Archives For What is Christian Music?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the seriesWhat is Christian Music?

We all know what Christian music is. We must. We use the term often. A google search for the phrase summons over 300 million results. Look for Christian music on iTunes. You’ll find songs, albums, artists, genres, apps, playlists, and more. If we use the phrase this much, we must know what it means. Right?

Give me your best definition of Christian music. Seriously, close your eyes and write a one sentence definition in your brain. I’ll give you a minute.

My guess is that this is more complicated that you may have thought. What is Christian music? Is it music made by Christians? Is it music featuring Christian subject matter? Is it music intended for Christian audiences? Some combination of the three?  The term “Christian music” is simple enough until we actually ask what it means. In this post and the next three, I’m going to explore what it really means for music to be Christian. I hope we’ll all be better people at the end.


Is it Music Made by Christians?

So what is Christian music? Is it music made by Christians? Sounds good right? But don’t get too excited yet. I have a few question for you.

Is every song that Christians write automatically Christian? Have you ever heard a Christian write a song that contains bad theology? I have. Have you ever heard a Christian write a song that doesn’t mention anything explicitly religious? I have.

And then here are some fascinating questions to add to the mix: Have you ever heard a non-Christian write a song that is explicitly religious? I’ve heard tons. Have you ever heard a non-Christian write a song that contains solid theology? I have.

Francis Schaeffer explains what is happening here:

“Just as it is possible for a non-Christian to be inconsistent and to paint God’s world in spite of his personal philosophy, it is possible for a Christian to be inconsistent and embody in his paintings a non-Christian world-view. And it is this latter which is perhaps the most sad.”[1]

The reality is, you can listen to a non-Christian musician and learn a lot about God and the world he made. Of course, we don’t uncritically accept every lyric we hear. Far from it. But all musicians are made in the image of God, and all musicians experience the world as God made it. They’re going to see something true about God’s world from time to time (often, even), and those truths are going to find their way into music made by non-Christians. So something “Christian” is going to show up in the music that non-Christians write.

And Schaeffer’s second point, which he thinks is “the most sad,” is also important to keep in mind: Christians often think, say, and create things that are contrary to God’s truth. Here’s a valuable life lesson for you: don’t believe everything you hear on Christian radio. Just because it came from a Christian label (or a Christian artist, or a Christian minister) doesn’t mean it actually fits the Christian worldview. So something “unchristian” is going to show up in the music that Christians write.

Of course, Christians are going to be looking at God’s world in light of God’s revelation, so they are bound to see the truth more clearly than their non-Christian counterparts. Even so, the situation is far from cut and dry. If we’re looking to classify Christian music, we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.

Because of these complications, I suggest that we rule out “music made by Christians” as a definition for “Christian music.” But don’t worry. We have other options which we will explore in the following posts. Maybe Christian music is music that features Christian subject matter. Or maybe it’s music intended for Christian audiences. Or something else. We’ll see.


[1] Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Volume Two: A Christian View of the Bible as Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 1982) 402.

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the seriesWhat is Christian Music?

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1980) 122.

[2] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 197.

[3] Ibid., 61.

[4] Ibid., 210.

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the seriesWhat is Christian Music?

We run into problems when we try to define Christian music as either “music made by Christians” or “music with Christian subject matter.” Perhaps a third definition will give us better results.

Maybe Christian music is music directed at Christian audiences. This one sounds a bit more plausible. After all, we have a Christian music industry, complete with its own labels, bands, radio stations, and distributors. I’m sure if you asked industry leaders who their music is for they would keep their categories broad. But in reality, they’re marketing to Christians. So that’s it, right? Christian music is that which is produced by the Christian music industry for Christian audiences. Right?

I’m not convinced this is the best definition either. Consider the way Madeleine L’Engle responds to an aspiring writer asking how to best write for Christian women:

“I wrote back, somewhat hesitantly, that I could not tell her, because I do not write my books for either Christians or women. If I understand the Gospel, it tells us that we are to spread the Good News to all four corners of the world, not limiting the giving of light to people who already have seen the light. If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer. We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it. If our lives are truly ‘hid with Christ in God,’ the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write. What we are is going to be visible in our art, no matter how secular (on the surface) the subject may be.”[1]

She’s probably overstating things a bit. There is a good and proper place for messages and music aimed at a Christian audience. But this type of music should not be the sum total of what we will consider to be Christian music. Solid Christian people are writing about their faith, their God, and their experience with God’s world, and they are doing so for the benefit of the world at large, not just those who are already Christian. Should we not consider their music to be Christian as well?

Edward Knippers is a Christian painter. His paintings are largely narrative paintings of biblical events. But even though his paintings feature Christian subject matter, he does not see his primary audience as Christians:

“My calling is not necessarily to the Christian community. My paintings can and have benefited Christians and I hope that they will continue to do so. But Christians are not my target audience. Contrary to what many people think when they first see my paintings, I am not making Sacred Art, which I would define as art intended for worship and the sanctuary. My art is religious, but why should that exclude it from the public square? I see my job as an artist as making an art powerful and engaging enough that the society at large must deal with it.”[2]

Inherent in the Christian calling is an obligation to take the Christian message to everyone on earth. So if Christian music is only that music which is targeted to other Christians, then “Christian music” must be a small sliver of the music that Christians produce. As I said, I think there is a helpful place for this type of music, but we should not assume that music that is intended for a broader audience is somehow unchristian.

With that, we have discounted what I would consider to be the most obvious candidates for a definition of Christian music. On Monday I will tie all of this together and give my own thoughts on what we should consider Christian music to be.


[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1980) 122.

[2] Edward Knippers, “The Old, Old Story” in Ned Bustard, ed., It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, 2nd edition (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2006) 69.

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesWhat is Christian Music?

