By Nicole R. Pramik
While Christians are called to be different from the world, we have to be familiar with the culture we live in if we want to make an impact for Christ. We should strive to be as aware of our culture as we are of Scripture so we can communicate Christ’s truth in a way people can understand.
One way we can do this is to pay attention to the messages in today’s popular music. Some Christians might object to this, claiming it isn’t good to support musicians whose music does not openly embrace Scripture or make obvious religious references. But to dismiss mainstream music entirely is to miss an opportunity to examine what our culture is communicating and relate these ideas to what God’s Word has to say.
From Mars Hill to Bruno Mars
The apostle Paul did something similar in his Mars Hill discourse, using secular writings to explain our relationship as children of God (Acts 17:28). Jewish Scripture would have meant very little to a Greek audience, but they recognized writings from their own culture. Using mainstream music to explain aspects of God’s truth mirrors Paul’s method. The Bible may have little meaning to people in our culture, but they might listen to what Beyonce or Bruno Mars have to say.
All Truth Is God’s Truth
Rather than categorize music as “Christian” or “secular,” we should evaluate songs on how well they carry biblical truths regardless of genre or demographic. A truly Christian song communicates a message coinciding with the truths in God’s Word.
Current music has presented positive messages that, for the most part, support aspects of scriptural teachings. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry have encouraged listeners to persevere in the face of obstacles, echoing Paul’s instruction for us to live “not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:15, 16). Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera assert we are beautiful just the way we are because God created us and makes no mistakes, and the psalmist would agree: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”(Psalm 139:14).
Maroon 5 have upheld loving the loveless (“She Will Be Loved”), Linkin Park encourages listeners to have hope (“Iridescent”), and Coldplay and U2 seek for spiritual significance in the world, echoing a plethora of subtle biblical insights in their songs. In these examples and others, the same idea holds true: if a song’s lyrics demonstrate “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,” then it qualifies as a Christian song (Philippians 4:8).
Treating Songs Like Mini-Stories
Listening to a song carefully is similar to explication, a method of exploring a literary work’s meaning by dissecting its words. To do this, think about what a song says from beginning to end. Just as you wouldn’t evaluate an entire book by reading its first chapter, don’t judge a song by its first verse. While you listen, try to identify the song’s story. Who are the characters? What is their motivation? What theme is so important the musician feels it’s critical to repeat it in the chorus?
Do the song’s story and theme coincide with truths in God’s Word? If they do, find some verses to support your findings. Thinking your way through a song requires more mental energy than simply absorbing it on autopilot. Leaning toward something easily understood is always the simplest route rather than using discernment to determine what is and is not uplifting or beneficial. In his book Fearless Faith: Living Beyond the Walls of Safe Christianity (Harvest House, 2002), John Fischer claims, “We will always gravitate to an easily defined external spirituality rather than to a more ambiguous, internal judgment.”
Digesting Songs with Discretion
Does this mean we should immerse ourselves in everything popular music has to offer? That depends. What goes into your head won’t make you sinful. It’s what you decide to do with what you hear. As Christ said, it’s not what goes into a person that makes him or her sinful, it is what comes out (Matthew 15:17-20).
Listening to Ke$ha sing about getting drunk and partying the night away won’t make you sinful. But if you follow the song’s lead, that’s a different outcome. Listening to music with objectionable messages doesn’t force you into sin. But it might plant ideas to cause you to do or think things not spiritually edifying. This doesn’t mean Christians should be concerned about engaging mainstream music. Fischer asserts Christians should worry, if by worry we mean to “be aware of it and not just absorb it—to think about it, evaluate it, learn to understand its deeper messages and philosophies of life out of what it speaks and make conscious choices in relationship to it.” It’s better to think about what a song says than dismiss or thoughtlessly soak it up.
This is where discretion comes into play. The writer of Proverbs says, “Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you”(Proverbs 2:11). Discretion is the ability to know what is right and wrong, and is necessary for detecting not only uplifting messages in music but also glimpsing truths presented in less-than-pretty packaging.
Finding Positives in Negative Lyrics
Sometimes positive lessons are disguised among negatives. Consider the film Scarface (1983). On the surface, it’s undoubtedly a violent, profane movie; but behind these elements is a cautionary tale about gaining the whole world and losing our souls. Similarly, some songs we might consider objectionable possess messages behind their obvious negatives. For example, most of Lady Gaga’s love songs focus on sex outside of marriage. Though up front this message is negative, the fact such relationships fall apart are proof that unbiblical guidelines for love don’t hold weight. Controversial rapper Eminem often gloats about violent acts but behind the lines are warnings about what can happen to a person who lives outside of God’s will.
As musician Kevin Max observed, “Artists are supposed to push the envelope, as much as depict beauty or inspire and challenge us. They reflect what’s happening around them . . . . even [controversial artists] are part of God’s big picture—if it’s only to bring us to the point where we realize we’ve had enough of violence and self-hatred.” By using discernment and understanding where God’s Word stands on key issues, we can easily determine which musical messages are openly good and which ones are warnings in disguise.
Armed with Knowledge and Truth
By engaging popular music, we arm ourselves with knowledge of the worldviews dominating society. This puts us in the position of opening up conversations about Christ that otherwise might have remained closed. To do this, we must be familiar with the truth of God’s Word so we can sift the good messages of mainstream music from the bad and find hints of light in the darkest of songs. As Paul became everything to everyone in the hopes of saving some, we should try to understand our culture to the best of our spiritual comfort level in hopes of opening up channels of spiritual dialogue (1 Corinthians 9:22). We need to know what Madonna, Linkin Park, or the Black Eyed Peas are saying in order to find open doors through which to share the truth of the gospel.
Nicole R. Pramik is a freelance writer in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
Sharing the Message with Movies
Like songs, many movies carry themes and messages that are echoed by Scripture. Movies can be a doorway to conversations and relationships God can use for his glory.
Next time you invite friends over to watch a movie or are discussing the latest blockbuster at work, see if you can find ways to bring the conversation around to these themes. It might be easier than you think because it’s these ideas that often resonate with people most in a story.
It may not result in an opportunity to share the gospel, but it will intensify the conversation, allowing you to get to know people on a deeper level and build lasting relationships.