Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Non-Sequitur of "Christian Music"

Disclaimer: I am a music snob. I admit it. I’m one of those people who “knows” that my own taste is intimately linked to some objective standard by which music ought to be evaluated. I often argue with some of my friends about whose aesthetic taste is more developed in this area. And of course, the answer is “mine.” I’m convinced of this. So much so that if at some point in my relationship with someone I find that that person is really into some band or musician that I deem “unworthy” of such devotion, it is often legitimately difficult for me to resist the temptation to then question this person’s position on matters totally unrelated to music. I realize this is not good. I’m working on it. Sort-of.

That said, there is something about the way evangelical Christians in our culture have approached this particular art for some time that strikes me as counter-productive and, frankly, a little offensive. Strong language, right? Hopefully what follows will show clearly what I mean.

The issue I have in mind has bothered myself and many other like-minded “snobs” for a long time, and it has created no end of tension within the evangelical community. Many otherwise level-headed members of this community—a community I proudly claim, mind you—have for years judged one another to varying degrees over this issue. Some call others “compromisers” for listening to music that is deemed too “secular,” while others label their brothers and sisters “legalists” for attempting to restrict the freedom of the believer. Rarely, however, have I seen anyone offer (much less defend) a clear explication of his or her reasons for holding such a position. My hope is that by taking both sides seriously, we might approach a perspective that is informed biblically and in keeping with the Spirit of Jesus.

I want to make the rather strong claim that the “Christian/secular” distinction in music is a false one, and further that the term “Christian music” is actually a non-sequitur. If you’re not familiar with the term, it is Latin for “does not follow.” It’s used to refer to ideas, arguments, etc., which begin with a set of assumptions and then derive from those a conclusion that does not follow logically. More generally, it refers to ideas which are paired together as though they belong that way, but which actually have nothing to do with one another. So what I’m saying is that the assumptions which lead to the Christian/secular divide do not in fact entail any such thing, and that the term “Christian music” is a pairing of mutually irrelevant ideas.

I was once at a concert and heard an artist generally thought of as being on the “Christian” side of the divide say something like this (paraphrasing): “I don’t make Christian music. There’s no such thing as Christian music. There’s good music and there’s bad music. I try to make good music.”

While I can’t speak for that artist’s intentions, what he said intrigued me and I’ve thought about it a lot since. What I suspect he meant is that what separates good and bad music is not whether it mentions Jesus. Rather, it is what virtually every non-Christian—and every Christian when they’re not wearing their religious hat—knows it is immediately: talent, originality, depth of feeling, honesty, soul, an ability to express what is common to humanity in a way that takes seriously our condition…in short, whether or not it’s art. Whether or not it talks about Jesus or even makes you feel good (for somehow, the latter has almost become sufficient for the label “Christian”) is just irrelevant.

It seems to me that we have taken the term “Christian,” redefined it, and then applied the new, watered-down version to our music. By “Christian,” we mean that the lyrics are “clean,” and that they speak of some aspect of a theistic worldview, though not much emphasis is placed on which aspect of this worldview—the basics generally suffice. By “clean,” we (apparently) mean that it avoids cussing and anything sexual, though some take it even further to mean that it must be in some sense “encouraging” or “uplifting.” In this way, even bands whose members in no way profess a Christian faith publicly, or who live lives any different from your average moderately successful musician, get radio play on “Christian” stations.

Conversely, any music which does not qualify for the new definition of Christian is labeled “secular,” which as far as I can tell is roughly synonymous with “immoral,” “wicked,” “carnal,” or even “liberal.” Whatever it means, it is strongly implied that the real Christian has no business listening to it, and that if they should be caught with Radiohead on their iPod, it’s reason to question their commitment.

I was once myself a victim of this misunderstanding. Like many others I know, I had the legalistic phase during which I got rid of the majority of my music library. My criteria for keeping something was roughly whether or not it was “Christian” in the above sense. Needless to say, I later regretted many of those decisions.