We use the term “Christian music” as though we are confident about what it means, but most of us would be hard pressed to come up with a good definition of precisely what Christian music is. I think we can rule out three common definitions for Christian music: it’s not necessarily music made by Christians, it’s not music that features Christian subject matter, and it’s not necessarily music directed at Christian audiences (follow these links to read my qualms with each of these potential definitions).

So what is Christian music? Before I give my final thoughts, I have a couple of clarifications.


Clarification #1

For one thing, our definition of Christian music can’t focus on a distinction between the sacred and the secular. This distinction is common, and it may be useful in some cases, but too often it leads Christians to the assumption that there are some parts of our world that God cares about, and some parts that he doesn’t. It makes us believe that things like worship and obedience belong in one sphere of life, while in the other sphere we follow the dictates of science or government or philosophy or psychology.

The Bible insists that all of life is God’s. This world and literally every thing in it belong to God, and he cares deeply about every part of the world he made. Every action, every thought, every breathe must be submitted to the lordship of Christ. So there are really no purely secular areas of life. God demands every part of our lives and every part of our societies.

Christian music cannot be thought of as sacred music as opposed to secular music. Madeleine L’Engle says it well:

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”[1]

In other words, because Jesus came to earth and took on human flesh, we know for certain that no part of the human experience is too “secular” for God to take an interest in. This is also reflected in the mission of the church. Daniel Siedell explains:

“The church is not a religious sphere separated from the realities of the world but reveals the world’s true meaning and significance.”[2]

Furthermore, getting to know the “secular” spheres in our world is a means of getting to know the world God made. So is such exploration really secular? Philip Graham Ryken explains:

“Some Christians continue to think that certain forms of art are more godly than others. They make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, not recognizing that so-called secular art is an exploration of the world that God has made, and therefore has its place in deepening our understanding of God’s person and work.”[3]


Clarification #2

The other major issue to get past is that we are destined for trouble when we try to use the word “Christian” as an adjective. A Christian is a follower of Jesus. In what sense is music (or a t-shirt, workplace, or radio station) a follower of Jesus? I don’t want to make too big of a point here because I think the term Christian can be used descriptively of these types of things, but I do want to point out that we’re bound to have some category problems. There is a difference between saying that Paul was a Christian and saying that a song is Christian. Let’s keep that in mind.


Well, I had hoped to wrap this series up right here and now, but I’ve gone too long. To give you some hope that this won’t go on forever, let me assure you that I have already written the concluding post (including my definition), and it’s scheduled for tomorrow. I’m guessing it’s going to provoke some disagreement (but hopefully some profitable thought processes as well).


[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1980) 50.

[2] Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) 139.

[3] Philip Graham Ryken, Art For God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006) 34.

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the seriesWhat is Christian Music?

What is Christian music? For a summary of all of the definitions I have discarded, along with a couple of important clarifications, click here. In this post, I’m just going to come right out with my definition of Christian music. Here it goes:

I think it’s a bit of a mistake to have a single category called “Christian music.” When we listen to music, I think what we really want to know about it is the extent to which it is faithful to God and the world he made. First, is it truthful? What does it tell us about God? What does it say about God’s world? About the people God made? Does the song embody truth? Second, is it beautiful? Does it make use of the artistic gifts that God gave the artist? Does it capture the beauty of God and his world?

I suggest we take songs on a case by case basis and decide whether each song faithfully presents or interacts with God and his world. When a song tells lies or embodies ugliness, then it is not ultimately Christian, whether it claims to be or not. It rejects the Christian view of the world. When a song tells the truth or embodies beauty, then it is in some sense Christian, whether it claims to be or not. It affirms the Christian view of the world.

And keep in mind that very often a single song will be true or beautiful in one respect, yet simultaneously false or ugly in another respect.

This means that we’re going to have a hard time drawing a box around what should be considered Christian music. We’re talking about a continuum, not a category. And beyond that, we’re going to disagree on how faithful to God and his world each individual song is. I might find Radiohead particularly profound and/or beautiful at a certain point, and you might think just the opposite. That’s okay. I believe the diversity in our perception of beauty actually glorifies God. There are so many facets to the beauty in the world God made that it takes every person on earth to fully appreciate all of it. Even then, we’re coming up unbelievably short (think of the farthest reaches of space or the deepest parts of the ocean—they contain unbelievable beauty, but no one is there to appreciate it).

I’m not alone in arguing for the continuum approach. I got the idea from Leland Ryken:

“Such a scale allows us to analyze, not whether a work is Christian or non-Christian, but the levels at which a work engages (if it does at all) the Christian view of reality. It is useful, in fact, to speak of the ways in which a work of art intersects with Christianity.”[1]

I think this means that the most “Christian” music of all is going to come from those whose hearts, minds, and aesthetic sensibilities have been transformed by the gospel, who take seriously the task of presenting God and his world as creatively and beautifully as possible.

But this doesn’t discount the rest of the music world. Sigur Ros, for example, has often given me a sense of the beauty and tragedy of life on earth. As far as I know, they have no religious motivation. But they see something true about the world, they make use of the creativity that God placed within them (though they may not acknowledge him as the source), and the resulting music fits well within my Christian worldview.

And by the same token, the worship band that re-re-re-records Chris Tomlin’s songs with barely adjusted instrumentation may be singing something true about God and his world, but their approach to music-making is denying the creativity and beauty they are called to pursue. So they simultaneously affirm aspects of my Christian worldview and deny others.

So enjoy the goodness of God’s creation wherever it is to be found. Enjoy God’s good gift of music. Seek that which is faithful to God and the world he made, that which is true and beautiful. But always do so with discernment. Ultimately, everything in God’s world is worth singing about, and everything is worth thinking deeply about.


[1] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 199.

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