Many years ago now, my daughter and one of her best friends returned from their first “solo” trip to the local shopping center. They went into her bedroom, and soon I was hearing some unusual sounds. I listened more intently and eventually realized they had bought a 45-rpm recording of one of the popular songs of that year. Since I believed that my daughter and her friend were embarking on a new musical adventure, I thought it would be appropriate to investigate what was taking place.
To begin, I asked if they would mind if I also listened to the song. Then I asked to see the record jacket, which they handed to me. After listening to the lyrics of the first side, it became apparent that we were listening to a song about sexual promiscuity. In addition, the record jacket demonstrated that the singer agreed with her message. As we began to discuss what I heard and saw, it was obvious that a sensitive nerve had been touched. They were not exactly pleased with what I was saying. They did not share my perspective. After much talk and emotional wrangling (and a happy ending, I might add), I concluded that this scene is probably duplicated many times in Christian homes around the world. With the memory of this experience embedded in my mind, I began to look into the world of contemporary music, and “rock” in particular.
Perhaps you have had a similar experience. Or perhaps you have heard or read statements concerning rock music from a variety of sources. The subject does not seem to lose its appeal with time. Christians have debated it for decades. Many have strong opinions and emotions about it, both pro and con.
As is true with many contemporary issues, it is very easy to take a generalized, extreme position on the subject of rock music. Some Christians say that we should reject all music found under the label of “rock” because there is something inherently evil in the medium. Others may not see that there are legitimate reasons for being concerned about rock. Christians should not take either of these positions. Rather, we should accept the sometimes-difficult challenge to be discerners. This applies to all the arts, including rock. But if we believe that all truth is of God, we should not let difficulties deter us from being honest with what we hear. Randall Petersen addresses this:
The task for the Christian, as always, is discernment. What can we find in this pile of culture that Jesus likes? Remember, Jesus walked this beat. The Lord of music climbed through this pile inspiring children’s shouts and making crippled people dance for joy. He can help us sort through our society.(1)
The task not only applies to rock music but to all the issues that confront us.
There are many biblical examples of discernment, but first we must understand the principle that all truth is of God. To quote Arthur Holmes:
If God is the eternal and all-wise creator of all things, as Christians affirm, then his creative wisdom is the source and norm of all truth about everything. And if God and his wisdom are unchangingly the same, then truth is likewise unchanging and thus universal.(2)
As a result, truth can be found in many spheres of life other than the religious or peculiarly Christian community. Although this is not found in the Bible in a verse that can be quoted per se, it is implied throughout the Scriptures.
Once we grasp the principle that all truth is of God, we can then see that verses such as Heb. 5:14 and Phil. 4:8 apply very well to our discussion of rock music. The writer of Hebrews states, “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (NASB). We should be about the business of “training our senses.” Otherwise, we will often accept falsehoods while rejecting the truth that is a part of many things that are not aligned under a “Christian” banner. In Phil. 4:8, Paul enumerates several ethical principles, including, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise.” Then he states that we should let our minds “dwell on these things.” Look at the world around you. If you find something worth keeping, keep it. If it needs to be discarded, discard it. And of course this also applies to rock music.
Kenneth Petersen has put it more graphically by stating that “we shouldn’t be afraid to be selective–to pluck diamonds out of the mud.”(3) Yes, there is a great deal of mud in this world. Yes, a lot of that mud is found in rock music, just as it is in all art and entertainment. As a result, we are faced with two options as believers. We can reject all art and entertainment, or we can responsibly practice discernment in our culture. The former can lead to stagnation and ineffectiveness; the latter can challenge the world with a bold and positive witness. Our culture needs the “salt” and “light” we can offer. It needs the impact of redeemed minds.
In the preface to the Wittenberg Gesangbuch of 1524, Martin Luther shared thoughts about music that are still appropriate.
I wish that the young men might have something to rid them of their love ditties and wanton songs and might instead of these learn wholesome things and thus yield willingly to the good; also, because I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of Him who gave and created them.(4)
Luther’s comments are applicable to the subject of rock. But why should we share Luther’s concern for the arts, particularly music?
The first answer to this question is that God carries out His purposes in time and history. He may be “needling” us through contemporary music; He may be challenging us to be alert to the crucial issues and questions of our time that can be heard in much rock music.
Second, rock can tell us how a significant portion of our culture thinks. The answers, or lack of answers, that rock musicians give to their own questions ring true in the minds of millions of listeners.
