David Phelps on the Spiritual & the Secular

David Phelps on the Spiritual & the Secular September 18, 2012

Some people are wondering whether or not to classify David Phelps’ upcoming Classic project as “southern gospel,” because it contains some songs that are more inspo or classical, even though Phelps has sung in gospel music all his life. I think that’s really just a matter of what criteria you’re going by—depending on whether you’re categorizing by singer or songs chosen, either approach could make sense. But, on the topic of secular vs. sacred, I came across this interesting little exchange between Phelps and Bill Gaither in the promo video for the DVD:

Bill: Some people might say, well why aren’t you singing gospel songs? Of course I’ve always said the gospel leaks out in a lot of different kind of ways, right?
David: That’s right. I grew up singing gospel music, and that’s so much a part of me. And then I would think, you know a painter can paint a picture of a cross and then paint a beautiful field. And it doesn’t say anything about who he is spiritually, or is one more spiritual than the other…? When it comes down to it, secular is really our choice. Because everything that comes our way, we can learn something spiritual from it.

I’m not going to say much about this because I want it to spark discussion amongst yourselves (perhaps a few song-writers who might be reading can offer some positive, constructive commentary—that would be cool!) However, I’ll say this much: I think that in the end I know what Phelps is getting at, and I agree with him… to a point. Around the last sentence is where our opinions start to diverge, unless he was saying something much looser/sloppier than he actually meant. What about you?

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  • I might argue that we’ve been given the mandate to “name the beast” and if any part of it can be claimed for God’s glory, it’s our job to do so. All truth is God’s truth, so whether it comes from a gospel song or a heavy metal tune doesn’t diminish the fact that it is truth. I can’t speak for DP, but I’d imagine that maybe what he was getting at with his last sentence.

  • K. Payne

    I don’t have a problem with the secular songs as long as they have a positive message. It’s the songs that have a questionable message that we need to watch. Earl Weatherford always said if it takes longer to tell what a song says than it does to sing it, it’s not worth singing. Good advice.

  • Well, I completely agree with your first comment. I do listen to some songs that I would say are definitely coming from an unbiblical worldview, but in your words, I have to watch it. I certainly don’t agree that we can “learn from” anything and everything that might be out there.
    I once had an interesting conversation with a friend who introduced me to Nancy Griffith, a perfectly classy and respectable secular artist. But he said that sometimes he has to be careful because of the sheer sadness and despair in some of her work. A steady diet of that perspective, without any light to balance it out, can start to affect your own thinking about life. I think I know what he means. You can only listen to hopeless songs for so long.
    However, I’ve heard that Weatherford quote before, and while I think it’s good southern gospel advice, I don’t think it’s necessarily true across all genres. Some songwriters are geniuses, and they can pack an incredibly deep meaning into a space of 4 minutes, meaning that might take some time to unravel fully. Now that’s unnecessary in southern gospel, because a good gospel song is straightforward, not obscure. But when you get into some introspective “singer/songwriter stuff,” that’s where you encounter the songs that you need to chew on for a while, but were definitely worth writing and singing. Not that every obscure song must be profound by virtue of being obscure. But on the flip side, it needn’t be easy to understand to be worthwhile.

  • Okay, but how far would you carry that? Would you say that a filthy rap song about murdering policemen and raping women could be “claimed for God’s glory”?

  • Oh yeah, and another distinction that I think is really important is listening to something versus performing something. I can listen to a song that may be sad and beautiful at the same time, so I’m glad I listened to it, but I would never sing it myself because I just don’t believe the message (because it’s cynical, despairing, or what have you). It can be good to eavesdrop on what kind of questions these artists are asking about life, the universe and everything. (Obviously nobody ever told them the answer is 42.)

  • K Payne

    I’ll give you the fact that Earl’s take on music would only fit in gospel music. What I’m saying is that you have to be careful in what you sing to your audiences. Last century 🙂 , Debby Boone’s song “You Light Up My Life” was a positive type song. In my travels around the country, at the time, it was being sung in some gospel settings. At the same time it was being blasted ,on a regular basis,for being a secular song. Time changes things. You have to be aware of who could be in the crowd at any given concert. You can’t bust out with a Stryper, Foreigner type song because it has some positive message. The message of the song has to be out front enough so that the audience member is not spending their whole time in the concert trying to figure out what the song actually said.

  • Oh, there I think we’re definitely on the same page. If your specific calling is to minister through song, then the meaning can’t be MUDDLED or MUDDIED. And whatever you do, knowing your audience is absolutely critical.
    What I was referring to was something that actually qualifies as “art” — something that’s been crafted very carefully, with layers of meaning that might take some reflection before you’ve gotten everything you can out of the song. Like a good book. So by “hard to interpret right away” I don’t mean something that’s just a hot mess, like a song where you can’t tell if the writer is searching for God, or talking about his girlfriend, or on drugs, or whatever.

