Wednesday, April 19, 2006

"Is there such a thing as Christian music?"

Note: this article was penned a few years ago in response to a question on our forum, then became part of a U2 article, and now appears here to link into today's post on "Praying through the guitar". Enjoy!

"Is there such a thing as Christian music?"

Such is a  question that begs to be wrestled with:

"Saul has slain his thousands, David his ten thousands" Is that "Christian"?   Is it a Christian thought?  Whatever it is, it’s I Samuel 18:6-7, it was even put to music, the Bible says,  as a "joyful song".

Book of Esther? Is that "Christian"? Doesn’t mention God!  Song of Solomon?  Uh, it's about...nevermind (blush).

And besides, this discussion will naturally lead to a bit of challenge to the church to at least consider, and refuse to prematurely dismantle, another on-target Leonard Sweet bomb: "It may be that for the first time in history, God is more active in the world than the church." 

Sweet’s sweetly provocative quote above explains, in part, why one of the most powerful, biblical and Christian prayers ever prayed was prayed over the world’s airwaves, and not the church’s. Without being overly dogmatic, or framejacking its context, I must maintain that  U2's "Elevation".. IS first and foremost about prayer; no, IS first and foremost prayer. I think I have proffered a convincing case for such a sweeping claim at this link   We must agree that in all things art and U2, there is a necessary freedom and fluidity in lyric interpretation. Always. We must honor and unleash that, wherever it takes us. But even though many interpreters will shut me down, I say "Elevation" has to be-- at heart-- heartfelt and honest (which is why it may not fly in many churches!) prayer. I do allow all kind of breathing room for other and complementary interpretations, other steams of meaning that are vital and valid. And this is an excellent time to insert a wake up and shake up call: some songs are "Christian" if not even "about God" at all; or even if (God forbid!) not written by a "Christian" at all.  Last time I checked, all truth is God’s truth.. T-Bone Burnett, one of the band’s spiritual and musical "pastors," was once thanked in U2 liner notes for "the truth in the dark." Which is exactly where Truth often hides and is brightest…but we miss its brilliance and blessing because we are afraid to "go there." And God has been desperately trying to get us to stand under the light and blessing of His "light bulb hanging over my bed." (That last quote, of course is Bono’s, from the same song/prayer["Ultraviolet/Light My Way"] where the Lord faces the accusation ..some say from Satan…that "You bury Your treasure where it can’t be found"..accurate, unless we are bold and believing enough to "go there", that is.)

"You can write two types of songs as a believer," Burnett says. "You can write about the Light, or about what you see by the Light." His point is that since he tends to circulate more naturally in the latter type, some have pre-judged him as not even being ‘lit" (That means he flunked the church’s "lit"mus test, huh?) The church, of all people, has not easily blessed and baptized the truth of that classic quote. Just as some Christian radio stations appear to actually have a minimum "J-word" count to let a given song in the door, and on the airwaves, we evangelical types have been trained to fine-tooth  everything; ditching Baby with bathwater. We need to be retooled and retrained to enter into the subtle layers and levels of lyrics we feel "may not be Christian" just because they lack enough "J-word" namedroppings (or drop the unpardonable and atomic "F" bomb.!) . I have a yearning to to free Christians , not to violate their own conscience, but to trust it to lifeguard them even out in the "deep (read "forbidden" ) waters, where the swimming and drinking of this deep Kingdom water is exhiliratingly edifying and splashworthy. If you’ve never ventured far enough offshore to swim with the likes of Chagall Guevara, Bruce Cockburn, and of course Burnett: come on in, the water’s fine!). In the words of one frustrated blogger, "Sometime the best Christian music can’t be bought at Christian stores.")

