How To Think Biblically About Christian Music

This article begins our review series on Derek Webb’s latest CD. Over the next two weeks, we will review and offer cultural analysis on every song from the “The Ringing Bell.” Our first post is written by Southern Seminary alumni Brent Thomas from Colossians Three Sixteen.

What does it mean to “think biblically” about culture? Many of us have never considered this question. We listen to Christian music that sounds the same as “regular” radio, we read Christian magazines that look like “regular” publications. We wear hip “Christianized” clothing and think we’ve become “relevant.” Many of us have simply never really thought about how our faith affects our cultural pursuits.

“Gospel” or “Christian” music is the only genre that is not actually a musical genre.

In much “Christian” art, particularly music, the message is elevated over the content. It’s not about truly being creative but sending the right message. We want to know that music is “explicitly” Christian. We want no doubt, Jesus must be mentioned by name and it would be nice if you’d throw in a “hallelujah” or two.

“Gospel” or “Christian” music is the only genre that is not actually a musical genre. Those terms encompass rap, country, rock, and other actual musical styles, but they actually refer to the content rather than the form. For many, the music is simply a means to convey the message. That’s why it’s so important to play the music “the kids are listening to,” because we just want them to hear about Jesus. In other words, in many cases it’s not actually about artistic expression but about a message.

The common Christian tendency is to appropriate what the “world” is doing, replace the content, sell it back to the larger culture, who then rejects it as contrived while we don’t understand. It helps to ask why we listen to music in the first place. We listen to music because, at some level, we connect with it (at least on an emotional level). As cheesy as it sounds, we’ve all had that song that got us through a breakup. When we simply adopt a musical style as a vehicle for the message, we’re not longer creating art but propaganda, which connects with no one.

Christian music generally falls into one of two camps: Praise and Worship or Evangelism. Either Christian music adopts popular forms simply to be heard or it doesn’t mind excluding the non-initiated because it’s just about “me and God.” Many people are tired of being preached at and aren’t interested in Praise and Worship. They can spot a fake a mile away and therefore, many people are simply not interested in “Christian” music.

Part of the problem relates, of course, to larger Evangelicalism. We have not been trained well in biblical discernment. For many people, “discernment” is simply a point of purchase consideration: “I bought it at a Christian store, so of course it’s Christian!” But “Christian” media is not as always interested in biblical fidelity as it is in money. Hence, most Christian bookstores sell Phillips, Craig and Dean, who deny the Trinity (see here), but not Sufjan Stevens, much of whose material is quite “explicitly” Christian.

Because we lack a certain level of discernment, things must be spelled out for us in big letters. We want to know immediately whether or not a song is “Christian.” We’re not asking whether or not the artist applied the lens of the Gospel to life, instead, we’re asking whether or not he or she has met certain prescribed criteria. There is certainly a place for explicit Christian content in music, but there is also a place for implicit Christian content. The question should not be catchphrases but the filter of the Gospel in the quest for truth and beauty.

How Should We Think Biblically About Music?

Back to our initial question; how do we think biblically about music if insisting on “explicitly Christian” content is not the answer? Returning to the “Praise and Worship/Evangelism” camps: the average non-Christian hears that Christian music doesn’t have categories connecting with all of life, which, by implication, means that the Gospel isn’t for all of life. I don’t think I’m overstating my case in saying that most of what claims to be Christian music actually does a great disservice to the Kingdom and our King because it limits His reign to very specific areas of life.

The Gospel is about all of life. There shouldn’t be a single area of life untouched by the Gospel. It stands to reason, then that Christian music should be about all of life. Shouldn’t Christians be the ones with the most to sing about instead of the ones with the least to say?

Instead of judging artists by whether or not they explicitly mention God (by those standards, Esther shouldn’t be in the Bible), we ought to wrestle with an artist’s canon of work. We ought ask whether they both explicitly and implicitly bring the Gospel to bear on every area of life they sing about. What makes some uncomfortable is that, while there will certainly be songs that mention God, there will also be songs that don’t. Instead, we must think about the Gospel’s implications through the artist’s lens. Surely if the Gospel is about all of life, Christian music ought to be as well. We must learn to think about life, and therefore music, not in terms of checklists, but in terms of the Gospel invading, infecting and coloring every area of life.

