Christian Music – Part 1
NOTE: Please scroll to the end of the photos for the article. I’ve included some publicity photos of current groups to show people that aren’t familiar with the industry what it currently looks like. Decide for yourself what images and messages these photos are communicating. And don’t miss the insightful comments at the end from readers like you. – Waitsel
I disciple fourth grade boys. Today, in Kids Worship, we were treated to a “Christian rap” song. The whole time it was playing, I was thinking, “Is this appropriate for church?” or, more importantly, “Is it appropriate for fourth graders?” There are certain associations that go along with certain types of music. In this case, I was wishing I had a leather jacket to wear and some guys’ heads to knock together. I wanted to be with my gang – I don’t have a gang! – and I wanted to rumble. Since I don’t normally have such thoughts, I believe it was the music – yes, even though it had Christian lyrics.
I believe that artistic forms carry their own message and inspire emotions; and, since there are good messages and bad ones, good emotions and bad ones, I assume there are good artistic forms and bad ones. But that is not a commonly held belief. As a musician friend of mine once stated, “There is no such thing as ‘Christian music’ – just Christian lyrics.” I don’t believe that. I believe I can tell a lot about an artist and who he serves (i.e., his god) just from the style of his music, artwork, film, marriage, business or whatever you care to name that comes under the heading of “culture.” Style demonstrates lordship; or, as Marshall McLuhan so famously put it, “The medium is the message.”
So, the message is not just about the words or images, but about the medium itself: the style, the composition, the rhythm, the texture, the colors, the “feel” – everything. I can tell that Rembrandt was a Christian just by the way he handled light in his paintings – separate from his Christian themes. I can tell Picasso was not a Christian, and that he had a huge ego problem – separate from his “bull” themes. (He represented himself in his paintings with the image of a bull, which dominates many of them.) I can tell that Van Gogh loved nature and nature’s God, simply by the way he used color; but I can also tell that he struggled psychologically and emotionally – separate from some of his disturbing imagery.
Musically, it is clear that Tchychovski was a slave to his emotions, that Beethoven had an anger issue, that Mozart was a control freak and that Bach admired God’s order. Their styles betray them; their mediums deliver these messages separate from any words or images. Would it be any less true of modern musical forms? Since God wrote the laws that govern everything in the universe, wouldn’t the way we apply or fail to apply those laws determine our style – both individually and as a culture? Wouldn’t it also determine our success, as far as communicating God’s love?
To say there is no such thing as Christian music, you might as well say there is no such thing as Christian marriage. It is not the content of the marriage – one man and one woman – that make the marriage Christian; it is the style, the how of it. The style of a Christian marriage is vastly different from the style of a non-Christian marriage, even though both couples may do many of the same things. It is how they do them that differs. One does what they do for the glory of God; the other, for the glory of man. One does what they do out of unconditional love; the other, out of selfishness. Don’t you think that music and art – and all of life’s pursuits – are the same?
The German writer Goethe called architecture “frozen music.” There is no Christian architecture – no architecture, period – like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. If they’re not frozen music, I don’t know what is. Was there anything in the secular world to compare with them? Nothing, they were totally unique. Was there anything in the secular world to compare with the music of Bach? No, his music was unique. Was there anything in the secular world to compare with the painting of Rembrandt? No – again, unique.
So, what is it with Christian music, Christian film, Christian anything today that we cannot come up with one original idea, as far as form or style? Why is everything we do an imitation of something we’ve seen or heard in the secular world? Why do we slap Christian words or Christian images on a secular form and say, “Good enough?” Have we changed so much since Bach and Rembrandt’s day? I say we have. We have forgotten that everything God does is original, that Christ is THE original, and that the Holy Spirit is the source of original ideas. We’ve forgotten that Christ said we should put new wine into new wineskins; so, we continue pouring the new wine of Christ’s message of love and forgiveness into the old wineskins of worldly forms. And they continue to break, by the way.
We so desperately want to be accepted by the world. We think, naively, that somehow, if the world thinks we’re cool, they’ll accept us and the message we bring. Is that how Christ or Paul thought? Did Christ care one hoot if people thought he was cool. Not one. Did Paul? Oh, but Paul said, “Become all things to all men.” Was he talking about music styles, marriage or anything else in culture? I don’t think so. He was talking about attitude, getting involved with people and accepting them where they were. It’s okay for you to like rap music – I will still accept you. But I don’t have to play that music for my kids so you’ll accept me!
