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