Christians, Heathens, and Music Listening Choices (or "Should I Have ____ on My Ipod?")

Christians, Heathens, and Music Listening Choices (or "Should I Have ____ on My Ipod?") April 3, 2013

An exchange with frequent commentator John Situmbeko in my post on Michael Buble (which has gotten an inordinate number of hits since I first posted it), seemed interesting enough for me to make it a post unto itself.
John commented agreeing with my points and saying that he had been unimpressed by a Buble TV special with profanity in the bloopers. He then opined, “What then can be advised to Christians that are fans of such artists, despite knowing the character of the artist? I’d rather stay away from his music, after all it is not produced with me a Christian as the customer in mind.”

I replied that I myself enjoy lots of music by non-Christians but that I wouldn’t necessarily attend a concert by one of my favorite secular musicians (although in the massively unlikely event that Paul Simon ever comes within a 500-mile radius of “my little town,” I am so already there). Upon reflection, perhaps I would revise that statement to say that I do draw a distinction between people whose character clashes with the marketing image they project and people who have never claimed to be squeaky-clean in the first place. Buble seems to me like he falls into the former category. The fact that people bring young kids to his concerts says something about the image he projects. As I discussed in my post, I think that’s deceptive given the language he’s felt free to use at concerts and in taped shows (my uncle and his wife told me they checked out a DVD from the library and were turned off by his off-color humor). For that reason, I am actually disinclined to get interested in his music. So it’s really Buble’s hypocrisy that turns me off, not the fact that he’s secular per se.
But John went on to ask a further provocative and interesting question in this longer reply: Which is better/worse to listen to—an openly heathen artist who makes good but secular music, or a Christian artist who continues to sing Christian music while living in sin?

In music the artist and the art are closely connected, that is especially true with Christian singers, if their behaviour is a mess and unChristlike, no Christian will proudly claim them as their favourite. Many will shun their music. But it is not so with non Christian artists, most Christians would rather listen to Bublé and proudly name themselves his biggest fans than listen to X, a sinful Christian, yet X though in his sin, sings the mighty power of God, whereas Bublé sings of the chick he is yet to meet. Who among the two deserves a listen, Bublé or X?
For non Christian artists, they have no standard of uprightness to measure up to so they can do whatever they want yet their music will sell because the consumers of their products are mostly those that don’t care about how well behaved they are, but about how good their music is. Among this group, some Christians can be found, those that enjoy the artist’s music and not the artist. I think it is a package, the artist and the art. The good or bad name is associated to the music. If the voice belongs to disrespectful Jack, its angelic beauty is filtered and all that remains is noise.

Although I see John’s point, I still think one can get something good out of a secular artist’s music—provided, of course, that the music itself isn’t wallowing in/celebrating immorality. And I think there’s an important difference between that and supporting a Christian who is living in sin but still “singing the mighty power of God.” Once again, it’s the hypocrisy that makes me lose my appetite for the music, even when all considerations of the music’s own quality are set aside. Just to make it clear, I am NOT saying that I therefore think a performance of a profanity-laden, disgusting song is therefore “better” than a performance of a hymn by a hypocritical Christian. God forbid. What I am saying is that for me to enjoy either secular OR Christian music, I expect both a certain level of quality in the lyrics/music and some kind of integrity from the artist making it. From the Christian, personal integrity. From the heathen, professional integrity.
Sometimes a lack of professional integrity takes the form of behavior that the rest of the world views as “authentic.” Take Elton John, for example. I cannot deny that he’s a musical genius who’s written some fantastic melodies. But the damage he is proudly inflicting on society and the next generation by becoming a mascot for the gay agenda, pretending to be “married” to his homosexual partner and adopting two children is so revolting to me that I can’t stand to listen to his music. The only time I can tolerate hearing his songs is when different artists cover them, because then the only thing Elton has contributed to the musical experience is the melody (never lyrics, which were always written by Bernie Taupin—a helpful consideration, for obvious reasons).
Still, I do sometimes ask myself, “Hey, I may not have Elton John on my ipod, but aren’t I enjoying music by unrepentant, casual adulterers, fornicators, etc., when I listen to a lot of the secular stuff that is on my ipod?” Such behavior has always been accepted as normal among artists in rock and roll or pop, be it yesterday’s or today’s. And the fact that it happens to be hetero doesn’t make it any less hateful in God’s sight.
I could say more about why I still feel justified in leaving them on the ipod and leaving Sir Elton off, but instead I’m going to hit pause on my ramblings and let you, the readers, continue this conversation amongst yourselves. What are your thoughts? Do you lean more towards John’s side or my side? I’m really very interested to hear what you come up with, all the more so if you’re an artist yourself.

