I recently read two very well-written posts by Joe Foreman of Switchfoot and Michael Gungor. Both articulated two viewpoints on the the often debated, and perhaps more often misunderstood, topic of Christian music today. In this series of posts, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring. Though I largely agree with both posts, my view on the subject may differ from theirs. My opinions on the subject are based on my own experiences in the industry, my theological views on worship, and my understanding of music based on my studies.
As a disclaimer, before I dive in I feel it is important for me to say that it seems to me that American Christendom has seemed to have lost the ability to agree to disagree without divisiveness springing forward. My opinions may strike some of my readers the wrong way. That is okay. Though I feel I have a strong basis for what I believe, you may possess an equally strong basis to the contrary. Our faith is based on just that… faith. Faith in God and faith in His Word is, in my opinion, an absolute pre-requisite for discipleship of Christ. That said, we are provided with an inerrant Word that is often interpreted in different ways when it comes to certain topics. And make no mistake about it, there are few topics that have caused more division in the Church throughout its history than music. So, have faith in Christ, a faith that can still achieve the kind of Unity Christ prayed for in John 17:23 even though we may not agree on every single topic in Scripture.
Sacred vs. Secular
On the topic of sacred vs. secular, one of the first questions that pops to my mind is, “What defines a song as one or the other?” Is a song sacred if it invokes the name of Jesus? If so, then Amazing Grace is a secular song. Is it a song that is written expressly for corporate singing in worship services? If so, then many of the songs in your church’s hymnals (if your church even still has one) are secular. So, what is the defining factor?
Allow me to submit that there is not one. No song is sacred. To place a song in that place is to elevate it to a status that it was never meant to achieve. Songs are a medium, a vessel, nothing more, nothing less. Every song written from the beginning of time is a tool meant for a specific task. Some are intended for entertainment, others are meant for advertising, others are propaganda, still others are meant to instruct or expand a set of beliefs. “Worship music” or “praise and worship music” as it was once called is a specific medium or vessel. In my opinion, worship of Jesus Christ in the form of music is simply a prayer penned by a human in need of a Savior. We writers are fallible, one and all, and our songs are a simple means of expressing our adoration, thankfulness, repentance, or requests in a way that others can use as a launching pad for their own conversation with God. When viewed this way, the “worship song” is simply a means to an end with the “end” being the worship of and communion with God.
So, what exactly, is “sacred”? In my search for understanding I went as far as to pull out an actual dictionary… tiny print and real paper, no less! According to Webster’s New Dictionary sacred means:
consecrated to a god or God; having to do with a religion; venerated, hallowed, inviolated.
Now, let’s use the same source to define “secular”:
not religious; not connected with a church
Where does that leave us? Did you discover tremendous clarity? I, for one, did not. Songs like, “How Great Thou Art”, or “How Great is Our God,” seem pretty clear cut, as does a painting of Jesus or a poem about His Great Name, but what about a painting of an English countryside, a sonnet penned about the love found in marriage, or a song encouraging the listener to not give up when times are hard? Sacred or secular?
I want to draw attention back to our definitions. Allow me to highlight two lines in particular:
Sacred – consecrated to a god or God
Secular – not connected with a church
I, Benjamin J. Denen, am a composer and an author. More importantly, I am a son of the One True God, a disciple of Jesus Christ. My understanding of 1 Peter 2:9 (and other similar passages) informs me that I am consecrated. If I am, in fact, consecrated and any gift that I use I do so for the glory of God, what does that say about any song that I compose or book that I pen? What if that song is written to encapsulate my love for my wife or a novel about the struggles a teenage male faces through adolescence that does not contain any overt references to Jesus or the Christian faith? Sacred or secular?
Here’s another way to look at it. Can any work I create not be connected to the Church? If it is connected to me, is it not through me a part of the Church?
I can already hear an immediate response from those critical of my viewpoint. “Are you saying that anything a Christian produces is sacred or consecrated? What if this Christian produces pornography or expletive-laden music denigrating women?” to which I would respond, “I believe that you are missing my point all together.” Herein lies the crux of my argument. The creative works that a Christian produces must, like all things that humans emit from our being, be subjected to the Holy Spirit. Discernment is the aim. As we are told in Phillipians 4:8:
And again in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22:
“test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (ESV)
Are Christians, those who are consecrated, capable of creating that which is sinful? I believe with all my heart that the answer is “yes.” How does this inform the “sacred vs. secular” debate? Well, I believe the devotion to these categories represents a form of easy (i.e. lazy) discernment. A close parallel would be the process by which I choose the movies my child can watch. I could take the “easy” route and simply adhere to the Hollywood’s rating standard. However, anyone familiar with modern film and television know that the rating system is far from reliable in terms of the above mentioned scriptures. True discernment eschews sloppy standards and seeks discernment through the Holy Spirit.
I would like to leave you with this question. How do you determine what songs to listen to, what books to read? How do you determine who is a “Christian” recording artist or a “secular” artist? How is a work of fiction “Christian” or not? These are important questions because here in America we allow the parent companies of our bookstores, publishers, record companies, and so on determine what we deem “sacred” or “secular.” A very interesting fact that many Christians are unaware of is that most of these parent companies we rely on for discernment are, in fact, not actually a Christian organization. That does not mean they are necessary evil, but in a free market society, these business exist to make money… pure and simple. I do not see that as a good or bad thing because I do not need to rely on these companies to help me determine my values. I have the Holy Spirit, a discipleship journey, a community of believers, and God’s written Word to guide me toward discernment. My prayer is that more Christians rely on the latter as well rather than the former.