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Part two.  For part one, click here.  Or read the whole series in the Essays section.

3.  “Non-Christian” music is an accurate cultural barometer. 

Jon Acuff, the author of Stuff Christians Like and Quitter, tweeted insightfully about the recent MTV Video Music Awards, “Just watched an alter ego accept a VMA for a video about being yourself.”  That tweet goes beyond sarcasm; it is an incisive, albeit brief, glimpse at our cultural moment.  Lady Gaga’s music testifies to the genetic fatalism that’s gaining traction in our intellectual context.  The tautological expression “you are who you are” has given credence to the moral motto of our day “be true to yourself.”  Yet, our culture repeatedly invents new ways of being something other than ourselves–whether through an anonymous online profile or a Gaga-esque masquerade.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul makes use of similar cultural barometers in his ministry.  In Acts 17, Paul preaches before a sophisticated intellectual crowd in Athens.  In verse 28, he quotes from Greek poet Aratus (circa 3rd century BC).  The cited text–“For we are indeed his offspring”–gives Paul evidence for his claim that the Athenians are religious and, in fact, share his creation-oriented worldview.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, whom he left in Crete to minister, he quotes the humorous aphorism, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This quotation, from the philosopher and poet Epimenides (circa 6th century BC), provides the basis for Paul’s command to Titus, “Therefore, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in faith.”

Paul found in “non-Christian” poetry instructive material for evangelism and Christian discipleship.  Our culture is, regrettably, post-poetic, and popular music is one of our remaining poetic vestiges.  We, too, if we carefully examine the Billboard charts, will find cultural material to aid us in our mission.

4.  “Non-Christian” music often provides an illustrative foil to Christian belief and practice.

From time-to-time, I find “non-Christian” music to touch on Christian issues meaningfully and, thus, provide illustrations for our belief and practice.  The country duo Brooks and Dunn, for instance, gives us two ways of approaching suffering in their songs “God Must Be Busy” and “Believe.”

Released in 2005, “Believe” fared well commercially and reached as high as #8 on the US Country charts.  The song portrays Christian faith as persistent through sorrow.  A character in the song, “Old man Wrigley” experiences the loss of his wife and son, and he comforts himself with scripture and the hope of everlasting life:

“I raise my hands, bow my head
I’m finding more and more truth in the words written in red
They tell me that there’s more to life that just what I can see
Oh, I believe”

Two short years later, Brooks and Dunn released “God Must Be Busy,” which reached #11 on the U.S. Country charts.  This song presents a contrasting view of suffering than the one found in “Believe.”  A list of moral and natural evils–including Middle East turmoil, natural disasters, and child abduction–evokes this response from the song’s speaker:

“And I know in the big picture
I’m just a speck of sand
and God’s got better things to do
than look out for one man.
I know he’s heard my prayers
cause he hears everything.
He just ain’t answered back
or he’d bring you back to me.
God must be busy.”

A classic philosophical objection to the Christian concept of God is the problem of evil.  One way of formulating this objection forces Christians into a dilemma.  Given the immense scope of suffering in the world, God must be limited in either his ability or his desire to curtail suffering.  The problem of evil would have us sacrifice our views on God’s omnipotence or his benevolence.  Brooks and Dunn’s “God Must Be Busy” dangerously treads on questioning God’s omnipotence.  Though the scope of suffering seems incalculable to us, God is lovingly, powerfully, and wisely working all things in accordance with his will.

So, we find in two Brooks and Dunn songs material illustrative for our conception of suffering.  We can endure in belief through suffering, as the character in “Believe,” or we could question God’s character, as in “God Must Be Busy.”

Should all Christians listen to secular music?

The reasons outlined above lead me to a more inclusive view of non-Christian music.  I argue, now, that non-Christian music is permissible and, under the right conditions, helpful.  Yet, I do not argue for a carte blanche freedom of consumption for all Christians.

Recall my earlier emphasis on moral discernment.  As Christians, we must know our tendencies toward transgressions.  Some may find in non-Christian music a gateway to sinful actions, speech, and thoughts.  Know your own heart well enough to rid yourself of that which would enslave you.

Furthermore, some instances of non-Christian music are gratuitously sinful.  When I was younger, I identified non-Christian hip-hop as a generally wicked genre of music.  Rap seemed obsessed with an affection for lewd language, the objectification of women, and the glorification of violence.  As I have matured, I have duly noted the prevalence of these preoccupations in other forms of music–for instance, the objectification of women, though subtler, is a common theme in country music.  We need to embrace our repulsive instincts; offended feelings, at times, are the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification.

I also see the practical benefits of guardedly exposing children to non-Christian music.  So many of the thematic trends of non-Christian music are developmentally inappropriate for children.

Corrie Tin Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place, is a heroic tale of the Tin Booms’ civil disobedience to Nazi authorities’ persecution of Jews.  My favorite character of the book is Corrie’s father.  Mr. Tin Boom is an absent-minded and eccentric watch maker and repairman, who seems to care little about turning a profit.  He also was a devout Christian father, who exuded wisdom in leading his family.

When Corrie was a young child, she overheard an adult conversation that referenced “sex sin.”  On a trip with her father, she brought up this conversation and wanted to know what precisely this “sex sin” is.  Mr. Tin Boom led his daughter through a helpful learning exercise.  He placed before her a large, heavy suitcase and asked her to lift it.  Though she tried, Corrie could hardly nudge the suitcase.  Mr. Tin Boom explained that he would never ask Corrie to carry this suitcase for him; she was not able to bear its weight.  Similarly, she was not ready to know some realities of the world, including the “sex sin” about which she had inquired.

Modern fathers should heed Mr. Tin Boom’s example in many ways, including the issues of music, specifically, and entertainment, generally.

A Mission Statement for Listening

As musician Derek Webb evolved musically, he became fond of another aphorism.  He said of his work as an artist, “I look at the world and tell you what I see.”  I’m attempting something similar with The Persistence of Song:  I listen to the world and tell you what I hear.

I hope that’s how you’ll interact with all music—whether it’s marketed as “Christian” or “secular.”  Listen critically, for the unexamined playlist is not worth hearing.

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