My mind can’t help but wonder about this as I drive around town listening to the putrid slop-offerings abounding on popular radio today that amount to little more than morally-bereft sexual grunts slapped together with catchy, rhythmic pot-banging.
It’s not much better on Christian radio, which goes in the complete opposite direction; it seems to be full of neoplatonic praise music that harbors spiritual contempt for God’s earthly creation, and little more. It plays songs that tend to be worship-focused. All of the songs are only centered on loving God, or God’s love for us — rarely anything else.
It’s not that these are bad songs, but they are only part of the story. They cover only one area of our life. God and his reign are much bigger than that. His rule extends across all of creation. But to listen to Christian radio stations one may be hard-pressed to conclude otherwise.
WITHDRAWN FROM CULTURE
There are rarely “Christian” songs that sing about cultural events, so I can only gather that most of the bands conclude that it’s a waste of time to sing about culture or to write songs about social issues.
This is where the contempt for God’s material creation creeps in: by ignoring anything beyond the personal, individual spiritual sphere of our lives, we are saying that the spiritual nature of reality is all that matters.
For example, here’s a sample of some lyrics from songs popular and in the Top 10 that are playing on Christian radio now (according to Billboard):
“I am redeemed, you set me free.” (Redeemed, Big Daddy Weave)
“One thing remains…your love…on and on and on and on it goes.” (One Thing Remains, Passion)
“O my soul, worship his holy name, sing like never before…when my strength is failing…still my soul will sing your praise unending.” (10,000 Reasons, Matt Redman)
“Forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness, forgivesness” (Forgiveness, Matthew West)
“And when the oceans rage, I don’t have to be afraid, Because I know that you love me, your love never fails.” (Your Love Never Fails, Newsboys)
The themes are the same, and the lyrics are very similar. Are the singers (and their audience) just very young Christians who need to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1 ESV)?
I don’t know, but their lack of social awareness and sense of cultural responsibility make it seem like it. I’d like to think they aren’t contemptuous of God’s physical creation, which, by the very express fact that he created it, is revealed to be good in his eyes — even if he cursed it.
GOD AFFIRMS THE GOODNESS OF BOTH THE SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL
If that’s not enough, it’s worth reminding ourselves about an important truth: Heaven is not the end. There is life after Heaven, and it will be lived out in physical resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15). But most importantly of all, Christ was raised from the dead in his physical body. His resurrection was not purely spiritual.
The physical, material world matters.
Contemporary Christian music seems to substitute rapturous, deeply emotional and personal devotional experiences for commentary and attention to the world around us. Again, not that there isn’t a place for that, but God has commanded us to obey his word in all areas of life, not just our personal, spiritual lives.
(Do I think the content of contemporary Christian music has any connection to the content of preaching coming from the pulpits of our churches these days? Absolutely.)
Regardless, judging by the quality of our culture, it’s obvious there’s a connection between our underdeveloped senses of personal responsibility in this world and the degraded condition of society all around us.
TO WHOSE PHILOSOPHICAL STANDARD DO WE TURN?
So, in the mean time, Christian radio abandons the responsibility of social commentary to secular musicians like Sting, who, when talking about creating music, once said:
“I have to be inspired before I write, but then when you’re writing about issues like the miners’ strike, the proliferation of nuclear power, and the arms race, then you have to have a certain responsibility to those issues. You have to think about them.”
Does the absence of Christian musicians writing songs about social issues mean they aren’t thinking about them?
Sting is certainly an intellectual, poetic, musical powerhouse. I don’t write these things lightly, because he’s one of my favorite musicians. But like Van Til said, “You can sharpen a buzz saw all you want, but if it is set at the wrong angle, it will never cut straight.” For as smart and aware as musicians like Sting are, until they confess saving faith in Jesus Christ, they’ll never be able to stumble out of the darkness and into the light of truth where all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. (Col. 2:3)
That means that, should we all follow them, we’ll never get anywhere. We’ll stumble around with them and muddle even the clear thoughts that we carry around in our heads into slush soup. That’s not to say we can’t learn anything from Sting and others like him, but we must be careful to avoid following them into woodsy areas full of treacherous brambles where God doesn’t want us to go.