Perhaps it’s only "attempting to justify ourselves" and our "under the radar" listening to, and loving, a "secular" band for Christ’s sake; and for art’s sake, that we feel religious relief to hear that a certain song "really is about Jesus after all." Yet is it comforting, or afflicting, to hear Bono admit that "Our songs are either about God or women, and sometimes we confuse the two."? This rugged and ruddy honesty about confusing the two…because it labels what all of us experience but are afraid to "church," anyway… is precisely why "Elevation" as a prayer tool is such vital component of our tool belt. It would be a gnostic betrayal of Jesus, and St. Bono’s own "hermeneutical key" to NOT "turn each song into a prayer." "Each" is a wonderfully all-encompassing, and dangerously all-inclusive word…shamelessly sweeping in songs about..well, "sex and love and faith and fear" (not to mention "sex n drugs n rockandroll"); much in line with the reckless Matthew 13 fishnet of Jesus that chef-pastor Robert Farrar Capon recklessly and delightfully describes thus:

The word used here is used only once in the New is a particular kind of net, namely, one that is dragged through
the water, indiscriminately taking in everything in its path. Accordingly, the
Kingdom (and by extension, the church as the sacrament of the Kingdom) manifests
the same indiscriminateness)..As the net gathers up everything in its path—not
only fish but seawaeed, flotsam, jetsam and general marine debris—so too the
Kingdom..So the church as fisherman should not get in the habit of rejecting as
junk the flotsam and jetsam of the world—the human counterparts of the old
boots, bottles and beer cans that a truly catholic dragnet will inevitably
dredge up. (Parables of the Kingdom)

Not to "trash" Bono’s..or any deep-water believer’s… sometimes "secular" ("fishy") lyrics, just the holy and wholly opposite: it’s all about being brave, brazen and Christlike enough to inkingdom, bless and baptize all of them, and let the King to sort them out, but not us, and not now: not until "the very end of the age" "(Matthew 13:39). Because in this age, the church and its net needs to be stretched enough to hear prophetic and pointed words from real-world "dredges"; saints and sinners (from Radiohead to REM to Over the Rhine and beyond) that the church would rather not let into the net, even if they are only visiting.
Interestingly, Bono comments on what killed Elvis, and it relates:

I really think he was trying mostly to escape the pain
of the guilt, the pain of believing that he was tapping into voodoo and the
spirit of the devil.All of that must have affected him because of his
Pentecostal upbringing. And he must've known, instinctively, that when he sang he
was touched by the spirit ofGod. And he apparently did read countless books
trying to figure out suchquestions., but I don't think he ever got a
satisfactory answer. It's the thingthat Bob Marley lived, and not just in terms
of the sex and the spirit but interms of the politics. He had that three-chorded
strand. That's the wholeness I'm looking for. It says in the Bible "the
three-chord strand cannot be broken."That's a reference to the Trinity,
obviously, and the Trinity is God the Father,God the Son -- which is the flesh,
Jesus wanting to understand what it's like to have a body -- and the Holy Spirit.
That's what we must aspire towards. But Elvisd idn't reach that state of being,
he was crushed under the weight of not figuring out how to draw together those
three strands. And crushed under not being able to accept that God loves him,
loves his creations as they are, and where they are.That's the tragedy. Though
the problem also is learning how to live with the tensions between those forces
and the thought that you may never pull them together. Maybe even feeding off
that, which I think is what I do in terms of allt he music I create, and my life.
Elvis was left with those two great energies,sexual and spiritual, and even
though he never resolved how to draw themt ogether, with the the third strand,
his music did help so many of us to pull together at least two of those strands.
That was his greatest contribution to rock 'n' roll and to our cultural life in
general. That's his greatest legacy.

The question "What makes music (or lyrics) Christian" needs to be pursued, wrestled with prayerfully and carefully and maybe even eventually (only post-wrestling)..left abandoned and unanswered, or at least left uncomfortably open. On the other (third!) hand, maybe it can be…after the hard theological work and crucible, be dogmatically closed. Whatever the ultimate answer, and meaning of , "case dogmatically closed", it cannot .include either sibling of the following twin and tempting heresies: 1. "As long as it's not_____(fill in supposedly "satanic" genre: rock, rap, Gaithers, Elvis, opera, U2, whatever) , or 2. "As long as it satisfies the minimum count/quota of the 'J-word'. And just maybe Jon Foreman of the band Switchfoot, (whom I recently saw at the local fair ; they book fairs and arenas more often than Christian festivals) settled it once for all, if only our ears would hear: "I am Christian by faith, not by genre." At any rate, a quick and cursory "goggle" for this exactly phrased question {'What makes music Christian?'} yielded no less than 92 links, representing nearly as many articles and essays asking and probing the depths and rabbit-trails of this at first all-too-obvious "answer in the question" question.

