It is the height of oversimplification to look at any area of human endeavor and totally discount the secular world’s contributions. As a function of the Holy Spirit’s ministry, truth and beauty should first and foremost be an inheritance of the sons and daughters of God.
But the “Lord of all flesh” freely uses non-Christian people to uncover these things as well. We see the greatest examples of this in the objective fields of science and mathematics, but even in more subjective areas like philosophy and art, God has regularly made “even the wrath of man praise Him.“1
Still, let the buyer beware – lies masquerading as truth and art saturate the atmosphere around this present age. We should continue to “watch over our hearts with all diligence” especially when getting into an area as spiritually charged as music. The simplest and safest way to accomplish this is not to say that all non-Christian music is bad – it isn’t – but through what I call Plan A.
1. Acknowledge that with certain styles of music, most notably rock, the time it takes to sift through a sampling of songs in order to find something good just isn’t worth it. Ephesians 5:15-16 is particularly relevant here: Therefore be careful how you live, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.
2. Listen exclusively to music by people who know God and purposefully write and perform for His glory. Unfortunately, most people today aren’t into playing it safe, in this or any other area, so I’ll go on to Plan B and point out the specific factors you might want to consider before opening up your spirit to a non-Christian musician.
1. Consider the “spirit” of the musical style you are evaluating as well as the degree to which that style has been affected by the gospel.
Typically, these two factors will in some measure determine the extent to which the Holy Spirit has influenced and continues to operate within that particular musical style. For example, the inherent majesty, order, and intelligence of classical music lends itself to the transcendent emotions that God seeks to evoke in all men’s hearts.
In addition, this same genre was so profoundly influenced by Christian artists and ideals, that even a musician as immoral and troubled as Amadeus Mozart was still, at least externally, constrained to write for God’s glory. With scripturally accurate lyrics or where there are no lyrics, a musical piece that has been “leavened“2 in this way can be appropriate to enjoy.
With rock and roll, however, this proximity to the Holy Spirit’s influence is much more distant. As we’ve already noted, its style is significantly more sensual and “earthy” in its orientation – more the fodder of a fallen angel than a transcendent God.
To what extent, then, has rock’s sympathy with the gospel and scriptural principles created a milieu in which the Holy Spirit is free to provide inspiration to non-Christian musicians? – Well, we might as well consider how welcome the American Cancer Society would be at a tobacco grower’s convention. Not only is the God of Scriptures persona non grata within the rock industry, His enemy has been made honorary Chairman of the Board!
2. Consider the character, lifestyle, and the orientation of the artist whose music you are evaluating.
Here, let me begin by quoting musicologist David Tame:
Surely the lowest common denominator which determines the precise nature of any musical work is the mental and emotional state of the composer and/or performer. It is the essence of this state which en-ters into us, tending to mold and shape our own consciousness into conformity with itself. (His emphasis) Through music, portions of the consciousness of the musician become assimilated by the audience.3
In other words, when we listen to a song by a particular artist or group, we’re not only getting their music, we’re getting them! Shouldn’t we therefore be at least a little concerned about whether that artist is, for ex-ample, promiscuous, rebellious, or under the influence of some drug or false prophet?
A lot of people will struggle with this concept not only because they don’t understand (or accept) Tame’s observation and the scriptural principles that back it up, but because they have fallen victim to a certain “sleight of hand” modern technology can perform on us if we’re not alert to it. I call it the “I would never watch in real life what I’m willing to watch at the movies” phenomenon.
We think, for example, that just because it’s “make believe,” watching someone in a film is somehow okay. In the same way, because the music we listen to on our stereo has been completely removed from the context of both the performer and the performance, we can be easily lulled into thinking that the relationship between them no longer exists. Don’t kid yourself – it does.
When listening to a song, then, we need to mentally note that we are, in ef-fect, inviting the writer and the performer of that song into our home and asking them to minister to us. Even more important, we are asking “Jehovah Shammah” – the Lord Who is With Us – to attend the concert as well. Does the artist’s character and spirit warrant this access and level of intimacy?
3. Consider the song’s lyrics as well as the thoughts and emo-tions it produces.
The first part of this consideration, the lyrics, couldn’t be more straight-forward; if the song isn’t true, if it doesn’t line up with scripture, then there is no way that it should be listened to for entertainment.
But beyond this, we need to also consider the song’s effect on us. Lots of songs are true, or at least don’t have anything in them that is obviously false; but if we honestly evaluate the emotions that the songs evokes and then hold them up to the light of God’s Word, we will often find that the song is not as benign as we once thought.
