The Mortification of Spin’s Take on Secular Music (or, Calvin vs. the Calvinists)
Occasionally I listen to the Mortification of Spin (hereafter MOS) podcast. I find the episodes largely helpful and would happily recommend the podcast to others. Recently, however, Carl, Aimee, and the other guy1 released an episode on whether or not Christians can listen to secular music.2 They largely defended the proposition that Christians can listen to almost any secular music, with few exceptions. Even “Hotel California” (a song about the founding of the church of Satan) gets a pass. Given the intro music to their podcast, it comes as no surprise that they devoted a recent podcast to the relative harmlessness of listening to most secular music. I should note that, toward the end of the podcast (in their “outtakes” postscript), Carl conceded that this particular episode was “absolute chaos.”3
If the bottom line is that Christians may listen to some secular music, I agree heartily. Christians do not have an obligation to listen only to sacred music. At one point, they relate the tragic story of Derek Thomas as a new believer destroying his grandfather’s collection of classical music recordings. Even though I am someone who runs in fundamentalist circles, I know of no Christians who espouse this, and I agree with the MOS team. Secular music qua secular music is not evil. Christians can and should enjoy secular visual arts and literature. Carl Trueman’s point that a Christian enjoying secular music is something akin to a Christian enjoying a filet mignon is apt. The gift of music is a good gift of God, and should be received with thanksgiving. Furthermore, Carl’s concession that some art is truly ugly, despite cultural conceptions of beauty, is absolutely right. Aimee is right that the matter is one that requires discernment. The MOS group is correct that the question of secular music is not one of whether or not our money “funds a particular lifestyle.” Moreover, I heartily agree with their point that some Christian music is worse for you than secular music. So we share some important foundational considerations.
As the MOS team progresses in the podcast, however, the matter gets more confusing than enlightening. Todd rightly notes that much secular music is profane, and that Christians should avoid it, but Carl applies his observation to a rap about women getting raped, filled with the “f-bomb.” So I think more needs to be said. I believe that Christians should be guarded when exposing themselves to popular, secular music, and should severely limit that exposure accordingly.
Let me first qualify a few more points. I would distinguish listening to music for enjoyment and listening to it because you are forced to while shopping or buying fuel. In other words, secular music is not sinful in the sense of allowing it to hit your ears is sin. It becomes sinful for other reasons, in the ways other modes of human communication can be sinful. If I hear a profanity or blasphemy uttered by an unbeliever (or, it seems, an increasing number of pastors these days), I am not defiled, unless I somehow delight in that corrupt communication. On a related note, I would concede that there is a difference between listening to music for amusement or pleasure and listening to music simply to acquaint oneself with it critically. Kevin Bauder’s article on leisure is quite helping in articulating the idea of “amusement.” We must be very careful when we expose ourselves to secular music–especially popular music–either for amusement or for pleasurable entertainment.
So with humility I would offer the following cautions to the MOS team’s take on secular music. For these reasons, Christians should be guarded about the secular music they listen to for entertainment.
(1) The words of secular music can be morally corrupting.
I disagree that the lyrics of rock and popular music are a bunch of gibberish. They are often, of course, pathetic and ridiculous. The poetry is often horrendous. Even so, the sweeping statement that most rock lyrics are gibberish minimizes the lyrics that are actually intelligible. MOS denounces listening to a song about rape, but why should a song about rape be acceptable and a song about adultery or fornication or rebellion be any more tolerated? Much secular music, going all the way back to that of Cole Porter, literally violates Ephesians 5:3-4: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (ESV). The lyrics of secular music often violate Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When we enjoy music where the words plainly transgress these principles for our personal amusement or uncritical entertainment, we sin.
(2) “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33).
Aimee actually introduced this very verse late in the podcast, but it didn’t get any traction. The truth is that, just as our personal friendships greatly shape us and influence us, so it is with the amusements and entertainments to which we expose ourselves. If we indulge the music of rebellion or sensuality or violence, we will begin to be shaped by that music. Music is a human endeavor, expressing human attitudes, affections, passions, and ideas. When we listen to music for amusement or uncritical entertainment, we are opening our souls to the musicians. We should recognize that, especially with popular music, we are often befriending those who hate the gospel and hate the Lord’s Christ. Often these attitudes are explicit in the music. In addition, popular music, in order to appeal to the target market, often subverts musical and poetic beauty in exchange for what is banal and appealing to our lowest appetites. This too must be taken into account.
