So, what exactly is “Christian” music?

Today, I want to explore two related questions about Christian music:

For the Christian, what is the difference between “christian” music and everything else, and should it have any bearing on what we listen to?

My parents had a favorite saying when I was growing up, you’ve probably heard it before: “Garbage in, garbage out.” What you fill yourself with shapes what comes out. It’s a colloquial version of Philippians 4:8:

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.

Okay, you might be saying to yourself. Then clearly, I should be listening to Christian radio and absorbing only Christian media, because that’s what’s holy, just, and pure in our culture today.

Ah, not so fast.

I do enjoy Christian media, because I often like surrounding myself with music that helps me experience joy, gratitude, faith, and assurance in God’s grace. However, that is but one small aspect of the Christian experience. I have been a Christian all my life. Does that mean I’ve never been in love? Have I never felt heartbreak? Grief? Have I never been jealous, or lonely, or frustrated at the world?

I am a Christian. Am I not also human?

Those who choose to exclusively listen to Christian radio do so for several legitimate reasons, in addition to the simple enjoyment of the music:

1. Garbage in, garbage out. There is a lot of garbage on secular radio. There is a lot of compromised morals, shady lessons learned, and a lot of themes that you would not want a young child to become accustomed to as “normal.” Influence of this garbage has a noticeable impact on your life. A few years ago I started watching Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay, and in only a couple of days my blood pressure spiked and my patience levels plummeted. I became trained to think that Ramsay’s rage was a normal response to daily frustrations of life. Music can affect you in the same ways, though possibly less obviously.

2. The support of a Christian fellowship. This can be especially important in parts of the country with a majority non-Christian culture, like where I grew up. It’s a reminder that there is a vibrant global Christian church– that even if you’re mocked for your faith, there are others out there who are doing such good things in the name of Christianity. You might feel lonely, but you are not alone.

3. Emotional relief, comfort, solace. Music can relieve emotional distress in profound ways, and the recollection of a beloved song with lyrics that inspire hope and faith can comfort us during difficult times; or an upbeat song can channel our joy and help us experience it more deeply and purely.

4. The corrupt theology of secular music.* This one is closely related to the first, but it’s something that not many people consider. The word “theology” has come to mean the set of beliefs that you have at church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, when in fact, Merriam-Webster defines it as simply “a system of religious beliefs or ideas.”

Listen closely to the secular radio sometime, and see what the artist is promoting as their beliefs or ideas. The obvious one that’s been a radio hit for a couple of months now is Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”. It’s beyond creepy:

My Church offers no absolutes
She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you—

I was born sick, but I love it.
Command me to be well. Amen.

Take me to church,
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies;
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.
Offer me that deathless death,
Good God, let me give you my life.

The rest of the lyrics are just as bad. I cringe and flip the channel whenever it comes on. But take a second and listen to the words– what’s their theology? They believe in the ultimate worship of the human and of earthly pleasures. You might recognize that this is not a long-term theology; youth and beauty fades quickly, and with it many of the earthly pleasures they’re worshipping. But it’s a theology all the same.

A scan of much of secular radio will demonstrate theologies of “living in the moment by partying like there’s no tomorrow,” “drink until we forget our sadness/loneliness/work/responsibilities/etc,” self-absorption and vanity, distorted presentations of romantic relationships, and sex as the ultimate goal of life. These are destructive and corrupt theologies.

However:

There is a lot of non-Christian music on the radio that is simply beautiful, with theologies that, though they are not explicitly Christian, can mirror the Christian experience. You cannot be Christian without being human. Indeed, I believe that faith opens you up to life in a deeper, more fully human experience, by helping you to live in the spiritual body to the same degree as the physical and emotional. Faith helps humans be so much more profoundly human. And music that addresses those human experiences in a healthy way can be a vital part of expressing every part of life as a human and as a Christian.

It’s because of this that I don’t particularly like the label of “christian music,” because it usually only refers to music that’s explicitly about God or Jesus. I listen to music, as a Christian, that is about experiencing life. Part of that is music about my faith, sure, but music about love, breakups, joy, frustration, longing, or sorrow, are no less Christian than songs about God.

So: if you exclusively listen to Christian radio, you have many very good reasons for doing so.

But, if you are a Christian and you don’t exclusively listen to Christian music, you have many very good reasons for doing so.

The only reason anyone should be criticized for the music they choose to listen to is if the theology is corrupt. If you listen to the vanity of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” or the sex-obsessed “Bang Bang,” you should know how their destructive set of beliefs will affect you: garbage in, garbage out.

Listen to the words of the music you’re listening to: really listen, and determine if it’s garbage, or if it has a healthy theology that helps you become a better person and closer in your relationship to God.

*I want to note here that there are some corrupt theologies espoused in Christian music, too, from works righteousness to the naive and simply awful belief that if your faith is strong enough, bad things just won’t happen to you. You should absolutely listen critically to every single song that you listen to, don’t let the fact that it’s on Christian radio let your guard down.

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