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  • This is an interesting subject for me. Growing up, I was not allowed to listen to secular music of any kind. When I went off to college, I got heavily into country and bluegrass music. I eventually obtained everything ever recorded by George Strait, Diamond Rio, Brad Paisley, and Vince Gill, who were my favorites. I listened to it and celebrated the same way I do gospel music today.
    At the same time, while not in a state of gross sin, I was not living a life pleasing to the Lord. I won’t say the music I was listening to was necessarily sinful…indeed, I was naturally turned off when a song went into “sinful” territory in the lyrics. But it was part of what was holding me back from being what God wanted me to be.
    A few years ago, I rededicated myself to the Lord’s service, and decided to stop listening to the secular music. I deleted every single bit of my pretty large country music collection from my computer. Music is a big part of my life, and always has been. When I turned over that portion of my life to God, he immediately blessed that specific portion. The blog I write on, and the people I have been able to meet in the gospel music arena are a part of that.
    Almost done…I will not tell someone that listening to any music that isn’t gospel is wrong. I would not recommend secular music to them if they asked me…there’s so much rich, wonderful music that magnifies the Lord and edifies the Christian, why would you waste time on something else? I do know it would be wrong for ME to go back to that music. Every once in a while, that flesh in me will creep up when I happen to hear some Strait or some Rio, but I just have to start humming a Cathedrals tune. 🙂

  • JSR

    If they’re singing about something I can’t do and be a Christian or saying words I can’t say and be a Christian, then I don’t listen to it. This removes all songs with cursing, immorality, drunkenness, and another sin you can think of…so I pretty much stay out of secular music.

  • In my teens I only listened to secular music. Even in the Christian world I was living in Christian music was almost unknown to us, young ones (I live in Europe … Christian music at the time meant church choirs singing hymns).
    Slowly gospel music entered our world and even though my life was far from Christian I sometimes listened to it.
    Years later I rededicated my life to God and it became harder and harder to listen to secular music as most of it described a way of life I had left behind. I rarely listen to it now.
    Nowadays I love to listen to Christian music, especially Southern Gospel which I discovered a few years ago. I don’t know enough about the singers to know whether they walk the walk or just talk the talk. I really don’t care, actually. My walk isn’t flawless and when I read the Bible the main characters (except for our Lord, of course) aren’t flawless either. Yet God used them in a big way. So I just enjoy the music and let it minister to me … God will deal with whatever may be wrong with the singer (and with me 😉 )

  • Of course, when one doesn’t know, there’s no point in speculating. However, I was referring to cases where a singer has openly admitted that he’s living sinfully but continues to view himself as a “Christian” artist.

  • Well… there is more to secular music than cursing, immorality, drunkenness, etc. Witness as proof the fact that both Brian and I have or had managed to amass a pretty large library of secular music that mainly doesn’t fit that description!
    I would also submit that an Irish drinking song is more acceptable to listen to than a song with obscenity or a song that celebrates sexual promiscuity.

  • Fascinating. Thanks for sharing! In my humble opinion, it’s never a waste of time to explore excellent, worthwhile art, regardless of what perspective it comes from. But I know of people who take that philosophy to extremes, and I have a lot less patience with their perspective than I do with yours, which I can at least understand and respect even if I disagree.

