Christian or Secular?
Music is a big part of many people’s lives. It moves the heart and can inspire in ways that mere words cannot. These effects make it clear that musical discernment is an important area of study. Unfortunately, the “Christian” take on music has often been characterized by unverifiable claims and poor philosophical considerations. Scare tactics and sensationalism are often the name of the game when sober, careful research yields, I think, very different results. Hopefully that is what will be presented below.
Defining “Christian” Music
“Christian” Music is an odd label. It is arguably the only music label that does not refer to style. Music is usually labeled according to musical styles such as Country, Hip-Hop, Metal, and even New Age. What is one saying when using the label “Christian?” It cannot refer to style because several different kinds of music can share the designation. It must refer to the band then. But there are many examples where this does not work either. Same with lyrics and labels. Maybe “Christian Music” is not a proper category in the first place.
This category could include actual record labels or simply the placement of a CD on a particular shelf or in a certain bookstore. This has problems as well. First, is every band under that label “Christian?” Bands that share secular labels have included D.C. Talk, MXPX, Amy Grant, Switchfoot, Chevelle, Saviour Machine, P.O.D., Sixpence, Lifehouse, and many many others. Second, the very identification of bands into certain categories assumes that such a label is appropriate and has some means of being tested. This is what we are trying to do so I will leave this open to your consideration.
There are some who believe that musical style makes a song Christian or Non-Christian. Usually what they prefer musically is acceptable and any style they find unacceptable is improper for Christians. The popular arguments usually reference “pagan rhythms” or “unhealthy drum beats.” I think some simple observations will suffice to demonstrate the suspicious nature of these claims.
As to the particular tune: one interesting observation I made during my research is that several popular hymns were written to secular music. These include such favorites as “O Great God of Nations,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and others. One, “What Child is This?” was written to a tune written by King Henry the 8th – a diseased, promiscuous, heathen despot who murdered his wives.
But what about beat? Many will argue that drums are not to be used in Christian music. Some will argue that NO instruments are to be used. Now, there are plenty of commands given in Scripture regarding music and singing (Ezra 3:11, Isaiah 12:5, 2 Chron. 20:21, Eph. 5:19, 1 Cor. 14:15, Col. 3:15, etc.), but not one of these says anything about style – only lyrical content. Ephesians 5:19 is often called forth to show that music that “emphasizes the beat over the melody” is evil. First, this verse certainly does not teach that – a melody can be made with a strong beat, to have one does not automatically exclude the other. Second, the melody is in the heart not the instruments, so that needs to be explained as well (I think it is clear that this has to do with lyrical content and attitude – not style).
What about Psalm 150? A casual reading of this passage shows that a variety of instruments (strings, horns, cymbals, etc.) are to be used in music to praise God. Some have claimed that the failure of the psalmist to mention drums is proof that God did not want them used. After all, drums were around then – did God just FORGET them??? First, I don’t see a lot of lyre and harp wielding praise teams today. Second, those making this claim usually have just as much trouble with guitars and horns which the passage clearly allows. Third, what these folks seem to miss is that everything that has voice is to make music (verse 6). This would include drums, would it not?
The second argument usually has to do with “pagan rhythms.” The claim is that since certain beats are used in pagan ceremonies that they are somehow inherently evil. The idea that a pagan can somehow “own” a beat once it is used for evil is tremendously problematic. Rather, the pagan has used a good thing for evil purposes. A hammer does not become evil because it is used to hurt someone. Further, the very idea that evil can manifest itself in a physical object is occultic, not Christian.
Simply put – the Bible does not specify a style. If it does, then it sounds to me to be much more like a rock band (Ps. 150) than a pipe-organ backed choir.
What do Bob Dylan, U2, Creed, and Evanescence have in common? Each was a hotly disputed “Christian Band” at the time of their popularity. Defining “Christian Music” by the bands making it is an even more tricky endeavor than the previous two methods. Many questions need to be settled.
Are they believers?
This might seem like a simple question, but what about bands that seem to make conflicting claims (like P.O.D. or U2 have been accused of doing)? What about bands like Philips, Craig, and Dean who are part of the Oneness Pentecostal heretical movement? What about bands that were or are backslidden like Stryper was when they were popular? What if they only recently became believers, or still play their old songs like Alice Cooper? What if they have fallen away (which, to many, means they were never really believers in the first place) like Roger Martinez of Vengeance Rising or Jennifer Knapp who revealed that she was a lesbian a few years ago? Does their music need to be re-labled?
Are they ALL believers?
Once we’ve dealt with the above issue, what do we do with bands that have a mixed bag of believers and unbelievers (like U2, Iron Maiden, Creed, Extreme, or Evanescence)? Does a majority make a band “Christian” – or could just the front person or the songwriter count?
Do they write their own songs?
Many bands do not write their own music, so do we also need to investigate the actual songwriters (if that is even possible)? And what about Christian bands that perform cover songs? Bands like DC Talk, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Third Day often cover bands that would certainly not be considered Christian. In fact, the list of bands that have been covered by Christian bands is a veritable hit list of “evil” secular bands (Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, AC/DC, etc.). Does music become “Christian” just because a Christian performs it?
What About “Christian” Songs Written by Non-Christians?
Metallica, hardly a contender for Christian Band of the Year, has written a song (“Creeping Death”) that is a description of the events preceding the Exodus. Extreme’s album “Three Sides to Every Story” has a section of fantastic “Christian” songs. At least two hymns that I have found were written by non-Christians (“All Hail to Thee, Immanuel” and “Hail the Glorious Golden City”). Do these artists remove these songs from consideration as “Christian”?
