A World of False Dilemmas

I owe you a blog, friends. And what is on my mind?

I’ve been thinking about false dilemmas. The all-knowing Wikipedia defines a false dilemma as,

a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. The options may be a position that is between two extremes (such as when there are shades of grey) or may be completely different alternatives

In my own words, a false dilemma is when two positions are set up as polar opposites, and we are led to believe (whether intentionally or not) that these are the only two options. So…why is this on my mind? I’m not sure. It seems that I am seeing false dichotomies more and more, and in more and more areas of life.

The first time I recognized (that I can recall) a false dichotomy was about ten years ago when I was first becoming enraptured in the Calvinist/Arminian debate. It struck me as odd that these two extremes were set against each other, as if God couldn’t somehow both foreoredain our lives and allow us to make free choices. I had always sort of believed both, and so I set myself firmly in a “fencepost position” and have been there ever since. In the meantime, of course, I learned of Molinism–the great fencepost I could sit upon. In that case, there was a false dilemma: Calvinism or Arminianism, with absolutely, positively, undoubtedly no other option. And there was. There is. There are several, in fact.

I have seen false dilemmas more and more over the years, and not only in theological circles (although definitely there, also–it amazes me how we set God’s justice against His mercy, as if the two are mutually exclusive and there is no third option whereby He can be just and merciful [and He is; He must be; if He isn’t, He isn’t God; mercy loses all meaning without justice; and justice loses all meaning without mercy]).

I am reading a book by Jeremy Begbie that I’ve drooled over and coveted for some time. I am, quite disappointingly, near the end. I have two chapters remaining, which I’m loathe to read because I don’t want to be finished. I have enjoyed this book so much (it reminds me what I am passionate about: not merely music, not merely theology; but how the two relate), but I have noticed that even in the perspective of music and theology, there has been something of a false dichotomy: Either music is something uber-cosmos-related–and thus, very theological–or it is merely artistic–and thus, merely expressive.

I don’t mean to imply that Begbie sets up this dichotomy–he certainly doesn’t. But as I’ve read the stories of composers and theologians that Begbie offers, I’ve become aware of this idea that music is often seen as one or the other.

Tell me it isn’t so in your own church: music is either very theological (ie: traditional hymns, doctrinal) or very expressive (ie: this is how much you love me, Jesus, and this is how much I love you back, choruses). Whether a church engages both types of worship music, there is an underlying assumption that the two are set in oposition to one another.

I have many thoughts to share about Begbie’s book, but this one is heavy on my mind. It seems to me, as with most of the things I accept as true, that there must be a paradox. There must be a coming together of two opposing ideas to offer a third solution. In terms of sacred music, I truly believe there is another option. I truly believe there is something both theological and expressive in music. I’m not sure what to call it.

But recognize it. I do. I recognize it as certainly as I recognize Jenn in a crowd. We go to choir rehearsal every Monday, and we sing these songs rich with the theology of the Lutheran church (oh…did I mention we’re singing Lutheran songs this semester? How happy is this girl? OH yeah!), and I recognize both the eternal and the emotion. They are grafted together in beautiful music.

What do you think? Do you view music (particularly music that pertains to Christianity) as important doctrinally, or emotionally, or both? Or neither? Or…something entirely different? What do you think?

More thoughts on Begbie’s book next week. I hope. Maybe even something of a review. I promise, it will read something like, It was so great! Begbie is so wonderful! I need more books like this! I drooled all over it! Overtones make my heart skip! Who knew Bonhoeffer was a musician? I’m so in love with this topic!!!! Just to give you a preview. 😉

Pax Christi.



This entry was posted in theology of music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A World of False Dilemmas

  1. Dave Wade says:

    Hey, Sarah,

    You’re ringing my bell again, Sister, regarding worship with song – hymns in particular. My singing background from college choir/barbershop quartet/traveling chorus to professional church choir and Masterworks Performances (Messiah – Lincoln Center, NYC) has been an exciting journey for the last 60 years. This medium transports me to spiritual ecstasy in seconds.