But of course, this definition has nothing to do with historic Christianity. There is nothing in the Christian message that is opposed to strong language or honest talk about sexuality and suffering. There’s also nothing that implies that the themes of our art must be limited to the specific revelations of our faith. Rather, the term “Christian,” as with so many things, actually refers to something much deeper, much less rigid, and much more profound. It refers to the rather astonishing claim that at the center of everything—our world, our values, our existence, our life, our death, our sex, our happiness, our pain, our meaning, the very universe itself—is the God-man Jesus Christ. And this is so whether or not we acknowledge or recognize His place there. Further, it is the claim that in creating us, God put into us something of Himself and His own creative capacity. It is His intention and His pleasure that we utilize this ability to its fullest extent. We are restricted only by the bounds of love itself, which is of course no restriction at all, but freedom.

Because we are made by Him to be like Him and in relationship with Him, when we encounter Him in our lives (whether or not we realize it’s Him), it resonates in us deeply. This is what happens when we experience true art, true creative expression. It literally feeds our soul, and speaks to us—if we will hear—of Him.

But what we have done in creating this Christian/secular distinction is limit the areas over which He has influence. We have, to quote another blog I read recently,1 made our music about the message rather than the art. But this is to misunderstand both the gospel itself and the nature of reality: the art is the message. Or at least part of it. To offer Jesus to the world wrapped in three chords, a hook, and a style borrowed from whatever “secular” musicians happen to be making money at the moment, is a bit like handing out tracts to hungry people. They’ll never grasp the message until they are fed. When we take the central truths of the Christian faith and dress them in cheap clichés, overproduced pop music, and vague sentimentality, the result is anything but Christian. It’s just bad music.

In his essay “Christian Apologetics” in God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis says, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent.” His point here is that the Christian apologist will make much more progress if she can get the non-believer to discover through the sciences and literature that God may in fact be at the center of everything, than she will by writing a book on apologetics. He continues, “…it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble [the materialist]. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.” I think that the same goes for the arts. If the best music on the radio or iTunes is being made by committed Christians, then that will go a whole lot farther toward advancing the Kingdom than bad music that preaches.

But of course there’s a flip-side to all this as well. There is a great deal of music—even some that might qualify as art—that the follower of Jesus has no business listening to. Music that glorifies violence, substance abuse, or unhealthy sexual activity. Music that objectifies women, or reinforces their status as second-class citizens. Music that encourages harmful stereotypes or destructive behavior. In short, music that is not compatible with a life ruled by love. In this sense, there are several bands that I never regretted giving up during my ‘phase.’ But it’s important to note, I think, that this list should not only be off-limits to Christians. The thoughtful non-Christian has no business filling her mind with such junk either.2

And all this hints at a deeper problem within popular Christianity, which makes it especially relevant for me and for this blog. The attitude that many well-meaning Christians take to this issue typifies a more general attitude that I’m afraid still pervades much of the church. Put simply, it is a contentment with a shallow and largely impotent Christianity. One that replaces genuine transformation with pop psychology and pseudo-scholarship. The culture’s distinctions and definitions are accepted and Jesus is thrown into the mix. The result is a list of do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts), with little room left for any real depth of spiritual fulfillment or the life of the mind.

So the next time you turn on your radio or buy a CD, be critical of what you hear. Ask yourself, not if it’s “clean” or “encouraging,” but if it’s in tune with the creative Voice at the base of all things. Does it feed your soul?

That should be your new standard. That is Christian music.

1 See this insightful post by one of the musicians that I take to be transcending this false dichotomy.

2 Though, she will have a very difficult time explaining why this is the case. For more on this, see my posts on the moral argument for God here.


  1. thanks Kyle, great insight and very well put. I appreciate your clarifying, at the end, that there is some music "junk music" that no one needs to listen to. bill

  2. I think apologetics are still very very important and find it interesting that H.L. has some of the fullest classes at Salt when he teaches on that subject. I also will argue that many of the all time great musicians were Christians and that is still true today!! I would argue that most "secular" music does not fit in the following perimeters of Phil. 4:8 "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything PRAISEWORTHY meditate on these things"

  3. This is very thoughtful Kyle and I completely agree with you. It is always a pleasure to read your thoughts and opinions on issues, particularly those regarding Christianity. Hope all is well with you.