What makes music Christian? Is it the radio station it’s played on? Is the faith of the author? Is it the intent of the author? Is it in the substance? Is it in our interpretation?
I listen to mostly “Christian” music but my standards for Christian music are pretty high. Not so much in musicality but in substance. I don’t typically like what is played on local Christian radio because a lot of it feels very shallow and manufactured. I have never felt convicted to stop listening to secular music altogether, but my standards for secular music are pretty high too. I’ll listen to some secular music for nostalgia but for the most part any time I listen to music I want it to help me understand something. I want to understand more about God, or I want to understand somebody’s opposing worldview and where they are coming from. I want to hear about the experiences that have shaped them.
I think most would answer this question ‘What makes music Christian’ with something along the lines of ‘Christian music is music made by Christians’ but I think that fails to address the substance of a song. So lets just jump into some examples and ask some questions. I’m not trying to pick on or judge the members of these bands but my ultimate goal is to ask questions that push us to better honor Jesus in all that we do (this is something I fail at daily so I’m not claiming any special authority here).
The Afters are a Christian pop rock band founded by Joshua Havens (not my friend Joshua Havens) and Matt Fuqua. I heard their song ‘We Won’t Give Up’ (video lyrics) on the radio and thought to myself, ‘What makes that a Christian song?’ It’s not a bad song, it’s catchy, it doesn’t say anything wrong, but put it in a vacuum where you know nothing of the genre it comes from or the artist’s faith could you call that a Christian song?
To contrast The Afters lets take a look at Paramore. I have read about members of Paramore confessing to be Christians and I’m not judging that, but I don’t know anybody that calls Paramore a Christian band. I have even read they reject the label of ‘Christian band’. One of their songs that I interpret has a similar message to ‘We Won’t Give Up’ might be ‘Let the Flames Begin’ (video w/ lyrics in description). So if it’s ok to play The Afters at say a youth lock in, would it also be ok to play Paramore? Is one more Christian than the other? And to throw this out there Paramore’s ‘We are Broken’ (video & lyrics) has moved me more than 90% of the songs I hear on Christian radio, it reminds me of Proverbs 18:10.
Now, are either of these songs honoring God? Are either of these songs dishonoring to God?
Christian Imagery in Unexpected Places
Metallica… Christian band? Nope, no debate there. But their albums are laced with Christian imagery and Christian influence, unfortunately it would seem being hurt by Christians is their Christian influence. Their song ‘Cure’ is an obvious mockery of Christianity. However, ‘Until it Sleeps’ (video lyrics) is one of the best pieces of music written that illustrates our struggle against the flesh whether they intended it that way or not. If you watch the video there is no doubt there is Christian influence in this song. The sad part is I think they see Christianity as the thing that is hurting them instead of the good news that frees them. When I hear this song I am reminded of my struggle with the flesh and subsequently the spirit that is sanctifying me. Does the imagery and my interpretation make this a Christian song? I would never try to argue that is does, but I’m more moved to thoughts of God, sin, and salvation by this expression of struggle than 100 songs about how good life is.
Doing it Right
In my opinion the epitome of Christian music is found in Ascend the Hill. They are so very musical and their lyrics preach truth constantly and consistently. Their songs aren’t what most people would classify as worship songs but they are worship songs and some of the best. They aren’t good congregational songs because they are hard to sing along with but the lyrics are true and honoring to God with every line. Some of the best are Whom Have I, Song of the Redeemed, and Power in the Name of Jesus. Also their version of The Love of God is the best. Put this in a vacuum and it will stand on it’s own as Christian.