By Abed El Kareem Zien El Dien
A Christian friend of mine challenged me lately to stop listening to (what he calls) secular music-any non-worship music that does not glorify Christ or pinpoint listeners to the gospel-for the upcoming three months. Instead, I am only permitted to listen to Christian music. He argues that anything this fallen world produces is a polluted mixture of good and evil stemming from the fall in Genesis, and it degenerates into evil since God’s creation is only good. He continues to say that music is a product of such a fallen world and thus it is ungodly and will influence us in negative ways. Furthermore, God was the creator of music, therefore music is spiritual in substance, of a spiritual matter, and it affects the spirit, soul, and body of human beings. Moreover, my friend argues that Satan is corrupting God’s gift to rob him from his glory. God indeed created Lucifer with a “built-in” music system (Ezekiel 28:13), thus he is an expert at deceiving people with evil sounds.
I accepted the challenge knowing that I enjoy listening to soft instrumental music as I read and study. I even enjoy listening to “clean” non-Christian songs. This challenge made me think more about the kinds of music that we often listen to daily as Christians. I ask myself, should I, as a Christian, refrain from listening to music that was not produced by Christians? (My friend certainly thinks so.) And while we’re thinking about this, and it might be beyond the discussion here, isn’t some Christian music itself problematic?
The Bible does not speak directly about Christians listening to secular music, but the following three questions might shed some light on the issue by laying out a few principles.
First, is art in general, and music specifically, a gift from God? Psalm 19 speaks about God revealing himself through creation (Ps 19:1-6) and redemptively revealing himself through Scripture (Ps 19:7-14). This means that we can find God and enjoy him in the general things he has gifted to us, and that might include food, movies, and music. Still, God’s creation is a fallen one, where do we draw the line between what to listen to and what not to listen to? Should there be a divide between what is sacred and what is secular? Unless one thinks that the fall of creation removed God’s image totally from it, then one can ask the upcoming questions.
Otherwise, one might want to stop listening to anything other than worship music, stop attending the movie theater, deactivate their Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram accounts, and even stop living in houses built by non-Christians! Being “in the world, but not of the world”, begs the question; to what extent are we influencing the world and being influenced by it? If music is an influencing factor, how can we manage it without demonizing all of it? This might challenge our sacred/secular assumptions; many of the churches that I know of in Lebanon are not comfortable about bridging the sacred/secular divide. For example, many pastors are hesitant to use their “sacred religious space” for a big traditional mezza meal using the pews in the middle of the sanctuary.
Second, is God being honored and do others see a good example through the secular music I am listening to? “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Here, Paul is exhorting Christians to strive for God’s glory, the profit of believers and the salvation of unbelievers. As Paul discusses the issue of food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10, he encourages mature Christians to take care with their freedom in Christ as long as they have a clear conscious about eating. At the end of his argument, Paul lays out the principle that whatever we do, we do it for God’s glory and the benefit of others.
Additionally, this helps us to make a distinction between non-Christian music and un-Christian music. The first may convey messages that the Bible is “OK” with, and the latter conveys messages that are diametrically opposite to the Bible. Hence, does listening to smooth jazz, for example, glorify God and uphold others by setting an example? It may help to ask the question in a different way; does it dishonor God and others? Although there is a difference between listening to the lyrics of a song and listening to the music of that song without the lyrics, still, listening to “Island Girl” by Elton John does not honor God or others. Even if you like that song and you think high of your freedom, Paul is asking mature Christians to be willing to give up their freedoms for the sake of others of weaker consciences. But what about smooth jazz, etc…? You decide!
Third, is there an honorable truth that impacts me personally within the secular music I am listening to? “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable…, dwell on these things” (Phil 4:8). Philippians 4:2–9 is Paul’s request to Christians concerning dealing with disagreements within the church; his advice is to aim at our ability to rejoice in our fellowship with Christ as we focus on what is godly. Therefore, with attention on positive things, we will experience peace through the power of God. Dwelling on the things that are from the Lord apply to music as well.
With a quick search one can find some secular songs that contain and convey honorable truths like loving others selflessly and always forgiving those who hurt us. A famous Egyptian song comes to mind as I write these words or Louis Armstrong’s famous song “What a Wonderful World”; you might want to see/listen for yourself if it passes the test of Phil 4: 8. In John 2: 1-11, Jesus most probably listened to music at the wedding marriage feast at Cana, and he approved this festive event by turning water into more wine. He probably danced; maybe dabkeh. He was well-known and even accused of attending parties, eating, and drinking (Matt. 11: 19).
Finally, and going back to my Christian friend, he and I are learning to not judge one another regarding our different views on secular music. If Paul was here, I would imagine that he would have recited to both of us Romans 14, and that he might have exhorted us to live in harmony. Paul will advise both of us not to criticize one another on secondary issues. If, and with a good Christian conscience, you believe that listing to a certain kind of secular music is OK, then keep listening. Otherwise, listen only to Christian worship music.
By the way, I enjoyed listening to smooth Christian jazz as I was writing this blog.
Abed is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at ABTS. He is a member of the Church of the Nazarene and enjoys watching movies, listening to music and taking walks.