Some examples to consider:
A. Does the song engender a fascination with the opposite sex?
This is probably the most popular attraction of “safe” music and the one that trips up the most people. Some love songs are great – in their place. When they become maudlin, however, or the only focus of interest; when they are targeted at young people who are not even close to being ready for serious courtship to begin – at that point what might (I’m assuming a lot here) be fine for a married couple becomes ridiculous for the fourteen-year-old boy or girl.
Young people would be considerably better off today if they got their minds off the opposite sex and onto God, school, and growing up; getting ready for the day when their Heavenly Father will bring them their mate. Music that generates emotions which run contrary to this divine plan should be avoided at all costs.
B. Does the song create an unrealistic view of romance and married life?
I was on a talk show recently and, between the breaks, the interviewer asked me about some popular music she enjoyed; songs that were primarily about relationships and romance. I asked her if she felt that the prevailing sentiment of the songs conveyed the truth that marriage is first and foremost a covenant, a commitment; that romance is great and should be cultivated, but even when it isn’t there, the marriage covenant remains unbroken and undefiled.
She looked at me for a moment and then it was as if a light had gone on in her head. By the end of the show, she was warning others about the subtle lies in music; how they can create unrealistic expectations that can never be met and the resulting feeling that one’s marriage is a failure. She knew – it had happened to her.
Personally, I’m convinced that when we finally go beyond the veil and understand what really went down in this life, we are going to see that the human pain suffered as a result of marriages failing because of overly sentimental views of love will far outweigh the ravages of illicit sex, drugs, violence, occult philosophy, or any of the other sins that contemporary music has glorified. Those sins would never have taken hold in a culture where the family was strong and secure.
C. Does the song promote either an undue fascination with the band or the fantasy that the listener is playing the music?
We live today in a culture where the human ego reigns supreme and unbridled. The sophisticated star-making machinery of the entertainment industry grinds out the “hero of the week” with marked precision. Thousands of bands, artists, and actors lust for “the Big Time,” “the Big Break” that will make them a “Big Name.” And as for the rest of us – how are we to enjoy the happiness that supposedly can only come from being Somebody? Well, we get to fantasize that we are either dating one or that we are one. (Air guitar anyone?)
It’s difficult to imagine a more ridiculous and destructive lie. The bottom line is that God has created each of us as unique and valuable individuals who are precious in His sight. We are to find our ultimate purpose and reality in Him and in Him alone. Any time we find ourselves putting a per-son or a band on a pedestal or living in a fantasy world, we’ve got a very real problem. To put it another way: music, all art, should point us to beauty, truth, understanding, God – let it point us to the artist or our-selves and we need to stop and lay that music aside. It’s just that simple.
There are other, more obviously negative emotions that should be considered as well. Does the song provoke unrighteous anger? Rebellion? Unreality? Irresponsibility? Recklessness? The list is as long as the range of fallen human emotion, and music has the power to evoke them all. We should be careful to avoid those songs which have that power over us.
4. Consider the big picture – the album on which a songs ap-pears and the financial endorsement your purchase of the recording represents.
This consideration presupposes that we are evaluating a song for purchase and are not just listening to it on the radio. What happens with a lot of people is they hear a song they like and think is acceptable and then they buy the record on which the song appears. This simple and seemingly innocuous act, however, overlooks some unfortunate realities even beyond the ones we’ve already examined.
There are typically between seven and fourteen other songs on that recording; some of which are very likely to be unacceptable if not bla-tantly wrong. Most will find themselves sneaking a “peek” at the other songs until they find themselves liking if not preferring them and coming up with all kinds of interesting justifications for their com-promise. (“I don’t listen to the words!”) For the one in a hundred who can control themselves; well, so what? They’re still straining at gnats after having successfully purchased a camel.
Second, there is the issue of “causing your brother to stumble” (Romans 14). It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to separate one’s appreciation for a song from appreciation for the artist. We should be very careful about what we promote, particularly in an area where so many people are vulnerable.
Finally, we should always remember that when we purchase something, we are voting with our pocketbooks; we are saying that we like this and we hope that its producer will give us more of the same. Think about that the next time you buy a recording – are you prepared to take your money and cast a ballot for every sentiment and philosophy that is found on it?
There you have it – four simple factors to take into ac-count before listening to and/or purchasing music. I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves whether they prefer Plan A or Plan B. I will tell you one thing, though – when it comes to rock and roll, both plans will generate practically the same playlists. Why make it more complicated than it is?
1 Psalm 76:10, John 7:24.
2 Matthew 13:33.
3 David Tame, The Secret Power of Music, (Destiny Books, 1984) p.152.
Eric Holmberg spent his young adult life immersed in the rock music scene. As International Director of Reel to Real Ministries, Eric has produced videotape presentations on subjects ranging from abortion to rock music. In this series, Eric answers some of the most commonly posed questions that he encounters in his work.