Music Troubles

The argument of secular vs. Gospel and whether Christians should abstain from listening to Secular music is well know, but what about questionable Gospel?

Introduction

Music is a hard hitting subject amongst most devout Christians. I've had friends write posts on music and the importance of Christians listening to wholesome music. I even wrote a post on music censorship on my personal blog. Music plays a huge role in our lives and it has been documented (as I'm sured you've experienced) that music has a direct effect on a person's mood. I used to label certain music as "dark"—now I tend to use the word "hollow" instead—though I can't exactly describe what about the music sparks that decision. There's something about these songs that feel empty, like all life has been drained from them and they're just devoid.
Photocredit: FreeImages.com/Andrew Hiller
It's the type of music I imagine playing in the background as someone who has completely lost themselves shoots up cocaine, or something. There are other songs that are "warm"; they bring a smile to my face no matter what is happening and I feel happiness radiating from the song. In this post I wanted to talk about what the Bible tells us about music, what certain denominations teach about music, and point out some flaws even in Gospel music.
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The Bible on Music

While the Bible mentions music, singing, and instruments often, it doesn't specify anything about genres of music. We see cases where music is associated with idolatry (e.g. Daniel 3:5-7), but usually it is used to describe worshiping God. Music is a welcome part of His worship and the Bible makes no distinctions between genres of music. The simple conclusion is that music honoring God is good music and music dishonoring God is bad music.

Bible Verses

The Bible says a lot about music, here are just a few of the many verses that mention music, singing or instruments.
  • Genesis 4:21
  • Exodus 15:1
  • 1 Samuel 18:6
  • 1 Chronicles 15:16
  • 1 Chronicles 16:42
  • 2 Chronicles 5:13
  • 2 Chronicles 7:6
  • 2 Chronicles 23:13
  • 2 Chronicles 34:12
  • Nehemiah 12:36
  • Psalm 71:23
  • Psalm 95:1
  • Ecclesiastes 2:8
  • Ecclesiastes 12:4
  • Lamentations 3:63
  • Lamentations 5:14
  • Daniel 3:5
  • Daniel 3:7
  • Daniel 3:10
  • Daniel 3:15
  • Daniel 6:18
  • Amos 6:5
  • Luke 15:25
  • Ephesians 5:19
  • Hebrews 2:12
  • Revelation 18:22

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Denominational Teachings

Some churches forbid followers to listen to secular music. The church of my youth (Missionary Baptist) forbade instruments other than the piano and organ; when they replaced our piano with a keyboard, we were forbidden to use settings other than the piano setting in our songs. A great article on thinking about what type of music you listen to was authored by Bogdan Kipko. Though I have yet to find a specific statement from a denomination that says secular music is forbidden, many traditional churches teach this. For instance, I have attended "new" Baptist churches (a Baptist church with a relatively young congregation) that play Gospel Hip Hop in their services, whereas my church wouldn't even let us add a drumbeat to "The Little Drummer Boy" when I was growing up. It is definitely a point of contention amongst believers, and each church will tell you something different.
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Personal Thoughts on Music

As theomusicologist points out in his article "Afrobeats v. "Secular Music"," how we define secular music changes the perception of this topic tremendously. Most agree that anything you hear from the Billboard top 40 is probably secular—this generally includes Pop, Rock, Hip-Hop, R&B, and occasionally Country. But what about music that is generally instrumental, such as classical (e.g. Beethoven) or jazz (e.g. Louis Armstrong). In addition to including genres that are typically instrumental, one has to also wonder about the range of expression within a genre. Take Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" or Lyfe Jennings' "S.E.X.," both of which warn about the responsibilities and consequences of sex and promiscuous lifestyles (though Doo Wop definitely has language that some might find offensive, it is man that made these words vulgar). On the other end of the spectrum you have songs like Usher's "Lil' Freak" or Beyoncé's "Partition". This spectrum exists with many secular music genres, especially when you take into account that Contemporary Gospel is often not actually a separate genre, but merely a subset of a genre with Christian lyrics. For example, the music of Yolanda Adams or Mary Mary, is a blend of R&B, Hip Hop, and Gospel—just like Lauryn Hill, Lyfe Jennings, Usher, and Beyoncé. The only difference is what's being said. Similarly, I have instrumental versions of hymns, some of which are in the style of jazz, others more classical. Personally, I try to take music as it comes; I have music from almost every genre in my iTunes collection, though there are definitely songs in the collection that I don't listen to anymore. There are genres, like bluegrass, that simply don't appeal to me regardless of what the artist is saying, and other genres like Hip-Hop that if I'm not careful I will definitely sing along to ungodly music. There are a wide range of hurdles to be jumped when taking songs as they come. Many will label a whole genre as garbage (such is the case with Hip-Hop), but there is almost always something good inside each genre—the question is how much junk are you going to have to subject yourself to before you find it. There are artists who are consistently wholesome, artists who teeter on the line, and artists who are always vulgar. Then on top of the lyrical content of the music, there's the character of the person singing the songs. I don't become a diehard fan of artists and read every interview, tweet, etc. the artist has, but young children (and some adults) are highly influenced by what their favorite artists do. There are countless videos of people imitating artists, countless comments and tweets where people "attack" people for "attacking" an artist, and on Halloween, many will dress up as their favorite artist. This means that even if they're producing wholesome music, there is risk for prople who are prone to idolatry and celebrity influence (think of all the kids who listened to Hannah Montana when Miley Cyrus decided she couldn't be tamed).
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Hit and Miss Artists