  • Read Redeeming Pop Culture by T.M. Moore.
  • Read The Calvinistic Concept of Culture by Henry Van Til.
  • Read Creation Regained: Biblical Basics For A Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters.
  • Read Eyes Wide Open: Looking For God in Popular Culture by William Romanowski.
  • Read my post “Who Says What’s Christian Music?”
  • Read my post “Misplaced Boundaries?”
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23 Responses to How To Think Biblically About Christian Music

  1. Trevin Wax says:

    Christian music has become an industry over a ministry. It’s about hits. It’s about what sells. It’s about what may have cross-over appeal. I would rather a Christian artist tell me up front that they want to sing all kinds of good, creative music (whether or not they or all about God) than for someone to water down the Christian content until the generic “you” becomes a catch-all for whatever the listener wants it to mean.

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  3. Josh Martin says:

    Good Post! As a singer/songwriter myself, I have spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about how our band does music. We have always been billed as “Christian” music and usually do youth events and college retreats. But the music I write is shifting in content. “The Gospel is about all of life.” That is well said. I am trying to write with that exact truth in mind. I don’t think we can be faithful musicians without it. Thanks for the post!

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  5. Wireman says:

    Good points, Brent. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that modern-day evangelicals have not been trained to view the world through a Christian lens. It is similar to what Webb speaks of when he sings “New Law.” Christians, too many times, do not want to discern and critique the world around them. They want to have a list of things that will keep them in good graces with the Most High.

  6. Bernie says:

    I think the viewpoint expressed was way too narrow and over-analyzed. Yes, there is a Christian music industry and much of it is driven by money. The Newsboys (a big commercial Christian band) actually sang about it.
    ——–
    From:
    “God Is Not A Secret Lyrics”

    You don’t understand
    this is not what you think it is
    You don’t get it, man
    you want to boil it down to show biz
    Your in depth research shows:
    drop the God, emphasize the beat
    I’ve heard that positive pop you dig–
    I’d rather be buried in wet concrete
    Take back your free advice
    I don’t accept
    I will not play those games
    God is not a secret to be kept
    God is not a secret to be kept

    You don’t understand
    I’m not talking multiple choice
    You don’t get it, man
    if the cross offends you, find another voice
    I am not running for office here
    I won’t keep it purposefully vague
    I’ve heard New Age Life-force trip
    I’d rather be dipped in bubonic plague

    Take back your free advice
    I don’t accept
    I will not play those games
    God is not a secret to be kept
    God is not a secret to be kept

    Faith ain’t easy to understand
    When a bird in the bush beats two in the hand
    The truth ain’t nothin’ you taste and hide
    You gotta get up, put up, get off your backside
    x2

    If we keep silent
    If we mass defect
    These very rocks will scream
    God is not a secret to be kept
    God is not a secret to be kept

    And would I wash my hands again?
    Would I deny my savior when
    he hung inside the public square?
    Did not my silence put him there?
    ————–
    I think DC talk also sang about it.

    You wrote:
    “In other words, in many cases it’s not actually about artistic expression but about a message.”

    I think that is way-off. I think most artists really strive for creativity in lyrics and music (tones, instruments, rythms, etc). The “artistic expression” must be good or it will never be heard over competitors. Brent, have you ever played in a band for an audience, and had to compete for a listeners ear, as these artists do?

    Finally, a really interesting data point is the deceased musician Keith Green:
    http://www.lastdaysministries.org/keith/history.html

    Check out the story of his life, on DVD and in book form, sold at his website. It is very motivational and evangelistic, just by way of sharing what he did in his life and how his life was transformed. It is very inspirational. He used Christian music and combined it with ministry, and he also fought, big time, the music money industry.

    …Bernie

  7. Bernie has got a point. I would like to see what people think of CCM’s move to include other musicians who seem Christian. I am thinking primarily of Mary J Blige.

  8. Brent says:

    Bernie, I have been involved in Christian music at various levels. I have promoted bands and concerts and worked in the intial stages of contract negotiation. Though I have not been in a band, I have worked closely enough with enough bands to understand the pressures. What is your involvement in music?

    I’m certainly open to correction where I’m wrong. At what points do you think I’m too narrow, because it seems to me that I’m actually arguing for a broader perspective on “Christian” music than is the norm.

