Christian Music through a Lutheran Lens

I have been participating in a basic ritual since I was about 14. Whenever I come home with a new CD, I beeline for the stereo, wrestle the annoying sticker off the top of the case, shove the CD in the player, and head for the nearest chair. No one is able to deter me as I proceed to scour every word in the liner notes, seeking connection with the band/artist speaking above the sounds of the instruments. Though I’m not a teenager anymore (and I’ve settled down just a bit) my thirst for connection with the artist remains. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably been in a chair with liner notes yourself, and you’ve no doubt seen kids seeking similar connection and validation through music. Music packs a powerful force. Much of music is its own kind of poetry. Within the body of a song, listeners are offered a compelling influence on their worldviews.

As a Christian educator, I spent several years eavesdropping in lunchrooms, and I heard a lot of students talking about their music. Over time, I began to realize that teenagers do not simply listen to music; they engage with it as if it were human. Each song is a potential friend for the listener, an opportunity to test out developing theories and frameworks. For the Christian teen, this means testing his still largely developing framework as to what it means to be in relationship with God and other humans. Unfortunately, teens are not always discerning when certain ideologies pour out of their speakers. And teenagers (all of us, really) will evaluate sentiments less on truthfulness and more on how well they are conveyed. Artistic value is assessed on whether the listener can relate, on whether or not he or she can find a piece of himself or herself in the artist’s songs, and on whether or not the artist packaged his or her message with the right trendy appeal.

This being the case, the eminent question becomes, “Who do I want as a friend to my teen?” tobyMac or EMINEM? Which is more dangerous, heterodox lyrics, or lyrics that reflect an outright rebellion against God and a contempt for life? Whether the musician is EMINEM, tobyMac, or Johann Sebastian Bach, teens listen to find expressions of themselves in the music. They are looking for friends. They need tools to help them discern the underlying message the artist is trying to convey, and to determine if they really want to regularly hear that message. I would hope parents and youth workers would take the same tact, namely, bringing Scripture and the tenets of our faith to bear upon the lyrics that reach our children’s ears.

It is in this light that I want to address the usefulness of Contemporary Christian music. If a person is engaged with music that talks about God, and in some cases for God, then by definition that person is engaged in theology. It’s only logical that the content of various popular Christian songs will be accurate, vague, or wrong. Therefore, each song serves as a case study wherein the listener can use Lutheran theology to confirm an accurate sentiment, bring to focus a vague sentiment, or correct a wrong one. When such methods of analysis are taught properly, lo and behold, amazing things begin to happen. When youth practice active theological reasoning, their faith becomes strengthened and they become better equipped for dialogue with their Fundamentalist or Reformed neighbors (or their Lutheran neighbor for that matter). And when given the opportunity to see the powerful God behind the well-crafted lyrics of life-loving artists, teens may no longer need the likes of EMINEM (and his host of images that placate to the flesh) to make them feel alive and understood.

Below are teachings that can serve as helpful handles to facilitate discussion. At the end of each section is a brief example from Switchfoot’s, “Dare You to Move.”

Matter of Perspective
First, it will be helpful to determine the perspective the song reflects: God’s or man’s. Much of Scripture is written from God’s perspective, and it is clear that the Christian life is His initiative and effort: “He who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1: 6). But Scripture speaks from the human perspective as well. Being Christian calls for certain behaviors and choices. In this context, Paul can encourage Christians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2: 12). Determining which voice is intended to be predominant in the lyrics will inform much of your subsequent appraisal of the lyric’s usefulness and application.

“I Dare You to Move” highlights the human perspective. These lyrics are one brother’s admonishment of another.

Luther’s Small Catechism
While teaching high school, I never met an issue the Catechism couldn’t help address. Ask the teens which of the six chief parts addresses the subject of the song. Is the song a prayer? How does it stack up to Luther’s exposition on the Lord’s Prayer? Is the song about conversion? What light does the Third Article shed on the lyrics?

The Third Article helps us appreciate what’s going on when Chad Butler sings “I dare you to move like today never happened before.” If it is true that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him,” then the song is setting the listener up to acknowledge this point.