As I said, in terms of sound (and I guess also in terms of style) some of the artists whom I love their voices and their sound, produce songs I both love and hate. For example: Kelly Rowland's "Stole" vs. "Kisses Down Low." The former shines light on how depression and gang violence is claiming the lives of children—I can't listen to the song without crying and wanting to be more sympathetic to those around me. I think God would approve of that. Yet, "Kiss Down Low" is simply glorification of pleasure; it's not associated with love, marriage, commitment. When you listen to songs like this, it doesn't make you think of anything that glorifies God or helps mankind; you think of self and pleasure, definitely not something God would want us shouting out and reveling in.
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Catch You Sleeping Artists

Then there are artists that while I love their entire albums and may not realize until months or years later, they have lyrics here and there that should give me pause. One such artist is India.Arie who has a beautiful voice and a beautiful sound (I've never heard a song by her that I didn't like), but refers to "a man with a husband or a woman with a wife" in her song "One." The song is about tolerance and love amongst people who believe different things; she says "we can debate until the end of time who's wrong or right" or simply see ourselves as one. I would agree that God wants us to love our neighbor regardless of their race, creed, religion, gender, or sexuality; though, I'm not sure God wants us singing about homosexuality, paganism, idolatry, etc. as though it is ok (she likens tolerance to a seed and acceptance as the tree...I'm pretty sure God doesn't want us to become acceptant of sin).
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Final Thoughts On Secular Music

It's a rough battle, particularly for those of us who grew up in a generation that has been taught tolerance, political correctness, and acceptance are the best traits to have. We've been taught that it is evil to be intolerant, which people are slowly turning into it being evil to be unaccepting as well. That makes songs like India.Arie's even more appealing—who doesn't wish we could all hold hands and have world peace?—but it can also lead us to turn away from God to be not just loving but acceptant of sinful behavior. As an adult, and someone who's been a believer for almost 3 decades, I can take the song for what it is and talk to God about how I feel (though I don't listen to the song on repeat everyday), but had I found this song at 10 years old, I'm not sure the impact it would have had on me. That's the difficulty of choosing what songs are appropriate to listen to versus not. Other secular artists like Bruno Mars, I expect for something questionable to come up and even though, aesthetically, I love almost all of his songs, I do have a bit of a wall up when I hear one of his songs for the first time (unlike with artists such as India.Arie). It doesn't take long for me to chose between "Yep, this is going on repeat" and "I don't think God would approve of this song" when it comes to artists like Bruno Mars. Then there are artists I don't bother to listen to the song at all because I already know something crazy is going to be in the song (or I just don't like their sound *shrug*).

Sometimes it does seem like it would be easier to just forego all secular music and stick to gospel (though there are a many of clean, powerful, and beautiful secular songs of which I think God would approve). Yet, Gospel music has its own downsides.
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Gospel Music

As I said, the alternative to listening to secular music, is Gospel. Growing up, my church (a Missionary Baptist Church) didn't allow Contemporary Gospel in the church. Our playlist mostly included traditional hymns and spirituals. The older church members (which consisted of most of the church) were not too keen on Contemporary Gospel and I couldn't really understand why. In my middle school and high school years I was introduced to artists like Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, and Kirk Franklin, but it wasn't until college where I met Christians who listened to Contemporary Gospel frequently (or solely) that I started to listen to other artists and form a large number of songs under my Gospel playlist. As I began to listen to artists like James Moss, Fred Hammond, and Darwin Hobbs, I truly questioned why my home church wanted to stick to Negro Spirituals when we could listen to something more upbeat.

