“Christian music,” “Christian movies,” and “Christian rap” are a staple of American culture. Some assume all this “Christian” stuff must be good. Others claim they’re false worship songs.
Are “Christian” Songs that Don’t Glorify God False Worship Songs?
There is a strict dichotomy drawn between the art of most Christians in the public sphere and the art of non-believers. TobyMac makes Christian music, but Drake does not. Darren Wilson makes Christian movies, but Chad and Carey Hayes (screenwriters of The Conjuring) do not. When Five Iron Frenzy sang about the “Blue Comb,” was that a Christian song? Was it a false worship song? Or was it just a group of Christians singing a silly song?
Ever since an interview I read with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, something has bugged me about this binary. Jon said, “I am a Christian and I make music. The music is not saved. It is not Christian.”
In other words, Jesus did not come and die to save songs. He did not suffer in order to bring Oceans 11 out of the flames of hell. “Christian” is a noun, not a verb.
It refers to a person who has put their faith in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Acts 11 points out that the word was first employed in Antioch, and it was an insult more than a descriptor. The accusers said of the Christians, you just want to be like your master, Jesus Christ. You are Little Christs. And the term was born.
For the first 300 years of her existence, Christianity suffered brutally at the hands of the Roman Empire until 313, when Constantine declared Christianity legal. Soon after, the persecution let up and the empire converted to Christianity. You may have heard of a little thing called The Holy Roman Empire. This was a marriage of religion and politics, from which the Western church has never fully recovered. We see signs of its recession now, but we are very much still in the paradigm of Christendom. Christendom is a fancy word for a “Christian culture.” It accurately describes things like the Bible Belt, and the fact that politicians still appeal to Christian values when making speeches. Christianity is not persecuted in the west because of what Constantine did 1700 years ago, and we are only now beginning to see signs of its fading.
When Christianity became widely accepted across western culture and Christendom became the predominant form of belief and action, this made room for “Christian things” to emerge.
For instance, in the 13th century during the fourth crusade, there are stories of western marauders breaking into eastern churches and stealing holy artifacts and relics. Were these things actually ‘holy’ and did they contain special power from the divine? Perhaps, but probably not. They were merely “Christian things.” They were elevated to a position of holding some sort of essence borne of man’s perception more than divine origin.
And we fall into the same traps today.
I catch myself creating this false dichotomy between Christian things and secular things; holy spaces and unholy spaces. How many times have you heard someone crack a dirty joke only to have someone else say “Dude! You can’t say that in a church! Not in here!”
It’s a Christian space.
Contrary to everything the Bible teaches, we believe that there are places where we can go to meet God, but the rest of the time, He’s pretty far away. He’s trapped in a cathedral somewhere or attending a council in Jerusalem. He’s not in my car on the highway, or in the movie theater.
Another implication of Christendom is that, in this culture, nearly all the art created was sacred art. Handel’s Messiah, the Sistine Chapel, and every triptych in Italy was commissioned and created by the church, for the church. The cutting edge of art and music was in the church, and nothing existed outside of it. Even the architecture of churches was meant to inspire awe in visitors. Anyone who has set foot in an ancient cathedral can attest. What we have seen in the dissolution of Christendom is a reduction of support for quality art from the church, and a focus on creating private art, exclusively for the enjoyment of Christians.
What originated as an insult to highlight the early believers striving to be like their master over time became a descriptor of various merchandise and media in order to boost sales. The word has become a marketing ploy. Some of it’s made up of false worship songs.
The sad thing is, we Christians have gobbled up this Christian marketing scheme. As if the word held some promise of This album is imprinted by the divine and will change your life (And of course, the lyrics are squeaky clean).
I love seeing Christians fudge this boundary wall. For instance, worship band King’s Kaleidoscope dropped not one but two f-bombs in a recent song, which the singer said came straight from the pages of his journal as a prayer to God. He broke free from the typical restraints of what Christians should and shouldn’t have in their work. Was that one of the false worship songs, or was it just a Christian singing with filthy language?
Then you have Christians on the other side such as Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper who run in secular circles and use their platforms to raise awareness about things like social injustices and struggles with God. (And with them, the writers of The Conjuring films who wanted to remind people of the presence of the spiritual world.) If they were calling their songs worship songs, they’d be false worship songs.
I think that the more we can dissolve the barrier between “Christian stuff” and “secular stuff,” the more we will be able to make a difference in our culture. This will help us clarify what are false worship songs. If the gospel is universally appealing and is meant for the redemption of the whole world, shouldn’t our creations be equally accessible and relatable? How many times have you sat through a ‘Christian film’ and thought, Yah…life is definitely not like that…
I am a Christian. Many of you are Christians. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your music collection, DVD sets, or certain stores are also Christians. They are not. They are works made by Christians, hopefully with the same care and quality non-believers put into theirs.
The sooner we can simply live as Christians, do good work, and speak well to the world in which we live, the more effective we will be as Little Christs. So may we do so. May we work hard, love well, and not construct false descriptors to segregate our art from that of the world. I think changes like this can begin by monitoring the way we speak about certain things. If we could erase the adjective form of “Christian” from our vocabulary, I think we would begin to think differently about how we are to live and create in the world, and relate to those who are not believers.