We’ve got it all twisted around backwards. We are supposed to be imitating God and the world is supposed to be imitating us – not the reverse. How are we ever going to listen to God, the way Moses did when God gave him the plans for the Tabernacle, or the way David did when God gave him the plans for the Temple, if we’re looking at and listening to the world? It’s not going to happen. God is not going to give us a “God idea,” the way He did the Kendrick brothers who made Fireproof, if we’re busy imitating the world. God is our “idea man;” not Wired Magazine, Communication Arts or any of the other secular sources for ideas out there. It is God, and Him alone.
I pray that I live to see the day when a Christian musician comes up with a new musical form, a new musical style. Of course, when they do, everybody and their brother will copy it. There is no reason that every Christian musician shouldn’t have a totally unique style and work in a totally unique form. God is that big. That would mean that each would have his own unique message. Wouldn’t that be different. I know what’s going to happen: people are going to e-mail me saying things like, “Dude, you need to listen to so-and-so.” I don’t think so. So-and-so is just imitating someone in the secular world you’ve never heard before. Trust me. When someone steps out and believes God to do something totally different, it won’t happen in some corner somewhere: it will be on center stage in the biggest venue you’ve ever heard of, and it will be shouted from the rooftops the next day. If you keep your eyes on Christ, you could be that person.
Waitsel Smith, September 29, 2008
For more on Christian Music, go to my Christian Music page.
For more on Christian Culture, go to my Culture website.
Text © 2008 Waitsel Smith. Photos © 2008 Jesus Freak Hideout. All Rights Reserved.
COMMENTS FROM READERS LIKE YOU:
[Send me yours and I’ll include them on this page.]
Here’s something you might find interesting. I got a ton of responses from people on this article. Approximately one-third were from women and two-thirds from men. Of the women, virtually 100% were positive. The men were divided almost 50/50. Of the men who were negative, they almost all thought music was a matter of taste, and that there was nothing spiritual about it. I find this extremely fascinating, because almost all the women mentioned the spiritual nature of music.
Now, I could almost draw some conclusions from this:
1) women are more spiritual than men
2) women give more consideration to what they “take in” than men do
3) women are more concerned about what their children are being exposed to than men
4) women are more thoughtful in general
One thing I do know from observing my fellow males: we will eat, drink, watch and listen to almost anything put in front of us. I find this extremely disheartening, especially when it comes to the things of God; because, in that regard, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. Yet, God made us heads of our homes. Go figure. – Waitsel
I don’t know what prompted me to go to this particular article out of all the links from your “Culture” page… but I have to tell you that I found it to be very inspirational and deeply meaningful. I just wanted to thank you.
As a long-time graphic artist and more recently a fledgling guitar player, this article really spoke to me and I will go so far as to say it legitimately changed me and my outlook, in a positive way. I have always been in wonderment of the “creative spark”, and how time seems to disappear when you really “get into” one of those special moments. Many times I have stood in awe after painting or designing something, knowing full well that it came from more than “just me”, and having no idea that time just went whipping by for a bit as well. Many times I have been playing guitar and lost myself into it, and then am in awe while I’m playing… aware that it is more than “just me” coming out of it. For me personally, this very aspect of the creative spark is the first thing that caused me to have true wonderment and self-promoted curiosity into what can only be attributed to something you know is beyond yourself. And I don’t mean the “knowledge” from growing up in a Christian household or going through confirmation or what-have-you… And I don’t mean “belief” in the abstract way that the word belief kind of implies having faith in something you cannot verify… I mean a real knowing that is just as real as knowing if someone just slapped you in the face or gave you a kiss.
And you really pegged it with mentioning Rembrandt and Bach… but neither seems to be even remotely relatable to a younger audience. I’m 40 right now, so I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and was a young adult in the 90’s. So even in my generation those kinds of things were just not anywhere near the realm of coolness, and you don’t even give them a chance or a glance until you get older and quit worrying so much about what others think and start thinking and feeling for yourself.