The first time I entered a mega church, I started to get an idea of what they didn't like. I honestly couldn't tell if I was in a church or a club. There were strobe lights, people dancing in the aisle, subwoofers that made my heart tremble to the beat of the bass, and people throwing money at the preacher like it was a strip club. Granted no one was twerking, but the music didn't sound any different than the songs they played at the fraternity parties I'd attended and I felt like I was in a zoo. I'm sure the person singing or rapping was saying something about God or Jesus, but just like I often have no idea what Pop artists are saying, I had no idea what they were saying. It was a little strange, and it made me think for the first time about whether the "type" of Gospel mattered.

That experience didn't stop me from listening to Contemporary Gospel, though I do prefer old songs with a contemporary sound over the new songs, and I don't attend mega churches. I tend to listen Contemporary Gospel that feels like it has the Spirit moving in it—something I guess takes prayer to discern. Yet, even then I'll sit to listen to songs and catch lyrics that are just as questionable, if not more questionable than secular music. I say that they're more questionable because we know that songs that are not about God are likely to have questionable lyrics, but we don't expect that of Gospel songs. This leaves us vulnerable as we are not listening to the songs with the intent to turn it off as soon as something bad is said or mentally bleeping out phrases we don't like so as not to internalize them (whether these methods work or not I'll leave for others to debate). Also, when you mess up lyrics about God you're teetering on the edge of blasphemy and using the Lord's name in vain. That's dangerous! Let me give some examples:
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Strange Things in Gospel Music

"I Believe" — Mali Music

I heard this song on iTunes radio and bought it shortly after because I felt a bit moved by it. In the song a man is discussing the importance of faith and declaring that he believes. He describes all the bad things going on in the world, points out hypocrisy, and lack of communion with the Word in the church. All in all, I thought he was hitting the nail on the head in terms of how the world is today. Yet, somewhere in the second verse, things get a little confusing.

But no matter what's going on...
Ima be standing... Ima be holding on
Your truth, their truth, my truth
Your god, my God, our view
All I know is one thing nowadays
Is we all need hope we all need faith

"I Believe" -Mali Music

When I stopped to listen to this part again, I didn't like it. Is he saying that it's ok to believe in different gods as opposed to the God of Abraham? To me it sounds like he's saying it doesn't matter what view or god you believe in as long as you have faith. That's definitely a tolerant way of looking at the world and a bit rosy, but it's not what the Bible teaches us. If you believe in Jesus and the Bible, the only faith that matters is faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Tolerance is something ingrained in us these days, to be accepting of our differences; while I agree that you shouldn't be out hating people simply because they disagree with you or practice different beliefs, that doesn't mean that you have faith in their practices or take part in them. I'm not sure exactly what Mali Music was trying to say in this passage, but I think it needs work. I mean, after hearing this verse it's not clear that he worships the God of the Bible; he mentions that people of God don't read their Bibles, but he isn't associated with this statement, then he goes on to talk about different gods; which god is he saying he believes in? So if I'm singing this song along with him, what exactly is it that I'm claiming I believe?

"We Fall Down" — Donnie McClurkin

We fall down
But we get up
We fall down
But we get up
We fall down
But we get up
For a saint is just a sinner who fell down,
But we couldn't stay there,
And got up

"We Fall Down" -Donnie McClurkin

"We Fall Down" by Donnie McClurkin played over and over at every Christian event I attended in college. The song's refrain repeats over and over, which is interesting in and of itself since Matthew 6:7 tells us not to use vain repetitions in our prayers. Was this to extend to songs of praise as well? Another interesting point is that when listening to the live version (that's the version I own), its actually very difficult to distinguish whether they are saying that a "saint" or "savior" is a sinner who fell down but got up. According to AZLyrics.com the word is saint, and I'd like to give Mr. McClurkin the benefit of the doubt because saying "a savior" not only implies more than one savior but also implies that our Savior wasn't perfect, which nullifies Him as our Savior. I certainly hope that people, particularly those who are new in the faith and would be more aware of the word savior than saint (saint tends to be a more popular word amongst some denominations than others), aren't misunderstanding this song. Top

"Lamb of God" — Nicole C. Mullen

Once upon a long night after a hard ride
Somewhere in Bethlehem
A baby graced the silence
Sweetly he's crying,
"I AM EMMANUEL"
Then angels gave him music
Shepherds gave reverence,
And a message to the land
A widow held and cherished
The God who became a man

