Published on July 6th, 2018 | by Katherine Forster
Spotify and Saul: Thinking Like Christians About Popular Music
It’s no secret that I love music.
The Spotify app on my computer is almost always open. I have several albums downloaded on my phone. I memorize the lyrics for my favorite songs and sing them at the top of my lungs when no one else is around. I play both violin and guitar whenever I have time, and I’ve even tried my hand at songwriting (rather poorly).
It’s no secret that our culture loves music, either.
It’s always there—in stores, in restaurants, in the car that stops next to you at the red light with the windows open and the bass rumbling. There’s a reason Spotify has 70 million paying subscribers and the most-viewed music videos on YouTube have anywhere from two to five billion views.
Music is a driving force in our society. It both describes culture and creates it. Famous singers are celebrities on par with athletes and political figures (and as with the latter, we know a lot more about their private lives than we ever really wanted to).
As with any major cultural phenomenon, Christians need to be aware of what’s going on, engage with it, and yet avoid being swept away by the current of catchy tunes and driving beats.
We need to use our brains and God-given discernment. We need to understand what’s going on and apply God’s word to every cultural current—including the rip tide of popular music, and including the songs we let into our earbuds.
In light of that, here are a few core principles we should keep in mind.
1. Music Is Powerful
I think this goes without saying, but we should mention it. Unlike books or blog posts, music isn’t just communicating words or ideas. It’s communicating emotion.
David famously played the harp to calm Saul when he was under a demonic influence (1 Samuel 16:23). Music has the power to affect your feelings and thoughts. And it’s a beautiful thing! But that power can be used for good or evil.
I’ve often found myself humming or singing along to songs I’ve heard while I was out and about, but then heard the lyrics and realized they were completely opposite what I believed. At that point, it’s hard to get it out of my head—or even to acknowledge that fun, upbeat tune carries a bad message! I just want to keep singing along.
Will listening to a secular song one time change your thinking or cause you to do something you shouldn’t? Probably not. God has given us the power of discernment to tell when something lines up with His word or not, and we don’t need to avoid walking into Walmart for fear that a song we hear might influence us. But it’s important to recognize the power that music can hold over our minds and hearts.
2. Beauty Is From God
God is the origin of beauty, truth, goodness, and order.
For Christians, that means the art we create should intentionally reflect that. We should be striving to create high-quality art that doesn’t just aim to get a message across, but also aims for artistic excellence.
This also means we see echoes of God in secular music.
In His common grace, God allows even people who explicitly reject Him to create works of beauty and excellence. Debussy was far from Christian, but his compositions are full of delicate grace. Avicii’s “Hey Brother” is a beautiful, musically excellent celebration of family. In fact, it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t have some semblance of order and beauty.
There are even many secular songs that explicitly reference biblical doctrines, or carry obviously Christian overtones. That doesn’t mean the creators were Christian (the extremely popular song “God’s Plan” by Drake contains strong profanity). It does show how powerful the truth is, and it should move us to prayer when we realize a lost world is desperately looking for something more than a godless worldview offers.
Does this mean we should listen to whatever secular music we want, as long as it’s well-made or somehow references God? Of course not. What it does mean is that we should praise God. Praise Him for His character, the ultimate origin of what’s good in secular music (even if the artists themselves don’t realize it). Praise Him for His mercy on a sinful world, that we still have beautiful music and art.
Regardless of whether you listen to music by unbelieving artists, praise God for His goodness which they unconsciously reflect. Praise Him for giving us music in the first place. Keep the focus on our Creator. Click To Tweet
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not necessarily saying you should listen to secular music. That’s an issue for you and your parents (if you’re still a teen) to decide. But regardless of whether you listen to music by unbelieving artists, praise God for His goodness which they unconsciously reflect. Praise Him for giving us music in the first place. Keep the focus on our Creator.
3. Dwell On the Good and True
So what should we listen to?
There are more opinions on this subject than I can count. It’s been the subject of intense debate and even enmity between Christians. Some believe you can listen to anything you want. Some believe we should only listen to Christian music. Some would distinguish between certain styles or instruments, saying (for instance) Christians shouldn’t listen to rock music, or rap, or even anything with drums. I can think of all kinds of different convictions within my church and my friend group. Even within my own family, while we mostly share the same convictions, there’s a plethora of preferences (Indie Christian? Hip-hop? Classical? Soundtracks?).
I’m not going to give overly specific guidelines, since that would be largely my personal opinions and convictions—the Bible hasn’t told us which songs, artists, or genres to listen to. This is something to talk over with your family and perhaps your church. But the Bible has given us a starting point: Guard your heart.
Proverbs 4:23 instructs, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.” Another well-known verse, Philippians 4:8, gives specific instructions:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
It comes down to a simple question: Is this song, artist, or music style causing me to dwell on things that are not good? Is it nurturing rebellious thoughts in my heart? Is my love for God cooled and my love for this world increased? Do I find yourself feeling depressed or anxious as I listen to a particular song?
Additionally, is music itself becoming an idol? Would I rather listen to music than pray, read and study my Bible? Am I neglecting schoolwork, chores, or other tasks God has given me?
These are hard questions to ask, because they can be convicting. You may have to make a hard decision, such as not listening to a certain song or artist for a while—or giving them up completely. But our relationship with God is so much more important than our music.
What is the most true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, reputable, excellent, and praiseworthy thing in the world? The truth—the truth about God and His redeeming work. This needs to be where we let our minds dwell.
Through His word and His Spirit, God is slowly molding and shaping us to be more like Him from the inside out. A list of rules about our music listening won’t make us better Christians—but meditating on His word will help make us more like Him, which will inform the way we consume all kinds of entertainment.
Listen to music. Enjoy it with discernment and wisdom. Accept it with thankfulness, as His good gift to us. And most of all, praise Him for His goodness, grace, and mercy.
Author’s note—Please don’t take my mention of any song, artist, or musical genre as a recommendation, especially since many mentioned here are secular. Whatever your specific convictions, hold to those until and unless they’re changed by your study of the Bible. And of course, if you’re still under your parents’ roof, make sure to respect their wishes! (Ephesians 6:1-2)