Parties and Piety

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There are musical puritans in every age. Viewing the enjoyment of the sonorous art as a symptom and instigator of depravity, they vehemently preach the avoidance of musical sounds. Their disdain for music derives partially from knowledge of its effect. Human beings are, it seems, helplessly at the mercy of musical influences, which can steer us to darkness. They also malign music as part of a larger mission to separate sacred and profane. Song, argue the puritans, should be designated for the house of worship and used exclusively (and sparingly) for prayerful purposes. Sacred song might inspire virtue, but secular music always leads to transgression.

This viewpoint is repeated so much that we need only cite a few pronouncements to illustrate the point. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c. 215) condemned instrumental playing: “if people occupy their pipes and psalteries, etc., they become immodest and intractable.” Islamic scholar Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 894) said, “all dissipation begins with music and ends with drunkenness.” A major figure in Jewish anti-music discourse was Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who declared: “A person who listens to foolish songs with musical accompaniment is guilty of three transgressions, listening to folly, listening to song and listening to instrumental music. If the songs are sung with accompaniment of drinking, there is a fourth transgression, if the singer is a woman there is a fifth.”

Underlying these opinions is the belief that delighting in music is a self-indulgent diversion, which stifles awareness of the divine and opens the door to other hedonistic vices. To borrow a contemporary phrase, it is considered a “gateway drug.”

Not surprisingly, we find this attitude among biblical prophets, whose role it was to condemn behavior regarded as sinful, immoral and deviant. The prophets railed against actions they thought reflected a lack of allegiance to divine will. They denounced rote sacrifice, chastised idol worshipers, berated the unjust and criticized people whose preoccupation with “frivolous” music apparently distracted them from righteous causes.

Isaiah refers to those who, “at their banquets have lyre and lute, timbrel, flute and wine; but who never give a thought to the plan of the Lord, and take no note of what He is designing” (Isa. 5:12). Amos castigates the upper echelon of Samaria, who have ostentatious banquets and “sing idle tunes to the sound of the lute . . . They drink straight from the wine bowls and anoint themselves with the choicest oils” (Am. 6:5). In these and similar instances, the prophets forcefully advocate piety over parties. Sumptuous foods, abundant drinks, luxurious oils and decadent music can only derail the eternal cause of justice and goodness.

For biblical prophets and later sages of the Abrahamic faiths, music is a symbol of self-gratification. Being caught up in the amusement of music—especially that of a nonreligious kind—is an automatic affront to virtue. Few who enjoy music would support this puritanical principle, the absurd potential of which is displayed in Hells Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1989), an infamous documentary that portrays rock music as satanic and anti-Christian. Nevertheless, we might concede that music should be used to enhance life, not to distract us from things of ultimate importance.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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