Third, we can be sympathetic with many of the subjects found in rock. The difference is that often these musicians provide insights that are not of the Lord. Fourth, rock musicians are image-makers more often than not. They present a facade that is very attractive to adolescents. We need to analyze these images, which can be so powerful in the lives of our children, and react biblically.
We are often guilty of living in “Christian ghettos.” We may understand each other, but we don’t understand our culture, and our culture doesn’t understand us. In the New Testament we see that Jews and Gentiles were approached differently because their presuppositions were different. They were speaking different religious and philosophical languages. Today we are faced with the same task. If we are to communicate with our culture, we need to hear what it is saying. We need to see and hear the world views. We need to react as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17). We need to be discerners.
Steps Toward Discernment
Discernment is the key, but how can we become discerners of rock music? Four simple categories will help us arrange our thoughts.
First, there is good music with a good message. This is the ideal combination. The music is of quality, and the message is true. We should all strive to hear and create this unity.
Second, we often hear good music with a bad message. The music may be of quality, but the message is false or misleading.
Third, bad music with a good message can creep into our listening habits. The quality of the music is poor, but the message is true. This category can be used to describe much of what is called “contemporary Christian music.”
The fourth is bad music with a bad message. This combination is more blatant in its degradation than are numbers two and three, but it is often more honest. For example, much of what is called “hard core” or “underground” is not presented as a well-done musical statement, and it is honest in its perception of a world gone wrong. The tragedy is that the perceptions are often false and the music is usually not worth a second hearing.
With these categories in mind we can now consider four steps toward becoming discerners of rock music. The first step is to realize that all truth is of God and begin to incorporate this principle in our lives. As Marajen Denman has said, “Truth is truth, no matter who sings it.”(5)
The second step is to stop! Stop what you are doing long enough to concentrate on what is being said through the music. Most of us, especially adolescents who spend so much time with rock as a companion, probably need to be more aware of the power of ideas. This can only be done if we take the time to concentrate.
The third step is to listen! Listen carefully to the message of the music. This especially applies to those young people who listen to certain songs or albums repetitively.
The fourth step is to look! Look at how the music affects your life in terms of such things as thoughts, physical tension and sensuality. It may help to encourage a teenager to ask himself a series of questions, such as, Where am I getting these rebellious ideas? Where am I getting these sexual fantasies? Why am I tempted to reject what I know to be true? Why am I depressed so much of the time? Why does the future look so hopeless?, etc. These four steps may take some time, but in most cases the effort brings reward.
Before we discuss the music and its messages, it is important to realize that rock music is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a musical one. It is a source of personal and corporate identification. Many young people look to rock for more than music. They seek to identify themselves with a unique generation. It helps them declare their independence.
In fact, rock shares in the unique historical development of the idea of adolescence, which is much more recent than most of us realize. Adolescence has come to symbolize an attitude, a distinctiveness, a rite of passage espoused by millions of teens. While reflecting on the impact of rock concerts, the writers of Dancing in the Dark, an excellent study of youth culture, state:
Whatever else rock might be . . . a concert makes it clear that rock is a dramatic participatory anthem of teen life, freighted with the intense experience of what teens believe, feel, value, and do. Rock is at once a barometer of teen experience and the very weather they inhabit, at once the celebration of an ethos and the ethos itself.(6)
An objective awareness of this ethos can lead us to more constructive dialogue concerning rock, especially with our own children. Rock is a major cultural force and has been since its inception. Millions have and will continue to identify with it at various times during their lives. If we don’t realize this, the lines of communication are quickly broken. It is not enough to say, “Turn off that noise!” Like it or not, we must approach our children with the understanding that it’s not just the music that attracts them. They need to be led to understand whose they are in Jesus Christ, and not just who they are within the scope of adolescent culture.
The musical ingredients of rock music have been the focus of rapt attention among Christians for many years. Some have attacked rock based upon supposed evils within the music itself. These attacks are misdirected. For example, many of us can remember debates concerning the use of certain instruments, such as guitars and drums, in worship. It was believed that there was something very wrong, if not evil, about using such instruments. With a few exceptions, this concern has been rightfully rejected.
Besides such instruments, the nature of the rock rhythm has been called into question and has sometimes been the subject of fierce arguments. The basic syncopation of rock, which is usually in 4/4 time with an accent on the second and fourth beats, is not evil. It is often boring and uncreative, but it is not evil. Some groups experiment with assorted meters and chord progressions, but the majority of rock bands incorporate this basic rhythm. If there is a problem with rock, it is not to be found here.
