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Break Your Knees: How Christian is Our Christian Music

Throughout my teenage and adult life I have complained (yes, that’s the right word) that Christian music isn’t what it should be. That is, that the Christian industry has largely failed to produce music which is a genuine testimony to what it is that we’re proclaiming. From my earliest days I couldn’t stand the Christian radio stations. It seemed to me that the Christian stations played Christian music, mostly, as an alternative to secular music, not as something within its own right. I remember thinking this once when reading a popular teen magazine which listed out the similar sounds between secular bands and Christian ones: If you like Linkin Park, you’ll really like x. Even for some, secular music was more than secular; it was anti-Christian. As a former teacher of mine put it, secular music was a tool of the devil (and so were electric guitars). Christian music was different though. It was safe. Of course, this latter opinion is dying out quick enough, so I won’t even pursue it.

 

The complaint that I had growing up is still present, though with a theological understanding of what, in fact, constitutes a “Christian” message (I think now it’s a critique). Much of what we produce in the music scene, while being labelled Christian, simply isn’t. For instance, much of the lyrical content in the Christian industry actually fails to describe reality, man’s place in it, God’s place in it, and our devotion to him in an honest and genuine way. And if Christianity is the greatest expression of reality, if we find our identity and meaning in Christ, then the way we speak about this world should reflect it. How often do we hear songs of lament, of feeling despair? We don’t. With cheap production and poor expression, we often reflect a portrait of the world which simply doesn’t correspond to reality. But perhaps more importantly, to proclaim to God that we love him more than anything or that he is the most important thing in our lives is simply, usually, false. There are some people who do, I am sure, and these are the people who I look at daily and think “how do they get it so well?” But for most of us, we tell God things–at the top of our voices–which simply aren’t true. We proclaim to him in worship that he is our greatest desire when, later, it becomes clear that we are our greatest desire. Pride and the desire to think we are god is still the natural proclivity of man. Why tell God it’s not?

Our lyrical content should match with our hearts. Instead of proclaiming to God how in love with him we are (“you are the air I breathe”, “I’m madly in love with you”, “Every breath I take I take in you”), what if we chose to sing songs about his grace in spite of our failures and pride; what if we chose to sing instead about our own wretchedness; what if we chose to sing that we worship him, though without acting like we’ve got it all figured out and he’s our number one priority; what if we were honest with God in our worship.

What if we said, “God, I often choose other things over you. I’m sorry. I love you, just not like I should. Help me love you more.”  (Tweet This Quote)

I remember singing the song “I’m Madly in Love With You” in my HS chapel years ago and thinking “I choose other things, sinful or not, over God all the time…I’m pretty sure I’m more madly in love with myself and my friends more than I am with God.”

These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29.13)

Poetry is no excuse for falsehood (indeed, even in our own prayers we tell God that he is our sole passion). The proclamation to come as you are (a great worship song, IMHO) is an invitation to come bear boned and naked before God. It means to have your knees broken and your heart wrenched. It is an invitation not to say “I love you more than anything Jesus” (because we usually don’t) but to say “My Lord and my God, here am I.” It is an invitation to be bold and honest and genuine. Indeed, if worship is anything, it should be genuine.

*As a disclaimer, I am not suggesting that no one can sing genuine songs declaring God to be our greatest love or our sole focus. For some people, this may be true. But for most of us–including this writer–we need to be careful of the worship we give God and the claims we make about our devotion to him. Music stirs the sole, but it should also reflect it. 

 

 

  • Danhy G.

    Aren’t we blessed to have a variety of songs and worship music that appeal to all tastes, needs, and places in our life? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you aren’t right either.

    What music is supposed to do is stir the soul and be a medium by which we worship God. If it accomplishes that end for someone, who are you or I to rip it? Please be as accepting of what others find stirs their soul as you expect them to be of what stirs your soul. I don’t get into flowery songs either, but neither do I want anything to do with cryptic Christian lyrics or foul language that I believe is a poor witness or is more likely to make me irritated than worshipful.

