Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I Know, It's Only Rock & Roll, But I Like It, Like It, Yes I Do... (Are We OK with That?)



Today we launch a series on Christianity and contemporary entertainment. If you enjoy music and the arts, this multi-series interview is bound to make you think.


Sarah:

Hello, gentlemen! Two of my favorite thinkers from Dallas Seminary. Dr. Glenn Kreider is a professor of theology. John Adair is pursuing his PhD in historical theology.

By way of introduction, Dr. Kreider has a bit of a following at the seminary among some of us who appreciate his very hip musical orientation. Rumor has it you wish you were a part-time DJ. Any truth to this?

Dr. Kreider:

Actually, you’re right! I am a frustrated "wanna be" DJ. I’m a theologian who loves music. And I love to play good music for others.

Sarah:

So it’s true! You heard it here, folks! OK, John. In all your “spare” time you write these incredible “thinking person” reviews of artsy movies. You also have a toddler and a baby on the way! Any plans to review children’s fare?

John:

Thanks for the compliment! I look forward to introducing my kids to some of my favorite animation (and other kid friendly fare) and will happily review movies aimed at children, providing having the kids doesn't cut down on review time! In fact, one of the more impressive children’s movies I've seen was Howl's Moving Castle, which I wrote about here.

Sarah:

You can even find artsy kid fare? I’m totally impressed. What else are you watching?

John:

I've seen all but the most recent Pixar movies and appreciate each of them to greater or lesser degrees. In fact, my friends will tell you that an off-hand mention of Toy Story 2 (my personal favorite) always gets my attention. Anyone who can avoid crying when Jesse gets left at the side of the road must have a heart of stone!!

Sarah:

Agree! Then again, I cry at Buick commercials… OK. You’ve both graciously agreed to jump into blogsphere for a dialogue on so-called “secular” versus “Christian” entertainment.

First question: Is it OK for Christians to listen to a wide variety of secular music?

Dr. Kreider:

In order to frame an answer to this question I think we need to define “secular.” From a quick glance at a dictionary, I learn the term might mean that which is of the world (the creation) and temporal… or it might mean non-religious or even anti-Christian. When Christians use the term I suspect it usually has a negative connotation. One reason for this is that many of us have been taught that the “world” is our enemy, it is against Christ. It is true that the word is used that way in Scripture, but not always. When we teach our children to sing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” it is all creation we have in view, I think. So, if “secular” might be that which is of the created order, then everything humans construct is secular.

Sarah:

For our purposes, let’s say we use the term “secular” as it relates to that which is “non-Christian.”

Dr. Kreider:

I’m not sure it’s helpful to classify music as “Christian” or “secular.” I understand what it means to use “Christian” as a noun but am not sure how helpful it is as an adjective. I know what it means to speak of a person as a Christian but find it much less helpful to describe music, art, writing, education, cars, medicine, math, science, paper, I-pods, computers, etc. as “Christian.” I understand what it means to say that the artist/musician is a Christian but does that make her music Christian? As the term is used, Christian as a description of music seems also to focus primarily on the lyrics. (Note that I grew up in an age and in a subculture that argued that rock music was of the devil and the beat itself was proof that the music was not Christian. In its most perverse forms, it had racist underpinnings, asserting that rock music used savage, African beats. Rejection of the genre of rock music, although still around, is not widely used any more.) What makes lyrics Christian? Must they mention Jesus by name? How many times? In that case, much of the Bible is not Christian, since Jesus is not explicitly mentioned.

John:

I agree. I'm not sure thinking about "secular music" as one big monolith is where we want to go. It seems that the Christian vs. secular music divide merely perpetuates a distinction that is not as stark as some people want it to be (i.e. Christian music is all true while secular music is full of falsehood). The fact is all music, Christian or otherwise, is written and performed by fallen human beings, and as such, has its own mixture of truth and falsehood. So, instead of trying to cordon off certain artists or labels into a “safe” Christian ghetto of sorts, I would rather ask if the particular artist/band/song points your sensibilities toward that which is true, pure, noble, and lovely. If one can answer yes to that question, then I don't see a problem, regardless of which label releases the music.

Dr. Kreider:

Yes, a much better standard than labeling the artist or the lyrical content would seem to be questions of truth, beauty, reality, harmony, consistency, appropriateness, etc. Derek Webb makes that point, using irony, when he writes, “Don’t teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music” (“A New Law”). I like a wide variety of musical styles. I find myself particularly drawn to music that expresses reality that is authentic… that tells the truth. Life in a fallen world is messy and tragic. Music that expresses the struggle of life in a fallen world encourages and stimulates my hope. Music that expresses hope, even if not with explicitly Christian content, encourages my hope. I am listening to John Mayer at the moment. “Something’s Missing” expresses the truth that something is wrong with this world. I love the line, “How come everything I think I need always comes with batteries?” There it is: a metaphor for life in a fallen world. Every time I replace the batteries in one of my toys (“The difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys”) I am reminded that in a fallen world, everything is decaying and dying.