Often the very asking of this focused, perhaps ridiculously rhetorical, question grows out of the evangelical disequilibrium we are reeled into upon hearing passionate and bold Christian musicians..from Foreman to P.O.D. to Jars of Clay... say things like "We are not a Christian band. We are a band of Christians." Or "our love songs are just as Christian as our worship songs...because all of life is sacred and Christian". Take the following defining example as a microcosmic window into this forced sacred/secular dichotomy...and be prepared then to unashamedly but gently throw a brick through that dichotomy and Jesus’ name of course:

The Christian in-house debate over ( and at times near ex-communication of ) " Sixpence None The Richer" and their Steve Taylor-produced (pastored?) breakthrough single on the "secular" charts, "Kiss Me," was both humongous and hilarious; both necessary and fruitful on one level, and ridiculously unneeded on another; both intrinsically-motivated in some, and extrinsically and Pharisaically-so in others; both appropriately Christian at points and sub-Christian and unadulterated Gnostic at others ("all matter is inherently evil", "clear distinction between secular and sacred", etc).. at others. Said song may have not mentioned the " J" word . or even a generic "G" word (maybe that can be snuck and danced round by substituting "Yahweh," or maybe, "I AM", ..someone oughta try that!), but who is to say whether it is ultimately..or simultaneously..about a human romantic kiss , and/or a kiss between our Divine Lover and us…and as you know by now, Bono has recently invoked a Song-of-Solomonic kiss on his Guiness-tainted mouth by none other than Yahweh! ), but it sovereignly led (in a way a "straight-up" worship song couldn't have) to an amazingly Spirit set-up moment between Sixpence singer Leigh Nash and David Letterman on Letterman's show, where God convicted Letterman, and not only literally turned him red in from of millions of viewers, but momentarily turned him into an articulate evangelist, who theologized aloud about God and salvation through the lens of C.S. Lewis before his studio and worldwide "congregation". Is that "Christian"? (Rejoice and read more of "the rest of that story" and a proposed answer by clicking here.

One should also celebrate the good company of the very same Steve Taylor (Sixpence producer and frontman of the most missed band around that almost opened for U2: Chagall Guevara), whose credentials speak for themselves when they include being kicked out of the Christians stores and club for (all but literally) putting on MacPhisto-like horns and driving an "ice cream truck" loaded with bombs with intent to "blow up the clinic real good". Accused of advocating the bombing of abortion clinics by playing a character who advocated it, even though the tongue in Taylor’s cheek was as ridiculously oversized and obvious as the horns on Bono’s head, he was dutifully bounced out, by the left foot of fellowship, of the very club he was trying to speak to. Of course, this resume resembles that of another band. Anyone hear of certain well-meaning fellowship in Ireland that very early on questioned that their most famous members (3 of U2) could actually be a Christian band, or a (worse!) a band of Christians...

To coin oneself a " Christian" band may sound like a good and God-honoring thing to do (and it may well be), but nowadays can get one relegated/ banished/ shelved (literally) in only "Christian" stores (where few pre-Christians haunt) or the "religious" sections (ghettos) of secular stores, which "forgets to remember" that the point of Christianity is to give it away. The last time I remember seeing a U2 record in a Christian store was so long ago that it WAS literally a record (the "Wide in America" EP), and the price tag was strategically placed over the cigarette hanging out of Adam’s mouth! What a picture of the church’s sincere but sincerely wrong strategy. And of course, you may have guessed by now that the record was the cut-out rack..the comparable "ghetto" of the Christian stores! About the same time era, I remember having to bribe a Christian store employee (thankfully, it was my wife!) sneak me a contraband copy of a 77s record that was conveniently stocked for all customers to see (not!)…in the storage room!! And the church is not yet over that disease, I see, having noted recently at that same store... under "L" section, Lifehouse was indeed available…behind the counter!….I assume alongside the cigarettes and condoms.

