Can Christian Music be Secular? Or Secular Music Christian?

Preston Sprinkle —  March 22, 2011 — 9 Comments

What makes so-called Christian music, “Christian?” The answer that comes to mind—and one that I’m sure most readers of this blog would give—is that it sings about Christ. It praises God; it exalts Christ; it sings of his beauty, glory, salvation, and grace. Christian music is Christ centered through and through. It doesn’t focus on man, nor does it cherish the things on earth. Christian music is “heavenly” music since it focuses on all things divine.

While it would be hard to disagree with anything written above, I suggest that while Christian music includes all of this, a more holistic definition would include other things as well. Hear me out. What about the pains of life? What about injustice? What about, dare I say, our doubts? Can we write songs about these and call them Christian? What about those times when God feels distant, removed, or down right against us. It’s interesting that we have several biblical examples of songs that were written with this sort of ethos (or pathos), such as Psalm 88. This psalm quite shockingly expresses doubt, discouragement, pain, and frustration, and yet it never expresses hope that God will fix it! What was God thinking when he breathed out this hymn? Perhaps he was thinking that real people—even God’s people—sometimes feel such a way, and God has given them music as a creative form of expression to be real with the pain and frustration than a fallen world (often?) brings. I wonder what would happen if we began next Sunday’s worship with Psalm 88 set to music?

In any case, could we then include some music that is commonly considered secular to actually be Christian if we broaden our definition along the lines of Psalm 88? Take U2 for example (my favorite band!). They have a song called “Red Hill Mining Town” that alludes to the pain, frustration, and injustice that several hard working families experienced during a minors strike in Britain in the 1980s. It expresses the feelings and pain of real image bearers suffering the diverse effects of living in a falling world. If we include the fact that Bono, the lead singer, claims to be a Christian and is expressing his thoughts through a Christian worldview, then I would argue that Red Hill Mining Town is a Christian song—at least, along the lines of Ps 88 and other OT hymns. (Of course, we don’t know for sure if Bono is saved, but neither do we know for sure if many of the so-called Christian artists are saved either, and some of the power politics and quest for money, status, and fame that saturates Nashville raise serious questions about how Christ-centered Christian artists really are…but that’s for another blog.)

So bust out your latest U2 album and worship your Creator, for though we live in a broken world filled with pain and brokenness, we trust in a God of justice and compassion who will intervene to set the world to rights. May our tears in the present spur us on to cling to our hope of renewal in the future!

________________

Preston Sprinkle

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • reggie

    I was a huge fan of U2 for many years. But I can’t listen to them after they made the “Coexist” theme central to their tour a couple years ago. Pluralistic bilge for starters, but what made it worse was when at the climax of the show he sang “Jesus, Jew and Muhammed all true, sons of Abraham”.

  • Interesting post. The concern I have is that we have bands who now refer to themselves as a “band of Christians” rather than a “Christian band.” The “band of Christians” seem to be concerned with the mainstream. Their content is for the most part secular. Some of their songs though can be classified as “crossover” songs where evangelicals can glean spiritual truth from them while non-believers can relate to them as well through their worldview.

    Then there are some solo artists who are evangelical (we have seen some of them on American Idol in recent years). Some of these artists have done albums that cannot be classified as “Christian Music.” Furthermore, I have read some solo artists who are mainstream claim to be “a singer who happens to be Christian.”

    To take the flipside of this coin, consider someone like Carrie Underwood and her famous song “Jesus Take the Wheel.” This song can clearly be identified as “Christian” and even many Christian radio stations air this song. Yet, Underwood has made it very clear to the public she is not a believer in Christ.

    So, yes, secular artists can sing “Christian” songs and vice versa.

    My concern is that if you are a believer in Christ and have been given a platform to sing, why not use it for God’s glory? Why not be a “Christian singer” rather than a “singer who is a Christian?”

    • preston

      Liam,

      Thanks for dropping in! You raise some very good questions and concerns. There are a lot of things in your reply are worthy of an extended discussion, but let me just respond to a couple. In your final line, you say: “Why not be a ‘Christian singer’ rather than a ‘singer who is a Christian?'” In one sense I agree and would extend this question out to all vocations. Why be a Christian who is a businessperson, when you could run a Christian business? (No, not selling Jesus action figures, or bobbing-head Luther dolls!) A Christian business with a Christ-like salary scale (not based on a secular social hierarchical structure), a mission that places people before profits, and goes out of its way to ensure that your product benefits people and creation? Or why not be a Christian doctor (instead of a doctor who is a Christian), who charges enough to make a decent living but no more, works moderate hours so his family doesn’t suffer, and blesses the poor of the church with free (or reduced) health care cost?

      Some are doing this, for sure. But for some reason we get on Christian musicians who do something other than sing worship music, and yet are a bit softer all folks in other vocations.