    Today, a cappella singing is a forte in our small congregation – shape notes from an Anabaptist Hymnary – we all sing SATB at every opportunity – men, women and children. We even have Luther’s Hymns in our book – he did not appreciate Anabaptists in his time but we love his hymns anyway. Praise songs find their way in mysteriously as well. We sing up to 40 minutes on a Sunday Morn – the congregation selects the hymns. The Holy Spirit informs all of the pleasure of God at our worship in song. Opposition is a foreign concept in this format.

    As an Arminianistic Calvinist I have come to a place of peace with His Word and the interpretation thereof. Application of said principles shows the truth of a true Christian life which is validated by Holy Living and intimate fellowship between families.

    Prior to 9/11 I took singing for granted. As a victim of that unfortunate incident, I lost the hearing and balance in one ear due to nerve damage via a series of stroke-like episodes along with other handicaps. I was unable to either hear or sing anything for 5 months. Today I am 90% recovered and will never again take His gifts lightly.

    In my experience, analyzing Holy Writ to the point of distraction pleases the Evil One. God has made it rather simple if you stand looking from a suitable perspective. Solomon has it right when he wrote: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh, And strength to your bones.”

    Today’s dilemmas center on my existence here and what His Will is for me – this second. The WHY’s have been left behind – they are not worth the time for contemplation .


    • semmie says:

      Dave, I always enjoy reading your remarks and I appreciate the thought and perspective you offer! I tend to both agree and disagree with you, which affirms my fencepost-ness. 😉

      I remember you telling me once before about your injuries from 9/11, and I can’t tell you how that grieves my heart. I rejoice with you, however, that you are almost fully recovered and that God has worked a gratitude in you that you hadn’t known previously. I’m so thankful for the way God does that in our lives!–even when it stems from the messiest and ugliest situations.

      I, too, have been in churches where there was a melding of hymn and chorus in the worship. I’m not sure, but I think there is still a dichotomy set up between the two, even when we acknowledge and utilize both. And maybe it’s simply a natural distinction: that a hymn is one thing, and a chorus is another. But I don’t think it is. I may need to blog about this topic more, because I’d like to give the time to articulate what I’m perceiving so you (and hopefully others–hint, hint, Steve) can respond also. That’s how I learn–by the exchange of thoughts, the questioning, the challenging, and the laughing together.

      Your remark about “analyzing Holy Writ to the point of distraction” concerns me. I hope you’re not referring to theology. Certainly, as with any area of our lives, if we pursue one thing to the exclusion of all the rest, we tend to miss the mark. And yes, we are to trust in the Lord with all our heart, lean not on our own understanding (a great passage!–thanks for mentioning it!); but in another passage in Proverbs, we learn that, “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (25:2). There is nothing wrong with searching out a matter or studying theology, unless we make it an idol. But that, again, is true of anything. There is nothing wrong with marriage, unless we make our spouse our idol. There is nothing wrong with playing golf, unless we make golf our idol. There is nothing wrong with eating chocolate cake, unless we make chocolate cake our idol.

      And to be honest with you, Dave, this matter is so passionately beating within my heart, I can do no other but to believe that it is a passion Christ has planted in me, and pursue it. May He keep me humbly yearning for Him–as He is, after all, the center of both music and theology.

      Blessings and peace to you and yours!

      • Dave Wade says:

        There is nothing wrong with searching out a matter or studying theology, unless we make it an idol.

        I wholeheartedly agree, Sarah. The problem however, is that in the realm of theology there exists a plethora of varying opinions that align with the author’s denominational orientation. Calvinist publishers far outweigh the Arminianist ones and few authors are equitable as they all have a reputation to maintain. This bias may be overcome by a thorough reading of all available commentaries. (the internet is exhaustive) But even then decisions are frequently left up to the Holy Spirit within as to the most harmonious and Godly stance. My last confirmation is what seems to work best in a small reflective congregation of dedicated believers.

