Christian Vs. Secular Music


Even the title to this post doesn’t seem to resonate with many. But I could spend a few months writing about the complexity of this angst between what we as Christians like to label as Christian, and what we as Christians like to label as secular. Right now, I’m listening to my 16 year old from our sunroom, joyfully scream the lyrics, “There’s sex in the air and I like the smell of it.” This particular song is one that I, as a fairly liberal Christian would consider to be “secular.” I sit here with a hint of anger over the fact that I’ve repeatedly asked my older girls not to play this kind of music, especially around my younger children to whom, out of my own selfishness, I do not wish to explain sex and how it smells so unique in fact, that someone would write a song about liking it.

I imagine my three year old who is a pro at repeating what she hears, skipping down to the children’s sermon as she sings her heart away, “There’s sex in the air and I like the smell of it…..” This might be funny in a best seller, Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies kind of a way, but in my little world where we’re still trying to make ends meet and we struggle to get along and make our family a happy one, and in my mind, a family that seems is Christian even though no one has read their subscription that I bought them for Christmas, this whole Rihanna fest is a tad bit disappointing to me. It seems like a big, huge whoppin’ fail on my part.

Where is Chris Tomlin right about now? Maybe if I sent my daughter on the Burning Light’s tour, she’d get it. She’d see what I’m saying about how there’s a difference between “Christian” and “secular.” She’d change her car pre-sets to all the Christian or cultural stations, aka BBN and NPR (see below), and she’d replace her sex symbol playlist with the “think on these things” kind of songs.

I grew up in a home where we were not allowed to listen to “secular” music. In our car, to church or back from grandma’s house, our station was set to BBN, the Bible Broadcasting Network, a station that played a weird hybrid of opera on steroids put to Christian lyrics. On special occasions where we were headed to a more sophisticated event, such as one of our piano recitals that required somewhat of a cultured pose and air, our mother would switch the station to NPR, national public radio and we would listen to that Sunday’s slapstick humor and backwoods fiddle music (A Prairie Home Companion) that seemed much more sophisticated when it came off the secular airwaves than our own little front porch.

In my heart of hearts, the place that is hidden away from what anyone might think, I have actually found myself singing along “….and I like the smell of it.” As a church music director, I wonder what impact it would have on other members who also care what other members think, if they rolled up beside me at a stoplight and heard me screaming just as enthusiastically as my 16 year old, about sex. What would shock them most? The fact that I’m still alive, that I can honestly relate to the raw emotion and dirty instinct of my God given sexuality, or the fact that I’m not lifting my hands in praise while rehearsing next Sunday’s praise song lineup?

And this is where the difference between “Christian” and “secular” gets confusing for me. There is like this intricate, indescribably feel good lust that can be evoked by “secular” music and by the same token there is this, for lack of a better word, sacred, intimate and beckoning spirituality that can be nurtured by the other kind of “Christian” music. It seems to me that one can’t happen alongside the other. It’s either, or. Some would argue, some more liberal and open-minded than me, that God is in it all, that there is no separation between the good and bad, and that the Spirit isn’t just like some huge dam that keeps all the God stuff logged up to itself. They support their claim with this fanciful imagery that the good and bad are fluid, flowing unrecognizably into each other while the good sanctifies and mixes with the bad, to create something beyond our own human understanding that usually just settles for angry, uptight definitions of what we habitually classify as “Christian” and “Secular.”

But for now, while I’m still unsure of whether God permits my flesh to feel as alive as it really is, I’ll keep my car windows rolled UP on the days when I just don’t feel like being as “Christian” as I’m sure God is calling me to be.

And I’ll pray to God my parents don’t come over when I’m trying to be an open minded parent without compromising the BBN and NPR core of who they raised me to be. Next song up? “Put it down on me.” God, help us!

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0 thoughts on “Christian Vs. Secular Music”

  1. Why is something considered “xian” music merely because it is on a CCM label or because the lyrics are written in a specific format. Bob Dylan left evangelicalism (for a variety of reasons) when I was but a child, but was the music he made while an evangelical (for instance his album Slow Train Coming) xian music and the music he’s made after he left evangelicalism now as u say “secular” music……..

  2. That is a good question. All I know is, there are certain songs I CAN perform in church and certain songs I CANNOT. I grew up with a very categorical kind of religion. This song is Christian. That song is not. Actually, “Christian Rock” was even frowned upon by our breed. Music is such a powerful medium, but a controversial one as well. I think that without verbalizing it, some “Christians” think that even within “Christian” music, some music is MORE Christian/spirtual than others (aka hymn vs. P&W). For instance, when transitioning from a “Traditional” service to a “Contemporary” service, some songs are looked at as downgrades spiritually….like the praise and worship songs that apparently repeat the same phrase over and over. From my standpoint, I love all kinds of music, I only hit a wall when the lyrics are degrading, kind of like “put it down on me.” I guess some women wouldn’t find songs like that degrading. “Look at how she twurk it, the way she work it Make me wanna hit it, hit it, heaven when I’m in it, in it If I do not fit, I’m gonna make it Girl, you can take it, don’t stop, get it, get it.” I’ll have to google Bob Dylan. Didn’t realize that about him. Thx for reading! 🙂

  3. I once was taught a lesson from a Christian musician that has always stayed with me. He both sat down at the keyboard one day, and he said Donovan, I’m going to play you the most hellish, devilish e-flat your going to here. He asked me if I was ready. I said yes and he commenced to playing. I listened enthralled at the sound. The after he was done he said he was going to play me a holy e-flat, full of the holiness of God. He played, and to my naivete, I discovered they were exactly alike. He taught me the lesson that music gets its moral context from the purpose of the producer. That there were not “sounds” that were restricted to the Devil or God for that manner, just people who use music to proclaim their experience in this world, weather good or bad. It was a powerful lesson.

  4. Love this perspective. So as a Christian artist, what “experiences” are we permitted to share through music? I struggle with this…..that others might misunderstand and be led astray. That “feelings” shared might be misconstrued as “doctrine.”

  5. we desperately need to move way from the secular vs. sacred, as a lot of people I read have stated, it is false dichotomy. The Holy Spirit exists in the world not just the church, which essentially means that God is moving in unexpected places. Are there different cultural expressions of music? Yes. Is there a social responsibility for artists who communicate their art? Yes. Does separating Christian from secular encourage artists to abdicate that social responsibility? Yes, that is why it isn’t helpful. Good reflections btw, you have an interesting blog.

    1. Thank you Rod! Thanks for visiting & commenting. I agree with you that we need to move away from that classification of music because it allows others to give their personal biases more weight by saying this song is “Christian” while that one is “Secular.” But I do believe that “social responsibility” is key here in the discussion of music. I always think of the verse that says to “Let your speech be seasoned with salt.” What does that mean exactly? I’m not 100% sure, but it seems to me that the opposite of speech seasoned with salt, is speech not seasoned with salt. Is it possible for a song to be bland spiritually, and really void of the “salt” that would make it “taste good” in God’s opinion? I think so. Something like that.

  6. I had to stop in the middle of this article to type this, we are all different around different people, why can’t we all just be, around everyone, it is tiring when you have so many roles that you are and that sometimes, you just need to let go of one or more roles to be better at one particular role.

    1. Hi Chey, what is your line of work? I still find it difficult to be the same me around everyone. 🙂 But it would be awesome if I could grow to that point. The reason I ask about your line of work, is that I often wonder if sometimes we have to change who we are so much because we are in the wrong setting and around the wrong group of people to begin with. Kinda like, we’re in the wrong tribe. -Anna

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