Should Christians listen to secular music?
THOMAS: What is secular? Music is music. If there’s “secular music,” is there something called “Christian music?”
Music is math. It’s notes, sounds, silences, rhythm, and beat. One isn’t secular and the other one Christian.
So I’m not quite sure what people mean when they talk about secular music. Maybe they mean modern, contemporary music—the top fifteen or twenty songs. (I was at an event recently and somebody read out the top twenty songs of today, and I had never heard of any of them or the singers. I was completely in the dark). But what do you mean by “secular music?”
GODFREY: I suspect there are several things hiding in this question.
One would be that the question is probably not just about music but about words, so that adds a significant dimension. Then you don’t just have sounds, but you have meanings.
Then I think, also, the whole question, “Are there styles of music that are, in one way or another, inimicable to Christian piety or practice?”—that’s a question for you.
Some of us like opera. I won’t get into who that might be, but those of us who might like opera would not think that we ought to have opera in the church service. So you can think of a kind of music that you enjoy that you would still say is inappropriate for the worshiping community.
HORTON: When it comes to style, one of the big questions is, “Is this helping the Word of Christ dwell in us richly? And is the music what we’re thinking about, or is the Word of Christ what we’re thinking about?” Music can be very powerful—as Calvin realized over Zwingli—very powerful in a good way for instilling the Word of Christ.
But when it comes to common grace, I agree with you Derek that there is no Christian music or secular music. Some of the Christian music out there is just as bad as some of the secular music out there. So we just have to have discretion, whatever we’re listening to.
THOMAS: This is a sensitive question for me. One of my first memories is as a two-year-old sitting on my grandfather’s knee—he died when I was five—sitting on my grandfather’s knee, listening to Puccini’s “La bohème.” It is a vivid memory in my head, and it instilled in me from that moment onwards a passionate love for classical music and opera.
He died, and he left all of his records to me. He had about five-hundred LPs. He was very discerning and he only bought the best. And he left them to me.
The week before he died—I’m five years old—he brings me into his bedroom. He died at home; he died of cancer, and he was ill for a year or so. And he told me, “I’m leaving them to you.” There were four children—my younger brother was three, my older brother was nine, and my sister was seven—but he could already discern which of these four would take care of his records.
He decided it was me, and I actually didn’t inherit them until I was fifteen. And when I did, I loved them. I treasured them. I played them on an old gramophone record player that you had to lift up the lid. It was wider than the player, so you couldn’t put the lid down while it was still playing. There was one little, tiny mono speaker, but it was state of the art. It was cutting edge, and this was in the 1960s.
I’m saved when I’m eighteen, and within probably a couple of months of being saved, I meet this guy. He came into my life for maybe six months and then disappeared. I don’t know what happened to him, but he mentored me for six months, and he told me I needed to get rid of all my records. So the next day I took them to the market and sold them all for like five dollars. It’s probably one of the decisions I most regret in life.
Now, what he should have said to me was, “Put them away for six months to a year and then come back, and maybe they won’t occupy quite the place in your life that they did at that time.” Because it was a question of priority. But for him it was a question of “This is secular and this is Christian, and you need to get rid of this secular part.” I think that’s why I respond fairly emotionally to it.
Now the words issue, I think I’m with you. When I heard the top fifteen or twenty songs that are playing right now, and I heard some of the lyrics—because it was an address to college students, and he was making a point about how every single lyric was about sex in some form or another. I think I’m with you, from what you said this morning about not going to the movies. So we don’t listen to modern music either. That’s you and me.
GODFREY: The first opera I went to was when I was an eighth grader. I had never been to the opera. I didn’t know anything about classical music particularly. I went to the opera with my mother—my father didn’t want to go—in San Francisco and heard “Tosca” sung by Richard Tucker, who was the reigning tenor of his day. I fell in love with the opera that night as an eighth grader, because it was so glorious and beautiful.
THOMAS: Of course the lyrics aren’t any better, but they’re in German or Italian.
GODFREY: I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker recently that said, “You know, all of these opera plots really need to be sent to a therapist.” And there’s a lot to be said for that.
THOMAS: Like country music.
NICHOLS: We are spending a lot of time on this question, but I think it’s an important one. As I think about this question, I think behind it is the broader question of the Christian’s relationship to culture. We think of music as a particular way maybe to get at our entertainment or what we hear or listen to.
We’re not left without a guide. Certainly, as we think about what it means to be a Christian, how we live in the world, we certainly have biblical principles to guide us. We think about Paul speaking of whatever is excellent, whatever has virtue, we should be thinking on these things (Phil. 4:8).
But here is something I think is especially true of us as Americans: we tend to think about these kinds of decisions in ethical categories only without thinking in terms of aesthetic categories.
So we think of truth and goodness and justice. We tend to do that pretty well. But we don’t always think of the beautiful and how we spend our leisure time honoring God, honoring the Creator of beauty, in terms of thinking about aesthetics.
Whether it’s what we listen to or read or watch, think of those categories, and maybe that can help us as Christians as we think about these things that we devote our time, energy, and leisure to.
Lightly edited for readability, this is a transcript of W. Robert Godfrey’s, Michael Horton’s, Stephen Nichols’, and Derek Thomas’s answers given at our 2017 National Conference. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.