1920 called the Decatur Staleys. He later sold the rights of the team to a guy named George Halas and the team’s name was eventually changed to – the Chicago Bears. Their team mascot to this day is named Staley the Bear. So there you go, from corn syrup to football - all in day’s railfanning.

On another railfanning note, a few weeks ago I was able to go out in the evening and take some train pictures. I posted a few of them at, a pretty cool web forum for any and all kinds of railfans. Imagine my surprise when one of the shots (below) was chosen as one of the Railimages of the Week! :) I was pretty happy. Here's the shot, three engines in front of the Wachovia Tower in downtown Roanoke. Below it is a rather cute picture of Carlos and Jeremiah - I'm "train"ing the next generation of railfans!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Music for Americans

The Roanoke Times and the City of Roanoke have outdone themselves in more ways than one for this year’s Music for Americans. The community event is one in which both sponsors usually do very well in promoting and executing. This year had its good and bad points.

After new-to-the-helm President and Publisher of the Roanoke Times Debbie Meade gave the opening and welcoming remarks, she turned it over to a Rev. Anne Something-or-other for the opening “prayer.” Now, I use the word “prayer” in as loosely a way as can ever be used. It seemed like the reverend was doing her utmost to avoid mentioning God in all of her “We give thanks” for this and “We give thanks” for that. I couldn’t help but wonder “To whom are we giving thanks?!” The reverend droned on for a godless eternity, being sure to be all inclusive and non-offending in her prayer of thanks. Ironically, the music program closed with a very good arrangement of “God Bless America” sure to stir the patriotic fires in any listener. I suppose that, if we were to be consistent in our all inclusiveness, perhaps the song should have been “Benevolent-Deity-of-your-choosing-or-not-choosing Bless America.” But that doesn’t have the same ring nor social acceptance, despite being closer to the truth, as does “God Bless America.”

The music program was very well done, as always. There was the usual mix of classical stuff (Sousa, Salute to the Military, etc) as well as some older, more hip pieces such as the Village People’s “YMCA” and other songs designed to get folks on their feet and dancing. And dance they did. Young and old alike could be seen swaying, dancing, and moving to the different styles of music. It’s really quite a wonderful sight to see young teens appreciating the music of past generations. This just reinforces my belief that music is ageless and never dies. Perhaps the only complaint I would make was the extreme volume of the sound system. We were sitting in the middle of the field and it felt like we were being blasted out. I pity those poor folks up front who traded in their eardrums for a better viewing position.

The fireworks show was the best part of the night. Kudos to the company putting on a spectacular show. Divided into two distinct launching areas, it was almost two separate shows. The first one even had a grand finale of sorts that was magnificent. In fact, several times I thought “Surely this is the grand finale” only to have the show continue. This was by far the best fireworks show I’ve seen and had me wondering as we left “How in the world will this be bested next year?” But, I'm sure they will, as they somehow manage to do every year.

On a more personal note, all three kiddos seemed to really enjoy the fireworks – even Natalie! She sat on my lap for about half of the show, babbling and cooing at almost every sequence of lights. Later, Jeremiah climbed on my lap and whenever a big firework would go off, he would point to it saying “Ooooooohh,” laugh and then bury his face on my shoulder. It was very cute. All in all, we had a great July 4th. Hope you and yours did, too.