  • Lydia

    I remember when people were ambivalent about Debby Boone’s “you light up my life.” (We appear to be from the same generation.) 🙂 My recollection was that what set off alarms among the fundamentalists among whom I was raised was a) the ambiguity, which some singers encouraged, as to whether it was being sung to God or to a man, and even more, b) the bridge line, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.” I have to admit that though the song seems so harmless and fluffy to me at this distance of time that one line does seem out of place. In fact, what’s it doing there at all? Why get defensive about whether this love is wrong or not? If you left the line out, everyone would assume that this was just a slightly saccharine love song, possibly even sung to one’s husband. The “it can’t be wrong” line is jarring and artistically wrong as well as morally questionable.

  • Gosh, I’d forgotten that line was in there. I completely agree.
    It reminds me of a funny but sad Q&A exchange between Doug Wilson and a college student during the lecture where he took all comers at that crazy university. The student was talking about his attraction to another man and just saying, “But what if that’s just how you are, you wake up every morning and all you can think about is this person, and you’re just completely devoted to this person in every way, why is that wrong just because the person happens to be your same gender?” Doug replied, “So you’re basically saying how can it be wrong if it feels so right.” The student insisted, “No, I’m not,” and Doug just sort of smiled and said, “Actually, that’s exactly what you’re saying!”

  • Brigitte

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here…. I definitely do not see anything wrong with songs that do not necessarily have a gospel message in them unless they have bad content. The filthy rap song you described could not be used to glorify God, because the content is wrong. In fact, it directly goes against the Bible! What DP said– “everything that comes our way, we can learn something spiritual from it” I do not really agree with that…. I may be interpreting the statement incorrectely (please inform me if I am doing so!) but I mean, how can there be a spiritual message in all secular songs? How does one use any song for God’s glory? How can a person take any song and turn it into something spiritual? Is DP implying that I could take any random song, for example -Disney’s “Part of Your World” (kind of a random thought but one of the first that popped into my head 🙂 ) and use it to glorify God? If so, then I have a slight disagreement!

  • Lydia

    I’ve just read the comments by Phelps given here. Don’t have time to listen to the whole interview. I’d say he was overstating because the overstatement sounded good to him. In other words, overstating somewhat thoughtlessly. What was at the forefront of his mind were the secular songs he himself is singing, and he figured, “Well, I could get something good out of those,” so then he overgeneralized by saying that you can get something spiritual about anything that comes your way, which is not only not true but also not biblical. But it’s the kind of overstatement that is very, very popular today, and he may perhaps have heard it somewhere else. The analogy to the painting is interesting, and typical of a certain way of thinking. Most of us who have taken a course or read a book (even by the iconic Francis Schaeffer) on art from a Protestant/Christian perspective have seen something like the following: “In the medieval period painters believed that they had to paint only Madonnas and other religious scenes. This limitation stifled painting. But when the Protestant Reformation came along with the Renaissance, Protestants taught that there was no distinction between the sacred and the secular, that a beautiful natural scene or a kitchen or the everyday things of life are also part of God’s world and can declare the glory of God. Therefore painting was freed by the Reformation to start portraying a wider variety of subjects.” I’m not going to write an essay on the ways in which this is an oversimplification, but I would be willing to bet that David P. has read or heard something like it.

  • Well of course I agree. I think like you that it’s an exaggeration to say that we can learn from ANYTHING that comes down the pike.
    I suspect that if Phelps were asked to clarify, he would say that he didn’t quite mean it literally, but as Lydia said below, it’s the kind of pithy over-statement that gets used a lot without thinking, but requires some discretion when we try to internalize it ourselves.

  • Actually the whole promo is very short and mostly focuses on other stuff (intercut with live concert clips), so this was literally all there was to the exchange.
    I know exactly what that perspective is like, and I’ve taken a course from Patrick Henry where this was heavily emphasized. It’s not even completely crazy, but you’re right that it’s a little over-simplified. And obviously one shouldn’t take the mentality to the extreme, where you sincerely believe ANYTHING can “teach you something spiritually.” That’s the attitude that sends certain kinds of Christians to the movie theaters week after week so they can find pieces of the great story because they don’t fear anything and they’re willing to trust the artist… or something. I think there’s more jargon, but I got at least three stock phrases in there. 🙂

  • I’m probably one of the least conservative of your readership. I think you are misinterpreting his last statement. He’s not necessarily saying that the rap songs you’re using as an example can be used for His glory, but there is something spiritual you can learn after hearing the song. Not necessarily something that was written in those lyrics.
    Like he said with the paintings, even though it doesn’t have a straightforward Christian message like a painting of the Cross, you can still see God’s beauty in the painting.
    Honestly, his take isn’t too far off what you and I disagreed over with the video Wayne Haun made on his songwriting blog, when he said that there are things he can take from different kinds of music, both Christian and secular. Basically, if something doesn’t come out and 100% present the gospel message, you are against it (isn’t that why you don’t like the song “I Believe”?). I’m not quite as conservative with my takes.
    And actually, I do think there is something you can take from Part of Your World. Sure, it’s not literal, but you can still make correlations.