  • So far I’ve gotten some great comments about listening to secular music in general, but none that really address the more subtle question I was posing: Setting aside the question of whether you are opposed to secular music in general, which would you rather have on your ipod—a good secular song by a secular artist with secular morals, or a good Christian song by a Christian artist who also has secular morals? And is there a significant difference between a secular artist like Elton John and a secular artist who is quietly committing more “run-of-the-mill” sins?

  • Growing up, I was always told to use the Phillipians 4:8 test.

  • JSR

    I didn’t say there wasn’t any that didn’t fit that description. I just don’t like digging through the garbage to find the good, so I tend to stay away from most of it. I should make a clarification. I do have some stuff on my computer that I know is ok, but listening to the radio is where I stay away from it. I don’t know it’s bad until my mind has already been poluted, so unless I know it’s good up front, I tend to stay away.
    On the Irish drinking songs…the bible doesn’t differenate between Irish drukeness and drukenness in other cultures, so nethier do I.

  • JSR

    I do know some people who would rather listen to a secular singer who’s cheating on his wife than a religious singer who’s cheating on his wife. It makes them not enjoy the religous music when they know a blatent sinner is singing it.
    I tend to find most singers (religious or secular) don’t match up with Jesus’ teachings. So, I take their life with a grain of salt and enjoy the music.

  • Well there I think we agree, because I never listen to secular radio either.
    I just used Irish drinking songs as an example—not meaning to imply anything specific about Irish drinking songs as opposed to other drinking songs. I guess my point, bluntly put, was that a song about sex is a lot worse.

  • JSR, I agree with your last paragraph. I listen to what moves me for whatever reason. God can use anyone or anything to accomplish his purposes. If the artists have to be perfect there would be no music. That being said I really don’t find myself listening to much secular stuff…but good music is out there, secular or Christian.

  • But surely you wouldn’t listen to someone like, say, Jennifer Knapp, who’s living in a lesbian relationship but still insists on being accepted as a Christian/Christian singer?

  • Sin is sin, no matter what it is or who commits it.
    Basically, it seems your opinion is that you’d rather listen to a sinner in denial who doesn’t sing about Christ over a sinner who admits he/she is a sinner who does sing about Christ.

  • Indeed. If you thought I was fudging on that point, you’d be mistaken. I’m quite confident that most if not all of the talented secular artists I enjoy are comfortably on their way to Hell.
    However, your second paragraph is not actually what I said. I never said that I wouldn’t listen to “a sinner who admits he/she is a sinner who does sing about Christ.” What I said is that I wouldn’t listen to a sinner who does NOT regard his immoral behavior as sinful and STILL thinks he’s a Christian. In other words, somebody living in unrepentant sin while claiming Christ, and hence taking Christ’s name in vain.
    Big difference there. Big, big difference.

  • No I would not listen to the artist mentioned above because I never listened to her before she “came out”. Just did not enjoy her music. I know that is not exactly answering your question. But to be honest I did like some of Ray Boltz’s music but do not listen to it now. So I guess it does make a difference to me.

  • I actually really like some stuff from Knapp’s debut album _Kansas_. I go back and forth on whether to listen to it, since it was released when she was really young and had not yet entered into that sinful relationship. On the one hand, she seemed sincere at the time she recorded and wrote those particular songs. On the other hand, I think there’s a sense in which her art has been tainted by her choice to embrace this lifestyle. That’s another consideration—whether a certain song or album was first written/recorded while the artist was living in sin.

