Truth is the breath of life to human society.  It is the food of the immortal spirit.  Yet a single word of it may kill a man as suddenly as a drop of prussic acid.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes


Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

~Leo Tolstoy

The Problem With Christian Music

One of the selling points of a local Christian radio station, as stated in numerous ads on air, is that the music they play and the message they send is kid-safe and family-friendly; parents can turn their station on without worrying about anything their kids hear. Despite this rather appealing marketing I listen to secular music almost exclusively in the car and during the workday, even when my young children are with me. Why? Well, because I find secular music to be less dangerous. The stuff I hear in country music tends to be pretty black and white (“Daddy, why did you turn the radio off?” “Well darling, that song was about drunken hookups and that’s not something I want you to do.”) whereas the dangers of Christian music tend to be far more subtle and damaging. Let me explain.

The biggest issues with Christian music fall into a few basic categories. First, there’s a significant amount of music that is pretty egocentric. Consider, for example, John Waller’s “While I’m Waiting.

The entire focus of the song is about the singer. Sometimes this is a good thing; think about all of the Psalms where David focuses the majority of the poem on himself, crying out to the Lord in the midst of some kind of storm in life. The difference between a typical Psalm and the song above is how David focuses on his inadequacies, his shortcomings, and how they provide an opportunity to display and magnify God’s presence, grace, and providence. Songs like those above spend the entire ~3 minutes talking about how awesome we are, how amazingly patient and faithful and grace-filled and  long-suffering we are – in short, WE’RE AWESOME! One could almost picture these lyrics being inserted at the end of the song:

God, I’m so grateful, grateful that you found me
Cause I’m epic, I add so much to you
I’ll be gracefully and patiently waiting
For you to get around to doing what you need to

OK, perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit. Do you see the problem, though? Where is the mention of God’s providence, His saving grace, or His presence as the solution to the problem? The singer tells us that he’s gonna “move ahead, bold and confident” while he’s basically waiting for God to show up – the seeming lack of God’s presence, however, doesn’t change how sweet a deal God is getting by being in relationship with us.

The second category would be songs that may (or may not) be spot on theologically but aren’t understood by the singer. The best example I can think of this would be “Days of Elijah,” a song you’re almost guaranteed to have sung if you’ve spent any time in a church, retreat, or Christian conference setting.

Here’s the problem, though: do you even know what those words mean?

These are the days of Ezekiel,
The dry bones becoming as flesh;
And these are the days of Your servant David,
Rebuilding a temple of praise.
These are the days of the harvest,
The fields are as white in Your world,
And we are the labourers in Your vineyard,
Declaring the word of the Lord!

There’s a whole lot of analogy in there – do we understand it when we sing it? “Does it matter?” you may ask. Well, according to Scripture it does. Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 says this:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.  Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.  For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.”

Proverbs 10:19 adds: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.

Matthew 6:27: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.

I don’t think we should be about the business of throwing up a bunch of verbal alphabet soup to God without understanding what we’re saying. What if we’re actually saying something we don’t mean? How do we know? Words have impact; they have meaning; they have consequences. I think every Christian (and especially every worship leader) should constantly ask themselves if they (or their audience) can sing along with the chosen song with understanding. If not, should we consider simply restraining our voices and being quiet?

Finally, there’s a category of songs that, well… I’d say cross the line into heresy. At the least, they’re pretty doggone dangerous for Christians to be singing. Consider, for example, a song that was pretty popular on Christian radio a couple of years ago:

When I purchase a widget for $5 and say that it was worth it I’m saying that the widget was worth the price paid for it – the widget has value equal to (or perhaps greater than) the $5. In this case, the song is saying that we’re worth the price paid for us – we’re worth the Son of God dying for us. We’re worth that! Our life approximate’s Jesus’ in value. I don’t think that’s a message Scripture supports.

Isaiah 64:6 – “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Ephesians 2:3 – “…we were by nature children of wrath…

The bridge of this song gets even worse, though:

You’re worth it, you can’t earn it
Yeah, the cross has proven,
That you’re sacred and blameless.
Your life has purpose!

I’m “sacred and blameless”?!? Where in the world do we get that idea? Certainly not from Scripture! Jesus was pretty darn clear in Mark 10:18 that no one is good but God alone; I’d hardly say that not even qualifying for good somehow puts us in the realm of “sacred and blameless.” One may assume that the singer means that we’re sacred and blameless when clothed in Christbut… that’s not what he says. The entire premise of the song is that anyone listening falls into the category of someone worth dying for – it’s hard for me to buy off on a random, one-line switch in the middle of the song that only applies to Christians without him saying so. It’s a stretch, to say the least.

When we start writing songs that echo the values of the world and completely disregard Christ we’re in really dangerous territory. Compare the following “Christian” song by Britt Nicole with a song by Katy Perry. Listen to both and tell me if there is a substantive difference in the message.

One of the main story lines in the music video for Firework is a gay boy embracing his homosexuality, something that really isn’t supported anywhere in Scripture. Here’s the question, though: if we had thrown Britt Nichole’s song into Katy Perry’s music video, would we have been able to tell the difference? Is there a difference? (If you’re curious, you can  watch Britt Nichole explain the story behind the above song here. Notice all of the things she claims God says without referencing any point in the Bible where any of these quotes appear – in journalism one would call that “misrepresentation.”)

All of this boils down to a single problem: it seems like contemporary Christian music revolves primarily around lyrics which sound nice, positive, hopeful, and energetic, but we don’t really care about what they mean. Sometimes we don’t understand them, sometimes they’re words any non-Christian could echo just as truthfully, and sometimes they’re just flat-out wrong.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t bright spots out there. Casting Crowns, for example, has some incredibly hard-hitting lyrics which are Scripturally accurate and theologically sound. I’m also not saying that singing accurately about God has to be incredibly complicated: Jesus Loves Me and Jesus Loves The Little Children are pretty basic songs which accurately reflect God’s Word. The point is that we need to think about what we’re singing in order to faithfully represent the God we serve – acting as carelessly as many contemporary Christian artists do, at best, does little to further the cause of Christ. At worst, it could introduce false teachings, Scriptural misunderstandings, and theological misconceptions in the church which could actually draw people away from Christ.

2 Timothy 2:16 – “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness.

Matthew 12:36 – “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.

Psalm 141:3 – “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!

Truth is tough.  It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch, nay, you may kick it all about all day like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes