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Part one of two.

Everclear Forever Gone

Fresh from a summer Christian youth camp experience in the late 90s, I, teeming with resolve, set about the painful task of purging my music holdings of “secular music.”  Typically, my chief aim after such youth camps was to document daily Bible readings, record a consistent prayer life, or memorize a book of the Bible.

Yet, one summer, the inquisition of my CD collection was the mark of holiness on which I had set my legalistic efforts.  I do not recall the propositions that, at the time, ineluctably led me to this course of action.  I do, however, remember distinctly several other youth returning with similar ambitions.  Perhaps, for me, the dispossession of questionable music was more easily attainted than the goals I derived from other summer camp experiences.

Fortunately, I was no connoisseur of fine music in the late 90s.   Most of the items I discarded were hardly a sacrifice.  I only regret the loss of one album, So Much for the Afterglow, by Everclear.

Before you ridicule me, keep in mind that Everclear was an edgy choice for me in the late 90s.   Also, note that So Much for the Afterglow was released before the band completely abandoned its artistic cents sense for the money-making venture known as Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile.

Over the last decade, I have significantly, though slowly, revised my attitudes and beliefs toward music.  Several principles led to this gradual transformation.  These principles provide a conceptual framework for how we interact with the music so easily accessible in our culture.

[Excursus:  The Economic Explanation for Song Quality

For the moment, I want to set aside aesthetic concerns.  A common critique of contemporary Christian music focuses on the quality of the music.  Perhaps, some would take this critique as a reason for listening to secular music.  I find this approach inconsistent.  The state of music on CCM stations and popular “secular” radio stations is quite similar; neither are peddlers of fine art.  In both cases, Christian and secular, quality music can be found.  Find your local public radio music station, and you’ll find some quality non-Christian music.

Locating comparable quality Christian music will require a little more effort.  And the primary reason is economic.  Larger markets and larger niches demand more products, and this demand creates a competitive condition well-suited for good products.  For instance, a handful of large, successful burger-based fast food restaurants dot the landscape of cities throughout the US; yet, only one Tex-Mex chain has as noticeable of a presence.   To mix the metaphors, more people are ordering Biebers with cheese than soft tobyMac supremes.]

1.  No suitable definition exists for the concept “Christian music.” 

Singer-songwriter Derek Webb made much of the quip, “Christ didn’t die for a song.”  Webb’s sarcastic saw exposes a serious problem with the term “Christian music.”  I won’t belabor the point here—I’ve spilt much blink, roughly 1500 words, on this already—but no sensible or useful definition exists for what we often call “Christian music.”  For the term to gain any technical credibility, we have to posit a definition that encompasses a larger sample of work now considered “secular” or a definition that excludes much of what we tolerate as “Christian music.”  The popular “Christian” and “secular” distinction is one of convenience and commerce.

2.  Moral discernment is of greater value than moral demarcation. 

The distinction between “Christian” and “non-Christian” music appeals to our cut-and-dry sentiment.  If we can demarcate these albums as “Christian,” then, obviously, they are suitable for listening.  If we can demarcate those albums as “non-Christian,” then we can avoid them.

Fascinatingly, the Apostle Paul avoids this sort of reductionism when he discusses some of the issues of conscience in first century Christianity.  For instance, Paul addresses the issue of food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8), which he, perhaps surprisingly, does not forbid Christians to eat.  The principle he impresses upon God’s people is to eat these foods wisely, not flaunting Christian liberty so as to tempt other Christians who have been redeemed from paganism.  Similarly, the one who abstains is not to despise the one who partakes.

Music is a modern-day issue to which we can apply Paul’s teachings.  We should not summarily dismiss “non-Christian” music as songs offered to idols.  Rather, we listen discerningly, and we never impinge upon others music that violates their conscience or stirs them up to sin.

Similarly, we cannot blindly accept all forms of music marketed as “Christian” as—pardon the clichéd expression—God’s honest truth.  How often have we heard “Christian” music carelessly describe God as in need of us?  (The answer is too often.)  We must be discerning, even as we listen to positive, upbeat, encouraging music.

In part two of this series, I will discuss how music helps us gauge the worldview of our culture.  We will also see how non-Christian music provides examples and illustrations that help us comprehend our faith.

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