Christian music as a whole, I think, neglects this “certain responsibility” entirely that secular artists like Sting grasp. Pop musicians understand the influence they have on their listeners. So do rappers and country music singers.
In this regard, Christian radio abandons their audiences to seek social and cultural guidance from whatever’s playing on the contemporary pop stations.
In the absence of such guidance, their audience will seek it out from somewhere. Since Christian music tends to imitate (poorly) the sound of the popular music around it, it makes it easy enough for Christian listeners to flip over to secular radio and slide right on in to the warm, inviting, steaming brown waters of that slimy sludge pool.
And if for no other reason than because the pop musicians (and/or their 27 producers) tend to write better music, even if only marginally so.
WHAT WOULD THEY BE LIKE?
So, I can’t help but wonder what popular songs produced by sanctified Christians in a Christendom would look like?
I use the term “sanctified Christians” in the sense of “progressively sanctified.”
We are definitively sanctified when we are saved, but, as Paul wrote, we spend the remainder of our life trying to “live according to the Spirit” to set our minds “on the things of the Spirit” so that we can “put to death the deeds of the body,” because “to set the mind on the flesh is death.” (Rom. 8).
In other words, we strive for progressive sanctification, a gradual purging of the sinful pollution within us that is only made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within us. We are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV).
As we are progressively sanctified as individuals, the world around us will follow suit as we continue to roll back the curse of the ground and capture culture for Christ.
AN EXAMPLE FROM ONE OF MY FAVORITE ARTISTS
That being said, I’ll express my disappointment on this issue by using an example of one of my favorite songs by a favorite artist of mine. The arist is Garth Brooks, and the song is “That Summer.”
Garth is a Christian who is never hesitant about giving the credit of his success to the Lord. For example, in the liner notes of his first studio release album, in the dedication section, he wrote “and most of all to Jesus Christ for without Him, nothing is possible.” All of his other albums feature a variation of this dedication.
This particular song, “That Summer,” is about “a teenage kid too far from home,” who, one summer, went to work for a “lonely, widowed woman hell-bent to make it on her own.” They were “both needing something from each other, not knowing yet what that might be”:
‘Til she came to me one evening, Hot cup of coffee and a smile. In a dress that I was certain, She hadn’t worn in quite a while. There was a difference in her laughter, There was a softness in her eyes. And on the air there was a hunger, Even a boy could recognize
The chorus begins with “She had a need to feel the thunder, to chase the lightning from the sky.”
In short, it’s a very romantic story about a season-long romance shared between a young man and a passionate, hard-working widow who both, just for a short time, fell into each others’ arms. Years later, anytime he drives past a wheat field and watches it dancing in the wind, he thinks fondly on this encounter, remarking “There’s never been another summer when I have ever learned so much.”
THE PROBLEM WITH THIS VERSION OF ROMANCE
This is the kind of romantic enounter that our culture loves. It’s random, it’s magical, it’s passionate, it’s bittersweet, and it centers around a coming-of-age tale when a boy becomes a man.
But this is not the Biblical definition of romance. In fact, this story, from the Biblical perspective, is sinful. It is full of sexual immorality. Not only that, but the song idolizes it and portrays it as something good: an experience that imparts lasting wisdom. There’s no sense of guilt anywhere to be found.
In real life, this kind of experience would leave both parties coming away with a burden of guilt resting upon their shoulders that demands repentance. It doesn’t matter if they, themselves, don’t feel it or recognize it, because God is certainly aware of their transgressions. Pursuing these kinds of pleasures leads to ruin, as we’re all aware, and as Paul makes clear:
…envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:21 ESV)
Furthermore, promoting this kind of licentiousness is sinful in and of itself. In God’s eyes, these kinds of relationships are not “beautiful.”
