Listening in Faith: Challenging the Sacred and Secular Divide in Music
Immediately after convincing my parents to buy tickets for our family to the Radio 104.5 Seventh Birthday show I was struck by a rather large problem. None of the many bands that were going to be playing at the alternative rock concert were explicitly Christian. Both of my parents work in Christian ministry. I began to wonder if my plot to get them to pay for my tickets, cleverly disguised as a desire for more family time, was actually a good idea after all.
In the end, it was not a problem in the slightest. It was actually a rather silly concern. After all, my parents had been listening to secular music since before they were even my age. We all really enjoyed the concert and no problematic theological issues were even broached. Yet my concern is one felt by many Christians to whom I have talked. The way that some music is labeled explicitly Christian plays on the fear that listening to non-Christian music somehow makes you unworthy.
However, many Christians find this distinction unsatisfactory. Recently Jon Foreman, the lead singer of Switchfoot, wrote a brief essay explaining how his band will not write what the music industry and our culture define as Christian music. He argues singing about God does not make a song more Christian than any other, and one can glorify God through music indirectly, just as one can in their day-to-day life. This sentiment is shared by other Christians in the music industry, via Relevant Magazine, who lament the divide between the secular and the sacred.
This argument is certainly compelling, not least because it allows Christians to listen to a wider range of music that they otherwise might feel guilty about listening to. Yet while Foreman et al. may be correct in claiming music itself cannot be more or less Christian, and the word “God” does not have to be in a song to glorify him, the fact remains that many songs contain lyrics that explicitly advocate or condone beliefs or behavior that is contrary to what the bible teaches. Rather than embracing this music as acceptable, or dismissing it as sinful, I believe that we as Christians should think critically about what the purpose of our listening is, something that will challenge us to examine both the content of music and the nature of our relationship with God. As a potential guide, I will discuss how I listen to three songs, “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse, “Houdini” by Foster the People, and “Beautiful Day” by U2.
“Bukowski” is a song by one of my favorite bands, Modest Mouse, off their fifth studio album Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Modest Mouse consistently has one of the most interesting and energetic sounds of any band I know, and their lyrics are intelligent, clever, and cryptic in a way that makes me think, not in a way that goes way over my head. However, if the title of the album isn’t a tip off, they can get pretty dark in some of their songs, and “Bukowski” is no exception. The lyrics are some of the most problematic for me as a Christian of any song I know. Apart from using the Lord’s name in vain, the lyrics claim, “if God takes life he’s an Indian giver,” and asks, “who would want to be such a control freak?” after describing God’s might.
Enjoying this song a great deal, I am rather unnerved at the idea that I should stop listening to it almost as much as I am by the lyrics themselves. Yet, my faith informs the way I listen to music; it remains engaged, even when I start listening to something that couldn’t be played on Christian radio. Christian songwriter and producer Philip Larue points out that we can enjoy and be moved by art without believing every line. Although it is difficult to do in a song like “Bukowski,” my faith allows me to see elements of truth in it; questioning God does not get Modest Mouse struck by lightning whenever they perform the song, and their questioning is actually very Biblical. Now, I think Modest Mouse draws the wrong conclusions about God, and I certainly do not wish to emulate their theology. But I also do not want to condemn them, or the countless others who are asking questions of God. Instead I strive to emulate the unconditional love of Jesus in how I approach their music. One way that I can do that is to recognize their music and the experiences that helped them make it as valid, not worthy of merely being shunned by uppity Christians.
I still believe we should use discernment and wisdom in deciding what we should listen to, but just like Foreman and others, I think it is harmful to make a divide between Christian and non-Christian music. Labeling “Bukowski” as off-limits seems pretty closed-minded and not only deprives one of the joy of listening to the music in these songs, but also makes Christianity the religion of “taking the fun away” that many non-believers think it is. This, however, is a very personal decision, and comes after a great deal of thought about where I am in my faith and how the song will affect me. I am not going to lose my faith over this song, and so, I don’t plan on removing it from my Spotify playlists. But I do give the song a lot of thought and actively label and recognize the disturbing lyrics for what they are: a valid viewpoint of someone who is questioning God, but decidedly not something I believe.