I too would like to see some modern-day “cool” music that somehow communicated a Christian message without just tying a message onto music that is definitely a long way from anything like divinity. To portray that message without having to be blatant about it, too. And somehow portray it, or somehow give a glimpse into what a divine feeling feels like. I think music and art can do that. It should be possible to come up with that musical form or that musical style! And this article has inspired me to at least try to do it myself. Christian lyrics slapped on secular music doesn’t mean much to me. But if the thing the music makes you feel can portray a Christian message and a sense of knowing the divine connection? That would be awesome! Just sticking Christian lyrics on top of regular hard rock and rap is like me sticking a Jesus bobble-head on my dash and touting that it improves my driving. That’s just not honest.
So again, thank you for the inspiration. Very cool article! – Danny, Wisconsin
I know you have written negatively about rap music. I am finding that some artists are living examples of taking that genre captive and making it obedient to Christ. Their theology is solid. Curious about your take on this. – Brian, Atlanta
I would say that Danny pretty well sums up my feelings in his comment above. Tacking Christian lyrics onto a secular musical form just doesn’t cut it. And I know – Martin Luther used drinking songs, blah, blah, blah. But, as he himself put it, he was later “compelled to let the devil have them back again.” – Waitsel
I know how you feel. Kinda like when I’m listening to old German bar tunes… oh wait they’re now called hymns. Or beautiful, inspiring arias from Italian Opera… about gang rape, incest, or adultery. You see, I don’t disagree that music affects emotion, tone, theme, and even our physiology. As a film composer, I spend most of my time creating music to do that very thing. I do, however have an issue with the idea that music is, in and of itself, good or evil. A granite rock can be crafted into a beautiful carving. This piece of stone can be used to build a church or bludgeon an innocent man to death. There is a difference between content and culture. The music that existed at the time of the early Christian church would most likely sound very strange to our ears today, and would certainly not sound like 19th century hymns. Unfortunately, your reaction to Christian rap music is very likely because you culturally and pschologicaly respond to this music in terms of the offensive rap that you’ve either been exposed to or heard about. But what about the aggresive nature of rap? If all the rap you had ever heard spoke of aggresively pursuing Christ, you might have a different opinion. What about certain operatic pieces in classical music. Though musically beautiful and even “inspiring”, some of the content of these pieces is downright pornographic. Their is a huge difference, morally between Handel’s “Messiah” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, even though both are great works of classical music. So I guess, for me it still comes down to Philipians 4:8 “Finally brothers, whatever is true. whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praisworthy – think on these things”. I know people who apply this verse who listen to “inspirational” music all day long, and others who live by these words who are heavily into Christian metal, wear leather and piercings.
Content vs Culture – John, Film Composer / Sound Designer
I repeat what I said about Luther above – eventually he was “compelled to let the devil have [those German bar tunes] back again.” I think, John, that you are mistaking form for raw material. While stone and music are raw materials, a church building and rap music are forms. I am not judging raw materials; I am judging forms. That’s what critics do. I am saying that some forms are better for communicating God’s Word and love than others. To use your analogy, a stone can be used to produce a church building or a bludgeon. Which is a better form for a place of worship? Then why would we not think that some forms of music are better suited for worhip than others? We use logic and good judgement when it comes to some disciplines, but when it comes to music, we want to throw logic and judgement out the window and become all emotional. Music is a dicipline like any other, and we need to approach it the same way we do other disciplines. – Waitsel
So, if I understand you correctly, it’s not that you’re opposed to music that is different or has a variety of themes, moods, or styles. It’s music that is written, only as a Christian version of a secular style (especially a style that embraces sinful behavior) as opposed to truly inspired by God. I agree that, as Christians, ultimately our hearts, minds, and creativity should be captive to God. At the same time, I can’t help but be affected by the words, art, and yes music of many people, cultures, and styles. Even if I were to listen to only Christian composers and songwriters, I would still be listening to music created by sinners. Saved by grace, to be sure, but still imperfect, selfish, tainted, sinners and they would have gotten their ideas from other composers who got theirs from others who ultimately would be affected by the imperfection and sin of this world. Does that then make all human music unacceptable… of course not. No more than we would have to eliminate ourselves from any scenario where a perfect environment free from sin could exist. I guess ultimately, I’m in agreement with you..sort of. But I think it’s very important that people don’t confuse the moral nature of music (right or wrong, honoring or sinful) with stylistic and cultural differences. I’ve known people who not only thought that any contemporary style of music was sinful because it had a beat, they felt that black gospel music was sinful because the dynamics used and tonal range was dishonoring to God! – John, Film Composer / Sound Designer
Dear Waits–I find your article compelling as does Danny [above]. I especially like his observation: “Just sticking Christian lyrics on top of regular hard rock and rap is like me sticking a Jesus bobble-head on my dash and touting that it improves my driving.”