  • John Situmbeko

    Wow! A mention of me, a humble servant of He who called me into existance and bought me with His blood, a lowly man, I’m really humbled yet extremely excited! A great post indeed (not only because my name is all over it 😀 )
    I think the gospel message is powerful, even when sung by one who openly refuses the power of the message. If satan himself were to stand on a pulpit and preach the undiluted gospel truth, it would still be the same old powerful gospel, but because of the one preaching it, many would not heed it, not from his mouth, although there would be no harm whatsoever in listening to him speak the truth. If a filthy sinner artfully and skillfully sings songs that make merry the heart, songs that tell of the cleansing blood, yet he shows by his lifestyle that he has not been to the cleansing flood though he beckons his listener to get washed, his listeners would do well to listen to him and get washed. However such a move by the listeners cannot be taken simply because he that tells them to be saved would have been saved if being saved was as good as he makes it sound in his song. So I totally agree with you, hypocrisy in an artist tends to make listeners abstain from such an artist’s music. (I have a confession to make though, I listen still to Ray Boltz, my mom had a cassette of his music and I got addicted to it like she was. I broke the news of his new lifestyle to her and she literally became ill for two days. Sad but true.) I do believe the gospel is powerful whoever sings it, but it’s effectiveness on people’s hearts is reduced when it is published by dirty hearts.
    As for listening to secular artists, I say listen to them if the music is totally harmless and makes merry your heart. However if it’s a secular artist whose name you wouldn’t mention near your pastor without receiving a sermon or two from him on moral decay in music and the ills thereof, I say abstain.
    In conclusion I would say harmless secular songs from wolves in their own skins are better than harmless religious songs from wolves in sheep’s clothing. Both are after my money but i’d rather give it to the wolves that aren’t in disguise.

  • Lydia

    There may be a difference even with a secular artist between someone who is committing X sin and someone who is advertising X sin and advancing the X agenda. Because the homosexuality issue is actually tied to an aggressive agenda right now, people who “come out” and so forth are making a political statement with their lives. A secular musician who lives with his girlfriend is just living with his girlfriend.
    I’m not saying that’s the only relevant distinction here. Also, frankly, sins against both morality *and* nature are (yes, I know this is controversial) in an important sense worse than sins against morality that are not also sins against nature.
    And then there’s the separate question about a Christian who is living an immoral life. But we could argue that that is related as well. Because the Christian is within the Christian community, the Christian is *definitely* making a statement and pushing the envelope by living in open immorality–of either sort. This would be true even for a Christian singer who was living unrepentantly with his girlfriend. Precisely because this hypothetical person is a Christian singer rather than a secular singer, he *is* making a statement and trying to undermine something by living with his girlfriend. (Probably there’s never actually been anybody like this. I’m just bringing it up as a hypothetical.)
    So one thing you’re reacting against is singers who are icons of immorality, whose immorality is neither casual nor repented of but is current, ongoing, and a symbol of some sort.

  • Yes, I think you hit upon what I’m trying to get at. Of course it’s wrong and sinful for a secular musician to be promiscuous (especially if he’s compounding this with the sin of adultery). I mean, when a whole music genre has “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” as its tagline… let’s just say living with your girlfriend doesn’t even begin to cut it. BUT I think it’s even worse if you are rubbing everyone’s faces in the details of your sin (like Sir Elton). What I meant by professional integrity was keeping your personal “stuff,” your personal junk, in an important sense separate from the art you create and the professional image you project. I really like your phrase “icons of immorality.” If your immorality is just as likely to come to mind as your music when someone mentions your name… you’re doing it wrong. To put it mildly.
    I also noticed that there is a connection between what Elton John is doing and what someone like Jennifer Knapp is doing. It’s the same spirit of exhibitionism. Not that this spirit can’t be found in the hetero realm (witness rap, where males celebrate and enshrine in song their brutish behavior towards women), but I do think there’s something about homosexuality in particular that brings it out.
    The only sense in which the sexual immorality of most rock musicians is symbolic is that sexual liberation has always been a symbol of rock and roll writ large—which is obviously not good, but is somewhat different from the individualized exhibitionism I was discussing. You can be a rock musician and still have some professional integrity, even if you’re living the rock lifestyle backstage.

  • Also, I’m inclined to agree with your controversial point about sins against nature. Still, wouldn’t you agree that comparing active homosexuality with (say), the sin of adultery is like apples and oranges? Kind of hard to say which is “worse” — both are evil in different ways.

