Music is woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Engaging culture is a complex business, and music is one of the most difficult areas to navigate. Not very long ago it was easier to distinguish Christian art from what was not Christian. When it came to music, whatever could be found in Christian bookstores was Christian and whatever could be purchased at the mall in the record store was not. It never actually was that simple or clear-cut, but pretty close.
But beginning in the mid-1990s, more and more Christian artists were feeling unhappy with the fact that their music (which they saw as both art and evangelism) was only available to other Christians via the local Christian bookstore. And so they tried to cross over, to go from marketing their art only to other Christians to exposing it to the mainstream of culture as well.
For the most part this has been a healthy development. But it does make things more difficult for some, especially those who prefer the neat categories of “sacred” and “secular” that the Christian bookstore cf. mall record store arrangement provided.
Daniel Levitin of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain On Music notes that, “Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there: weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep…music is a part of the fabric of everyday life.”
Because this is true, music both forms and reflects culture. In the creation of art, the artist is revealing himself, exposing the effects that his surroundings have had on him.
But he is also at the same time affecting others. In other words, he is both a product and a producer of culture. Quite often, he is revealing sentiments that thousands or millions of others in the surrounding culture are also feeling.
Engaging “allusive” and “inclusive” art (see sidebar) amounts to a kind of cultural analysis, a way of discerning what is happening in culture as a way of preparing to minister to it. It’s about becoming familiar with its dominant themes as a means to deeper understanding.
Of course, this is often simply used as a convenient excuse to engage in whatever carnal pleasures appeal to our senses (“It’s okay—I’m doing ‘research’!”). But where the motives are false, so too will be the results.
Again, Daniel Levitin notes that, “Music activates the same parts of the brain and causes the same neurochemical cocktail as a lot of other pleasurable activities like orgasms or eating chocolate… Serotonin and dopamine are both involved.”
Proceed with caution
If this is true, then we need to be very careful about what it is we’re making the object of our musical affection. Someone once said that, “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast.” But it is equally true that music has the power to provoke the same beast.
A New Testament writer tells us that, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14,15). And this is exactly what will happen if our cultural engagement is merely a façade for sinful indulgence.
If we embrace something that encourages ungodly desires, then those desires will grow and, given the time and space, develop into sinful habits.
Music is primarily a tool of emotion. Jonathan Edwards, a famous 18th century preacher, theologian and missionary, once remarked: “The duty of singing praises to God seems to be given wholly to excite and express religious affections. There is no other reason why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose and with music, except that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”
The reason we sing words rather than speak them is because there is added emotional weight behind words when they are sung. Applied to the worship of God, this is a good thing; applied to an attachment to lust, bitterness or any other sin, it is not so good.
But by no means can we use this as an excuse to overlook or ignore rather than affirm the good that we see and acknowledge glimpses of God’s grace wherever they are found.
A worship experience
It must be about 15 years ago now. I’m listening to a song in our apartment living room. It’s not a song that is new to me; it’s from one of my favourite albums and I’ve probably heard it a hundred times before. But this time something is different.
At one point in the song I find myself very much in awe of the wonder of God. I’m on my knees in my living room, arms raised high in the air, tears running down my face, worshiping and adoring God. The words in this section of the song are repeated four times, each time with increasing intensity…
I will walk along these hillsides
In the summer ‘neath the sunshine
I am feathered by the moonlight
Falling down on me…
These words are not explicitly sacred (in fact, they are not written by a Christian), but they called to mind the wonder with which the Psalmist often speaks of nature. And in that moment this is all I heard—praise to a great Creator for His wonderful creation. It was an experience that was unexpected, but I thanked God for it nonetheless.
Cultural creations that are not explicitly Christian cannot simply be dismissed outright; there is too much in them that is good and plenty more that can be redeemed. We should not venture in lightly, with careless disregard for exposure to temptation, but neither should we avoid it completely.
It is not enough to simply know the great musicians and other artists of our day, and it is sinful to worship them as some do. In knowing them we must care enough about them to tell them where to find that which they are actually seeking—and how to respond when they do.