The fact is that we judge communication every day without caring one way or another about the author. Books, movies, plays, pictures, commercials . . . how can it be that we can objectively discern between good and evil with these without having any knowledge of authorship yet fail to do so in music?
Here is where I think a legitimate claim can be made. Much like a book or movie, all I really need is the actual content of the song to discern its appropriateness for a Christian because lyrics are what communicate the message. Do I really need to know the author of the following lyrics to know whether or not they are acceptable: “The only good god is a dead god. The only god good for me. The only good god is a dead god, baby. The only damn god I need”?
Yet even here we run into problems . . .
What about a song like “Everything to Me” by Avalon? In it they sing, “You’re the air that I breathe, the water I thirst for, and the ground beneath my feet.” Well, to me that sounds pretty pantheistic. It’s the sort of thing a Hindu might sing. Or what about the extremely biblical words to “Athair ar Neamh” by Enya? I don’t know many people who would consider this song “Christian” (after all, Enya is found in the New Age section!), yet no one would bat an eye if this song were sung in a church.
Some add the criteria of specifically mentioning Jesus. One author accused Michael W. Smith for not mentioning Jesus in many of his songs. I doubt that this person would level the same charge against the writers of hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the scores of others that also do not mention Jesus!
Christian vs. Secular
Here, I think, we come to the real issue. I think too many times Christians confuse “secular” with “worldly” or “evil.” “Secular” simply means non-spiritual. It’s not bad, it’s just not particularly religious. Money is secular. Phones are secular. These things carry no moral value in and of themselves. So when we use categories like “Christian” and “Secular” we confuse the real issues.
Good vs. Bad
It should be clear to any thinking person that there is a clear distinction between the songs of Steven Curtis Chapman and those of Marilyn Manson. Steven is a Christian on a Christian label that sings overtly Christian songs, while Marilyn is the exact opposite. I think it is pretty easy to apply the command to “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22) to these cases.
But what about the majority music that does not fall into these simple and obvious categories? It is these songs that usually create the most interest in issues of artists’ lifestyles, beliefs, etc. for the very reason that the song, by itself, does not fit neatly into good/bad or Christian/Anti-Christian categories. So we need another label to account for the middle ground.
Dealing with Ambiguity
Meaning vs. Referent
Many lyrics because they are simply ambiguous. This ambiguity is what allows the same terms to be used in very different situations. For example, when I say “I love you” to my wife it means the same thing as when my dad says “I love you” to his wife. We are referring to different people, but the words mean the same thing. Now, if I say, “I love my Honda Accord,” that is a different situation. I have embedded the referent in the statement. While “I love my car” can be used by any car owner, “I love my Honda Accord” can only be used by Accord owners.
So what about a song like “We Are the Champions?” The lyrics are fairly ambiguous: “We are the champions my friend. And we’ll keep on fighting to the end. We are the champions. We are the champions . . .” etc. Can this song be sung in church when referring to Christian victory? Can it be sung at sporting events referring to the home team winning? Can it be sung at gay pride rallies referring to the homosexual agenda? The fact of the matter is that this song has been used in all of these settings. It can because it is ambiguous enough to be able to coherently refer to each of these very different events. Does it matter that it was, in fact, written by a homosexual about gay rights?
If so, are these words forever useless to any but homosexual activists?Does an artist own words once they are used? What if we took a song that a heterosexual artist wrote to his wife? If referents are forever attached to songs, then wouldn’t we be singing to the artist’s wife every time we sang it? I think this is clearly false. If the referent is missing in a song, and the words are so generic as to be able to be used in many different contexts, then those words cannot, by themselves, be labeled good or bad.
Beyond all the philosophical problems involved in denying this, I think the Bible has something to say to back this up as well. Consider the following phrases that were each written by the apostle Paul (one recording the words of Jesus):
- “Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats. (1 Corinthians 6:13)
- “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (1 Corinthians 15:32)
- “Bad company ruins good character. (1 Corinthians 15:33)
- “All Cretans are liars. (Titus 1:12)
- “It hurts you to kick against the goad. (Acts 26:14)
- “For we are indeed his offspring. (Acts 17:28)
The first two are quotes from Epicurus, the third is from Menander, the fourth is from Epimenides, the fifth is by Euripides, and the sixth is from Aratus – all pagan authors! Note especially the last one – this is, in its original context, clearly referring to Zeus. Now, if the unstated referent of a given message is somehow embedded forever into that message then Paul would have been speaking heresy.
First, songs must be judged (morally) by their lyrical content alone. No particular musical style is commanded in the Bible and every other criteria offered has easily discoverable counterexamples that show them to be dubious at best.
Second, if the lyrics are clearly good or evil then follow the biblical instructions related to dealing with good and evil (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
Third, if the lyrics are ambiguous in their meaning/referent then I think they fall into the same category that Paul’s “pagan quotes” above do, and so they may be used for good. What about those who cannot get passed a song’s original referent? I think Paul speaks to this issue as well. In 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 he deals with what to do when an amoral decision becomes a moral decision for someone with a weak conscience. What he says is surprisingly different from what most Christian writers recommend . . . he says to ignore it! In other words, if it is going to be an issue, it’s better to not find out.
In the end, we are all going to be judged by our own convictions – but this does not mean that our convictions are exempt from scrutiny.