      Also, regarding being a “Christian singer,” in my original post I was raising the question of what constitutes “Christian.” I would say that a Christian song is one that reflects or wrestles with some component of the Christian worldview. Again, if you go to the psalms and the different categories/genres therein, it’s easy to find a whole array of God-ward hymns that are actually much broader than the typical view of what constitutes a “Christian” song today. Like Psalm 88 (or we could throw in other hymnic pieces like Lamentations).

      • Preston,

        Thank you for your interesting response. You raised some good points back. Good discussion.

        You asked, “Why be a Christian who is a businessperson, when you could run a Christian business?” The premise behind the question is that it lies with the assumption that it is always possible to run a Christian business. Simply put, it is not. I am sure you would agree, God does place some in the business world where they can truly run a “Christian business” where they can hire only believers and operate their company according to biblical principles.

        Others are not in that position and are placed in your typical company and seek to be a “businessman who is a Christian” and seek to do their job based on Christian integrity.

        I would say back that in regards to Christian music, we are blessed to have an abundance of Christian record companies. The opportunity for an evangelical singer to be recorded with a Christian label and produce songs that are “Christian” in content is there.

        And yes as far as other vocations, there are “Christian doctors” who advertise as such and they run their own private practice where they have more freedom to operate their practice as “Christian.” Obviously a doctor who works for a large hospital or other health carrier does not have that ability.

        I also agree with you that what would constitute a “Christian song” is much broader than how many would define today. I also agree that Psalm 88 is an example of that along with even the imprecatory Psalms. Yet even in the first verse of Psalm 88, he says, “O Lord, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you.” He is still drawing attention to the Lord. Some of the “artists who are Christians” are singing songs that are secular and devoid of any biblical content. My concern and question is, why do that if you have an opportunity and public platform for Jesus (1 Cor. 10:31)?

  • I’m really fascinated by this issue. Jon Foreman has said things at different times that have really helped me wrestle through it also. His thoughts have more to do with the question of whether we can even call a song or a band “Christian” since the word is a noun. Here’s something he wrote years ago:

    “Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series?

    Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian?

    What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset?

    There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more “Christian” than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty. Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music. None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music.

    No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing. I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me. I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions.

    My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that. We all have a different calling; Switchfoot is trying to be obedient to who we are called to be. We’re not trying to be Audio A or U2 or POD or Bach: we’re trying to be Switchfoot. You see, a song that has the words: “Jesus Christ” is no more or less “Christian” than an instrumental piece. (I’ve heard lot’s of people say jesus christ and they weren’t talking about their redeemer.) You see, Jesus didn’t die for any of my tunes. So there is no hierarchy of life or songs or occupation only obedience.

    We have a call to take up our cross and follow. We can be sure that these roads will be different for all of us. Just as you have one body and every part has a different function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each of us belongs to all the others. Please be slow to judge “brothers” who have a different calling and thank you for reading.”

    Another time in an interview with the Boston Globe I think he equated using the term “Christian Band” with saying someone could be a “Christian Plumber” instead of just a person who does a particular kind of work as a Christian. So even the idea that the word “Christian” can be used as an adjective to describe a thing seems to miss the point of what it is to be Christian.

  • Joylissa

    Awesome!

    Thanks for this Preston. This is really encouraging for me!

  • I totally agree, there are a lot of “non-christian” songs that I relate to God with like Parachute, Brand New,Paramore and many others. I MAKE songs christian songs by thinking about God or heavenly things when I’m singing them, like Face Down by Red Jumpsuit, sometime I go as far as change the entire lyrics because I like the beat and rhythm, such as Good girls go bad by Cobra Starship into Bad girls go good. To the pure all things are pure titus 1:15…good stuff preston

  • mark

    Amen! We have a tendency to classify music as usefully Christian on the basis of what record label releases it rather than the themes and content of the music. Ultimately, the Bible has something to say about every theme discussed in modern culture. Rather than relying on a certain genre of music to tell us what is worth listening to, what if we began listening to bands like Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Mumford & Sons, and (even) U2 with a critical ear and a desire to engage people in the conversations that these bands are starting?

    I really think you’re introducing an important concept here, because it calls us to think critically about our culture and use discernment in deciding which aspects of culture can be affirmed and which need to be transformed in light of the gospel. Well said.

  • I agree! To be quite honest I’ve often times found God more in the secular music realm rather than the Christian music realm. Perhaps it’s because lyrical honesty is not as much of a liability in the secular. I think of former Caedmon’s Caller Derek Webb who, when he started going solo and speaking out musically about issues of poverty, social injustices, and holding the church accountable for failures of grace, love and mercy, he became the black sheep of CCM.

    What also comes to mind is The Divine Comedy’s song “Eye of the Needle”:
    “…The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German
    Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon
    And during communion I study the people
    Threading themselves through the eye of the needle
    I know that it’s wrong for the faithful to seek it
    But sometimes I long for a sign, anything
    Something to wake up the whole congregation…”

    It almost reads like a prophet.