    Simply pointing out that a couple of artists have been concerned with the industry doesn’t really seem to mean that my initial concerns are wrong. I’d love some more feedback if you don’t mind. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  9. Steve Camp says:

    Dear Brent:

    Thank you for your article and the thoughts you expressed here.

    Four quick things for your consideration:

    1. You said, “When we simply adopt a musical style as a vehicle for the message, we’re not longer creating art but propaganda, which connects with no one.” Can you explain further what you mean? Every secular artist I personally know does this as well–they adopt a musical style to communicate a message. Is that propaganda… hardly.

    2. I really like the title of your article, but after reading it I discovered one thing, there was no Scriptures unfolded, explained, or mentioned to direct the reader of this article so they could “think biblically about Christian music.” May I encourage you to really search the Scriptures and expound them carefully so that others may profit spiritually from the wisdom of the Word as it pertains to music.

    3. You said, “Gospel” or “Christian” music is the only genre that is not actually a musical genre.” That is not true. “Gospel” is its own musical genre–in fact rock, R&B, much of country, find their history in gospel music. It can be black gospel; soul; or even southern gospel–but it is its own musical genre.

    4. You also said, “Christian music generally falls into one of two camps: Praise and Worship or Evangelism.” Again, this is not really accurate. No question P&W has exploded over the past ten years primarily through alternative music and is huge today. But there is a cavernous vacuum in CCM when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ being communicated in song. In my 29 years in CCM, it has been a burden to recover the doctrines of grace in music. But there is very little evangelism being done in CCM… Contrary to the early CCM of the late 1960’s and 1970’s that was being produced where the primary focus was on evangelism and spreading the gospel – today’s CCM is not.

    I do find that most of the songs in CCM today are more relational personal testimony songs that have nothing to do with worship or the proclamation of the gospel. The other unfortunate big trend these days is for CCM artists to re-record past secular hits and then say they are about Jesus (Free Ride, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Up Where We Belong, Raise You Up, Love is the Answer, etc.). This is postmodern at its core.

    Thanks again for your thoughts–and I would still very much like to see you really point people to the truth of Scripture so they can be equipped to genuinely think biblically about Christian music.

    Psalm 119:54, “Thy statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.”

    Grace and peace to you brother…
    Steve
    2 Cor. 4:5-7

  10. Brent said:
    “Bernie… I’m certainly open to correction where I’m wrong. At what points do you think I’m too narrow, because it seems to me that I’m actually arguing for a broader perspective on “Christian” music than is the norm.”

    Hi Brent-

    When you write “In other words, in many cases it’s not actually about artistic expression but about a message” it makes me think you have virtually no respect for the talent and ingenuity of musical artists. I love music, but my ability at keyboards would be called basic, or less. Yet, I appreciate the originality and creativity in the artists that I listen to.

    Sometimes one can look at another’s work and say that it is real simple. However, sometimes people make things look so easy just because they are so good at it. Try reproducing their work, or do something better, then I think one would appreciate the work of an artist more.

    Yes, there is a Christian market for books and music. Yes, there will be people racing to fill that niche, chasing the gold. Yes, there is a whole marketing machine setup to reach the goal of milking the market of the Christian niche. However, I don’t think it is helpful to color all musicians the same or oversimplify.

    My suggestion- if you critique something as bad, use some specific names and circumstances. Most people are afraid to do this. However, it is the best way to make the point. It takes courage, which is severly lacking in the Christian community. Then when you have a specific datapoint, it can also be discussed as to whether it is relevant or not.

    For example, you say:
    “I don’t think I’m overstating my case in saying that most of what claims to be Christian music actually does a great disservice to the Kingdom and our King because it limits His reign to very specific areas of life.”

    What is your example? “Disservice” … That’s a very strong charge; what is your evidence? In this point you are saying Christian music actually undermines true kingdom work. You might be right; might be wrong; how will I know if I don’t know exactly what you are referring to… your datapoint?

    …Bernie

  11. Brent says:

    Steve and Bernie,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful interaction. I am certainly open to correction where I have erred. I significantly edited this piece for space concerns and you have pointed out that I made some rather poor editing decisions and for that I apologize.

    I had planned on posting a revised version of these thoughts tomorrow, but in light of some of your helpful comments, I have done so today (
    here). Please continue to help shape and correct these thoughts.

