“Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” Gospel and R&B legend Mavis Staples plays off that often (mis)quoted, often (mis)attributed line in a profile/interview slated for the February issue of Christianity Today.
“The Devil doesn’t have any music,” Staples says flatly. “Ever since we were young kids, we sang songs that we thought of as positive music. Some of them were gospel songs. And some of them were message songs like “Long Walk to D.C.” or “For What It’s Worth,” songs that reflected the times we lived in. They were all true songs, you know. We just sang songs about the truth. And it seemed like people always wanted to hear those songs.”
The profile, by veteran music critic Andy Whitman, is worth reading. But you'll have to wait until February. In the mean time, think about her comments. Hyperbolic or not, they nudge me toward these ruminations:
Music is God’s. He embedded it into his creation. Like other aspects of his creation, it gives us glimpses of his character. The ancients could talk about “the music of the spheres,” alluding to the “harmony” that was demonstrated by the perfect working of the heavens. Music is rooted in the handiwork of the Creator. Although cultures adapt and elaborate them, the elements of music are part of the natural revelation of God.
If the devil uses music, it is as a perversion of God’s creation. It becomes a false music—full of false notes and false ideas. Is it just me, or is it true that the music most likely to celebrate brutality toward women and flaunt sex as simple gratification is also the least tuneful music?
The believing musician who wants to serve God is not a priori unable to employ any style or genre of music. What bars us from some music is its falsity. Falsity shows up in various ways: superficial emotion, for example, or flash without substance. Authenticity is also known in many ways: tunes, texts, and tempos that reinforce each other; embodiment of genuine human struggle; celebration of human love and goodness.
So if it sometimes seems that the devil has all the good tunes, to paraphrase Arthur Holmes (with a hat tip to St. Augustine), perhaps all music is God’s music—if it be authentic music.
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Footnote: That famous quip, while often attributed to Martin Luther or John Wesley, was likely spoken by 19th-century hymn writer Rowland Hill in a sermon delivered in London in 1844. It is often misquoted by substituting “music” for “tunes.” Blame Larry Norman.