Bono, in his liner notes to Johnny Cash's glorious "God" CD (which, despite its title, is presumably sold only in stores that DO also sell cigarettes and condoms) , admitted he always felt like Johnny, though saved, was "not only singing TO the damned, he was singing WITH the damned...and sometimes he preferred their company." The fact that Cash's "God" record was one of a trilogy/trinity of discs named "God", "Love" and "Murder", revelates that the late Cash was right on time and in unfortunate touch with the pseudo-reality of much "Christian" music. Maybe the following lyric was included and spotlighted just to tweak the Pharisees: "I shot a man...just to watch him die." Cash belts out this line on the "Murder" (of course!) disc, not because he ever did such a thing or sanctions it, but because he was honest enough...meaning Christian enough, E. Stanley Jones would say (and thus pray) publicly that he had flirted with such a thing in his heart. So it is confession…but the confessional is in the marketplace, not the meeting place. U2 of course picked up a play from this book in the 90s with their shortlved but longsighted "video confessional," in which audience members waiting in line were invited to film their confessions, which would be presented onscreen during the concert for the whole congregation..uh, see and forgive (Something about the priesthood of all believers?). And how about Jimmy Carter’s infamous confessing to committing adultery in his heart, in a Playboy magazine interview presented between pages designed exclusively for men to commit adultery in their heart? God bless Rosalynn Carter and June Carter (no relation but except through the Christ-tribe and a common Kingdom honesty) Cash for letting their husbands bleed honesty in the marketplace..the world is waiting to see such fearless honesty. And of course Mrs. Bono likely smiled and smirked knowingly, when her husband responded to an interviewer’s question as to why they announced their "Pop" tour at a Manhattan K-Mart, and why on Ash Wednesday, with "Ash Wednesday and K Mart..that about sums us up!" As does Romans 7, which paints a perfectly imperfect view of (even the redeemed) human heart. But we prefer, for whatever reason (maybe we sickly prefer to "kill our inspiration and sing about the grief") , to jump to Romans 8 and prematurely find what we’re looking for: victory. .But this is nor right; not realistic nor real; it is is Easter shorn of Good Friday. Where’s the glory in that? In fact it is denying that some Sundays are bloody Sundays indeed. Wouldn’t we rather honor God and reality with gut-level, gut-wrenching, resplendent, refreshing, rare Kingdom honesty?

Another honest theologian (may the tribe increase), E. Stanley Jones, has often keynoted the theme that reality itself is Christian. The Kingdom of God is ultimate reality; wherever the Kingdom is, there is reality; therefore..hold your breath and your heresy gun...wherever reality is, there is the Kingdom (in however a veiled, pre-Christian singer or player; or no matter even how flotsamic or demonic the wrapping or wineskin.) "The people of the Kingdom have the whole universe backing them up," he would say. So, anything that is in essence real; honest, is by definition or by default Christian/Kingdom, at least in its purest genesis. "Evil is only," Lewis suggests "fallen good." Music, no matter how twisted, tampered with or tweaked: , no matter how later demonized by anti-Christ lyrics, is, at heart, at first, and at nutshell, a gift of God.

Bono: "Songs are the language of the Spirit...the melodies are how you sing to God. It's a deep language. But they can't explain everything, because really great songs touch places that you can't explain." In another interview, he tips his hand:. "All our songs are about God or women..and sometimes we confuse the two," he confesses with a casual, almost "throwaway" honesty which shocks, but which would benefit, traditional Christians. Part of the honesty of his confession stems from his fear of fans idolizing him, not just as a rock star, but as a professing Christian (or "Christian singer"..if there is such a thing): "I am a believer and I have faith in Christ," he is quick to put on record. "But I am not a very good advertisement for God." The band in fact, "went into the baptismal waters..and almost drowned" when, against their church's advice, they felt called to stay in the "secular" music industry and detour and Dovetail around the ghetto of "Christian music" .

"I'm just drawing my fish in the sand", Bono offers. And "every great song", he reflects, in perhaps an ultimately even more accurate quote than his God/woman confession, "is either about running to God, or from God". I ask: Is a song about "running from God" Christian? I dunno, but try some of the Psalms on for size. The shoes may fit. How about songs honest and real enough to be "agnostic prayers"?. Psalms again.
Such anthems cannot be anathema. . Aa heartfelt, heartbroken Bono lyric, responding in part to the death of his mother:" Jesus! Jesus, help me, I'm alone in this world, and a f____up world it is, too." Blasphemy or Christian? You decide, but to hear Bono pray/ sing it, one does not walk away saying "Bono swore," but "Bono just articulated, -psalmlike, something I had felt..and may never feel comfortable saying aloud..but in an odd way..maybe a God way..I find myself healed and worshipping afresh as I listen."
(For follow-up, you will be stretched by the column that the editor of Worship Leader magazine wrote, carefully entitled "Why I Would Follow Bono into Hell", kept here: ).

