Almost every devout Christian knows at least one person who doesn’t listen to secular music. This is a very popular course of action for those who have attended a lot of youth retreats or who go to Christian colleges. I’ve heard about record burnings and commitments to throw away old CDs. The thinking behind this is obvious: “I won’t be corrupted. I’ll listen to only music that is ‘edifying.’ I must think about what is good and praiseworthy. Everything I do should be for the glory of God.”
Ironically, it’s when these individuals make this commitment… that they’re at their least holy in terms of attitudes and behavior. Oftentimes, they become judgmental, ignorant, hypocritical, and pushing of pre-marital sexual boundaries. They become self-flagellating, guilt-ridden Arthur Dimmesdales. I don’t see their spiritual lives improve. I don’t see non-Christians observing, “It’s so great that you just turned off my favorite radio station. You’re such a testament to Christ’s love.”
Whether or not the Bible supports a ban on secular music-listening is up to interpretation, of course. There is a seriously misplaced assumption underlying the screening of unedifying music—that not listening means not doing or thinking about. For example, a ton of secular songs deal with love, heartbreak, and longing. Are these unedifying things to think about? Well, if they are, it doesn’t show in the Christian community. Every Christian I know who’s made a commitment to abandon secular music still has crushes, heartaches, loves, losses, misunderstandings, etc. If you’re thinking about such things already, why not have a song to commiserate with? Why not know that you’re not alone?
More importantly, why don’t more Christian artists deal with in their music the everyday issues and thoughts even “holy” Christians face? The average Christian CD has eight songs praising God, one song lambasting some mysterious listener for not accepting Christ right now, and one song deprecating the self (“I don’t deserve you, Lord,” etc.). One of my favorite Christian bands, PFR, tends to have the usual selection of songs but also chooses to have one of their songs about the death of a dog named Goldie (“Goldie’s Last Day”). Is dealing with the death of one’s dog unholy, unedifying? Why can’t one do that in music? Music that ignores human woe, suffering, joys, concerns, and living is not “holy.” Look at David’s Psalms. Sure, he acknowledges God’s greatness and spends a great deal of time praising the Creator, but also cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Bottom line, unless a song says, “God doesn’t exist. He sucks!” who’s to say it’s unedifying?
There’s a more fundamental issue at stake, though. While Joseph’s failed seduction by Potiphar’s wife is held up as an example of running (rather than resisting) in the face of temptation, is listening to unedifying music (or words, really) temptation? Does it cause you to sin? I haven’t found it causes me to sin. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s good witness, actually. In fact, non-Christians have been more impressed by how eclectic my tastes in music are than they have been with how limited the tastes of my “edifying-music-only” friends. Remember, Jesus said it’s what comes out of a man’s mouth, not what goes in, that indicates his cleanliness.
Jesus didn’t avoid spending time with the tax collectors and prostitutes because he worried they’d be unedifying. How much less harmful is a piece of music? In fact, some Christian music is downright unedifying, and that’s what’s so insidious. For example, Caedmon’s Call’s “All I Know” encourages Christians to disengage from intellectual defenses of Christianity (not the same as pointless debate, a real danger) and polarizes religion into experienced-based Christianity and scientific-based secularism. Even though I love Caedmon’s Call’s music, I find their lyrics both banal and unedifying. Sometimes, supposedly Christian music has even debatable heresies in it. David Ruis’ “Let Your Glory Fall” has a line in it that makes me cringe every time I’m supposed to sing it (“…the world has yet to see/ The full release of your promise/ The church in victory”). I guess it depends on how you define “church.” To me, the church seems corrupt. I don’t think God ever promised the corrupt church would be in victory. God will be in victory. He will bring his people to victory through his own work. I also find it unedifying to see people singing, “I feel like dancing for joy” (or something similar) when they are not, in fact, dancing and don’t look the least bit joyful.
A last point about Christian music v. secular music. In order for Christians to really be good witnesses, they should be innovators, not copycats. A lot of conservatives complain that Christian rock now sounds too much like secular rock. The problem is not that they shouldn’t sound like secular rock but that they should sound better than secular rock. The one possible exception to this trend is the incorporation of Gospel music stylings into pop and R&B.
Christian musicians need to give up the idea that they are primarily (edifying?) lyricists who simply adopt pre-existing musical styles. Musicians should be song-writers first and foremost, then lyricists. Nobody wants to listen to mediocre music with incredible lyrics, let alone mediocre music with mediocre lyrics. Let’s raise the bar for Christian music (varied subject matter, innovative music); then, the issue of whether or not to listen to secular music will be moot.
Further readings I don’t necessarily agree with: