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. Itâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€œChristianâ€ 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.” Weâ€™re not asking whether or not the artist applied the lens of the Gospel to life, instead, weâ€™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 â€œPraise and Worship/Evangelismâ€ 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 shouldnâ€™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. Shouldnâ€™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 artistâ€™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 donâ€™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?”