Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

Martin LutherYou may have heard it said, or said it yourself, that Martin Luther used a drinking song for his iconic hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” Or maybe you’ve heard (or said) Luther’s apparent quip, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Either of these pithy truisms have been employed by those hoping to justify the inclusion of popular music in the church’s worship, just as long as the words are at least somewhat spiritual. Rick Warren, for one, is a celebrity pastor that takes this position.

In light of Reformation Day today, I hope to put to rest these false notions that shame Luther’s good name, while leaning on Paul S. Jones’ book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006). Luther never used bar songs for hymns and never said anything about the devil’s good music. First, to dispel the silly quotation: this has never been found in any of Luther’s writings or verified by any Luther scholars. That paragon of all that is good about Christian music, Larry Norman (a pioneer of the CCM-precursor Jesus Movement), popularized the statement in his song with the same title, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” The statement has roots older than this 1970s Jesus Movement song, though, with something similar being attributed to William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) as well as misattributed in some form or fashion to the likes of Isaac Watts, the Wesley brothers, and D.L. Moody.

On to EIN FESTE BURG, the tune for “A Mighty Fortress.” This tune is one of Luther’s own compositions that he wrote specifically for this hymn as well as for a versification of Psalm 46. He also wrote several other very good tunes, including tunes for Psalm 130, an Advent hymn, and a Resurrection Sunday hymn. He, along with many other composers (including Bach) would borrow from other forms, including Gregorian chants and folk music.

The closest Luther got to stealing a drinking song was the tune VON HIMMEL HOCH for his Advent hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” This was associated with an old German folk melody, but when Luther heard the tune sung in inns and dance halls, he was embarrassed and the tune was stricken from his hymn collections. Folk songs were traditionally sung in such places, but that does not make them tavern songs. Lastly, a standard Middle Age German musical form is the “bar form.” Perhaps when CCMers were playing the telephone game, “bar form” was misheard as “bar song.”

More important than merely debunking urban myths is the principle inherent when such statements are uttered. Pop music or heavy metal, for example, are not automatically sterilized and sanctified by merely pairing them with religious texts. As Ken Myers argues in his classic All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989) and T. David Gordon more recently hammers home in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (P&R, 2010), popular music has inherent characteristics that are ill-suited for corporate worship. Music is not ideologically or theologically neutral and thus not all musical genres should be used in worship. Since music is not neutral, personal taste does not trump objective standards. For more on this topic, I commend Jones’ chapter to you (on which this post heavily leaned): “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth Please!” in Singing and Making Music. The aforementioned All God’s Children and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns are also well worth your time.

So on this Reformation Day, please do not take Luther’s name in vain by attributing to him what he never said, intended, or desired. And in the spirit of All Saints’ Day tomorrow (November 1), here’s a bonus video of the magisterial British hymn “For All the Saints.”

5 thoughts on “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

  1. I agree that music is not neutral, It is either a tool in worshiping God as an expression of the heart, or it is being used for sinful purpose to glorify something other than God. However, I don’t totally agree with the corollary that only certain styles of music should be used in corperate worship.

    Music is not neatural to our mind, but if music could be expereinced outside of our sinful minds then I believe music would be good because God created sound, and melodic intervals to bring him glory no matter what sequence or harmonies are used. It is the heart of man that corrupts and distorts what God has made good. Just because our culture decided to use pop music to worship relationships, metal music to worship Satan, and rap to worship drugs, sex and money, does not make the music, apart from the content, evil.
    However, for some people, it may be too difficult to seperate the music style from the content. In those places, we should care for our brothers and sisters and do what God through paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 8. On the other hand we are also called to not put a yoke on another brother or sister who does not carry the same conviction, and who can seperate the music from the culture’s use of it and worship God passionatly through it.

    It is a difficult task for a pastor to determine what style of music should be used in corperate worship. There needs to be decernment, love, care and grace in the choice and excecution. It cannot be done without prayer and God leading.

    • Thanks for the good thoughts, Josh! A point of clarification: I was saying that pop music (for example) is -inappropriate- for corporate worship, not necessarily sinful. I’m differentiating between appropriateness and sinfulness. The authors I cite above discuss different genre’s objective characteristics, not merely it’s associations with relationships, drugs, sex, and money.

      An example is the transitory, light nature of pop music in its chord progressions, trite melodies, etc. Dr. Gordon talks about the way we worship shaping what and how we believe. Pairing heavy, deep, complex truths with a shallow, flimsy melody does not work. The form (music) affects, shapes, interprets, and adds meaning to the content (the words). To take it a step further, music (even apart from words) is emotive. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that in an unfallen world heavy metal would be used for worship music. The objective emotive nature (chords, rhythm, etc.) of heavy metal is angst and anger. Though perhaps it would work with an imprecatory psalm – though there would be no need for imprecatory psalms in a perfect would so I guess that’s a moot point.

      There are other aspects that relate to other types of music as well (e.g. does dubstep or hip-hop meet the criteria of reverent and awe-filled worship in Hebrews, for example), but I’ll leave it at that. I think Paul’s admonition is applicable here, that all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. Personal taste should not be the final arbiter. God is, and we are to offer him our best in worship, in spirit and in truth.

      • Thank you so much for your clarification. I apologize that I didn’t read carefully to hear the distinction between helpfulness and sinfulness.

        I appreciate how you distinguished between the form and emotion of the music. I don’t think I’ve thought of music in the sense of form that you describe it. I guess I’ve often just thought of it as emotion and content (or context).

        I know from my own experience, I’ve had sweet times of worshiping God with a wide range of music. I’ve found that often very simple melodies have a strong emotional effect on myself and supports the message of the lyrics (and sometimes weighty truths) despite their simplicity. I know that I am somewhat partial to aggressive music, and intense, dramatic themes. But I think God can use each style in a unique way. I’ve listened to rock and metal music that lifts my emotions to worship God for his righteousness, his power, and probably what has affected me most is His undying love.
        I love Isaiah 43 because it talks of God in a way that emphasizes his personal, aggressive, never-ending love. any genre of music can be applied overtop of this and each one will emphasize different words and phrases. Metal emphasizes the aggressive nature of his love that will never let us go, while a more mellow genre of music may emphasize the personal nature of that love. A complex orchestra may emphasize the contrast of His holiness and personal relationship with His people. It is very exciting to me!

        I would be interested to know what particular verse in Hebrews you referenced. I guess I wonder how that lines up with 2 Samuel 6 and the story of David leaping dancing before the Lord in a way that embarrassed his wife.

        Thanks for again for clarifying, and know that I ask these questions as a brother looking to think more critically and wanting to know what another brother believes (And being excited about music! 🙂
        I don’t want to come across as being accusing or anything like that.

  2. Hi Josh, thanks again. You’re definitely not being accusatory! I appreciate your comments and perspective, and am glad that you’re thinking through these issues and feel comfortable voicing your thoughts here. The verse in Hebrews I referenced was Hebrews 12:28-19, which echoes several passages in Deuteronomy of God being a consuming fire. Like you, I have been moved by many different types of music in many different contexts. In this post, I have been mainly referring to the corporate worship of the church, which is a tricky and often touchy area, and one in which I surely don’t have all the answers. I do think there is more freedom for personal worship.

    As far as 2 Samuel 6, I’m not exactly sure. Though I have thought that what set David’s wife off to hatred was David’s immodesty, though there was probably some jealousy or contempt for his fervency as well. I think it’s also telling that she is referred to as Saul’s daughter three times in the passage, rather than David’s wife, which points to the actual state of her heart.

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