All music that is made by humankind is both expressive and subjective. Expressive, because that is the nature of music – to convey through song a thought, feeling or experience. Subjective, because someone has to be the one to write, compose and perform the tune. All forms of art carry these two primary qualities and for this reason it is fair to say that all music is always creative and always flawed (both attributes coming in varying degrees, of course). Creative in the sense that it came from within someone’s heart and mind – as opposed to being something that already existed (i.e., trees, love and despair are ongoing realities of life, but each new song about trees, love or despair are new creations). In addition, there is at least some level of imperfection or flaw in every song’s message, just as there is with everything else that humanity creates or designs – because we are imperfect creatures. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be beautiful or convey truth. All it really means is this: if God didn’t create it, than it is less than perfect.
Because of the assumptions laid out above, I believe music doesn’t require spiritual categorization: especially Christian versus non-Christian categories. I am not saying it is wrong to try to make these distinctions (I do it all the time, simply out of habit). In many ways, we are forced to do it at some level (picking church service songs, etc.) All I’m saying is that it is too difficult to get it exactly right and it is unimportant to try. Now some readers might gasp or frown at this last statement. Please understand that I intend to offer an alternative to categorizing music as Christian or not and I will give reasons why it isn’t helpful to force these distinctions.
First, some reasons why Christian categorizations for music are not helpful. By the way, by categorization I do not include musical styles (jazz, pop, punk, etc.); instead, I am only referring to placing a song in either Christian or non-Christian categories. Now then, if I claim a song or artist to be Christian, what am I claiming? Are their levels of holiness and infallibility involved in this kind of claim? Or is their trustworthiness assumed and given, despite a lack of testing and biblical checking? And who decides these things for all of us? You can see how these questions foster an attitude of judgmentalism and over-analysis. There shouldn’t be these things involved in music, but I believe many people apply an unhealthy level of this kind of thinking towards music that is labeled Christian. A Christian song is not the same thing as a Bible verse, yet how many of us can claim that we are spiritually impacted more by verses than the songs we choose to listen to? If we’re all honest with ourselves, we can at least agree that the temptation to be formed more by our music than Scripture is definitely there. So music is indeed important, but trying to assign universal spiritual value to someone else’s expression of art or worship is a slippery slope.
Another reason categorization doesn’t help is because it usually doesn’t help the artist. So many music artists today are trying not to be labeled, simply because it hurts their livelihood. Music artists who are Christians trying to use their music as ministry are also feeling this tension between adhering to a label and the freedom that comes without having one. Music today is becoming more and more un-industrious, meaning there are less record label contracts and more Kickstarter projects, less manufacturing of what the masses want and more independent expressions that comfortably fit in the thousands of small niches that exist today. We even have niches for “city country music” and other paradoxical themes that simply didn’t exist before. Christian labeling and categorizing doesn’t help the artist nearly as much as it used to.
So what should the Christian do about music, if saying that music is either Christian or non-Christian doesn’t help us anymore? How do we wade through the mountain of mp3s that are so accessible and affordable today? How do we guard our hearts and steer towards the songs that enhance our worship and broaden our view of the One True God?
My solution is not complex and it is not new. It is simply this: like all other forms of expression (books, film, speakers, etc.) we must put all of it through the grid of Scripture. You can find truth in a Christian song, but you can also find falsehood. Likewise, you can find truth in a non-Christian song sometimes. Why bother making general distinctions about whether or not the song came from a “Christian” artist or label? Whatever the source, each of us ought to measure a tune’s value by the Word of God.
We often times make the mistake of assuming that it is the musicians job, if he/she claims faith in Christ, to present the full Gospel (complete with the most obvious churchy words) in every song. That is like asking a Christian pie maker to bake an evangelism tract into every pie! Would that really be considered better stewardship or better faithfulness? All Christians are indeed called to evangelize the lost, but we are NOT expected to produce a four-point outline of how someone can be saved with every breathe we take. Music artists are not inherently evangelists – no more so than pie makers. Certainly, many artists who are Christians see a calling on their lives to evangelize through their music, but it is not a prerequisite.
On the flipside, non-Christians who express themselves honestly in music can sometimes stumble upon a biblical truth and convey it with power and beauty. Paul talks about people “accidently” preaching Christ, even though they don’t have Christ in their hearts. Nevertheless, God is glorified in it anyway, if it entails the absolute truth of Scripture. It is true to think that this would be a rare thing in the secular music world, but not impossible.
What I am proposing is important for a few reasons: 1) it protects our hearts better. We are not as likely to be deceived by a heretical “Christian” song if we are not trying to just follow music categories already made for us, but instead challenging all songs by the standard of the Bible; 2) it causes us to sharpen our biblical framework, so that we are ready to discern any given song against God’s Word; 3) it gives the artist a better chance to be heard objectively. We are never fully objective, but knocking down our preconceived stereotypes certainly helps; 4) it puts the onus on us, the listeners, to filter in (or out) music in a constructive way. This is appropriate when dealing with the realm of art and media (as opposed to the realm of preaching and organized religion); and finally, 5) it enhances our worship because it forces us to discern and decide whether or not a song glorifies God faithfully, as opposed to assuming that labels and leaders have already done that for us. If my biblical antennas are up while I listen to music, then I will be more likely to get the right message from the right tunes.
In conclusion, the believer in Christ should be a hunter of excellent art that pulls out the appropriate expressions of the life and color of Gospel truths. There is no debate that art is powerful and it can be a great force for spiritual good. At the same time, wrong music can deceive, ensnare and defeat us in significant ways. Both kinds of music can come from any source at any time – and that is what labeling dangerously leads us to forget. This truth should encourage us to strengthen our Scriptural grid that we lay over our eyes, ears and heart. We should not pre-label our music (legalism), nor should we go to the other extreme and strain “truth” out of every song (license). Be fair, be open, be sober and cautious…but above all, be biblical! I truly believe that this is the best path towards the greatest amount of beauty in music, which would give God the most glory.
Sincerely, TruthinTunes guy
P.S. I intentionally left out musical examples from this article. I researched many other writings that attempted to address the same question as I did here and each time they used examples to make their point I found that the subjectivity and lack of balanced perspective took away from their arguments. Art is meant to be discerned and criticized, but this article should serve more as a primer for how to do that as a Christian, not a lecture about what grade to give every song that’s out there (and there are actually websites that do this). Feel free to comment below about specific songs or ask me what I think about any given song. You’ll also get a better idea of some songs that I like by reading other articles on this blog.