What did Gunnar hear?

In the 1950s, Gunnar Urang heard something troubling within Christianity in America: the wedding of popular music styles to Christian lyrics. Others heard it too. However, not all were troubled to the same extent and many were not troubled at all. At that time, churches, youth organizations, and youth leaders desperately wanted to attract young people to Christ and Christianity. One of the means used in their efforts to achieve this end was to mimic the music of popular culture. Gunnar Urang saw this as a troubling development and expressed both problems of and solutions for this growing musical practice by Christians in churches and para-church organizations.

The Problems

Urang understood why these musical styles were being adopted, and he realized they were attractive to many. However, the end did not justify the means and the means inadvertently, yet adversely, altered the message. At that time, Youth For Christ (1957) magazine published an article by Urang in which he likened the use of “sensual harmonies and frenetic rhythms” by Christian musicians to preachers using a “smutty story” and justifying it by saying they were speaking “the language of the people” in order to appeal to them and attract them to the message. What message was this music attracting people to and how did it alter that message?

According to Thomas Bergler, in his 2012 book The Juvenilization of American Christianity, the message being proclaimed in Gunnar Urang’s day was that Christian teens “could have fun, be popular, and save the world at the same time” (148, 158, 162). Bergler observed that this “harnessed the appeal of youth culture to the cart of revivalism” and “once harnessed, this horse began to dictate where the cart would go” (157). Proponents of this harnessing attempted to allay concerns by declaring that pop culture forms were neutral. Bergler discovered that there was “little awareness of the way that a change of medium can change the message it communicates” (158). In addition, there was little concern if or how a medium might alter the message as long as that “medium could be used to get the Christian message to more people” (161). However, Gunnar Urang recognized that music (referring to tune or style) molds religious thought to a considerable extent.

In his book Church Music for the Glory of God, Urang explained that tunes used with children and young people not only mold their taste, but also characterize “the person of the Lord” (108, 109). He proposed that young people should be provided with “proper vehicles for expressing worship of God so that what stays with them through life will not be musical cotton candy but solid food” (123). When music used for the worship of God mimicked certain musical styles, Urang admitted, “Try as we may to close our ears, the feverish rhythm and raucous melody of the world filter through” putting us “on dangerous ground when essentially spiritual words are rendered impotent by an essentially worldly tune” (148). He observed that some music “carries certain worldly associations” that “cancel out the spiritual impact of the words.” He explained that “something is wrong with church music” when musical associations “suggest the music of the world” and “bring to mind the feverish syncopation of jazz and the sensual cloying harmonies of the popular love song” (7, 147).

In Urang’s observation, the styles he heard being adopted and utilized by Christian recording artists seemed to indicate that sometimes they were “more interested in advancing their careers than in carrying on a truly spiritual ministry of song.” He recognized and understood that in order to successfully “sell” music – in what he called “this gospel tin pan alley” – artists had to “reach the lowest common denominator of ‘sanctified’ taste, no matter what that does to the value of the song as worship or instruction” (iv). Many viewed this lowered accommodation as a positive thing, but Urang perceived and expressed the negative aspects of doing so while also proposing solutions.

The Solutions

One of his proposed standards for judging music was to determine if it had a suitable tune because “serious words” are “rendered ineffectual” if the tune does not fit the text (66). One of the questions for determining the suitability of music was to ask, “Do the associations which cluster about the melodic pattern, the rhythm, and the harmony reinforce the meaning of the words?” He saw this as important because “Certain rhythmic arrangements and certain harmonic patterns . . . symbolize for us mental or emotional states” giving it a musical meaning all its own that conflicts with the text. Urang observed that “Some of our songs attempt to translate the Christian message with the wrong musical vocabulary. We ask our young people to sing words of surrender and consecration to dancing rhythm or hand-holding harmony. We ask our children to sing praises to our loving, omnipotent God in music which they recognize from grade school experience as ‘skip’ music.” He asked, “Is the music suitable? Do the associations which cluster about the melodic pattern, the rhythm, and the harmony reinforce the meaning of the words?” (111-112).

Another question he proposed for determining the suitability of a tune was to ask, “Does it add its own authority to what has been expressed by the words or does it defy the text and cry out its own meaning by means of . . . associations?” (8). He saw this as an important question because some music “carries certain worldly associations which tend to cancel out the spiritual impact of the words.” He observed that “The syncopation or off-beat rhythm . . . often suggests the music of the modern dance. And certain kinds of melody and harmony equally . . . carry similar musical connotations” (147). The problem with this, as expressed by Urang, was that when an unsuitable tune was linked with doctrinally weak or wrong words, it could contribute “to a low level of Christian living” (11). He explained that this was possible because “The doctrine in the hymn . . . sings its way into hearts” (51). He concluded that if a congregation “is brought up on a musical diet of vague religious sentiment” or “sloppy theology” then the words of those songs that are sung over and over again become part of people’s memory and vocabulary to the extent that “they will find their brand of religion influenced considerably by the content of the words and the spirit of the music” (69).

As a partial remedy for this problem, Urang proposed a song test: “Having already passed judgment on the words and accepted them, try to take in their full meaning. Recite them aloud; master the emotional tone of the text. Then try the tune. Ask: Does it add its own authority to what has been expressed by the words or does it defy the text and cry out its own meaning by means of distressing associations?” (8). He wrote that churches needed “both better spiritual judgment and higher musical standards, the latter reinforcing the former” (11).

So just who was this Gunnar Urang fellow? Was he a hyper-fundamentalist or a musical ignoramus? No, he was neither of those. When he wrote his book Church Music for the Glory of God in 1956 and his article for Youth For Christ Magazine in 1957, Dr. Gunnar Urang was an evangelical ministering as the Choir Director at an evangelical institution: Trinity Seminary and Bible College in Chicago. In 1958 he became Dean of the College and later the school was renamed Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Trinity College. Urang’s book was endorsed, and the forward written, by an evangelical ministering as music director at another evangelical institution: Don Hustad of Moody Bible Institute.

Gunnar Urang was an evangelical who perceived, understood, and voiced problems and solutions regarding a musical trend occurring within evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the 1950s. He communicated that form matters in music and his writings regarding the effects of a medium on a message preceded Marshal McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message by ten years.

But Gunnar Urang’s arguments fell on deaf ears. According to Thomas Bergler, this was because teenagers “agreed with their youth leaders that most cultural forms were neutral vessels that could be filled with Christian content” (163).

Some arguments similar to Urang’s in the 1950s meet with the same fate today, although it is no longer just the youth leaders who encourage ignoring and dismissing them.

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