Monday, February 2, 2009

Beyond the "Christian music" debate

If you have ever spent much time on music forums frequented by large numbers of Christians you will have no doubt seen the never ending "What songs are Christians allowed to listen to?" debate. Normally the criteria run something along the lines of is it sold in a Christian bookstore, put out by a Christian record label and has an appropriately high JPM (mentions of Jesus Per Minute) count. I pity any previously accepted artist who gets played on MTV or fails the JPM test. The online fallout from rioting Christian music purists can be really nasty.

I would suggest that these tests are not a good way to work out whether we should be listening to something. Firstly significant part of whether a CD gets sold in Christian stores or a song gets played on Christian radio is not a decision about the theological soundness of the lyrics, rather a business decision as to which grouping of media and sales outlets they will send it to that will get them the most sales and fans. Some Christians who haven't compromised their lyrical standards at all choose to put their music out in the mainstream arena rather than the Christian one because that is where they believe it will make the biggest impact. Secondly, just because the CD is in a Christian bookstore doesn't mean what they are saying is biblically sound. This is the case for Christian books too, it is starting to seem like a lot of the time the more copies a book sells in the Christian market the more likely it is to have serious theological flaws. The Jesus Per Minute test fails because there as a lot of topics for songs that are totally biblical and appropriate for Christians to listen to but don't lend themselves to mentioning Jesus every few lines.

So if that doesn't work, how do we assess the appropriateness of the music we listen to? We tend to think about what we've been listening to, the lyrics get stuck in our heads and they can start to subconsciously impact our beliefs. Because of the impact of music on how we think, Philippians 4:8 is an excellent place to look.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Based on that, here's some questions I think we should ask.

Is this song telling the truth?
Is this telling us the truth about God as he is revealed in the bible rather than some of the popular but false images of God that are around? Does the worldview it expresses line up with the bible or is it some other view (eg. Life is all about you/getting stuff/having fun)

Does this song encourage you to view people the right way?
Does this song speak about people in a respectful way or does it portray groups such as women or ethnic minorities in a disrespectful or degrading way?

Does the song encourage noble and praiseworthy behavior?
Is this song glorifying behavior that is inappropriate for Christians such as violence, revenge, hate or greed? Is the activities described in this song even legal? Would acting like what the song encourages make you less or more Christ-like?

Does this song encourage purity?
Does this song go into an inappropriate amount of detail in areas that are likely to cause me temptation to do the wrong thing or dwell on wrong thoughts? Does it encourage sexual activity outside of marriage which is inappropriate for Christians?

How much excellence can be found in this song?
Is this song actually good enough musically and lyrically that it is actually worth listening to repeatedly or is it just mindless rubbish?

Sometimes these criteria will agree with the traditional guidelines. Many times it will not. I've heard stuff that is sold through the Christian industry that never should have been due to inappropriate lyrical content and music from outside the Christian industry that is totally suitable and worthwhile for Christians to listen to and think about. Let's ditch the fights over the labels someone has put on it and instead start choosing our music based on what it actually says.


  1. For me, the line keeps blurring. For instance U2's 40 is taken right from Psalm 40. What could glorify God more?

    What category would it fall into?

    It doesn't mention Jesus.

    It isn't sold in a "Christian Bookstore".

    Not all the band members are Christians.

    Then there is classical music. Those that don't like "Christian Rock" will flock to classical or hymns. Some of the nicer classical pieces were written by people caught in the same sin traps we see today and not Christ followers at all. Many hymns have theological issues... Sometimes we miss this so often, we follow the hymn more than the Bible

  2. Yep, Much of U2's stuff is a prime example of the problems with classifying it based on where it is sold or how many times they say Jesus in the song rather than looking at what the song is saying. 40 is such a great song.

  3. That's a great test - one that most music unfortunately doesn't pass! I've lost so much interest in music over the last few years because it's offensive to my senses, besides being offensive to my sensibilities.

  4. Personally, I'm waiting for Joel and Victoria Olsteen to release a CD. I'm sure they'd sell a bajillion copies, thereby proving your point.

    Seriously, I don't listen to exclusively Christian music. Frankly, the local station plays the same songs over and over again. It's annoying. One of my favorite songs is written and performed by someone whose faith I am unsure of, but the lyrics were certainly convicting for me:
    I May Know the Word

    And just to give a shout out, one of my all time favorite worship songs is "Your Unfailing Love" by Hillsongs, Austrailia

  5. I had a look on iTunes, seems like Joel Osteen's ministry has put out a few CD's. They quite possibly have more biblical substance than his books.

  6. Hi Joanna

    I really struggle with this one, and by this I don't mean struggle internally, but more to do with the fact that I don't think it's wrong to listen to music that falls outside of those criteria, even though I do get frowns from some christians. I once threw away a couple of CDs that I knew were harmful to me because what they sang about really affected and influenced me because I already had extremely negative associations with the music.
    Yet I still read books that have 'un-Christian' themes and storylines, still watch movies that some of my christian friends avoid, and still listen to music that doesn't meet all of the criteria you listed, and I STILL don't believe there is anything wrong with it. I think it comes down to your conscience, and whether or not you know something is a weakness to you or can harm you. I've stopped watching certain movies, reading certain books and listening to certain music because of this, but I still listen to a lot of music that doesn't meet the 'christian' criteria.

  7. Hi Nessie,
    Please don't feel in anyway condemned if you don't go by this criteria. They are just my attempts at working through this issue, not law. I hope that what i have posted will prove useful but people have to take into account their own particular weaknesses and convictions on these issues

  8. Thanks Joanna. Not feeling condemned at all! Just a subject that I find confusing because I can see the point of doing it differently than I do :D If that makes any sense, haha.
    Great topic, btw.

  9. Good topic. I think you have a good take on it all too. I was around during the early days of ccm doing album covers so I saw the transition of the medium from a great evangelical tool to big business. What I think a lot of believers don't know is that years ago, when large corporate record companies and book publishers discovered there was money to be made from christian books and recordings... they gradually bought out almost all of the Christian publishers and record companies... as well as the main distribution company most Christian bookstores get their materials from. What that means is that the bottom line for those companies is no longer content or truth, but what will sell the most, and that 90% of what people are buying there is produced by non-christian businesses. A lot of them left the previous owners in place as figure heads... but people need to really look at what they are listening to and reading like you suggest.

    I believe that Christian art in general is best when it is either building up and challenging the body, or taking the truth of the gospel out into the world where people's lives can be touched by it. Some of my favorite songs don't even overtly mention Jesus and yet his fingerprints are all over it and they start dialogue... just like the parables. David Wilcox's "Show the Way" is a good example of that for me.