        This from Augustus Frederick His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex – (18th century English Royalty)

        “As far as I have presumed to dive into and occupy myself with the sacred volumes, I feel satisfied of their Divine origin and truth. And I am satisfied, likewise, that they contain more matter than any one, and myself in particular, can ever aspire fully to understand. This belief, however, ought in nowise to slacken our diligence, or damp our ardor, in attempting a constant pursuit after the attainment of knowledge and truth; as we may flatter ourselves, although unable to reach the gate, we are still approaching nearer to its portals, which of itself is a great blessing.”

        As Paul stated in: Philippians 3:12-14 “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

        Adam Clarke says: “Reaching forward – The Greek word επεκτεινομενος points out the strong exertions made in the race; every muscle and nerve is exerted, and he puts forth every particle of his strength in running. He was running for life, and running for his life.”

        If we must have an idol, let it be for our race to salvation.

        • semmie says:

          Dave, I hear you restating what I also said–that there is nothing wrong with searching and studying theology unless we make it an idol, the same as any other area of our lives. I do want to point out, however, that this blog was not really about Calvinism/Arminianism. That was merely context, a setting of the stage, if you will. If you want the truth of it, Calvinism/Arminianism is a topic I will rarely discuss because it is blown so tragically out of proportion and propriety. Frankly, I don’t even read about the topic anymore. I don’t think it is nearly as important as some have made it.

  2. Dave Wade says:

    “Dave, I hear you restating what I also said–that there is nothing wrong with searching and studying theology unless we make it an idol, the same as any other area of our lives.”

    I was simply quoting you, Sarah as I am here – will be more carfeful with the “”‘s next time.

    However, it may be blown out of proportion, but the teaching of “once saved – always saved” is not, and is a serious portion of that old beaten – dead horse.

    • semmie says:

      Dave, sorry I didn’t get that you were quoting me. I couldn’t figure why you were repeating what I’d just said… LOL.

      As for OSAS, I think it, too, is blown out of proportion. But again, this isn’t really what my blog was about, and it’s not really a topic I care get into on my blog, as it tends to bring out controversy that I’m not interested in.

  3. One Bad Pig says:


    I think music in the church is important spiritually. Like prayer, it fosters community with God. Sung with others, it also fosters community in the assembly. It should be doctrinally accurate, but that’s not its function. It will almost inevitably have an emotional component, as anything relational tends to do, but that should not be its focus.

    • semmie says:

      Hi OBP.

      So…do you think music outside the church has any spiritual importance?

      I am reading a recurring idea about music being a means of affecting some change–for instance, arousing us during worship, helping us to concentrate on worship rather than on the fly buzzing around the sanctuary, etc. And of course it CAN do this, but is that music’s primary function? Is that its sole function? These are the questions I’m chasing after right now.

      If I can challenge you a bit (for the sake of dialogue, not for the sake of disagreeing–because I don’t really disagree with you)…

      HOW does music foster community?

      How can MUSIC be doctrinally accurate? Do you mean the text? If you separate the text from the music, is there anything doctrinal about the music itself? The notes, the instruments, the timbre?

      Pax Christi.

      • One Bad Pig says:

        I’m feeling a bit daunted by your first question. Perhaps I’ll start at the other end, and work my way back to it.

        I’m referring to the text. Music can make us more receptive to the text (or less, if we don’t like it), but I don’t think there’s anything doctrinal about the pitch or other attributes about the tones involved. I doubt Luther did either, since IIRC he got a bunch of his tunes from barroom melodies.

        Music fosters community because it is a shared experience. If we are actively participating rather than passively listening, the sense of community is greater, because we are contributing a part of the shared whole. I suspect, in fact, that this is why God is corporately praised in song, on earth and in heaven.

