A Theology of Pop Music

October 22, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Okay, I will admit it. When LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” comes on the radio in all of its rhythmic, auto-tuned, Black-Eyed-Peas-esque glory, I turn it up. I also dance around to it in my house, listen to it while I run, and spontaneously start singing it when I am in a good mood.

Party Rock

Am I aware that it makes a reference to “ho’s” and “getting naked?” Well, I am now, having taken the time to actually look up the lyrics before writing this post. (I really thought it said “running through this hose like draino”).  But, seriously, I can’t say that I am surprised.

This is because pop music often works within an intentionally limited vocabulary, even to the point that artists repeat one word over and over, such as Usher’s “down down down, down down, down down” or Britney Spears’ “uncontrollably, lably, lably, lably.” Furthermore, in striking similarity to its movie cousin, the summertime blockbuster, pop music sometimes tries to up an f-word count of its own, all for the sake of its target audience.

Christians, not being this target audience, find themselves in the middle of a tension-filled relationship with pop music, in which some abstain from the genre altogether (which must be relatively hard given the music’s prevalence in commercials, store background music, school dance playlists, etc.), and some look desperately for ways to redeem it.

Pop Music: Redemption Through Biblical Reference? 

For instance, in his article “Popular Music and Theology: Strange Bedfellows,” Nate Risdon suggests that redeeming qualities are sometimes found in pop music’s attempts to include spiritual themes and concepts, which may provide Christian listeners with a new perspective. As an example of this, he uses the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen:

“When a songwriter like Leonard Cohen alludes to the complexity of emotions and desire felt by a fallen King David in his much heralded song “Hallelujah”, I listen to that song and return to that biblical narrative with a new set of eyes. I complete the “Mid-rashic” exercise when I read the text in a new way and can reflect with a new set of eyes and new ears to hear. David emerges from the page and becomes real, not just a character in the Bible . . . I now empathize with David and his fall from grace all the more and I carry that with me into my immediate world. I can use it to inform my faith and desire to follow Christ. Cohen has altered my reading and my reality in a simple and profound way”

While I give Risdon credit for his eloquent wording, I don’t think the principle he is using to redeem this particular song extends very far in the world of pop music, where most “invocations” of religious terminology do not rise above empty cliche:

“There’s gotta be a heaven somewhere” – Justin Timberlake

“When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” -Madonna

“I know that God put you in front of me” – Kanye West

Furthermore, even Cohen’s extended allusions to biblical characters lack depth and meaning in a song that is primarily about disenchantment with love and faith. Thus, while I don’t doubt that pop music can provide glimmers of truth or examples of searching for theological meaning, to expect them to significantly alter our readings of biblical text and biblical doctrine is probably expecting too much. For example, trying to pass Hallelujah off as a “worship song” during chapel, such as my Christian college sometimes did, is probably not a good idea.

A. K. M. Adam, in his post, “C’mon Save Your Soul Tonight”: Toward An Appreciative Theological Criticism In Popular Musics, says the following about the “redemption through biblical reference” approach:

“[I] hope that we all can begin to move from a generally fannish orientation that focuses on catching and making-explicit allusions to the Bible, the liturgy, and theology in popular music (“oh, he said ‘The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’!”) toward a more critical approach that doesn’t hesitate to deliberate seriously about the theological shortcomings of popular music (though without, I hope, condescending finger-wagging or censorship).”

Pop Music: Redemption Through Cultural Relationship?

Another attempt to redeem pop music focuses on the idea that entering into pop culture allows us to enter into the world of others and relate to them on their own level.

In his post, Pop Music and Theology, Troy Allen uses the musical career of Johnny Cash as an example of this, stating: “Was God only present in Cash’s ‘gospel songs’ or was God somehow present when Cash sang “Folsom Prison Blues” to a room full of prisoners? [I would also consider “Cocaine Blues” as an example] The lyrics are brash and hard and yet somehow a message of theological importance is found.”

Or, to tweak Allen’s words slightly, an act of theological importance is at work in this Folsom Prison visit, where prisoners are feeling understood, cared about, and ministered to. Thus, in this line of thought, the concept becomes one of incarnation, where Christians, by engaging or at least familiarizing themselves with pop culture, are able to relate to and communicate with those who are immersed in it.

Steve Rabey, who teaches a course on pop culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, even uses Paul’s sermon to the people in Athens as an example of this “familiar with for the sake of relating to” redemption, stating:

“Paul’s appropriation of pop culture artifacts in Acts 17 . . . [and his] sermon to the Athenians at Mars Hill compliments them for their religiosity—even though it’s far from Christian—and he quotes both a popular poet and the inscription found on a statue to a pagan god” (Developing a Theology of Pop Culture).

And while such rhetorical devices surely worked in Paul’s favor and did, in fact, serve the purpose of God, I think there is a sizable distance between appropriating pop culture and immersing ourselves in it, the latter often being the real sanction those taking the “relational approach” are hoping for.

Pop Music: An Exercise in Discernment

For something that is so commonplace, pop music does not elicit an easy answer, and there may be no all-encompassing doctrine for the church to advocate. For if the church says to abstain, members will likely abstain in the way that Catholics abstain from birth control, singing hymns in church and pop music at home. But at the same time, the church cannot condone the genre as a whole… For instance, imagine Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass playing in the background of an youth group event… Furthermore, if we believe that all practices are habit forming and soul shaping, we can hardly defend pop music (at large) as being that which is true, noble, honorable, pure, etc.

What we can do, however, is put in the extra effort to draw conclusions within rather than about the genre. For instance, does this song make shallow references to sinful behavior that can be overlooked, or does this song promote an entire theme that is counter to the gospel? In answering this question, we might compare Britney Spears’ I Wanna Go to Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie, where the first simply talks about sex being exciting and the latter endorses an abusive relationship.

We can also make sure we are applying the same critical standards to all music, and not just those forms that sound “unchristian.” This may be especially relevant in the world of parenting, where it may be easy to convict a song with a couple of swear words in it (even if that song has a positive message), and harder to catch the problematic messages within songs that sound harmless.

For instance, when we turn the radio dial from Britney Spears to Taylor Swift, the message may not be significantly altered, starting with “life is all about sex” and ending with “life is all about boys and pining after the boyfriends of other girls.”

Similarly, even Christian music gets it wrong sometimes, such as Courageous by Casting Crowns, which preaches a doctrine of gender that is borrowed more from the Eldredges than the Bible, or Can a Nation Be Changed by Matt Redman, which asks a question more relevant to politics than Christianity.

Finally, churches should serve their members by guiding them in this type of discernment. Rather than avoiding the topic of pop music altogether or giving subtle permission for “Christian music” and condemnation of “secular music,” churches should be able to address the daily habits of their congregants, none of which are too small or too irrelevant for reflection and discernment.

*Image taken from: http://www.amazon.com/Party-Rock-LMFAO/dp/B00274SI8S