    Each of us also has different points in our lives where we sing of different things. Psalms isn’t just one chapter. And for your information in case you haven’t been there lately, the Psalmist often includes the kinds of prose you are ripping on. (“My heart bursts its banks, spilling beauty and goodness.”) And David was a pretty earthy guy (a man’s man if you will). Yet I don’t see him including any expletives or misappropriation of sexual slang to make his point.

    Sometimes we sing from a standpoint of simple glory. Sometimes of complete and utter failure and need for repentance. Sometimes of intense worship. Songs do not have to get to the bottom of whatever because sometimes it’s a matter of lifting us up or developing a communion of worship with those around us. The Bible simply says make a joyful noise, and to that point, I’d say you don’t even need words. It’s about the input from your heart and head, not the output from your mouth. I find some music not even written for worship purposes to be very worshipful for me. No words, but the flow allows me to think spiritually, talk to God, and listen to his voice on my heart.

    Congregational worship song however has its own challenges because every soul there is in a different place and has different tastes. Music in that case isn’t about one person bearing his heart and so lyrics like, “I’m sorry for the thing I’ve made it” are probably pretty phony for most people, though I think the part about “Coming back to the heart of worship” is very appropriate. Communal church music is not about individual tastes, but creating a medium where all can join together for the same purpose, much as a communal prayer may not be the same thing on everyone’s mind, but it does join people together. In such cases, it’s not about bringing whatever you’re doing to each person, but each person bringing their own mind and heart to the joint purpose. In essence, it is deciding to work together and that’s a good thing. Whatever congregations are made of will probably be a good indicator of the music that is chosen… or maybe its vice versa. I don’t know.
    Consider Gregorian Chant. It probably isn’t your style, but what of it? The words don’t get to the bottom of your life, but does that make them worthless? A lot of people don’t think so. The same thing holds true of Christian radio stations. I don’t often listen to it, but sometimes I do because I do want something safe… safe for me or safe for those in my care. I don’t want to have to listen to my own music, but neither do I want to suddenly have my mind taken from a good place to one where someone is complaining of his cheating girlfriend, some lost love, or some drunken one-night stand. You’re not going to find that on a Christian radio station, and I am grateful for that. Unlike some people, I probably won’t listen to the Christian radio station for long. But for those of us that do when we do, we find it beneficial and we enjoy it. So why dish it because you don’t dig it? Maybe instead of others looking at it in a different light because it’s not right for you, you should look at it in a different light because others find that it is right for them.

    • http://www.thebarainitiative.com rhardman

      Danhy,

      I never said “don’t listen to the Christian radio stations” and I never said that there aren’t points in our lives or people who truly love God as their every breath. I think I even mentioned that those are the sort of people which I wonder how they manage to do it so well. I never insinuated that we should take such songs away from them. I truly believe my grandfather, for example, is almost solely focused on God and for him to make a claim in worship that he completely loves God would be true. And I also never said “I don’t prefer it, so let’s kick it out.” I think you’re insinuating things about me and my personality that simply aren’t true (like our worship songs should have expletives).

      My point is that for most of us, for many of us, to claim in our worship that God is our only and greatest love is simply false. We sin, repeatedly. We put ourselves first, our desires first. We’re okay when everything lines up with God’s will, but when it comes to putting down our desires and picking up God’s, most of us aren’t so good at it. This is, in fact, the irony of scripture. For all of Israel’s claims to be God’s people and to follow after him, they continually rejected him. What good is our worship if it doesn’t reflect our actual lives?

      You mention David and the psalms. I think this is a great point to make, but it has to be kept in mind that David was a “man after god’s own heart” and was considered one of the holiest men of scripture (how many of us can say that?) I read these particular Psalm’s not with a nod of agreement but with a admiration and with a simple hope that one day I can be there.

      What we can also see is the impact that his sin with Bathsheba made on his worship. In those moments, where he put his own interests before God’s, he did not proclaim how much love he had for God and how he put God first or how God was his supreme and only focus–he worshipped God for what God was going to do: forgive, despite the fact that he wanted something else, despite the fact that for a moment he saw him own sexual desires and objects as god. God forgave him. And he did this in a humbling way which doesn’t resemble much of our contemporary worship very well. It was a prayer that God would renew a focus, not a declaration that his focus was already solely on God.