Good point. I heartily agree. I can also see John’s point that we just have such negative emotions attached to the awful lyrics of gangsta’ rap, etc., that we automatically assume that it’s all bad… There’s something to be said for that as well, but I do think there are certain rhythms, etc. that are intrinsically detrimental to the human psyche. For example, some of the drumming rhythms used in voodoo worship that foster demonic possession. If, as we know, Lucifer was actually head of musical worship in the heavenlies before he was cast out because of his rebellion, why wouldn’t we think that, as Satan, he would try to pervert musical forms to be detrimental to mankind? Just a thought. – Stanley, South Carolina
I agree wholeheartedly! You may be able to get a certain element of the population to listen initially, but I’m sorry – God is not “cool”- God is GREAT! – Kathy
Keep saying it, Waitsel! I totally agree! And it’s already an uphill challenge to make sure my four grandchildren (ages 4 to 8) see and hear only appropriate, God-honoring things! Thanks! – Jan
Waitsel, I agree with your concerns and questions about ‘Christian music” for young people. These questions are why my wife and I after over 25 years with our church have struggled to attend “on time”. The music is not worshipful in our eyes or hearts. It is an activity within the worship service that entertains the audience. The talent level of the members leading this portion of the service is off the charts in terms of musical skills. These are gifts from God that can be used in many other arenas like in a car or at a party. I however feel that Sunday morning worship is not one of those places.
Sit and listen to the audience participation on the old standard Christian songs sung, then listen to the new ones being sung. A big difference in participation and worship if we are truly singing praises to our Lord. God does not need mankind to show off his or her talents, he wants praise and worship. The quicker Christians learn the value of music in our churches and Sunday schools the quicker our children will learn and respect that also.
There is nothing wrong with change if change is needed to better serve God. To change to attract seekers is to lower the worship standards of God’s people that I feel is a disservice to God. – Rocky, Atlanta
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You will be attacked for saying these kinds of things, but you are so right. Christian music has suffered tremendously in recent years, and as you put it Christians are mirroring the world instead of Christ. That is my number one concern, that we glorify God in a biblical manner. A verse that comes to mind is what God said to a wayward Israel through his prophet, Amos 5:23: “Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy violins.”
I’m sharing this one! So powerful, and so desperately needed for the Church to hear and wake up to what’s happening. – Paul, North Carolina
Well put, Waits. I totally agree with the points you made re: Christian music and culture, and I’m glad you are making these points to the 4th graders you disciple. – Jack, Atlanta
For me personally, I am in total agreement with you. Obviously you don’t know me, but I believe that I am one who doesn’t really care what the world is doing and my motto is to “creatively glorify God.” I believe that we Christians should be the ones leading the way in creative ventures as we are all “little creators” (all humans) but we are the ones with the Holy Spirit who should be guiding us into amazing, creative ventures for God. So we are most likely in agreement here. However, when I look at those pictures from your article and start to feel that judgement coming, I usually remember that they are running the race just like me and I have no business passing judgement on them, unless they are in obvious sin. Is it a sin to look like the world in order to reach the world? No, Paul himself said that he became like the world (not of the world) in order to reach the world (1 Cor 9:20-22). – Dan
Totally agree – I think the bass beat speaks louder to kids than the words do, and creates primal responses that the kids don’t understand and even we, adults, cannot fully harness. We raise kids who mirror the culture and spout I am “in” the world but not “of” the world, while their headphones pump to gang philosophical tones. And the only difference between them and their non-believing friends is the cross hanging around their neck. I think we discombobulate our kids minds sometimes in kids ministry and make it all look the same. Shame shame shame. – Virginia, Atlanta
Ok, Waitsel… NOW YOUVE DONE IT!!!
This is a HUGE, HUGE thing with me as a Christian who is gifted as a musician, and I 100% agree with your excellent points!!! We’ve talked to a 1/2 dozen christian rappers here in seattle and made a biblical case for Jesus vs ‘the culture’ and rap in particular subjective taste vs biblical revelation and living every moment for Jesus!
