If Christian music is not the same thing as music made by Christians, then what is it? I’d say the next most obvious candidate for a definition of Christian music is this: music with Christian subject matter. So if the song is about Jesus, salvation, faith, love, etc., then it must be Christian music. Right?
Well, no. The name of Jesus has been invoked in so many songs over the years, and very often his name is used in a way that bears no connection to the Jesus recorded in Scripture. The same goes for subjects like love, faith, salvation, and every other Christian term you can think of. So the presence of Christian subject matter is not a good gauge for the Christianness of a song.
Madeleine L’Engle (a Christian who writes fiction) frames the problem like this:
“A college senior asked if she could talk to me about being a Christian writer. If she wanted to write Christian fiction, how was she to go about it? I told her that if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she writes is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian, no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord.”
We must go beyond the presence of Christian subject matter and ask what is being communicated about those Christian themes.
But not only is the presence of Christian subject matter not an automatic indicator that the music is Christian, we also need to be careful not to restrict the music-making of Christian musicians to explicitly religious subjects. Leland Ryken is helpful here:
“If, in a Christian view, all of life is God’s, the Christian vision in art can encompass the whole range of human experience, just as the Bible does. Artists are free to portray the subjects they are best at portraying.”
Ryken rightly shows that the Bible talks about so many things that are not purely “spiritual” (e.g., marital love, the beauty of creation, or business). If the Bible freely explores “non-religious” issues, then shouldn’t we be free to do so in the music we make as Christians? Surely nothing in the Bible is unchristian, though many things in the Bible focus on subject matter that is not explicitly religious.
Here is how Ryken summarizes the Bible’s use of non-religious subject matter:
“Although worship is a frequent context for the art in the Bible, it is equally obvious that in the Bible the arts take all of life as their province. A work of art does not have to be about a ‘religious’ subject in order to be legitimate. Poetry can be about romantic love and nature as well as about God. Songs can be about harvest or can be purely instrumental. Artists can carve flowers or cherubim or oxen with equal sanction from God.”
Ryken also explains why making this distinction is important:
“It would be tragic if every Christian artist chose only [explicitly religious subjects] for portrayal. That would be tantamount to turning over to non-Christian artists the other great areas of human experience. The Christian faith has something to say about all of life, and Christian artists must subject all of life to the light of their faith. A Christian artist is Christian, not by virtue of his or her subject matter, but by virtue of the perspective that is brought to bear on the subject.”
Our definitions are very important. If we define Christian music as music with lyrics that focus on religious subject matter, then we are leaving the rest of God’s creation and the human experience to non-Christians. Surely everything God made is worth singing about. Our experience with the world is worth reflecting on. Ultimately, ever single thing in this world has theological ties. But we don’t need to explore the theology of flowers in every song. We can simply sing about their beauty.
So let’s discount “music that features Christian subject matter” as a good definition for what constitutes Christian music. Tomorrow I will consider the possibility that Christian music should be defined as music intended for Christian audiences.
 Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1980) 122.
 Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 197.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 210.