Part One of Four

A neat and tidy distinction I became familiar with in my teenage years was the Christian-secular music divide. There were a couple of versions of this distinction.

First, some of my contemporaries held that if a collection of music could not be classified as “Christian,” then this collection of music was not suitable for enjoyment.  A second, more moderate version of this distinction—one I then endorsed—was that if a collection of music contained anything objectionable to Christian sensibilities, then this collection of music was not suitable for enjoyment.

Years later, I encountered people who challenged one, sometimes both, of these ideas.  The most well-known objector, musician Derek Webb, often quipped that Christ didn’t die for a song.

An article I wrote on formative trends in Contemporary Christian music noted the tendency of Christian musicians to imitate sounds from the secular market—often quite obviously and rather late. A friend raised the standard objection against the Christian-secular distinction.

I find the skepticism regarding the term “Christian music” obtuse.

For a society to function at minimal levels of efficiency, it must make charity a characteristic of communication.  Often, in the course of conversations, we have to assume people mean what they should say, rather than always assuming they mean what they say.

In a sermon, I once referenced a popular book.  Unscripted-ly, I said something like, “The book has been around long enough that you all should be familiar with it.”  Now, this statement could entail some disturbing implications about my view of the audience:  “Even though you all quit reading books with the advent of social networking media, this book predates that technology; thus, you of low practical literacy should be familiar with it.”

People recognize that statements, like this inelegant turn of phrase from my sermon, do not always intend all possible entailments.  By an act of communicative charity, we sometimes assume people mean only what they should say.  (The fact that we turn such imprecisions into laughing matters is only further evidence of the common use of communicative charity.)

Before we try to make sense of any version of the Christian-secular divide in music, let’s first apply the charitable communication principle to the topic.

When people use the term “Christian music,” they do not mean that the object in question enjoys “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14).  They do not mean that a song will join the ransomed for all eternity in God’s presence.

The term “Christian” has common adjectival uses.  People read the Christian scriptures while visiting a Christian bookstore that plays, if one will, Christian music.  Perhaps, all three of these uses of the word intend “having contents that deal with aspect(s) of Christianity,” though, of course, the three nominatives will certainly vary in degrees of Christian-ness.

For the moment, then, let’s dismiss the cavalier de jure objection to the term “Christian music,” the objection that the term Christian cannot apply to things musical.

(Another cavalier objection would be that the arrangement of musical notes is never explicitly religious or irreligious.  Of course, this statement is true–though we might note that a day is coming when musical notes will be arranged for only explicitly Christian purposes.  However, music so often goes hand-in-hand with lyrics; we will consider music as the total package of lyrics and instrumentation.)

While on the topic of cavalier dismissals, allow me one of my own.  I eliminate from consideration the meaning “music orchestrated or performed by Christians.”  Does anyone genuinely adopt this meaning?  (By analogy, I will never call a hamburger—fixed with cheese, ketchup, pickles, on a sesame seed bun—Mexican food, even if it is grilled by the finest chef in all of Tijuana!)

If we did adopt this meaning, we would need to know a great deal about a song’s composers/performers before applying the label “Christian music,” rendering the term impractical.

In the next part of the series, we will return to the two musical maxims common in my youth.  Maybe, there’s a sense-making definition of Christian music underlying those somewhat arbitrary rules.