Very often a song by a person who is likely not a Christian by our (or their own) definition (Peter Gabriel, for example; a friend of U2), may animate and articulate (untainted by Christianese) a heretofore-latent worship emotion or expression. Thus: "This old familiar craving/ Don't know who the hell I'm saving anymore/ Let it go, let it pass, let it leave/ from the deepest place I grieve/ This time I believe..And I let go.." is a song (Gabriel's "Love to be Loved") with more passion and raw honesty than many an official or self-proclaimed "Christian" song or church "prayer"...yes, despite, maybe even PRECISELY BECAUSE OF the unedited "h" word...even at the expense of not naming the "J" word, which one might make the case is in between every line. And how about his belting out for life and death, in the song "Supper's Ready" (named after the marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation! ): "There's an angel standing in the sun/Crying with a loud voice?/ This is the supper of the Mighty One...The Lord of Lord , King of Kings.. returns to take His children home/To take them to the New Jerusalem!" There is something in Gabriel that believes this with all his heart and more. Is he Christian? I do not think he would claim it. However, his lyric and voice do! Are his music and lyric "Christian?" Take a listen. No wonder his songs (like "In Your Eyes": "In Your eyes, the light, the heat/ I am complete in Your eyes/ I see the doorway of a thousand churches, the resolution of a thousand fruitless searches" ) have been recorded by "Christian artists" without a need to baptize the lyrics. Is "In Your Eyes" "Christian", even if Gabriel sometimes wonders if the words are written to God or a woman? Here I can only speak for myself: I fall on my face and worship Jesus to these lyrics. Do they come from a flawed even non-Christian messenger? Of course. But the music and lyric is Christian to the core and reached and teaches the core of my soul And as a result, God’s "love is teaching me to kneel" to a degree I wouldn’t have gotten to without a "secular saint" being a doorkeeper into the House of God.

Is there such thing as "Christian music"? I dare to believe the answer may well be yes, but not in the way the typical evangelical might frame question, or mean the answer. I don't believe I am "frame-jacking" to believe there is Christian music everywhere...even from the mouths of babes, the mouths of backsliders, and more often than we have admitted, the mouths of pagans. Leonard Sweet again,( this time from p 163ff of "Eleven Genetic Gateways to Spiritual Awakening") makes the case that life is "at its very base" music: "Scientists are finding that they are no different than theologians...They are finding that...Music does more than help us experience God as spirit as we experience life as spirit . Music is more accurately the essence of who we are created in the image of God. If the most elemental and elementary aspect of life is "energy that vibrates" (as scientists say they have discovered in quantum "string theory"), then life is at base music...For anything that vibrates gives off sound… and I… are at base a song.. There is no one who isn't musical….My personal definition of Jesus is 'God's perfect Pitch.’ It is in our genes to see (God's Words) as musical notes....As Pythagoras said, ' A stone is frozen music.'" Rocks cry out?

Whew! Maybe the starting point is now not "Is there Christian music?", but "Isn’t music Christian? Alternatively "Is life Christian?"

Besides, a wise non-Christian(?), Adam Clayton, outted and uttered this astounding observation about "With or Without You: "You don’t expect to hear that song on the radio. Maybe in a church." " Maybe marriage of radio and church, if done well (as Larry Mullen has said, "not at an angle"), could and should work. If it is moving in the right direction, and is not a hijacking. As Bono once told me (OK, me along with the other 30, 000 fans in attendance at an "Elevation" tour concert), "I’m going to take you to church!" He took us; no hijacking; it was holy. So about this marriage:
What God has joined together; let no reviewer; no radio; no church, set asunder.


  1. I have a friend who has said, "Christian" is a lousy adjective :-)

  2. Yeah, Matt,,i say that a lot..good insight.

    several posts here will have Rob Bell's version of that line


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!