I’ve taught and studied all the verses in scripture with music as context, historical analysis, church history, hymnology, mode development and scales, vocal theory, and music of the 1st and 2nd temple period. This is not small subject with me. There is a spiritual component behind or within or under all music and the objective proof is in the lives and beliefs of the musicians themselves as evidenced in the music they make. Know them by their fruits. I will say, having studied and consulted Jesus and the Godhead many times regarding this subject, the only combo that is fruitful for the Kingdom is a rightous attitude when coming from a sinner saved by grace thru faith in Jesus Christ, the only way to Heaven.
Would love to discuss subjective tastes and truth in more detail, but my heart and music is all about fulfilling Psalm 40:3 – Kurt, Seattle
I agree with you. I think music is moral, for sure, and have explored the subject scientifically as well. (Music does rely on natural scientific laws and principles!) I think a lot of problems with music have to do with the emphasis “backbeat,” when it is the driving force of a composition or song, and how it plays on the senses. In contrast, real melody has a completely different effect, that is, a spiritual one, a mental one.
Good music qua music glorifies the Creator, has a respect for life and is sound and rational (not mind-altering). If it has depth it can be expressive as well, moving to the soul. Since when did Christians become mirrors of the world instead of mirrors of Christ? With music, I think a lot of this happened in the 1960’s. Listen to most popular and film music of the 20s-50s in America, see what it evokes. I would argue the bulk of it has a strong moral presence. The bulk of music of the 60’s till now seems almost God forsaken in comparison.
Now it is important to understand that the nature of a “popular song” is Music and Lyrics. But all it takes is one of these ingredients to be perverted to taint the entire work of art. So much junk is tied up with the ordinary person’s perception of the music they listen to – pretensions, nostalgia (the bad kind), delusional fantasy – that I fear most people can’t listen to music as music, or poetry as poetry or the both together in a “popular song” or opera. Real music (and any art) is timeless and has a life of its own, reflecting the character of God. It is like the Lord, who is self-sufficient and free. Moreover, it would make sense that music like this would be truly worshipful. – Allen, Music Composer and Producer
I definitely do not wish to be deleted from your list. Your message about Christian music is right on the money. I’m thankful that there are still people like you around who feel that we should give our best in music offered in worship. Thanks, and God bless – Arno
Please slow down with the thought provoking stuff. It makes my head hurt! LOL – seriously, I’m still struggling with your blog about music. While on one hand I really don’t care for ‘Christian’ rap music in a church setting – on the other hand, I’m all for any art form being used to point people to Christ – as long as it is done in a tasteful way. Now, how you can take AC/DC styled music and do so is a tough nut to crack – but I for one am with Larry Norman in thinking “Why should the devil have all the great music?” (paraphrase on purpose)
Completely with you on Picasso’s artwork – I’ve never quite plugged into that genre of art (boy it’s strange), and am very much into realism and impressionism. It just has a more appealing call to me. Strangely enough, I do like the little I’ve seen of Escher and Dali – as the stuff I have seen has been thought provoking in a very good way. BTW – your art looks cool too!
So – as a parting shot, thank you for your blog, for making us think and sharing with us your experiences. More importantly – thanks for pointing folks to a right relationship with God. – John, Atlanta
I have to respectfully disagree. That argument is solely based on your opinion and reaction to certain styles of music. You cant generalize your reaction to apply to everyone else. Think about it this way: You have a successful rapper who has been involved in the industry for many years making questionable music. He is then introduced and accepts Jesus Christ as his savior. Are you saying he cant use the genre of music he has developed a skill for over the years to affect people for Christ? By limiting christian music to a certain style you are also limiting the audience. If we simply use christian music to reach christians, what are we accomplishing. Music is a powerful medium with which to affect the world. By limiting it to a certain genre, you are limiting the scope of a medium that can be powerfully used for the great commission. Everyone listens to music. And if we permeate every genre with a positive influence from both the lyrics and the artist, great things can be accomplished.
“Since when did Christians become mirrors of the world instead of mirrors of Christ?”
A mirror portrays something exactly for what it is. If christians mirrored the world then the lyrics and the attitude would be mirrored as well. This is not the case – the only thing that doesn’t change is the genre. What is added is a positive message and a positive influence. That is not a mirrored image. That is taking something that is not inherently evil and redeeming it for the purpose of reaching others for christ. – Matt
Thanks for all your great comments!