Previous · Home · Next

My Musical Double Standard

This is the conclusion to a post began last Friday. I suggest you read that first, if you haven’t already, as this will make even less sense if you don’t than it will if you do.

As I concluded, or rather, didn’t conclude, last week, I have a double standard when judging music. I have one standard for secular music, and one for religious, or sacred, music. This double standard is applied to both music and lyrics. As you read, I ask you to remember my penultimate sentence last time: “It is not my intention to lay out any rules, but only to offer for your consideration my attempts at being a discerning listener.”


It goes without saying that blasphemous or obscene lyrics have no place in a Christian’s music library. It goes without saying because such things are repulsive to those who love God. Christians don’t need to be told that, because it just comes naturally. But that’s as much law as I’m willing to state on lyrics in general. But here comes my double standard. Religious lyrics must be true and reverent. Theology must be accurate. If you’re going to sing about God, get it right. Secular music can be less precise. It can even be silly. In fact, a lot of the secular music I listen to is silly. But I will not tolerate silliness in singing about or to God.

Tangent 1: Until someone can make good sense of Days of Elijah, I won’t sing it. Until I actually “hear the brush of angel’s wings,” I won’t say I do. And if the words “yes lord yes lord yes yes lord yes lord yes lord yes yes lord yes lord yes lord yes yes lord amen” ever cross my lips, I hope someone has the good sense to put me away where I can’t hurt myself.


I don’t believe music is neutral. I think those who insist it is are being obtuse, and I’d like to come to their house and lullaby their children to sleep with a few numbers by

John Phillip Sousa. Music arouses an emotional response. A lullaby produces a different reaction than a military march. Do we really need this explained to us? If we acknowledge that different types of music arouse different emotions, we must also acknowledge that some music will arouse bad emotions. Can we really believe that heavy metal, punk, and emo (or who-knows-what is the newest fad of the angst-filled) have no connection to the messed up minds of those who listen to them? Of course they do. But as you saw in the partial play list previously presented , I don’t come from the Bill Gothard school of Piano Onlyism. And I don’t want to make a list of good vs. bad music, not even if I could do so infallibly. Some of these things are obvious, some less obvious, but each of us have to discern them for ourselves, and humbly remember our own fallibility.

Music should fit the lyrics. Some music is happy, some is sad. Some is sober, some frivolous.

The accompaniment for a joyful song like Wonderful Grace of Jesus would not be appropriate for a somber hymn such as

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. That would be absurd in the extreme, and irreverent. An inappropriate tune can be as bad as silly lyrics. It can destroy the message of the song. Now we come again to my double standard. With secular music, sometimes the inappropriateness of the tune adds to the entertainment value. This is, of course, entirely subjective, and reflects my weird sense of humor. I think it’s hilarious to hear Marty Robbins singing

Knee-deep in the Blues. The happy tune and smiling face (on video) juxtaposed onto the lyrics, “My life just don’t seem worth livin’, and it’s been this way for years,” just cracks me up. In general, melody should match lyrics. Even in secular music, it makes no sense otherwise. But an occasional departure from the rule can be harmless and fun.

Now my double standard gets serious. Some musical forms which may be good for secular music are inappropriate for sacred music. Some forms are just too entertainment-oriented. They cannot be taken seriously. I’m not going to name what they might be. That would take us down a side-road that I don’t care to travel just now. I would rather just suggest the principle to you and let you think it through on your own. If I did make a list, it would include some genres of which I’m unsure. For example, I tend to think Jazz is generally not fitted for sacred music. I’m convinced that some sub-genres of Jazz are definitely wrong for it.

On the other hand, Louis Armstrong singing Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego seems just perfect. So I’m not claiming to have developed an exact science, nor do I even want to.

Tangent 2: I don’t believe all music that is acceptable in general is appropriate for a worship service. I wouldn’t invite the late Satchmo to play “Shadrach” on Sunday morning. But that’s another subject.

The “Rules”

I’ve made two rules for myself: First, enjoy the music. God has given talent to believers and unbelievers alike. The display of those talents brings glory to him, and so should bring joy to me. Second, don’t listen promiscuously. I rarely just turn on the radio and listen to whatever plays. That includes “Christian” radio. Maybe especially “Christian” radio. In the age of the mp3, it’s easier than ever to exercise control over our listening. When I buy a CD, I load only the tracks I want onto my hard drive, and forget the rest. When I download music, I seldom buy complete albums. There are many artists in my library who are only represented by one, two, or a handful of tracks.

I think we can all agree on those two rules. How we each apply them to our own practice will vary, and we ought to be humble and charitable toward one another. And that is that. I don’t think I dare say much more without risking becoming the legalist who inspired me to write on this topic in the first place.

Posted 2009·04·06 by David Kjos
TrackBack URL:
Share this post: Twitter Buffer Facebook Email Print
Posted in: Legalism · Music · Music and Legalism
← Previous · Home · Next →





#1 || 09·04·06··17:30 || Theo

I agree, your logic is sound and written work is impressive.

Philippians 4:8
Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

#2 || 09·04·07··09:41 || Daniel

Until someone can make good sense of Days of Elijah, I won't sing it.

I thought I was the only one...

#3 || 09·04·07··10:56 || David

No, You're not the only one. Seriously, what does it mean? It's just a bunch of unsupported assertions randomly thrown together. Some are true but without context ("out of Zion's hill salvation comes"), some ridiculous ("these are the days of Your servant, Moses, righteousness being restored"--are you kidding?), most are just head-scratchers. I just can't shut off my brain long enough to sing it.

I could rant indefinitely about this. But really, if someone can give me a coherent explanation of the exegesis and hermeneutics (Herman Who? they ask) behind the lyrics, and explain how it all fits together towards a single theme and is not just a collection of exuberant, thoughtless, random scribblings, I'll retract.

What probably irritates me most is that someone will say, "But I like that song," as though that's in any way a relevant, valid argument.

#4 || 09·04·07··15:53 || Betsy Markman

Well written and well thought out. I agree with you on much of it. I can't stand empty-headed repetition that is clearly designed to manipulate the emotions (if not hypnotize, like a mantra). I lament the fact that much of modern Christian music is self-oriented, and also that you could put 5 or 6 songs back to back and not equal the meaningful content of one old hymn. I want good theological meat in my songs as well as in my preaching.

But I still love "Days of Elijah," even if I can't defend it. I think it has more to do with what I want American Christendom to be, rather than what it is. I yearn for the days of righteousness being restored, etc. And of course I yearn for the day when He returns on the clouds. So that one makes my eyes tear up with longing despite its shortcomings. Sometimes music just hits you right, and that's all there is to it. Emotions aren't always rational.

But aside from that, I'm spot-on with you. Thank you for stating your views so plainly without descending into legalism. It's a hard balance to strike sometimes, but you did it.

#5 || 09·04·07··16:20 || David

Considering my final sentence in comment #3, I find your defense of Days of Elijah highly ironic. But thanks for reading and mostly getting it, anyway.

#6 || 09·04·07··17:42 || Betsy Markman

Oh, I got it, believe me. I was just saying that sometimes our emotional responses...well, sometimes MY emotional responses defy logic. Music has that kind of power. It wasn't meant as a defense of the song, per se, but just a comment on the fact that our hearts can do strange things...

#7 || 09·04·07··19:19 || David

Jeremiah 17:9, eh?

Comments on this post are closed. If you have a question or comment concerning this post, feel free to email me.