  • Lydia

    Well, of course an adulterous relationship can be a homosexual relationship. One could argue that it’s apples and oranges, but it’s actually not all that hard to add it up. Sin against chastity? Check. Sin against previous marital vows by one or more of the people involved? Check. (Or not check, depending.) Sin against nature? Check. Leading another to sin? Check. And so forth. I mean, one can take the aspects of sinfulness in the situation and separate them out like that, which allows one to say, “This is worse in this way and not as bad in that way.”
    Something else occurred to me: If Elton John had sculpted the David or painted Woman with a Water Jug, composed the Well-Tempered Clavier, or in some other way produced a mind-blowingly great work of art, there might be some sense in which we would be forced to take note of the work despite the disgusting exhibitionistic badness of the man. Though it would still affect (and rightly) our ability to enjoy the work fully, a museum should still display it and so forth. But let’s face it: The world could live pretty handily without a few pop songs, however good they are. In the nature of the case, it wouldn’t be *all that* big of a deal if Elton John’s music were forgotten as a result of his bad behavior. Not that that is going to happen, but the point is that you can generalize your own approach and say, “Would I want everyone to take this approach?” If you answer yes, you aren’t dooming the world to live without something artistically incredibly good without which the world would be much, much poorer.

  • I was thinking of a hetero adulterous relationship as compared with a non-adulterous homo relationship. On the one hand you’ve got the breaking of marriage vows, on the other you’ve got the crime against nature. Hard to gauge which one is “worse” in a metaphysical sense.
    Good point about Elton John. Nothing he’s done is on a “Well-Tempered Clavier” level, to be sure. (Although, for pop music, it’s incredibly good.) I don’t think the world would suffer from its being forgotten the way it would with the other works of art you’re citing, definitely.

  • mulac28

    I think as you have noted in other posts, that at times secular musicians ask more profound questions about life which many Christians artist’s might be afraid to explore. That a secular artist is asking those existential question I think is a good place for Christians to come in with the message of the gospel as the answer to their questions. I have more to say and I gotta go but I thought I would throw that idea out there real quick.

  • mulac28

    For me if a Christian musician is quick to get to the answer or only provides the answer of the gospel then it lacks a true reflection of life and the process of salvation and sanctification. Secular musicians are able to present the struggles of life more vividly yet they will only ask questions or provide something else as the answer. A good Christian artist should be able to present in a song a true picture of the suffering of this life and then the answer of the gospel will sound all that much sweeter and richer.

  • As far as all that’s concerned, I agree with you to a certain extent, and as you know from my questions and answers series, the “conversation” across that dividing line is of great interest to me.
    But at the same time, I try to guard against running away from one kind of simplistic thinking into another kind. For example, I wouldn’t say that a simple song with a lot of answers is necessarily shallow or unsatisfying. Otherwise you would have to say that the rich tradition of Church hymnody is shallow and unsatisfying! Not every song can deal with every topic. We need artists and songs that can cover a variety of topics. Gospel truth is multi-faceted. Some are equipped to write reflective meditations on finding the gospel through suffering, but an anthem of joy, praise or confidence is not any less valuable to the church if crafted well.
    On the flip side, there are a lot of shallow secular musicians out there. I don’t think it’s true in general that secular musicians are “deeper” than Christians. Not all secular musicians put thought and insight into their music. The music business is full of hacks and “artists” who don’t think about much except where their next dollar is coming from. I listen to the cream of the crop from both Christian and secular music, but I fear that in presenting that I may have created stereotypes in some people’s minds about what I actually think.
    And often, I’m not even making a point about depth of lyrics. I’m just talking about the technical craft of songwriting. When I compared Big Daddy Weave unfavorably with Brad Paisley, I wasn’t saying that Paisley did anything deep or profound, I was just saying that he made better music.
    So I see what you’re saying, and I think we’ve found that we agree on a lot of points, but I would just be careful not to generalize. I want to shy away from simplistic thinking, on either side.

  • mulac28

    I completely agree with you. 🙂