Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. – Philippians 4:8
When I was in my early twenties, back in my college days, I was confident, sure of myself, and completely convinced I had all the big and important things in life figured out. I’ve known a lot of people that have gone down that road. I had all the answers. Or at least all the answers that really mattered in my life. I knew what I believed and nothing would dissuade me from my convictions. Those were simpler times.
One of the main areas of my life where I was resolute in my beliefs was in regards to the music I listened to. Through much study, prayer, and fasting (I’m using poetic license here) I decided that I would only listen to Christian music. No more of that terrible secular music that was birthed in the very pits of hell. That music was causing me to sin, backslide, and abandon the faith (once again – speaking poetically). No more would I listen to the likes of Nirvana, Collective Soul, Pearl Jam, and most definitely not The Beatles. These bands were comprised of sinners and that meant that nothing they could say would help me in my spiritual journey. In fact, what they said would have the opposite effect. From my superior vantage point, secular bands had nothing to offer Christians. They were devoid of all honesty and truth. And even though their music was really good and a lot of fun to listen to, I would turn my back on them so that I could continue down the straight and the narrow. I had convinced myself that unless the songs I listened to were clearly and without prevarication speaking about or to God, then they were useless to me. What benefit could songs like The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love offer me? I had fallen prey to the faulty thinking that has trapped so many Christians throughout time: God is too small to operate outside of the creativity and the machinations of believers. Perhaps even more significantly I had failed to comprehend true worship and it was in that failing that my mind and my motives went astray.
Worship goes beyond words and catch phrases. It does not need a quota of religious terminology and expressions. Real worship does not come about if we say “Holy” or “Jesus” or “Praise” enough times. Worship is the very nuts and bolts of our lives. It comes from the most basic and elemental parts of our souls. True worship is uncomplicated and many times unremarkable. God lives in the mundane; in the boring details. He excels in working with the everyday and the commonplace. Scripture tells us that if mankind fails to praise Him like we should then nature itself will cry out. God’s glory is proclaimed by the sun and stars, their unspoken truth is being revealed to the world. If God is capable of eliciting praise from inanimate objects, then why are we so convinced that He can’t be glorified by the tongues of sinners; whether they intend it or not. Why do we recoil at the thought that God could communicate His truth through the creativity and the talents of unbelievers? That was my error, and perhaps the error of many. I was limiting God. I had confined Him to a little corner of my world. He could live, move, and act in that space, but nowhere else. He could speak through my Christian songs. But He was incapable of receiving praise or communicating truth through the thoughts, words, and music of an unbeliever. Simply put, my God was not so big or so strong or so mighty and there were some things that my God could not do.
When this realization hit me, I’ll admit, it hurt. It shamed me. I was so arrogant in my ignorance. I was master of my universe and to be frank, my universe sucked. I had heard the phrase, “All truth is God’s truth” since childhood and I thought I believed it. Sadly, I had learned to compartmentalize my life. Well intentioned, I had constructed separate spaces for the sacred and the secular. God was allowed to speak to me and to receive my praise through the unambiguously Christian. God was overlooked, or even worse, not welcome, in the secular. I could enjoy sports, food, television, and even movies as long as those areas of my life were separate from my hearing and understanding of God’s voice. For some reason I had no problem with those areas in their unbaptized form. Music on the other hand was different. Secular music was dangerous, frightening and decidedly not Christian. The line must be drawn here and no further! I would remain safe and comfortable surrounded by songs that didn’t offend or question me. Songs that played it safe; using the appropriate language and ideas.
After the aforementioned epiphany, I realized how narrow my thinking had been. God was at work in ways that my mind could not fathom. His truth was being proclaimed and communicated by the most unlikely people imaginable. But isn’t that just like Him? Scripture is full of examples of God using damaged and even unbelieving spokespersons. Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed:
Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God…no other god can save in this way.
He was in no way a “believer” but he spoke the truth: There is no other God that can save in that way. King Darius wrote a decree extolling God’s power after Daniel had been saved from the lion’s den:
For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.
Wow! That’s a praise song right there. We have no evidence that Darius was a believer yet he wrote those words for the entire nation to read and hear. The truth was crafted and penned by a sinner and it was heard by most of the civilized world.
Perhaps the most amazing example in Scripture is the time when God used Balaam’s donkey to save his life by speaking. Yes, a donkey spoke to protect it’s master who was disobeying God. If God can speak the truth through an animal then I have no problem believing that He can use the likes of John Lennon or Mick Jagger.
So what does this all mean? I think there are a few things that we should keep in mind when considering these ideas. Most importantly: Use wisdom. I’m not advocating jumping in head first into all the world offers us. Much of it is garbage and should be treated as such. Much of is dangerous and deadly; flee from temptation and all that. But that is where discernment and wisdom come into play. Know your strengths and your inclinations and make good choices on what you will entertain and what will entertain you. Secondly, look closer, listen more carefully, and examine more fully. The real stuff, the things that really count are not always easy to spot or easy to ingest. Those things have to be tested carefully and completely. Your search will lead you down some unforeseen roads, and that is okay. As Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message would put it, “God plays in ten thousand places.” Don’t underestimate God’s ability to make His truth known. Finally, don’t be afraid of the difficult questions. When you listen to secular artists you are going to be challenged. They don’t see the world through our eyes. Many times they are going to confront God directly and perhaps even have a few negative things to say about Him or his children. Guess what? God doesn’t mind. In fact, I think he appreciates the honesty much more than the shallow spiritualized rhetoric that is found in so much of our modern Christian music. To prove that He doesn’t mind He made sure His revealed Word was full of questions. There are plenty of examples in Scripture of this. If you spend enough time with the secular, your faith will be questioned. Rest assured of that. Embrace that. These people are searching and are simply expressing that search in the only way they know how; through their talents. Mankind has questions, even Christians have questions, and it is much healthier to accept that and figure out ways to confront those questions than it is to close our eyes, ears, and minds to the very things that could be a catalyst for growth.
At this point you might be wondering what the passage from Philippians has to do with any of this. Simple: Truth, nobility, purity, loveliness, and excellence can and will be found in a thousand different places. Don’t be afraid to think without limits when searching for them because contrary to popular opinion, God is limitless and He is looking forward to taking your hand and revealing His truth and His glory to you in ways that are beyond your imagining. God has made everything beautiful in its time and he created humanity with an innate ability to appreciate truth and beauty. He did this so that we could and would recognize the Originator of that Truth and Beauty. God is at work in the sublime, in the transcendent, in the fallen, and in the broken. God is drawing all men unto Himself and He uses more than His Words or His people to accomplish this. He even uses those things that entertain us. Just one thing: Be sure to recognize when God is making Himself known through these broken vessels. If you don’t, it would be a waste of a really great song.
The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God. – Gilbert Meilaender