Now, I don’t want to be an old fuddy duddy, but it’s hard to understand how a Christian who’s taken every thought captive to the obedience of Christ would want to sing about and promote such things. If we don’t understand why to do so is wrong, then of course we won’t have a second thought otherwise.
I don’t mean to imply that Garth isn’t a Christian, by any means. But it’s evident that, paying attention to the themes in some of his songs, they don’t promote a Christian worldview.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the song. I still enjoy listening to it and singing it aloud (when by myself). But perhaps that says something about my own progress in sanctification for, afterall, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil,” (Prov. 8:13) and we are called to “abhor evil.” (Rom. 12:9)
Sexual immorality is evil. Is it two different things to hate sexual immorality, but not to hate songs that promote sexual immorality in a way that suggests that it isn’t really all that bad, that romanticize it and make us long to experience it?
I really don’t think so.
Maybe what I long for, then, is a new classification of radio: “Sanctified radio.” Instead of breaking the music into two categories — Christian and secular — and isolating Christian morality from the world like we do today, it would play songs from singers and bands that present a unified Christian worldview.
Right now, if you want a “Christian” song, you have one choice: worship and praise. (That reminds me of the old joke: I like both kinds of music, Country and Western.) If you want a song that tells a story or comments on culture from a Christian perspective then you are mostly out of luck.
A REMNANT ON COUNTRY RADIO
Country music radio is the closest you can come to finding those kinds of songs. There are certainly some real cheesy ones out there, and others that are overly-sentimental and theologically questionable. But there are occasional gems.
A good one is “Three Wooden Crosses,” by Randy Travis. It tells a great story about God’s sovereign providence, the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives and bring about true repentance, and the importance of inheritance and the future.
But even this isn’t a great example because it announces itself as explicitly Christian (country music in general tends to be more to the point in its lyrics than other genres — except, perhaps, for Bruno Mars, who sings frankly and profoundly “Cause your sex takes me to paradise, Yeah your sex takes me to paradise”).
So, then, what themes might songs from a Christian worldview, which don’t explicitly announce themselves as Christian, espouse?
They would hold Biblical ideas of marriage as the ideal. They would highlight valors congruous with the fruits of the spirit. They would condemn the works and desires of the flesh. They would feature God’s providence in our lives today and in history.
They may use humor or wit. They would speak fondly of drinking wine and strong drink, but not to excess.
They would, in short, highlight the ethical link — grounded in the Bible — between cause and effect in our universe. They would be optimistic about the future.
This is just a short list of possibilities, of course, and one that may not be entirely accurate. I’m the furthest thing from a musician one can be. Not all songs have to be rosey posey; they can contain tragedy and sadness also. They would simply do so from within a Christian worldview. I’ll trust the Holy Spirit and the free market to elevate the best ones to the top.
I look forward to the day when the fruits of the Christian worldview start taking hold of popular music and reforming it. This will be an indicator that there’s a cultural shift taking form, when the music flowing forth from most radio stations is singing from the perspective of a Christian worldview (or, at the least, promoting it as the only real solution to our problems).
It’s possible to write songs from within the Christian worldview now, of course. But to be popular and be marketable, they must resonate with an audience. If the audience isn’t willing to spend their money on them, then culture will kill them. Would songs grounded in a Christian worldview that comment on socio-political and cultural norms be received warmly on Christian radio stations today? What about non-Christian radio stations?
I’m not too sure. Maybe not yet. But some day soon, I pray. The Israelites suffered punishment and wandered in the wildnerness for 40 years, but even they eventually moved on to victory. I look forward to a similar conquering of pagan musical culture by an optimistic Christian church marching forth while proclaiming a spirit of victory through the preaching of the Gospel in all areas of life.
Do you have any thoughts on this? I welcome them in the comments section below.