Theologian of the Cross
Being a theologian of the cross does not address specific teachings about God so much as it creates a conceptual framework for thinking about God. Ask yourself and your students, “How does the song understand the cross?” Does the song understand the cross to be the revelation of God, the key to understanding everything else in Scripture and in Christian life? Or does the song speak for God in such a way that it ascribes glory to Him according to our standards? Does it try to find logical answers where God does not reveal Himself? If so, then the song is misappropriating Scripture, using a theology of glory, and requires a discerning ear. If the song allows God to speak for Himself in the cries of a baby, in the groans of the cross, and the silence of a tomb, then that song adopts a theology of the cross.

Theologians of glory might look at “Dare You to Move” as an encouragement to pick themselves up and get things going. However, theologians of the cross call it as they see it: We’re incapable of picking ourselves up. We need Christ in the Holy Spirit to “lift ourselves up off the floor.”

Bondage of the Will
Does the song rightly account for our human predicament? Does it view Jesus as only a model for our lives? Or does it rightly see Him as the one who wrested me away from the grip of Satan, the “strong man?” Ask yourself, “How much of my will is involved in my conversion to faith?” Answer: None. This ties back into understanding God as a theologian of the cross. If the song refers to some sort of “free will,” it does not offer a Scriptural understanding of God, and demands a discerning ear.

Looking back to our song, it should be apparent that your will cannot “lift you up off the floor” unless it is captive to Christ. The lyrics should be understood as such.

Law and Gospel
Which form of the Word of God is being featured at various moments in the song? Is it a word that kills us and all the hopes that cling to everything but God (aka Law)? Is it a word that freely gives and creates life (aka Gospel)? How do these words relate to the listener? Do the messages get confused? Does the Law get diluted with Gospel or the Gospel with Law? It is important to try and distinguish between the two in any message about Christ and His work for us.

This distinction can help us appreciate the structure of the Switchfoot song. A proper understanding of the previous elements leads us to understand that the lyricist uses the Law to knock out any crutch that says the current state of things is OK. The final verse brings the Gospel message that salvation has come to us where we are in the Spirit through Christ.

Justification and Sanctification
Which term best accounts for the song and how so? Does the song refer to the fact that the sinner has been made righteous because God has spoken it so, and therefore created a new reality? Or does the song speak about the Christian life and the good works that are produced? This is a tricky topic: first, because both terms have a wide and narrow sense; and second, because justification and sanctification are a package deal. It is not like you can separate them from each other. However, it is a worthwhile discussion because a good deal of popular Christian music deals with what we Lutherans would call Sanctification, and should be understood through our lens of Justification.

“Dare You to Move” features Justification. However, this is an example of when it is necessary to be more specific. The lyric only says “Salvation is here.” What does that mean? We would say that salvation is where God proclaims to us His grace and favor, namely in Word and Sacrament.

Two Kinds of Righteousness
This is perhaps the most useful distinction to work through with teens. Does the song refer to our relationship with God? If so, then this is a passive righteousness. God does all the work and Christ must redeem even the best of our actions, because all our good deeds are filth in the sight of God. Does the song refer to our relationship with the rest of God’s creatures? If so, then it speaks of an active righteousness. Here our actions count for something. They reflect to a greater or lesser extent the love shown us in Christ.

Even though Switchfoot is not explicit, the lyrics express a lack of righteousness in a person’s relationship with others. This would hopefully direct our attention to the real problem: our relationship to God.

Ultimately, I am not nave enough to think that teens will enthusiastically dive into a systematic discussion of their favorite artist. However, they will readily talk about how they relate to the song. This discussion can serve as an entrée into helping these young listeners sort out what is going on theologically in the context of the songs they love. Also, once properly instructed, teens can use these tools to evaluate the messages they hear in any song. In so doing, hopefully teenagers will come to understand that theology is supremely practical, and they will have a context wherein to discuss matters of theology with their peers. What is more, they will begin to get a sense of what the church fathers have told us throughout the years: when we speak about God, we are obligated to try and get it right. Such an effort is even an act of worship. In engaging in the practice of theology, we can say with Paul, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Micah Gaunt is a second year student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Published May 1, 2005

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