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Can a song that doesn’t mention Jesus be “Christian”?

I was recently made aware of an article on the Christianity Today web site about songwriter Melanie Penn. The following passage from the article is of particular note:

“All the songs [on her album] are ‘Christian’ in some way,” Penn said. “I’ve never written a song with Jesus’s name in it. But all of my songs are about Jesus, and they are all for his name.”

Penn says it’s a mantra she has learned at Redeemer [Presbyterian Church in New York City], from [Pastor Tim] Keller.

“There’s no distinction between ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ art,” she said. “If art is true and beautiful, then it has to point to Christ himself. Art makes us thankful. Art shows us there is more to life. Art awakens the soul.”

In other words, a song that makes no mention of Jesus, Scripture, the gospel, or anything explicitly Christian is still “Christian” music.

So this is Christian:

4 o’clock panic sets in
Thoughts don’t stop of us back then
I woke up forgetting you
Day flew by ‘til afternoon

And as the day’s growing late
Memories I thought had faded
Rush right back into my head
And they don’t stop
No they don’t stop

I step outside for some air
Chide myself for being here
Stuck within our history
Can’t hold on but won’t break free

You’re some new part of my brain
Stranded in my DNA
I thought I was over you
But I’m not I’m really not

How long, how long
Until love’s gone?

And this:

My love is buried underground
A hidden land mine
When you’re near a wire’s wound around
My heart tight
The weight of words as of yet unsaid
Guarded well and strong as death
I know I never know what to say
What to do or who to be
Or how to change
But this I know I’m up in flames
Oh I’ve gone up in flames

I can feel it flashin like a fire
Bright and jealous in desire
But I won’t wake, wake up love
I won’t wake, wake up love

My love is written in the sky
An airplane’s ramblings
The day’s clear, my love is spelled in white
Clouds of writing
And I know you may not be ready yet
Guarded well and strong as death
I know you never know what to think
Or why you feel how you do
And who’s to blame
But this I know
I won’t go away
Oh I’ll never go away

I don’t know a river that’ll drown
Or dry it up but when it’s sleepin’ sound
I won’t wake, wake up love
I won’t wake, wake up love

How do you wake, wake up love?
I won’t wake, wake up love.

This is nothing new. Amy Grant made the same argument when she crossed over to secular audiences in the 80s. Songs are “Christian,” she argued, simply because a Christian writes and/or performs them, regardless of their content.

This is also not unique. In fact, as Penn alludes to, it is very common to hear “missional” Neo-Kyperians like Tim Keller suggest that anything Christians do–especially art–is “Christian” simply because a Christian is doing it for God’s glory. It all stems back to unclear language in Abraham Kuyper’s theology, but that’s beside the point for now. What’s important is to address this question of whether a song can be “Christian” if it does not contain “Christian” content.

First, let me get a couple things out of the way. It is no secret that I believe that music embodies values. So if what Penn (and Keller and others) mean is that a song without explicitly “Christian” lyrics can embody values and beliefs and sentiments that are consistent with biblical Christianity, then I agree with them. If a song promotes strong family values without mentioning Christ, that’s still a good thing.However, as I’ll explain below, I don’t believe “Christian” is the right word to use to describe that.

But actually, I’m not sure that’s what they mean. Missional Neo-Kuyperians seem to imply that culture is neutral and that anything a Christian does–apart from maybe something explicitly sinful–is “Christian” if it is done by a Christian for God’s glory. That’s made clear when Penn says that there is no difference between Christian and non-Christian art.

There are many problems with this way of thinking, which I’ve addressed often here. The bottom line is that everything moral humans do is moral and an expression of worldview, values, and beliefs. Culture, understood as behavior, is an embodiment of values and can either be consistent with biblical Christianity or not.

So not everything a Christian does is necessarily “Christian” if it embodies values out of step with Scripture.

But that still does not fully answer the question. If a song, in both its lyrical and musical content, embodies values that are consistent with Christianity, but its content never explicitly mentions Christ, God, the Bible, the gospel, or anything clearly “Christian,” is that song “Christian”?

I would argue for a couple of reasons that “Christian” is the wrong word to describe a song like that. In fact, I would argue that the adjective “Christian” should be applied very narrowly to songs that have explicit Christian lyrical content.

Even then, I’m a little leery of using “Christian” as an adjective; it’s never used that way in Scripture. However, I am comfortable with using “Christian” as an adjective as long as it describes something that is explicitly Christian in its content.

“Christian” means something very narrow and specific; it refers to a particular body of knowledge that is centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is Christian music; Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti are not Christian music. Bach was a Christian, and the Brandenberg Concerti are very good music that embody values perfectly consistent with biblical Christianity, but that doesn’t make them Christian.

Now I hope I’ve been clear: I’m not at all saying that music without explicitly Christian lyrics is not good. It certainly can be! Nor am I saying that Christians shouldn’t write and perform good music that lacks Christian lyrics. They can, and they should! I fervently encourage Christians to be active in all spheres of culture-making, embodying their Christian values in all sorts of different forms.

I’m simply advocating care when using the adjective “Christian.” It’s a word that means something very specific, and there is a difference between a song with clearly Christian content and one that is good but is more general in subject matter.

What I’m advocating is a clear understanding that there are three categories of music:

  1. Music that embodies values that contradict biblical values.
  2. Music that embodies biblical values.
  3. Music that embodies biblical values and has explicitly Christian lyrics.

Only the last of these should rightly be called “Christian” music.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.