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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What I’m Reading: Oh, Be Careful Little Ears

I went to the local public library looking for some material for a research project.  While I was perusing the shelves, the little book Oh, Be Careful Little Ears by Kimberly Smith fell out and landed in my hands.  I nearly put it back in its place, but I decided, instead, to read it for a lark.  

It is a very misguided book. Smith attempts to define a Christian theology of music that draws sharp distinction between carnal and non-carnal (spiritual) music and between music techniques that are acceptable and techniques that are not appropriate for Christian music.  And she fails rather miserably.

Her qualifications for “sensual” music are mostly focused on rhythm.  Anything with a “clean” rhythm with accents on beats 1 and 3 are acceptable.  But, accent the 2nd and 4th beats and it’s devil music.  She describes these as “unnatural” rhythms and says they’re to be avoided because they elicit a “sensual” response (by which, I think she really means, but can’t bring herself to say: a “sexual” response….)

It’s a convoluted argument that makes special exceptions for syncopated rhythms in folk music like the German polka, the Polish mazurka (which, by the way, has accents on the 2nd or 3rd beat, but don’t worry, it’s “clean”)and the Spanish flamenco (Smith 44)Yes.  Seriously.  The flamenco is “good” music to Smith and not, in any way, sensual….

If the music causes your body to move in a way that could be construed as sensual or suggestive or, to be more precise, cause you to ‘thrust out’ your head, shoulders, or hips – or even tap your toes – ‘in time’ to an additional, identifiable ‘beat,’ it is appeal to the flesh” (Smith 15).  – the Italics and the quotation marks used for “emphasis” are hers…

Music that leads to dancing is bad – unless it’s dancing in the round, like good folk music, or minuets, or classical ballet (Smith 80).  David’s dancing before the Lord (2 Samuel 6: 12 – 16) was not at all ‘sensuous’ but holy and dignified…   

She also condemns any music with Offbeat accents, “any rhythm that conflicts with the melody” (whatever that means), swing rhythms, unnatural rhythm that has no melody, rhythm melodies that are “based on strong, repetitive unnatural rhythm patterns”, sliding or scooping vocal techniques, breathiness or gravelliness in vocalists, “sensual” vibrato (as opposed to “non-sensual” vibrato?), and dissonance (Smith 124 – 125).

It must be sad to have such a narrow and rigid understanding of the music and of scripture.  I read the book as a lark, for a laugh.  But I feel sorry for Kimberly Smith.  She may be an accomplished pianist and she may have a Masters degree in Biblical studies (as it says in the biographical blurb on the back cover), but she really doesn’t understand music or the bible.

Smith, Kimberly. Oh, Be Careful Little Ears. Enumclaw, WA.  WinePress Publishing. 1997.

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