The Earworm that Rocked the Early Church   

The manipulative power of music is well known to those who have a financial interest in persuasion. Popular jingles like “I’m Lovin’ It” and “Gimme a Break” have been used to sell billions of dollars worth of product through their simple, unforgettable melodies that stay with us whenever we’re deciding where to eat or what chocolate bar to select from the grocery store aisle. Corporate marketing teams often try out new jingles, hoping to get a hit that people will recognize easily and associate with their brand. Just one catchy song can be the difference between a brand enjoying worldwide popularity or becoming lost in obscurity among thousands of other competitors. 

In the early Church, a controversial bishop named Arius wrote his own catchy hits in an effort to market his unorthodox beliefs. His jingles helped popularize his movement and embroiled the Church in controversy for years to come, proving the power of a sweet tune extends far beyond the mundane purposes of pushing candy or fast food on eager consumers. 

Arius’s Anthem

Few figures have caused as much turmoil within Christianity as the early cleric Arius. Hailing from Cyrenaica in eastern Libya, Arius rose to infamy in the early fourth century when he advanced the theory that Jesus, the Son, was created before time by God, the Father; this opposed the orthodox view that the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father. Arius posited that, though Christ held a special place among creation as the firstborn Son, He was subordinate to the Father. This flawed understanding of Christ’s nature essentially rejected the doctrine of the trinity.

Arius’s unconventional theology wasn’t the only thing that drew attention.. The bishop’s methodology was also distinctive. In Church History in Plain Language, author Bruce Shelley writes how Arius used music to perpetuate his beliefs. The bishop used simple, catchy melodies as a conduit to spread his theology among the working class of the period:  

“[Arius] put ideas into jingles, which set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were soon being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the schoolchildren of the city.”

Church History in Plain Language (p. 107), Shelly

St. Athanasius, a contemporary of Arius, confirms Shelley’s claim. In Discourse 1: Against the Arians, Athanasius writes:

“For of the one [Sotades, who was known for writing songs] has Arius imitated the dissolute and effeminate tone, in writing Thaliæ on his model; and the other he has rivaled in her dance, reeling and frolicking in his blasphemies against the Saviour; till the victims of his heresy lose their wits and go foolish, and change the Name of the Lord of glory into the likeness of the ‘image of corruptible man,’ and for Christians come to be called Arians, bearing this badge of their irreligion.”

Discourse 1: Against the Arians, Athanasius

In the above passage Athanasius references the Thalia, one of the few surviving verses written to aid memorization and wide dissemination of Arius’s ideas. From a snippet, one can easily identify the problematic theology of Arius which propounds the Son’s inferiority to the Father:

“He who is without beginning made the Son a beginning of created things.

He produced him as a son for himself by begetting him.

He [the son] has none of the distinct characteristics of God’s own being

For he is not equal to, nor is he of the same being as him

So there is a Triad, not in equal glories.

Their beings are not mixed together among themselves.

As far as their glories, one infinitely more glorious than the other.

The Father in his essence (ousia) is a foreigner to the Son, because he exists without beginning.

It immediately follows that, although the Son did not exist, the Father was still God.

Hence the Son, not being [eternal] came into existence by the Father’s will,

He is the Only-begotten God, and this one is alien from [all] others”

Thalia, Arius

Parts of the Thalia may have been put to a melody and sung by laborers or sailors as they worked or traveled, spreading the Arian theology as they were heard by listeners. This decentralized approach to evangelism must have been extremely effective, because the heresy grew to such proportions that large swathes of Europe and a great percentage of bishops ascribed to its beliefs. Though condemned at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism continued to plague the Church for centuries. The heresy persisted because it ceased to be the sole idea of a wayward bishop; instead Arius’s ideas impregnated the minds of the masses. Like most heretical sects of the early Church, Arianism eventually died out, though the method of persuasion Arius employed still persists.

A Discerning Ear

Today, music continues to persuade the masses. Though less explicitly evangelistic in purpose, John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a recent example of a tune that thrusts the writer’s problematic worldview onto naïve listeners. In it, Lennon embraces a shallow materialistic nihilism, singing empty platitudes that leave listeners with little to hold onto. The melody is captivating, lulling fans into embracing the new age spirituality proposed by Lennon. An auditory wolf in sheep’s clothing, “Imagine” attempts to spread a false Gospel in the same way Arius’s Thalia did almost two millennia ago. 

With the endless variety of music provided by popular streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music, it’s more important than ever to be intentional about one’s musical selection. Mindful listeners should steer clear of the latest catchy pop song that pushes a questionable ideology or vulgarity on its listeners. 

Finally, let’s conclude with some wise advice from Aristotle. In his Politics, the famous philosopher warns against the dangerous draw of popular music:

“Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul; hence, when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; … In short, if one listens to the wrong kind of music he will become the wrong kind of person…”

Politics XIII, Aristotle

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