The next song, “Houdini,” by Foster the People, is certainly less problematic for me, but it illustrates a larger problem that sometimes comes up when I listen to secular music. Most of the lyrics are pretty typical of alternative/indie rock music: they seem pretty artsy and poetic, but I struggle to find much personal meaning in them. I’m okay with that, as I usually find more enjoyment in the music itself anyway. But the next to last line of the song, “focus on your ability,” which may sound non-harmful, perpetuates a message that does not fit well with the message of Christ. The uplifting message of “Houdini,” which encourages its listeners to be the best person they can be, is certainly uplifting. However, from a Christian perspective, knowing that everyone is destined to fall short and sin if they try to live by themselves, this message may be more harmful than a cursory examination of the song would suggest.
Yet, taking seriously my conviction that there should be no divide between the secular and sacred when approaching music, I take my faith with me when I listen to the song. Instead of internalizing the uplifting message of “Houdini” as a suggestion to try my best in life by my own means, I recognize the gifts God has given me and “focus on [my] ability” in that way. The song still hits home for me and gives me a great deal of inspiration even though the way I internalize it is different from what the songwriters intended. As a follower of Christ, I make every effort to view the world through the lens of the word of God, and his Truth, and there is so much of that Truth in our culture that can be enjoyed, even if much of it is twisted or imperfect in some way. Cutting myself off from that would be tragic, but only as long as I can confidently appreciate a song in light of God’s goodness and not be tempted to take the message of the artists at face value.
The final song I want to examine is “Beautiful Day” by U2. If “Bukowski” makes me struggle and “Houdini” makes me think, then “Beautiful Day” make me rejoice in God’s creation. The song contains many lyrics that I simply do not understand, but also contains lyrics that talk about creation with resplendent imagery that cautions us against exploiting the Earth and encourages us to protect what is good. It makes it so easy for me to want to enjoy and fight for good things and appreciate what God has given us all. U2 does have Christian influences but they are still a secular band. Yet songs like “Beautiful Day” are more common in non-Christian music than many might think. Unlike the other songs to which I have to devote thought and effort in order to appreciate God and his goodness through, with “Beautiful Day,” after my initial examination of the lyrics, I can listen to it comfortably and internalize the meaning and message of the song completely, as I find it consistent with my understanding of God’s word. I find that, sometimes, I appreciate not having to think, and instead just enjoying my music.
This approach may not seem very compelling to non-Christians, but certainly there is content in a great deal of music that is troubling for non-Christians as well. I have discussed my take on how I believe music should be engaged with, one I hope might prove useful for someone holding any worldview. My chief point is merely this, that a keen engagement with a song is crucial in order to not only appreciate it fully. The worst thing you could do while listening to music is to turn of your brain and assume what you are listening to is okay, a temptation I know is all too real, because that is how messages and ideals creep in and influence you in ways you might not have thought possible. For me, the most important thing in my life is my faith, and that is the lens through which I view music, but for others it might be a cultural background or gender identity that informs how you listen. Wherever you come from, I urge you to take the lyrics seriously, and weigh the truth in them against how they might challenge your belief.
1. Foreman, Jon. Tumblr. http://whizzpopping.tumblr.com/post/6664742872/jon-foreman-when-asked-if-switchfoot-is-a
2.Mineo, Andy; Larue, Philip; Studarus, Laura; Barron, Andy; Huckasee, Tyles. “2015 New Music Guide.” Relevant, Mar/Apr 2015:http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/music/2015-new-music-guide
Image credit: Emily Moenning – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2014.Tags: art, beauty, Foster the People, Jon Foreman, love, Modest Mouse, music, Philip Larue, Relevant, Switchfoot, truth, U2