    Bernie, I apologize. I have obviously communicated myself poorly. I have the utmost repect for musicians and artist, partially because I have no musical talent and it is something I dearly love. After consideration, I think that many of these thoughts ought to have been aimed in tone at marketers rather than artists (though this certainly affects the music). Thank you for your correction.

    Steve, (not necessarily responding in order to your points, I apologize). First let me thank you for your well-intentioned incorporation of doctrine and the Doctrines of Grace into your music. I wish that many others would pursue similar depth and you stand as a powerful example of incorporating solid doctrine with creative expression, something that is all too rare these days.

    Would it be fair if I removed the qualifier “Gospel” but retain “Christian” as a genre criticism? Your point about Gospel music is well-taken, but it still seems that “Christian” is used as a genre qualifier, enveloping many other actual genres, would you agree?

    The comments about the “main camps of Christian music” (Praise and Worship/Evangelism) stem from many discussions with other music fans, both Christian and non. Here it seems that there may be a disconnect between perception and reality. Simply put, this is the way many people I come in contact with feel about Christian music.

    I thank you both for your thoughtful interaction and pray that we can continue to point one another to a Christ-exalting understanding of music.

  12. Jim says:

    The following comments from Steve Camp have given me pause to rethink how I approach this issue:

    “Every secular artist I personally know does this as well–they adopt a musical style to communicate a message. Is that propaganda… hardly.”

    “there is a cavernous vacuum in CCM when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ being communicated in song.”

  13. Very good post, Brent. You encapsulated most everything I ever try to get across.

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  15. brandon mc says:

    i linked to this article over at http://www.fatkidrecords.com. good stuff. thanks for your insights.

    http://www.boochieshepherd.com

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  17. I’ve been in Christian music for nearly 30 years and have seen all the extremes. I think the CCM industry is a reflection of the quality of disciples that are involved in it and the individuals that consume it. Too many of us just move our desire for fame and fortune from the ‘world’ to the church. The church is in too big of a rush to put musically talented people on the platform to entertain the people who give offerings, etc. etc. So, we promote shallowness.
    To suggest that an individual take a couple of years off from their public music ministry to get rooted in the word is probably an idea few contemporary artists have ever considered. Yea, it wouldn’t be financially feaseable.
    Why would we expect a modern church that is ‘asleep in the light’ to major in anything with any substance?
    In our entertainment centered culture, I think we put too many ‘kids’ on the platform and then wonder why there is no depth to what they are saying and question the direction they choose.
    A heart on fire for Jesus will communicate the truth one way or another. The form that takes will be up to the Lord and that individual.
    The CCM industry is profit led, not Spirit led. Just try to find someone in CCM magazine who isn’t young and beautiful. There aint many to be found.
    Ultimately, the focus again should come around to the fundementals of the faith. Nurture the roots and the tree will produce good fruit.

  18. Brent says:

    Michael,

    Thank you so much for those thoughts. I’ve had several discussions with a friend over the years who wants local churches to adopt musicians, almost like missionaries, making sure they’re grounded in the Word and being ministered to. Your comments started me thinking again the possibility of something like this.

  19. Christian music actually fits within many music genres today, Rock/Alternative, Hip-Hop, and actually Gospel is a true genre.

    My newest venture is built around Christian music and some excellent independent artisit. I hope you’ll check it out!!

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  21. “If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to ‘make Christian.'”

    – Jacques Maritain

  22. I disagree with brent that Christian music must be either praise and worship or evangelism. There are lots of ways to express christian ideals within the context of the “outside” world. Also, I think there’s been something of a disconnect. The idea of a black/white universe is largely political and makes us take sides, i.e., an artist is either “Christian” or “decidedly not christian (therefore un- or anti-christian.” There are plenty of artists out there who are expressing ideas which are Christian ideas, but also singing about the world of reality. I’m thinking specifically of artists like U2 and David Stoddard, some of whose writings are aruguably biblically based, but who are never marketed as christian musicians.

  23. Perhaps it’s better if Christian simply stop worrying about trying to duplicate non-Christian art and music and instead just use the forms most appropriate to the christian religion.

    So much of what “the world” does , after all, really isn’t appropriate to Christianity anyway.

    Christian art and music serves a special purpose in Christianity that really goes beyond mere entertainment.

    -CMTA

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