In Defense of Heathen Music

MY RELUCTANT PROHIBITION

It wasn’t a bag of weed. It wasn’t a beer bottle. It wasn’t porn. But boy, was I ashamed and embarrassed when my friend found it in my car and asked, “Why do you have this?”

Rewind to a few weeks earlier. Several of the self-righteous advanced Christian kids in my youth group had vowed to discard all of their non-Christian music. Wanting to keep spiritual pace with my peers, I tossed all of my good music secular filth in the dumpster – with one exception.

Once I had been caught red handed with a copy of Green Day’s American Idiot (don’t ask me why I kept that and ditched James Taylor… I was a teenager, okay!) still in my possession, I panicked. In hindsight, my reaction in that moment of guilt was damning. I didn’t explain to my friends that I liked the music and enjoyed hearing lyrics that challenged my political preconceptions. Instead, I pretended that I had simply missed it during the earlier purge. To make my point as emphatically as possible, I committed a crime. I chucked the heathen CD out the window and into the ditch of Boyer Avenue. My commitment to musical sanctification wouldn’t be questioned again.

While there’s a lot of humorous adolescent reasoning in the account I just shared, us kids really did begin considering our music with appropriate and even essential questions. Is God honored through this? Does this help me to grow in my relationship with Him? Does Scripture speak to the content of this song? These are questions I hope I never stop asking. Where we went wrong was that the route we took in answering those questions was far too simplistic and superficial.

A BETTER WAY

As a fourteen year old kid and a newborn Christian, I processed my hesitation to give up my Green Day album as merely a struggle with the flesh. It seemed to me that if godly people avoided secular music, and I wanted to keep my secular music, that desire must be a sinful one that I ought to suppress (and hide from my peers). 

Our youth group’s reasoning was understandable – if we were supposed to have our mind set on heavenly and noble things (Col. 3, Phil. 4), then we should be drawn to the sacred and should flee from the secular. The problem is that such an approach isn’t biblical. Not only does Scripture make no room for a distinction between sacred and secular, but even the standards by which we were measuring these categories were completely mired in worldly and underdeveloped thinking. We weren’t carefully discerning the ideas and perspectives of individual songs and measuring them against the doctrines of Scripture. We saw a dove on an album, we trusted and embraced whatever messages were contained within. If a band didn’t sign with a for-profit “Christian” company, we weren’t going to corrupt our souls with their devil music. 

But as I’ve grown I’ve discovered that there’s a better way. That it is good to listen to a wide range of music, and to always listen with wisdom and discernment. In so doing, I’ve discovered many dangerous beliefs in family-friendly and faith-marketed faith-based songs. I’ve also come across a whole lot of spot-on theology in secular music, even in lyrics with the dreaded Parental Advisory sticker next to them.

DARKNESS IN THE LIGHT 

Many families let down their guard (or never thought to even have a guard) when it comes to music on the family radio station or the songs they sing at church. But there’s a lot of damaging and potentially destructive content in the “positive and encouraging” sphere. 

Consider the low view of God and the very casual, nonchalant attitude of worship when one Christian singer be-bops her way through a happy day when she feels like she’s about to “get (her) worship on.” I truly don’t think this artist is that flippant in her walk with the Lord, but the song has a real influence on how Christians think of God and has doubtlessly played a role in the irreverent and self-absorbed worship that is so rampant today.

In line with the sort of Americanized cultural Christianity is the music of Tim McGraw – a lyrical embodiment of moralistic, therapeutic deism if there ever was one. Consider these words from his latest hit:

Go to church ’cause your momma says to
Visit grandpa every chance that you can
It won’t be a waste of time
Always stay humble and kind

Hold the door say please say thank you
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie
I know you got mountains to climb but
Always stay humble and kind

Putting aside the abhorrent motivation given for going to church, I want you to realize why these words could destroy and decay your soul if you take them as guidance for your own life. Every last one of us will fail at always being humble and kind, and this song offers nothing for failures. It might be wrapped in a shiny package of cheesy and nostalgic advice, but underneath these lyrics is condemnation for all those who forget to visit grandpa, judgment against thieves, shame for the proud and rude – a guilty verdict without hope of redemption. Law without grace.

NOTE: I’m not suggesting that you never listen to Tim McGraw. I listen to him regularly. But you need to realize what you’re listening to – evaluate the words in light of Scripture and determine if the song should shape your worldview or if you will use the song to help you understand the worldview of others. 

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

While there are times when “Christian” music has little to do with the God of the Bible or the gospel of Jesus, there are also occasions when genuinely profound and Scriptural truth comes from what is called “secular” music. I’ve been routinely blown away at the depth of insight and emotional impact I’ve experienced through music written and performed by folks who do not worship my God – it is as if I get some small glimpse into His work in their lives and Him potentially revealing Himself to them, through the songs they sing. 

Since beginning my ministry as a pastor, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been deep in study of Jonah, Colossians, Genesis, and 1 Timothy when a “secular” song comes to mind that vividly portrays the truth of God’s word from a particular passage – lyrics that dive deep into what the Bible says about the human condition, love, addiction, the search for significance, the enjoyment of creation, etc. 

I’ll give just a few examples of these “lights in the darkness.”

Solomon’s Wisdom in a Secular Song

Merry Go ‘Round by Kasey Musgraves may as well be a modern small town adaptation of the book of Ecclesiastes. Where mainstream country constantly patronizes and idealizes small town life, Musgraves pulls back the curtain on the truth behind the veneer and to the ugly truth that so frequently lies just beneath the surface of main street America:

“Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay.

Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane.

Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.”

This song, while most certainly NOT positive and encouraging, gets a lot closer to the biblical assessment of humanity than most Christian music does.

 

A Punch to the Gut

One of the most confrontational, difficult to listen to, and challenging songs I’ve heard is Rise Against’s Make It Stop (September’s Children). Written after a string of suicides among LGBT youth, the lyrics demand that I have more to say to a gay person than a quotation of Leviticus or Romans. When I listen to this song, I grow – I am forced out of my worldview, challenged to evaluate a perspective that I disagree with, and compelled to hold to my biblical convictions with greater empathy and compassion than I did before.

This song has A LOT that I adamantly disagree with, most strongly in the line implying that God doesn’t have a right to His divine justice, “What God would damn a heart?” But at the 3:00 mark, as the singer lists the names of young people who have committed suicide (largely as a result of their treatment as homosexuals), I cannot finish the song without being moved to tears and praying that the Lord will help me love, serve, and bring the good news of Jesus Christ to my gay friends. 

 

 

Glimmers of Heaven

On the positive side, I cannot imagine a more exuberant celebration of love than that which is found in High Dive Heart’s first single, Vintage, or a greater ode to our American pastime than My Oh My by Macklemore.

 

 

 

THAT’S ALL I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THAT

Music is an amazing gift, and the Lord has gifted believers and unbelievers alike with the ability to compose and perform songs that convey incredibly important messages. It’s my prayer that you would listen to and enjoy a wide array of music, always taking it in with discernment. Then you’ll notice God’s truth in surprising places, allowing you to make a gospel connection with someone who might not know the lyrics to Good, Good Father.

No joke, I had a breakthrough moment telling a fourth-grade gal about Jesus by starting with Katy Perry’s infamous line about feeling “like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind.”

You’ll also be able to sing with greater thoughtfulness and intentionality at church, recognizing when the lyrics of the worship songs don’t have the same focus or enthusiasm as the singing described in heaven from Revelation 4. 

So crank it up, sing along, and think about how your knowledge of this music can be used for declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

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