        So. Music outside the church. In one sense it can. If we associate spiritual concepts with a certain melody perhaps, hearing it can remind us of them even without words. In another sense, music can be spiritually perilous, because music outside the church quite often advocates ideas in diametric opposition to Christian precepts.

        • semmie says:

          Whether Luther thought there was any doctrinal significance in music is probably a question neither of us is prepared to answer (though Jeremy Begbie seems to think so, unless I have misunderstood him). However, because you mentioned it, I do want to share what Begbie says about Luther and his borrowed tunes:
          “The myth of Luther raiding popular music indiscriminately endears him to many, but it has little foundation. He did not adopt any music that would “work” quickly and get the message across. True, the distinction between sacred and secular was much hazier than at later times, and Luther does not seem to have explicitly attacked any music style. But it is going beyond the evidence to presume he regarded any and every style as suitable for church use.”
          As for myself, I am quite unable to dismiss the idea of music being theological in nature. I would never suggest that one note is more theological than another. However, to dismiss music as merely an art with which we express ourselves is to demean it grossly. In fact, music as self-expression seems to be a relatively new (and Western) phenomenon. We only have to look at texts that speak of Jesus’ voice like a trumpet, and God rejoicing over us with singing, and David soothing Saul’s spirit with the sound of his harp to realize that music is more than mere expression.
          And yes, as you say, music can aid us in reception of truths. But I’m not sure it has anything to do with whether we like or dislike the music. And I’m not sure it has anything to do with the actual texts. This is another topic I need to spend more time on—not just thinking about, but listening to some Bach, who really seemed to feel that music could articulate truths without any text associated with it.

          I strongly doubt that the primary reason we praise in song is to foster community. I think we praise in song because we are musical beings, created in the image of a musical God. Come with me, if you will, to the crossing at the Red Sea. God’s people have made it safely through, and turn to see Pharaoh’s men swallowed by the sea. Miriam picks up her tambourine. Why? Is it a shared experience? Of course. Is it a manner of teaching their children for generations to remember what God did for them at the Red Sea? Absolutely. But I’ve always imagined that Miriam’s song came from the simple overflow of emotion at God’s presence and provision. It was natural for God’s people to sing and dance.

          You’re kind of having your I Scream Sunday and eating it, too. If music only has meaning when we associate it with some idea, then there is no danger to music outside the church—for a Christian need only associate some secular tune with a religious theme and voila!—it is smooth sailing. Unless you’re talking about the text, which I suspect is the case.
          It’s such a difficult idea, separating music and lyric. Every time you hear Sibelius’ Finlandia, I wager your heart hears, Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. Many Christians have associated those words with that melody. For many others, it is a national hymn (Oi, suomi, katsu, sinun paivas koittaa [Finland, behold, thy daylight is now dawning]). For others still, it is a modern hymn set to old music (I, then, shall live as one who’s been forgiven). For Sibelius, the music began as part of a symphonic poem, a protest to Russian censorship. In this instance, we can clearly see that music can be affiliated with many different texts, and one need not be more right or wrong (more fitting or less fitting) of the music. Are any of the texts more aligned with the music? I don’t think so.
          One thing I can tell you surely, of my own experience, is that whenever I hear Finlandia—regardless of the text being presented at the moment—my heart is stirred with longing. Longing for what? I couldn’t express. And that, OBP, is the issue at hand.

          • One Bad Pig says:

            Egad, I got a book! I’ll try to cover the highlights. Thanks for the insight on Luther. I would never have suggested that he raided popular music indiscriminately. Regarding music and community, we are made to worship God, and we are social creatures. Music is a social phenomenon. Because of all that, music fosters community. It is not typically consciously used for that, but it is nonetheless true. In your example of Miriam, her spontaneous song to God helped to rebuild community between the Israelites (who had been grumbling at God via Moses on the other side of the Red Sea) and God.

            If one tends to encounter only one set of lyrics to a certain piece of music, then I agree that they can be difficult to separate. On the other hand, Orthodox music has a vast amount of lyrics used with a fairly limited number of tunes. There are eight sets of tunes that rotate weekly; lyrics are often printed without the music, with (for example) “Troparion, Tone 2” used to denote the tune.

