Friday, August 30, 2019

Music and the Believer

Our question for today was sent in via YouTube, which is great to see. Engagement like that is a big help to Quest Forums, both in giving me content to create and in gaining exposure. Thanks for asking, and hopefully it will be an encouragement for others to do the same! As for the question itself, I was asked,

Why is Christian music its own genre, and is it a sin to listen to non-Christian music?

The Music Industry

As I see it, those are two fairly different questions. The first one is just a matter of business. People have different tastes. Organizing music into categories allows record labels to cater to those tastes. The whole Christian music industry exists because there is a market for it. When people want to listen to something, then someone will step in to make it.

A related question, then, would be why people want to listen to Christian music. The first and most obvious answer is simple devotion. Christians love the Lord and are grateful for what He has done for them by sacrificing Himself in payment of their sins. It is natural to offer praise in response, and music has always been one of the best ways for us to do that. Or, there are songs that reflect our struggles and the petitions we make to God. They are a reminder of our reliance on Him, prayers set to music.

Along with devotion, Christian songs are also useful for instruction. They remind all of us of biblical truths and are especially useful for teaching those truths to children. That is another valuable service. And speaking of children, I believe another reason why people publish Christian music is because it is morally inoffensive. There are no themes or language in it (or at least, usually) that Christian parents have to worry about their kids hearing. That peace of mind is probably the least vital reason for the industry to exist, but it is a nice added benefit.

I suppose the question could have had something else in mind, though, as in why Christian music is treated as a second-class citizen. Why does it have its own award ceremonies and its own radio stations, rather than being included in other popular venues? While not strictly true, that is the general state of things. I think it comes down to the ways that Christian music can be offensive. Not everyone is a believer, and they do not want to be confronted with the idea of God. Specifically, they do not want to be confronted with the need for forgiveness from sin. In a culture as secular as ours, that discomfort is going to keep Christian music from topping the charts most of the time.

Musical Discernment 

That can maybe offer us a segue into the second question. Secular music is crafted to send secular messages. Now, “secular” is a loaded term, especially the way I and other Christian writers usually apply it. But in this case, I am not using it as a synonym for “godless.” Rather, I am talking about the stricter application of “not sacred.” When thought of that way, it makes things a bit tricky. At various times and in various places, some Christians have tried to live totally separate from their surrounding culture. I am not really a proponent of that. I believe that all the things in life can be sanctified, but I do not believe that extends to mean that everything in life needs to be avoided if it is not explicitly Christian.

Music is not my area of expertise, so let me illustrate my point with something closer to home. The government of the United States is not Christian. It has been heavily influenced by Christianity and Christian morals have guided many of its members throughout our history. But the nation was not formed as a theocracy. It is a secular government. I do not think that automatically makes it something from which we must abstain. Rather, every element of our involvement needs to be measured against the principles of Scripture, and we should not take part in those that defy God’s values.

I think it is permissible to apply a similar logic to music. Rather than ban it altogether, that means evaluating it constantly for its vision of virtue and vice. Is it about love, or is it about sex? Is it about fun, or is it about drugs? Is the language a blessing, or is it a curse (or filled with cursing)? We have to actually do the work to understand what is being celebrated, and if it is something that goes against God, rather than simply being neutral in content, then we ought to avoid it.

Some Christians will think that position is too libertine. Others will feel it is draconian. I guess I wouldn’t be doing my job if I did not make everyone unhappy (excuse me while I bang my head on my desk for a moment). But I will stand by my middle-ground position on the basis of a particular verse in the Bible.

In 1 Cor. 15:33, the Apostle Paul tells the believers of Corinth,

Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”

Many other verses make this same point, such as Rom. 12:2, James 4:4, and 1 John 2:15–17. We are not supposed to be worldly, in the sense of enjoying the things the world does that are displeasing to the Lord. Even to just sample them at the fringes, without personally engaging in what is celebrated, is to sin (Rom. 1:32). It distorts our character and makes us unprofitable to God.

But I said that verse in 1 Corinthians backs up a middle position, rather than being support for total abstinence from the world. Why? Because of those quotation marks in it. Paul did not invent the phrase, “Bad company corrupts good morals.” He was making a reference, and it was not a Scripture reference. They are not the words of a prophet or of Jesus. They were written by the Greek poet Menander.

That is what goes to prove my point. Paul himself was aware of and made use of the secular art of his day. He did so with discernment, and we can do the same. I would even go as far as to say we have a responsibility to do so. Earlier in the epistle, Paul had said,

I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. (1 Cor. 5:9–10)

We cannot actually avoid the world around us. If we try, we cannot be effective in it. We need to have some cultural awareness. We need to have a point of contact with our surroundings so that we can use it as a bridge to be understood by our neighbors. Otherwise, we will be totally foreign to them and will not have a way to tell them of Christ. We do not want to be identical with the world, but we at least have to be recognizable. An appreciation for music is one way to do that.

It’s possible I have made the situation more confusing than where the question started. All I can say is, that’s life. Easy answers are hard to come by. We have to put in the effort. But it is possible, and it is worthwhile. I cannot outright ban or condone all music that isn’t Christian. You just have to be careful about what you listen to.

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