Sometimes, a popular song might even be generally wholesome and innocent in its lyrics, but over-indulging oneself in it lowers the soul and corrupts it. Junk food makes your body fat. Popular culture makes your soul fat. Even popular Broadway ballads may be innocent enough to listen to now and again, but a steady diet of its sentimentalized ideas about romantic love is certain to deform most people’s conception of marital love and fidelity. In other words, we are profoundly influenced by others for good or for evil. We should be alert enough to recognize that this happens with the music we listen to as well.
(3) The music itself can be morally corrupting.
Since music communicates, there is a sense in which an over-exposure of the actual music of popular music can be like a cancer for the inner man. As the constant drum-beat of provocative images in advertisements can harm a man, so can provocative music produce ill effects. Music affects us, and more than most of us even know. Music in Scripture is constantly recognized as being capable of having good and evil affects (for example, see Exod. 32:18; 2 Chron. 5:11-15; 1 Cor 14:7-8, etc.).4 God’s Word governs our communication as believers in Christ, and those principles should govern the music we listen to as well,. I think such discernment should be applied not only to secular music, but even to some classical music. To be blunt, some “classical music” is better for us than others. On this point, I think of Calvin’s observations about music (some of which he learned from Plato) are sound:
Finally, we know from experience how great a power music has for moving men’s feelings, so that Plato teaches, quite rightly, that in one way or another music is of the greatest value in shaping the moral tone of the state.
Or, as Calvin says in another place:
We know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. . . . Wherefore that much more ought we to take care not to abuse it, for fear of fouling and contaminating it, converting it to our condemnation, when it was dedicated to our profit and welfare. If there were no other consideration than this alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve everything virtuous, and that it ought not to give occasion for our giving free reign to licentiousness, or for our making ourselves effeminate in disorderly delights, and that it ought not to become an instrument of dissipation or of any obscenity.5
Or, as Calvin says in his preface to the Genevan Psalter:
But still there is more: there is scarcely in the world anything which is more able to turn or bend this way and that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious. For this reason the ancient doctors of the Church complain frequently of this, that the people of their times were addicted to dishonest and shameless songs, which not without cause they referred to and called mortal and Satanic poison for corrupting the world. Moreover, in speaking now of music, I understand two parts: namely the letter, or subject and matter; secondly, the song, or the melody. It is true that every bad word (as St. Paul has said) perverts good manners, but when the melody is with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly, and enters into it; in a like manner as through a funnel, the wine is poured into the vessel; so also the venom and the corruption is distilled to the depths of the heart by the melody.
Are Christians now so much wiser than Calvin (let alone the church fathers and Plato) that we can dismiss his words as merely the lunatic ramblings of an old prude? I fear that we are so over-exposed to music that we don’t even recognize the effects it has on us any more. I think the actual music of popular music is such that constant exposure to it harms us spiritually. It arouses our lowest passions and in its imitation of human emotions, it can shape our affections in profoundly harmful ways. Where God’s word governs the ways we who are in Christ communicate, it governs the actual sound of the music we listen to as well.
So to conclude, I do believe that Christians can enjoy purely secular music, and there is much with which I agree with the MOS team on. At the same time, I believe that we should enjoy secular music for the glory of God, in a way that comports with his revealed will. This means we must not listen to (or very at least be extremely guarded in listening to) music (1) that literally violates principles concerning the kind of speech acceptable for us; (2) that influences us through human relationships to embrace this world’s values rather than a doxological vision; and (3) where the music communicates to us in a way that undermines the way God’s Word governs our communication.
About Ryan Martin
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).
- I’m totally kidding, Todd, if you’re reading this. [↩]
- The episode is entitled, “Bully Pulpit: Why Does the Devil Have All the Good Music?” [↩]
- Seriously, how lame are their “outtakes”? They totally need to drop those. [↩]
- If you are skeptical of the statement , then perhaps you can at least grant me the proposition that Scripture reveals that music is capable of having morally good affects. If you are willing to grant this, then you should be able to grant that music is capable of having evil affects, which is most certainly a reasonable deduction from that proposition. [↩]
- John Calvin, Epistle to the Reader (quoted in: Charles Garside, Jr. The Origin of Calvin’s Theology of Music, 1536-1543. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979, p. 33; quoted in D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 2002), 161-162. [↩]