"Lamb of God" -Nicole C. Mullen

"Lamb of God" by Nicole C. Mullen may be a less popular song than "We Fall Down," but I remember the first time I heard it, I was almost to tears. The chorus of the song is very moving, as the singer is expressing that she has nothing of value to give to Jesus so she gives herself. The lyrics are "But oh, Lamb of God, oh, Prince of peace, What tribute shall I bring to worship Thee, I have no gold to lay at Your feet, So Lamb of God I offer me." That's pretty powerful, right? Except in the first verse of the song (listed below) she mentions a widow holding and cherishing the baby. What widow? We are told wise men come to visit Jesus, but never a widow—is she talking about Mary? Mary wasn't a widow, she was a virgin. It is possible a widow visited Jesus, but the Bible doesn't tell us that. What producer, manager, Christian, allowed this woman to sing the word widow there? If you listen to the song, virgin doesn't have quite the same ease in the melody, but she could have said woman! Many people believe that by the time Jesus began His ministry Joseph had died, making Mary a widow, since he is not mentioned. However, at this point, Mary wasn't holding Jesus as He was a grown man. This completely ruins the song, it's not factual, and I probably sang this line once or twice before I realized what she was saying (just as churches warn about secular music). How many people are still singing "widow" thinking Mary was a widow at Jesus' birth? This could be a method of perpetuating the eternal virgin myth of the Catholic Church (post on this topic to come).

"I Call You Faithful" — Donnie McClurkin

Another song by Donnie McClurkin, though perhaps not as popular as "We Fall Down." This song is also very repetitive insisting upon the names they call God (Holy, Righteous, Awesome, Faithful, Healer, Savior, and All That). It seems fairly straightforward, and a simple way to praise once you get over the repetitiveness. Except at the beginning he says something that sounds like "nah s***" and I've yet to see a lyric translation that includes this or defines what he is actually saying. Near the end of the song he breaks into "tongues," which Paul tells us is best left to situations where someone can translate what is being said—which is probably not on a recording.[1][2] Since not a single lyrics site explains what Mr. McClurkin is saying, it leads me to question if he's actually speaking in tongues... If he is, someone should be able to interpret what he's saying, and I would think they would add that to the lyrics. How many people listen to this song a repeat words/phrases are foreign in meaning? Daniel 8:23 tells us the antichrist speaks/understands dark sentences; just because you're speaking a language you don't understand doesn't make it tongues!

Where is Jesus?

As I alluded to in the questions about who Mali Music is worshiping (who switched into secular music according to the interviews posted here), there are artists who never (or rarely) actually mention Jesus by name. Just as Joel Osteen danced around whether non-believers can get to heaven,[3] artists are leaving ambiguous messages about what they actually believe. Sometimes it's to avoid criticism from the secular world, which Jesus already warns us that we will be persecuted for His name and that we shouldn't back down.[4][5] One blogger points fingers at Michael W. Smith, and BeBe & CeCe Winans for avoiding Jesus in their songs.[8] I don't listen to the Winans, but I looked up the lyrics to the song in question, "Lost Without You." As the blogger stated, God, Jesus, nor Lord are used anywhere in the song. Similarly, The Ultimate Collection: BeBe &: CeCe Winans on iTunes has 26 songs, none of which have the name God, Jesus, or Lord in the title, though a couple—literally a couple, as in 2—ambiguously refer to "He" (which may be capitalized simply because its in the title of the song) and one is called "Heaven." I looked at the lyrics for 10 of their songs: 1 has Lord in it, 1 has God in it, and none mention Jesus. I don't know much about Michael W. Smith either; though I will say his 2001 album, Worship looks more promising, with both Jesus and God appearing at least once each in the title of a song. Another blogger criticizes Gospel Rapper Lecrae for partnering with secular artists such as Kendrick Lamar and David Banner. Some of the commenters believer Lecrae is trying to reach the unsaved using agruments about Jesus healing a prostitute and converting tax collectors, but they neglect that Jesus didn't go to the strip club to find the prostitute.[9] I think it is important for Christians to reach the unsaved, but that doesn't mean you become the world, Jesus already told us you can't serve two masters.[10] Katy Perry used to be a gospel artist (then known as Katy Hudson), but has since denounced her faith in God altogether and makes conflicting statements regarding her faith.[6] George Perdikis, co-founder of Christian group Newsboys, has also denounced his faith and is now claiming to be an atheist.[7] From the looks of things, it would seem that no music is "safe" and that as Christians we must keep our eyes and ears open at all times.
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References

  1. 1 Corinthians 12:10
  2. 1 Corinthians 14
  3. YouTube: Joel Osteen on Larry King Live. Uploaded April 2008
  4. Luke 17:33
  5. Matthew 5:10
  6. Chumley, Cheryl K. "Katy Perry, who renounced faith: God was with me for Super Bowl performance". The Washington Post. February 2015
  7. Brown, Michael. "Going Atheist: Newsboys George Perdikis and the Apostasy of Christian Believers. The Christian Post. January 2015
  8. Capital J. "The Devil's Power Over Music!". Expose The Devil October 2012
  9. Addison, Meeke. "Is it time for the Church to reevaluate Lecrae?". One News Now. January 2014
  10. Matthew 6:24
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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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