The Right Kind of Music: Fundamentalist Christianity as Musical and Cultural Practice

<p>My dissertation, "The Right Kind of Music: Fundamentalist Christianity as Musical and Cultural Practice," is now available! Click through to download a copy.</p>

My doctoral dissertation, “The Right Kind of Music: Fundamentalist Christianity as Musical and Cultural Practice,” is now available!

Just email me at musicandthechurch [at] gmail [dot] com, and I’ll send you a pdf copy!

Read on for highlights and other information about it. You can also read a brief summary of my research here.

What is a dissertation?

At first glance, a dissertation looks similar to academic books. But it’s different in important ways.

First, a dissertation is usually written for a very small audience: the committee of professors who read, comment on, and (eventually!) approve the dissertation. In my case, that was four people.

Second, many people don’t read dissertations cover to cover, one page after another. I read dissertations like this: I read the abstract (a short summary of the work) and skim the table of contents. Then I read the introduction and conclusion. Then I might read the introductions of all the chapters. Then—and only if I’m interested—I look at individual chapters or sections of chapters.

In other words: feel free to skip around to what interests you.

Third, dissertations are not usually about “shoulds.” During my research, people sometimes asked me whether I thought their views were “biblical.” That’s not a question I answer in my dissertation. I don’t try to to say how I think people ought to do music or think about music. But if that’s an important question for you, you might find my research helpful.

Finally, a dissertation is often both an end and a beginning. Its completion marks of the end of a PhD degree. But it can be the starting point for a published book.

What is it about?

Here’s the official summary:

Fundamentalist Christians loosely affiliated with Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) teach that music influences listeners’ faith and moral characters for both good and evil, expounding their views since the evangelical Worship Wars began in the 1960s over the use of popular music styles in church services. In their dichotomous moral view, good music reveals God’s nature, allowing born-again listeners to draw closer to God and witness their salvation to unbelievers, and bad music pulls listeners away from God by promoting immorality and false worship. Fundamentalists also prioritize mental engagement with music over emotional and physical responses to it because they believe that people more directly relate to God through their conscious minds and only indirectly with their bodies, as when fundamentalist musicians make music with their bodies, an activity that they believe glorifies God. Considering their discourse and practices from ethnographic and theological perspectives, I argue that these reveal a view that all musical sound is dangerous in its insistent entrance into listeners’ bodies: music is like fire—useful under control but devastating if unrestrained.

I examine the outworkings of their beliefs in three primary areas: recorded music, congregational singing (both aloud and silent as congregants practice inner singing while listening to instrumental hymn arrangements), and solo and soloistic vocal music. Musicians’ invisibility on recordings underscores how fundamentalists’ beliefs are primarily about musical sound, not performers’ movements or appearances. Robust congregational singing reflects believers’ “joy of salvation,” but their collective emotional affects are limited, and they are physically constrained to small movements that almost never bloom into something fuller. Finally, although fundamentalist leaders consider classical music and its associated performance practice to be “excellent,” even this musical style must be restrained for classically trained vocalists to minister in their churches. These arguments are based on my fieldwork and my analyses of fundamentalists’ extensive written and recorded discourse on music.

What parts should I read?

Start with the introduction and conclusion. Then dip into the areas that interest you.

If you grew up in fundamental churches or attend one now: “Music is moral” is the basic premise of what fundamentalists teach about music, so it’s a huge area I explore. Long version: read Chapter Two (p. 84-168) and a section on listening to music (p.344-48). Shorter version: read p. 86-97, 103-19, and 344-48. Shortest version: read p. 103-19.

Why is musical style so important in fundamental churches? See p. 33-50 and 344-50.

If you’re a church musician, check out a section on congregational worship (p. 169-88).

If you’re interested in congregational singing, read about the joyful, robust singing in fundamental services (p. 169-74 and 206-16).

If you’re interested in classical music in church services, check out p. 291-325.

If you’re interested in thinking about recorded sound, read p. 326-44 and 370-84 (or all of Chapter Five).

What does “fundamentalist” mean? See p. 389-403.

Have you attended fundamental churches?

I’d love to hear from you, especially if you have experience as a musician and/or pastor in fundamental churches.

I interviewed about 50 people as part of my dissertation research, and I’m continuing my research for a book.

Get in touch! I’m on Twitter and on Facebook.