  • Lydia

    Gosh, I find it hard to imagine how anybody could think that YGG is “against anything that doesn’t come out and 100% present the Gospel message” when she loves Simon and Garfunkel, on the one hand, and recommends “Kentucky Rose,” up above, which is, shall we say, highly sketchy for a Christian song on the details of the Gospel message! She’s always struck me as pretty easy-going and eclectic rather than hard-line when it comes to “having to present the gospel message,” whether in Christian or in secular music.

  • Okay, I think you’re definitely misinterpreting me and jumping to conclusions about what I think, so I’m going to try to unpack my views a little better for you. In the end we’ll probably still disagree about some things, but I hope this helps. Here goes, and I hope you come back and read/think about this comment….
    (deep breath)
    The first thing I would ask is, when it comes to the the rap song that’s nothing but a glorification of rape, murder, and everything else vile, what exactly do you mean by “learning something spiritual” from it? And what is there that could possibly be “learned” at all from it, spiritual or otherwise? That the world is fallen? That men can be vile and wicked? That darkness prevails in the absence of light? Tell me something I couldn’t already have learned without filling my mind with sewage.
    But, setting that aside, some of your assumptions about what I think are completely off. I tried to make it clear that I didn’t necessarily have a problem with anything else in the quote until the last line, but I guess I didn’t do a great job. I do think God’s beauty manifests itself in a lot of ways, I do take to a sort of old-fashioned version of humanism, and I regularly enjoy art that’s not necessarily “Christian” but still gives me a great artistic experience and reveals profound truths. With the painting analogy, of course I don’t have a problem with paintings that are just pretty and don’t have a cross or something in them. Nor do I think that it would somehow be “better” if all paintings did have a spiritual “point.” Beauty is truth, truth beauty (thanks Keats). Songs are a different art form so the analogy doesn’t quite hold up across the board (although maybe we could analogize excuses for “art” like soaking the crucifix in urine to the profane rap song), but I think something similar can be true there as well.
    Thirdly, if I recall it was a video by Joel Lindsey, and there the issue wasn’t so much secular versus spiritual as old versus new. And I also recall that I praised a secular love song (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”) with the poster I created specifically for that post. So I don’t know how you could possibly have taken away from that conversation that I’m “against” anything that doesn’t 100% represent the gospel message.
    As for “Part of Your World,” you’d have to ask someone else, I lost track of Disney somewhere around The Jungle Book.

  • Yeah, and while of course there are certain specific Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, etc., etc. insert-all-my-favorite-secular-artists-here songs I wouldn’t recommend, I don’t have a problem with enjoying a lot of their music. Not that I regard them as personal paragons of morality or anything (are you kidding me??) I just recognize good art when I see it.

  • Hmmm, I was almost positive you commented on Wayne’s too…now I can’t find it. Maybe I was thinking of someone else…
    Nope, never mind. It was in the comments where we went back and forth. I just thought it was Wayne when it was Joel. My bad…

  • Okay, but even so, that was really a totally different topic.

  • (Addendum: I loved The Jungle Book, it’s whatever’s come after it that I didn’t keep tabs on. Just to clarify.) 😛

  • Elaine V.

    When I first heard this video clip a few weeks back, I also stumbled on that last line from David. To be honest, I thought I felt a bit of hesitation in the air from Bill Gaither as well – though I can’t be sure.) Sounds rather ‘new age’ to me – where everything has spiritual value, and almost anything goes. While I’m not totally against Christian singers choosing to sing ‘secular’ songs (of appropriate content, mind you!!!!), I do have a problem with trying to over-spiritualize “everything that comes our way,” Is a cupcake given to us a reminder of His love for us? Are near-naked models in ads meant to show us how beautiful we can be – or more directly, show men the kind of women they should seek (the outwardly-beautiful)? Crazy examples, maybe – but maybe not, using David’s apparent rationale. I truly think that all tends to trivialize the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and open us up to accepting things as ‘from Him’ or ‘for His Glory’ that are actually not healthy for us at all. We’re called to weigh EVERYTHING and EVERYONE and EVERY WORD WE SAY against the Scriptures. While I’m not willing to risk playing judge over David’s life and walk with the Lord, I’m not so sure David has weighed his words on this subject well enough.

  • I beg your pardon. Cupcakes are most certainly a reminder of God’s love for us! 🙂

  • Elaine V.

    Yes; that line always jarred me too. When it was popular, I never once considered the song to be Christian/about God, because of that line.

  • ode

    That article were very insightful and got me a certain answer I was looking for (I got signed up to write a piece that was effectively biting something too big for me to chew),thanks ! 🙂

  • Well, I’m glad, only I’m not sure how much you could have gotten out of this post, because I said hardly anything! Are you referring to some of the comments where I elaborated more?

  • ode

    Sorry, I meant article and the discussion that followed. Certain aspects of culture are extremely difficult to grasp if you haven’t been exposed to it long enough, or, better, born into it. Synergy between secular and religious music, and how it changes over time would be one of those.
    I’ve talked to people that stewed in music business or just were avid music fans for years, have asked a few questions on musicscribe and a couple of worship blogs, and it appears that there are many political and social influences that created the current state of affairs.