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.

The Classification “Christian” 

One version of the Christian-secular music divide was that if a collection of music could not be classified as “Christian,” then that collection of music was not suitable for enjoyment.  Under the auspice of this principle, many of my younger contemporaries abandoned portions of their music collections.

The ambiguous definition underlying this principle is that Christian music is that music which merits the classification “Christian.”  Maybe, a more useful formulation of this term would be music “having contents that deal with aspect(s) of Christianity.”

This definition has some common sense backing, but also has some difficulties.  If we consider all that often passes as “Christian music,” clearly some of that music fits this definition better than other instances of that music. 

But an even deeper difficulty for this definition is its subtle inclusiveness.  Some aspects of the Christian religion–for example, marital love, as depicted in Song of Solomon and as shaped by the commands of the apostle Paul–are highly valued in the music of the irreligious.

Think of the many passionate love songs in Western culture that, if expressed in the confines of marriage, are truly good.  Passionate love in the confines of marriage is an aspect of Christianity.  So, would these songs of Western culture then qualify as Christian music?

Perhaps, the proposed definition could be modified somehow to exclude the passionate love songs of Western culture.  The maker/modifier of this definition would be quite glad to sanctify the term “Christian music.”  However, the new definition would inevitably exclude some songs that currently receive the Christian music moniker.

Herein lies the practical dilemma for our first definitional candidate:  the definition will never be satisfactory.  It will always be too broad or too narrow to be of any utility.

Compatible with Christian Sensibilities

The second version of the musical maxim from my youth was that if a collection of music offended Christian sensibilities, then that collection of music was not suitable for enjoyment.

The aim of this principle was to curtail the consumption of music that contained morally objectionable material.  Lewd language, sexually explicit lyrics, and the like were all to be muted from our listening pleasure.

There’s some biblical warrant for this notion.  One could argue that to obey the apostle Paul’s command to think about true, noble, and praiseworthy things (Phil 4), one would need to limit exposure to false, ignoble, and damnable material.

What’s the definition behind this principle?  Perhaps, Christian music is that music which does not offend Christian sensibilities.  This definition will suffer the same practical dilemma as the earlier definition. 

Some things that pass as Christian music deeply offend my reformed, Christian sensibilities.  For instance, the worship song “Close” concludes its chorus with the following lines:  “I want to be where you need me most / Draw me, bring me close.”  I cannot, in any way, charitably construe these words.  If God has needs–which by the way, he doesn’t–he would not come to us for fulfillment (Ps. 50).

Then again, many songs of Western culture that would not typically be described as “Christian” do not offend Christian sensibilities.  Many songs express the general idea of love (romantic, platonic) or of the goodness of families.  Would we now invite these songs to the festal table of Christian music?

How Now Shall We Listen?

The idea of “Christian music” is not an impossibility, per se.  Defining the term, however, is fraught with practical difficulties.  Maybe some will muster the courage to posit a rigorous definition of Christian music and exclude a great portion of extant music from this category.

I would propose an alternative mode of operation.  Instead of classifying music neatly and tidily as “Christian” and “secular,” let’s consider all music to be art.

Art is often the vehicle of worldviews.  When we encounter any form of art, we need to examine its worldview.  We need to inspect and diagnose the vehicle.  What aspects of the worldview are helpful and edifying?  What aspects of the worldview do we disagree with, and why do we find these aspects disagreeable?

Perhaps, we can maintain the moniker “Christian music” as a communicative efficiency.  The term is often helpful, especially in commerce and marketing.

But, we must dismiss the use of the term as some sort of moral demarcation.  Music, after all, is not much different than meat offered to idols (a first century moral dilemma).  Music now, as meat then, is a good thing often used for reprehensible purposes.

The task of the listener is to listen critically to all things because “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).