      Create in me a pure heart, O God,
      and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
      Do not cast me from your presence
      or take your Holy Spirit from me.
      Restore to me the joy of your salvation
      and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me…
      My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
      a broken and contrite heart
      you, God, will not despise.

      These are words about what God does, not what we do or how we feel about him. And more than a proclamation of how one feels about God (which characterizes much of our contemporary worship) we find much more often in the Psalms declarations of what God has done DESPITE our own sinful hearts and ungodly proclivities.

      I am not saying take away these songs (some of them, probably) but there is a call to be conscious of what it is that we’re telling God. How many in a congregation or a youth group or a retreat can honestly say “You are the very air I breathe.” Given the number of times I sang this song in vain and being amongst (and one of) people who gossiped, cheated, lied, judged, rejected, and so on, I wonder how often our Christian music leaves God with one response:

      “These people come near to me with their mouth
      and honor me with their lips,
      but their hearts are far from me.
      Their worship of me
      is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Is 29.13)

      Music is supposed to stir the soul, yes, but it also must reflect our soul.

  • Rebecca

    I agree w/both points. The only thing that I want to say is this: Randy, it may not be that we think we Are totally in love w/God but more so that we Want that, that we desire that feeling and commitment-minded obedience to God. Almost self fulfilling prophecy-like. Not exactly, but close enough.

  • http://www.JoeBell.org Pastor Joe Bell

    I hear what you say. But I agree with Danhy. Sometimes we need something that mirrors our condition (“Stubborn Love” by Kathy Troccoli), but often we need to be lifted to where we should be from where we are, especially if we are only giving 60 minutes to a meaningful meeting with God and God’s people (“Breathe”, MWS). My favorites are usually base don scripture, much as Psalms were (“10,000 Reasons”). Music isn’t just confession- it is also raising myself to praise (“Count Your Blessings”) and simply worshiping, whether we feel like it or not (Great is Thy Faithfulness”). I’ll also weigh in on the old vs. new issues- there is deep, theological music AND simple, emotional worship both from the middle ages, 19th century and today. And there’s a place for all of it to those who are worshiping and living with Christ. Don’t hate it because a certain type of song’s not where you are right now- you’ll find it right at some point in a lifetime with Christ. Blessings!

  • Andre

    God’s love isn’t for just him; he gives it to overflow to all people we know and don’t know. It is possible to love God above all and love others because God wants us to love others in order to intercede. It is impossible to half-way love God, either you do or don’t. The lack of fear of God brings forth sin, not the lack of love of God, for David, having God’s heart sinned for lacking fear of God. Just as kids say “I like you, but I don’t like like you”; either you love God or you don’t. Or do you think Adam and Eve (while still being holy) hated God when they disobeyed. Of course not, they loved God when they held the fruit! They didn’t understand the consequences, and lacked the fear of God and sinned. A lot of people say “I can’t accept Jesus into my heart – I have too much sin” yet the whole reason Jesus wants to enter is to tear away the sin! Do we have to be holy in order to worship God who yearns to hear the worship of repenting sinners??? So, in order to say I truly love God I must be holy??? Then God would never hear his most prized creation say they loved him. That is not the case obviously. Do you (yes you) love God? Then why won’t you tell him…

  • Andre

    What is the first fruit of the Spirit – Love. Thus, the first fruit received is love. So, it shouldn’t take anywhere close to a lifetime to finally say “God I truly love you”. It takes more than love to be holy, those are the other fruits of the Spirit, which are supported by love, which is why love is first. So, one can truly love God, while not being holy (since holiness is achieved once all of the fruits of the Spirit are received).
    I hope I made sense, some people say I’m not good at explaining things. I guess because I’m still young, I hope I get better at it.

  • Andre

    Is the title you chose (Break your knees) supposed to be from flyleaf, because it’s absolutely random but you don’t refer to the band either. Or is it supposed to be subliminal…