Music & The World of Words

It was my first year in seminary and I was still trying to learn the lingo. I had finally figured out what “eschaton” meant, and in some classes I prayed for it more earnestly than others.

I took an Old Testament course from the world renown scholar Dr. Dan Block that left a massive impact on my thinking, a seismic dent in my Christian worldview. He was lecturing on Psalms when I shyly raised my hand and asked, what seemed to me a perfectly logical question, “What would the Hebrews have thought about secular art?”

He just stared at me as if I had asked if God preferred ninjas to pirates.

Before seminary I was influenced by the back-masking, rock-music burning, independent, fundamentalist warnings against worldly music. I had learned that if you play “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards, and slowed the tempo down just a bit, that you would hear “Start to Smoke Marijuana.” Thou shalt not listen to Bon Jovi was basically the eleventh commandment back in the day.

The question seemed fair. But it exposed an unfortunate result of my former influences. I was viewing the world with a chasmic divide between the secular and the sacred. I had yet to learn of the truth so eloquently stated by Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Dr. Block was eager to knock some sense into me. With his Canadian accent, and what felt to a seminary newbie like myself to be a smidge of condescension, he replied, “The Hebrews understood that all of life is sacred.” Apparently I didn’t share in their understanding. I think that was his point.

And with that he went back to his lecture. But my mind refused to follow. I couldn’t move on. I have lingered in that statement for well over a decade.

I was jolted. Up to this point I had seen the world through gray lenses and it had just exploded into full color. It was kind of like a Skittles commercial.

So I broadened my my view of art. I opened my mind to new modes of expressing the truths of the Christian faith. And I even re-purchased a few albums that I had trashed during more reflective periods of my late adolescence. It was a Creedence Clearwater Revival. Actually, I was more into hip hop, but hopefully you get my point. I began to see the gospel as big enough to redeem a multitude of artistic genres and harness them for glory of God.

But I think there’s more to the story. I don’t have a major issue with the distinction that one can be an artist who happens to be Christian instead of being dubbed a “Christian artist” or feeling obligated to sign with a “Christian label.” But I think a word of caution is in order. If we aren’t prudent we could swing the pendulum to an unhealthy extreme.

For example, in a recent interview, the musical artist Sufjan Stevens shared his perspective about Christianity and art, “On an aesthetic level, faith and art are a dangerous match. Today, they can quickly lead to devotional artifice or didactic crap. This would summarize the Christian publishing world or the Christian music industry.”

If his point is that there is a lot of music by Christians that imposes unnecessary restrictions on lyrics or lacks imagination then I would agree. But his critique seems deeper than that.

The recent article “How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music” in The Atlantic praises Stevens for contributing to a needed course change in the approach to Christian music and how it is perceived. Having spent a few years living in Nashville, TN, and still visiting regularly, I wouldn’t argue that there is Christian music in need of subverting. But there is a certain attitude that I sense here, and have sensed elsewhere as well, that I think is dangerous.

Additionally, Stevens builds his case on a false analogy. He likens his approach to forms of art like paintings or instrumental music like Bach’s Mass in B-Minor, with nothing explicitly Christian outside of the fact that they’re produced by artists who are themselves Christian. But this comparison misses a massive distinction: words. Unlike a beautiful painting, or Bach’s concertos, much of Stevens’ music uses W-O-R-D-S.

Words matter. It’s true that we don’t really have Christian paintings, or Christian architecture, or Christian pottery. I get it. I do, however, think there is room to press back against these categories as oversimplifications, but that’s not really my point here. My point is that when you enter the world of words you are treading in a different category.

The Bible is chock-full of instruction regarding words. We are to use our words to build others up in the faith and minister grace (Eph. 4:29). We are to use our words to spread the gospel knowing that faith comes through hearing (Rom. 10:10). We are to use our words carefully knowing will give an account for them (Matt. 12:36). And this is just an appetizer of all that Scripture serves up on the topic.

Our words are to be used on purpose and for a purpose. 

I refuse to return to my former view that divided the world into the categories of secular and sacred. I like living in full color, what Francis Schaeffer referred to as applying the gospel to the “totality of life.” But I do think caution is in order. Even as we bid this false dichotomy farewell and watch it disappear in our rearview mirror, we should give attention to the road ahead. There are ditches on both sides of the highway. And there’s oncoming traffic.

And let’s not forget that the Hebrews, who saw all of life as sacred, used their most skilled musical artists (1 Chron. 25:7) with a diversity of instrumentation (Psalm 150) to call all of creation to its ultimate end of glorifying the Creator: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6).

I once heard David Platt flip this verse by asking the question, “What if this instead read ‘Let everything that praises the Lord have breath?’ What if our every breath was contingent upon its being fully devoted to the praise of God?” This is a powerful word: every breath we breathe is to be consecrated to the praise of the one true and living God.

Perhaps some would consider this a devotional artiface or didactic crap: but for the children of Israel it was simply a way of life. And if there is a stigma related to such an outlook, I wouldn’t attribute it to the Hebrews. It could just be the case that we are the ones not seeing clearly. I know I’ve had to learn that lesson before.