            I agree that music can convey meaning through association, (for example, the association of themes with characters in the Star Wars movies) but without any association I don’t think it can convey much more than mood. And that, I think, is what you experience with Finlandia. If you can’t express it, how much meaning can there be? Or I could be totally wrong. Musically, I’m mostly flying by the seat of my pants; I’m quite willing to be proven wrong.

            God bless,


            • semmie says:


              Returning to the story of Miriam–there is no doubt that her spontaneous song edified and contributed to the community. But the underlying question, I think, is whether this is a purpose of music or a byproduct. Did God give us song simply because He knew it would build community? I don’t believe so. I believe it is a byproduct. Just like eating a meal. Does God want us to sit down together and eat a meal so we can share an experience and build fellowship? It certainly can (and does) do that; but He created us the way He did with a need to eat food–with or without the resulting fellowship, with or without the community. An imperfect likeness, but I think it depicts my point.

              To say that I disagree with your final statements about Finlandia and association would be…well…soft. My disagreement with your last paragraph is vehement. You ask, “If you can’t express it, how much meaning can there be?” There is meaning in many things that cannot be articulated. There’s a word for it, even: Ineffable. Sort of like describing the Trinity–we can talk about it and try to describe it with words of likeness, but to put an exact word or expression on it is nigh impossible. Or the vastness of the universe–we can say how beautiful it is, how it makes us feel, what we think about it, but our brains cannot grasp its fullness and therefore, we will never be able to really articulate it. I would outrageously disagree with your remark that there can be no meaning in Finlandia if I am unable (or unwilling, or unlikely, or unqualified) to express it. And I would imagine that the people of Finland, who took Sibelius’ work as their national identity would disagree with you, also.

              Now…there can be association, as you point out, as with Star Wars. That’s a good example. But to say that music can only convey mood and association is to empty it of any power–and not only do you not show this to be the case, but history does not show this to be the case. There is something about music, something in music, that draws us and moves us and converts us and changes us. If the Church didn’t believe that at some point or another, we wouldn’t have music in our churches. Paul would not have exhorted us to speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We would not read that God “rejoices over us with singing.” Compare this to any other artform. We have never read that God “paints pictures of us to frame and hang in Heaven’s Art Gallery.” We have never read that God “writes poems of our lives.” We have never read that God “sculpts statues of all the saints.” Forget the ridiculousness of these ideas and the theological problems of them for just a moment and weigh them in terms of art form. Why is music set apart in Scripture as something God does, when the others aren’t?

              Because…I think…just like Miriam, who is made in His likeness, song and music is a natural, spontaneous reaction. It is an overflow of something in the spirit that we are unable to articulate otherwise. Oh no–that’s right–she said it…it’s…Ineffable.

              As for proving you wrong…negatory, OBP. You prove ME wrong. You prove to me that music has no meaning or power other than community and association. Nothing you’ve said points to any disproof of my own remarks; only that you disagree. I accept your disagreement, but you give very little grounds for it, so I will remain unmoved in my thinking about music.

              • One Bad Pig says:

                Well. I don’t know if it’s this little reply area and frustratingly slow typing throwing me off, or me just not being able to articulate what I’m thinking. I quite agree that music is ineffable. Its very ineffability is why it is difficult to convey much meaning with it alone. To go back to your example about Finlandia, you showed that it can mean very different things to different people based on what they associate the melody with. Finns attach great meaning to the music because of what they associate with it and because it is beautiful music. If you play Finlandia for someone who has no knowledge of the history of the song or what Sibelius intended it to convey, are they going to pick up on any of that? That’s what was trying to get across earlier. In saying that, I’m not trying to demean what it can convey, which is powerful indeed. Beautiful music has power. But if you’re trying to communicate something with specific, literal meaning that can be grasped, you pretty much need lyric. That’s all we have from Miriam’s song.

