When I’m caught in the ice-breaking conversation of music interests, I usually dismiss the topic with the following disclaimer:  “I have a really bad taste in music.”  (Pardon the self-defeating nature of this statement:  could someone really find their own preferences distasteful?)

By this disclaimer, I intend to communicate two things.  First, many of my preferred musicians are not particularly well-known.  Second, I listen to a variety of music, ranging from classical to bluegrass to alternative rock.  (But, excluding all things rap; sorry.)

Often, people will ask where Christian music fits in on my continuum of musical preferences.  The question probably needs some nuance, since Christian music is more a term of convenience (perhaps, marketing) than a description of musical genre.

Allowing the niceties of the question, I try to confess gently my dislike of music marketed as “Christian.”  Most everything on Christian music radio fails to appeal to my taste in music.

A few months ago, I heard a very creative tune on a Christian radio station; for a moment, I thought I was on one of those cool, indie, public-radio stations.  After the song, a Christian radio personality said something to the effect of “I hope you like that song; it’s a bit different than what we normally play.”

That moment aptly captures my attitude toward Christian music.  Christian radio stations don’t normally play the kind of music I enjoy.

But, theoretically, actual people exist who enjoy Christian music for more than its often vague association with Christian belief.  Is it possible that people enjoy Christian music for its musicality?

Surely, the answer is “yes.”  And, if I asked this question to the average Christian music consumer, he would probably look at me as if I had grown demon horns.

Imagine a scenario in which my interlocutor feels as passionately for Christian music as I do against it.  (Let us also take for granted that each of our cognitive and perceptive faculties are well functioning.)

How do we adjudicate between conflicting claims of preference?  Is either my interlocutor or I wrong in our preference?

The Proper Basicality of Musical Preferences

This question reminds me of a disagreement over Bob Dylan that I had with some college friends.  To me, Bob Dylan’s gift to the world is that he has allowed his music to be covered by others.  His performances of his own work, though, often struck me as plagued with pitch problems and irregular guitar strumming.

A few of my friends, though, found these qualities of his performances endearing.  I thought them irrational; after all, pitch and rhythm are important!  But my friends insisted that they were intrigued by the uniqueness of Dylan.  There’s some earthy charm to his pre-autotune, pre-computer-generated work.

My charge of irrationality was a bit strong.  I hadn’t really considered the meta-questions about musical preferences:  what kind of beliefs, if they are beliefs at all, are musical preferences?  What would make the formation of musical preferences irrational?

If musical preferences are, in fact, beliefs, they would seem to be properly basic beliefs.

Some beliefs we hold upon the basis of other beliefs.  For instance, I have a deep-seeded, default optimism, which depends upon a litany of beliefs about, among other things, the existence of God, the goodness of God, the power of God, and the reality of sin.

Other beliefs, however, we do not hold on the basis of other beliefs.  These beliefs philosophers (e.g., Alvin Plantinga) call “properly basic beliefs.”  This distinction is quite controversial among epistemologists.  A few examples, though, will show the practicality of this distinction:

  • I believe that I had a pre-packaged blueberry pastry for breakfast this morning.
  • I believe that my co-commuter occupying the adjacent traffic lane has a brain.
  • I believe that God exists.

None of these beliefs I hold on the basis of other beliefs.  I cannot produce conclusive argumentation for any of these beliefs.

But, certainly, these beliefs are rational!  I have this seemingly unmistakable notion that I consumed a pre-packaged blueberry pastry this morning; it is a dictate of memory, which perhaps could be a manipulation or hallucination, but seems most probably true.

Though the nearby driver exhibits behavior that makes me doubt the existence of his brain (e.g., not using his blinker, weaving in and out of traffic), surely, it would require intellect to operate that machine.

It seems to me that God exists, but many arguments have been put forth against his existence and many arguments adduced for his existence lack persuasiveness.  However, I am still plagued with this persistent belief.

My proposal is that beliefs regarding musical preferences belong comfortably alongside these other assertions.  “I believe that Christian music stinks” and “I believe that the Dove Awards are the most important musical night of the year” are properly basic beliefs.  They are held apart from some sort of deductive or inductive reasoning from already believed propositions.  Our beliefs regarding music are incorrigible for us.

Is the Belief in Christian Music’s Goodness Irrational?

Now return to my Bob Dylan conversation and my charge of irrationality.  How does my charge of irrationality hold up in light of the proper basicality of musical preferences?  Could I consider someone irrational for liking Christian music, qua music?

Someone’s properly basic belief could be irrational, if the belief is unwarranted.  Plantinga provides the following criteria for warranted belief:

[A] belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S‘s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth. [Warranted Christian Belief (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000), 156.]

The key aspects of this assertion are (1) proper function, (2) appropriate environment, and (3) truthful intent.  Consider someone who believes in the existence of God.

(1) Though the fall has affected human’s cognitive faculties, human belief in God involves the proper function of cognitive faculties.  This is true because belief in God results from the Spirit’s production of faith in the believer.

(2)  The cognitive environment has indeed been affected by sin.  Yet, the incarnation of the son of God has righted the cognitive environment and made redemption, the forgiveness of sins, available.

(3) Humans have been designed in such a way as to acquire the truth about God’s existence; God has implanted all humans with the sensus divinatus, an acute awareness of God.

Does the belief “I believe that Christian music is good music” meet these conditions of warrant?

Taste in music involves an aesthetic faculty.  Humans have been given an innate sense of beauty, by which they are attracted to phenomena of many varieties, including auditory, sensory, and visual stimuli.  Thus, belief in Christian music’s goodness would certainly meet the third criterion.

The cognitive environment is appropriate for the formation of this belief.  The universe has been designed in such a way that humans have access to stimuli that affect the aesthetic faculty.  We have experience of these stimuli being transmitted to us reliably through sight, sound, and touch.  Thus, belief in Christian music’s goodness would meet the second criterion.

The trickiest question, though, involves proper function.  Obviously, certain conditions would have to be in place for the aesthetic faculty to function properly.  These conditions include sufficient ability to hear, see, touch, etc.  But, it is not clear that we can convincingly add much else to the condition of ability.  (I would love to add basic knowledge of music, including dynamics, pitch, and rhythm, but why would someone need this knowledge for their aesthetic faculty to be stimulated by a song?)

I would conclude then that if someone’s aesthetic faculty is stimulated by Christian music, then she would be rational in her belief that Christian music is good music.  So to anyone whose love of Christian boy bands I have ridiculed as irrational, please accept my sincerest apology.

This conclusion is quite unsatisfying:  I had hoped to arrive at an intellectually sophisticated method for critiquing Christian music and its listeners.  Though I’ve fallen short of my goal, I would make the following caveat.

Christian music can serve as the stimuli to affect the human aesthetic faculty.  However, the vast majority of popular Christian music is not designed in a way to do so strikingly.  The industry is driven too much by cliché and consumerism and not enough by artists’ own innate desire for beauty.  The focus of Christian art must shift from economic stimulus to aesthetic stimulus.