John:

I also have a hard time thinking of Christian music as a “genre.” It is the only “genre” of music based entirely on lyrical content. Jazz, pop, rap, rock, and classical are all genre identifications that point toward how the music sounds, rather than to what it says. This leaves me wishing the Christian vs. secular music construct would fade away. Alas, due to marketing concerns and the ongoing belief that what one buys from a Christian label is somehow fundamentally safer and true will, I fear, continue to perpetuate this divide for some time.

Dr. Kreider:

Back to your question, Sarah: Is it OK to listen to a wide variety of music? Yes. I believe that diversity is good, that we should listen to a variety of voices expressing a variety of opinions on a variety of issues. I even think it is helpful to listen to some music that is disturbing and outside my “comfort zone.” I want to know what people are listening to. I might not like it and I might not spend a great deal of time listening to it, but I do want to know what people around me find worthy of their time and money.

John:

And to what extent and what one specifically listens to will depend on the individual in question and their own conscience. Some people may choose to only listen to Christian music, others may pursue a more varied course, but either way, one should be true to their conscience.

Sarah:

So it would appear that you both favor erasing the line that tends to divide “Christian” and “secular” music. Seems you are both looking, in terms of lyrics, for truth and that which provokes thought or conveys virtue or hope. Phil 4:8 tells us what we should think about. Most rock music probably doesn’t fall under the “pure” category.

Question: Do we put ourselves at risk when we branch out from the Christian music scene (e.g., Christian radio in the car) and start venturing elsewhere?

The answer to this question and Part II of my interview with Dr. Glenn Kreider and John Adair coming soon.




DTS Professor Dr. Glenn Kreider (left) and PhD candidate John Adair.


(Photo of CD by gytr; see http://flickr.com/photos/grytr/296878046/ for restrictions.)




2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm no music hound. Basically, my music knowledge falls into the category of I like what like, but dont ask me to match an artist or group with a particular song.... well, Doobie Brothers I can probably handle. Anyway, what I want to say is that I really appreciate your thoughts on the "Christian" vs. "Secular" music question. I find your comments around dropping the use of Christian as an adjective to describe music right on the mark. While there are great songs that carry obvious Christian messages (e.g. Hallelujah Chorus, Amazing Grace), day-to-day I like less traditional songs that still carry Christian messages of our fallen nature and the hope that exists for us in spite of ourselves. For example, some of my favorites are in the movie soundtrack from The Rookie (e.g. Blue Moon Nights; There is a Light). Some of these songs communicate a peace in the midst of our struggle that reflects well the hope that resides in all Christians. I find you don't need lyrics too in a song to still make it something that can communicate to us that which is pure and true and good.

Thanks again. I look forward to more Q&As from y'all.

Sarah Onderdonk said...

Thanks, Anon. Well said. Music is of monumental importance to me. It has been for as long as I can remember. For several years, I put away my rock 'n roll CD's and really immersed in "contemporary Christian" music. For me, this was approriate if not necessary as I tried to explore and follow after God in a more thoughtful, integrated way. As my moorings in the faith become more secure, I find that others forms of music present less of a "threat" to my walk, if that makes any sense.

Still, there are songs I encounter that are offensive. The most offensive songs are actually those from the past that have an association with something hurtful or wrong. I might love the music, but feel a strong aversion to what it represents, so I don't dwell there.

But what Dr. Kreider and John are saying here, to me, is utterly refreshing. A world of musical options become available to us as we encounter songs that speak the truth.

The one question in my mind about the labeling issue arises when I put my "parent" hat on. If I'm purchasing something from a "Christian" section of the music store, I have an inherent comfort level around standards of decency, anyway. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be exposing my kids to music that degrades women or glorifies drugs or makes violence seem cool. But that's really off topic as it relates to this particular post which is directed at the adult consumer. More thoughts on "family fare" coming...

Anyway, this topic has been sizzling amongst friends. Some are reluctant to hit the "comment" button. I have a favorite blog and when I post there I have a moment of "ooooh... I hope this isn't stupid!"... as I tremulously hit "send." But I hope those of you reading this will feel free to share on this board what you've shared with me privately. This is a "safe" zone... you won't get smacked around here. And your thoughts might be very helpful to others.

Thanks, anon, for your post!