Soundtrack to faith


Life without music to stir the soul is unthinkable

We’ve all had those moments where music has stirred our souls in ways we can’t explain. It happens at concerts, in worship gatherings or listening to music on road trips. Music is something that pervades our lives and shapes how we think, feel and live. When I consider the ineptness of my favorite movie without the soundtrack, I realize how much music shapes.

Yet, music finds a way to divide us as well.

One of my favorite musicians, Derek Webb, recently released a new album with his Christian record label. It was released of couple months late because of conflicts between the artist and the label over “controversial” and coarse lyrics. Apparently, the label and Webb have differing views on what is appropriate “Christian” music.

A pastor at a large Kansas City church addressed the congregation in response to unrest about “secular” music being played in church. To introduce sermons, the worship band had recently played songs by bands such as U2 and Bon Jovi.

It is not surprising that people become outraged, defensive and passionate about music. With our churches going through transition in worship music styles and genres, we can relate. Music touches such a deep part of us—one we can hardly explain or understand.

Which is why we get so emotional: Music isn’t shallow. Music is a primary way we experience the world and learn about life, people and God. Music speaks to our souls in ways little else can. Certainly, each of us experiences different forms and styles of music in different ways. But few of us can say that music does not impact our lives. Music is so integral to our lives as people of God that our Confession of Faith—in Article I, about God, no less—addresses music: “Congregational worship is almost unthinkable apart from music.”

The effect of music on our hearts, minds and souls extends beyond worship gatherings. There are dozens of record labels, radio stations and studios dedicated to producing Christian music. Yet, oftentimes I find my thinking about life, God, theology and humanity challenged more through music that falls outside the Christian label than that inside it.

Somewhere along the way, we have created a distinction between “sacred” and “secular” when it comes to music. Centuries ago, all music was viewed as an expression of God’s wonderful creation. Today, we teach (although sometimes very subtly) that the only music that appropriately reflects our world and God is music written for worship gatherings or under a Christian record label. This distinction is concerning, especially when an artist, like Webb, is censored because his music does not fit into the political or theological box the Christian music industry has created.

What does this mean for us?

We can rethink our understanding of what is sacred and what isn’t. Record labels and genres should not determine whether music is sacred. What is more beneficial is to determine the quality of its lyrics and music. I often hear complaints of poor or shallow theology in modern worship music. I must confess that I often hear more accurate theology from so-called secular musicians than many considered “Christian.”

Many so-called secular artists could rightly be called “modern day prophets,” a term writer Beth Maynard uses in reference to U2’s Bono. She defines such a prophet as a person who points us to God, declares that we cannot fit God into our plans—rather we must fit into his—and prepares the way for the proclamation of Jesus much like John the Baptist did in the New Testament.

To do this is to see all of art—the work of humans and God’s creation—as windows to the soul, ours and the creator’s. Music is one opening to the soul. It simultaneously shapes and reflects the state of our heart.

We can also expand our horizons, guilt-free. Instead of feeling guilty for not having Casting Crowns on my iPod playlist, I need to be okay with allowing U2, Mae, Lakes, Sarah McLachlan or The Frames to speak to my soul. I’m learning that as I broaden the breadth and depth of music in my life, I also broaden my understanding and love for God and God’s people.

This month, may we experience music for its depth and breadth rather than its label. May we listen to all music, including instrumental, with an ear for what it teaches us about God and humanity. When we do this with discernment, we just might be surprised by which “type” of music speaks to our hearts and souls.


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