                I agree, I think, that the purpose of music is more than community, but it is at its heart a communicative medium with a power to relate beyond words, which is related to community.

                I’m not so much trying to persuade you to a different point of view, for I’ve found that internet debate rarely leads to that, as to learn through dialogue. You’re forcing me to think about a topic not often on my mind as I read our exchange, for which I thank you.

                • semmie says:


                  As I just pointed out in reply to Dave’s post, the fact that many have tried to articulate the longing and “stuff” they feel when listening to Finlandia by writing text to it actually supports the idea I’ve been trying to convey to you: That the music itself somehow evokes a response in people, without the comprehensive attachment of the lyrics. Maybe I would never have listened to Finlandia and said, “This is a piece about oppression and the longing for freedom and identity,” but in listening to the full piece, I do hear the urgency and struggle of the piece.

                  An interesting thing about Miriam’s song–that it shows up in Revelation. Whether the melody is preserved, we can’t say (though it wouldn’t surprise me one bit). But that has always amazed me; that her song is sung in Heaven. I mention it here simply for interest’s sake.

                  But here’s the bottom line: “Music is more than community, but it is at its heart a communicative medium with a power to relate beyond words, which is related to community.” This is accurate, I think. If you take out the fluff of community, you have a view of music which I strongly subscribe to: “Music…is…a communicative medium.” This, I believe to be true.

                  The question is how. An “E” may have no significance on its own, as a tone. Does it convey something if you add a “C” and a “G” to it? Does it convey something if you play it as a quarter note, as opposed to a sixteenth? Does its communicative voice change between the flute and the trombone? Again, I’ll say it, Bach seemed to think so. I have to listen to more of his work to really dig into this, but it is an amazing image of community–that notes can have purpose and meaning in context of one another and in context of voice and with differing dynamic.

                  This is a really poor medium for dialogue, but I won’t apologize for it, as it’s what I have. If you want to email me, you know how to do that, and I’d be happy to converse about this (though I confess that I struggle to stop conversing about it).


  4. Dave Wade says:


    “I agree that music can convey meaning through association, (for example, the association of themes with characters in the Star Wars movies) but without any association I don’t think it can convey much more than mood. And that, I think, is what you experience with Finlandia. If you can’t express it, how much meaning can there be? Or I could be totally wrong. Musically, I’m mostly flying by the seat of my pants; I’m quite willing to be proven wrong.”

    As an observation, OPB, I refer you to this wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finlandia_Hymn – where this list of applications reside.

    The de facto national anthem of Finland is Maamme (Our Land) – 1848
    “Be Still, My Soul” – 1752
    “Gweddi dros Gymru” – Welch 2nd National Anthem – 1950’s
    “We Rest on Thee” – 1855
    “I Sought the Lord” – ?
    “This Is My Song”- 1934
    “We would be one…” -Unitarian Universalists
    Cedar Grace – ?
    A verse by Josh Mitteldorf, for difficult times
    The Salvation Army
    “Land of the Rising Sun” (national anthem of Biafra)
    The American rock group Guns N’ Roses released a cover of the hymn

    “a vast amount of lyrics” – indeed !

    I suspect the mood communicated in Finlandia is quite palpable given the applications above. The music lends itself to wildly eclectic functions. The meanings encompassed must be significant to those hearing and singing. Several other composers fit into this arena, like Bach, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky to name a few. This phenomenon always amazes and entertains me when I hear a favorite theme in an unexpected piece.


    • semmie says:


      The Finlandia melody being accompanied by many different texts actually exemplifies my point quite well. The music, which was composed sans text, must evoke a longing or response of some sort in the hearers, or there would not be such an attempt to fill the music with words.

      Also, Bach is a great example of a composer who seemed to believe that music could convey emotion and experience and meaning without words. He does it well, actually, and he does not require that we have a previous association with certain themes, certain sounds, or certain words.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s