Rock almost always has a message. The human voice is used to sing about something. Of course no one would claim there is something evil about the human voice. The message that is communicated can be cause for concern, but the voice itself is not the problem.
So rock music basically consists of certain instruments– such as guitars, keyboards, and percussion–a particular rhythm, and the human voice. And none of these is evil. People can be evil, and people abuse rock music, just as they abuse all parts of life. Our sin nature is actively involved in desecrating everything.
This desecration can best be seen in the lyrical content of the songs. We have come a long way from the inane “do-wa-diddies” of early rock history. It is at this point that those in the Christian community are challenged the most. The music alone may be of quality, but the message may be totally in opposition to a Christian worldview. A decision is required. Do I continue to listen, even though the message is awful? Or do I decide to reject it because of the message, even though I like the music?
Unfortunately, the well-worn statement, “I only listen to the beat!” is simply not true. If they are honest, most people who have heard a rock song several times can sing the lyrics upon request. When you consider the fact that most popular songs are heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times, it is not difficult to understand how the messages are embedded. The lyrics come through; we can’t escape that. This does not necessarily mean we always listen and think to the point of really considering what the messages have to say, and that is exactly part of the problem. The lyrics can be subtly incorporated into our thoughts simply because we haven’t stopped long enough to sort them out.
As we listen to the messages of rock, we find that several themes appear. One of these is nihilism and its accompanying despair. Evidently large segments of our youth population are willing to pay to hear that the world is falling apart.
Hedonism is another theme. Sexual emphases, in particular, have long been staples of rock’s lyrical content. Rebellion and violence are also prominent subjects. These can be found especially in rap, hard core, and heavy metal. Drugs, including alcohol, are also touted in some songs, although their glorification is not as prominent as in the past. Occasionally some groups will toy with occultic and satanic themes, but most of these are simply trying to sell recordings by attracting the curiosity of teens. These themes are by no means complete. The list of subjects would cover virtually everything imaginable, but these are the more prominent ones.
Since this subject is too often the focus of intense arguments in the home, the following steps can help to alleviate the problem.
- Pray over the issue together in order to make a dedicated effort to communicate.
- Discuss the subject–don’t scream about it.
- Examine yourself to determine if you are acting hypocritically. For example, a parent should not scream at the child about rock and then turn on the latest country songs, which often deal with the same subjects that are found in rock.
- The parent(s) should honestly seek to spend some time listening to the child’s recordings. The child should honestly seek to go beyond the beat/sound in order to hear and see what is being emphasized.
- The parent can turn on a rock station while driving to/from work.
- The child can begin to be much more selective about when she listens to the music. The process of discernment cannot take place very easily if there is always something taking place while the music is heard.
- Take some time to visit the local department or record store.
- Visit the local library and check out any number of books on rock music. In fact, “topical bibles” of rock music are available. Pick the subject, and the book will lead you to the songs that deal with the subject.
- The latest issues of various trade magazines can be read in the local library or purchased in some grocery stores or book stores. Some of the magazines print the lyrics of the latest songs.
When children see that parents are genuinely interested, they will often begin to respond positively to what is said. Challenge them to make a decision, but don’t make it for them. Discernment, coupled with an attitude that is saturated in patience, will go a long way toward helping a young person make Christ-centered decisions that will last a lifetime.
Decisions are in order for many people. Perhaps some will find it necessary to “clean the closet” because of prior saturation in rock. Others need to be more discerning. But a rejection of rock and the wholesale acceptance of another form is not the answer. As soon as that takes place, the thinking process has stopped. All of one has been substituted for all of another. For instance, if we put gospel music in the place of rock without thinking about what we hear, we can be in danger of accepting poor theology, if not heresy, on occasion. Each song, each piece of music should be judged on its own merit. No single artist can be accepted without thought. No single style can be accepted without thought. We are responsible to stop, listen, and look at all that we hear.
(1) J. Randall Petersen, “John Lennon, Rock Music, and American Culture,” Evangelical Newsletter, 20 March 1981.
(2) Arthur F. Holmes, All Truth Is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1977), 8.
(3) Kenneth W. Petersen, “Confronting the Sounds of Culture,” Evangelical Newsletter, 30 MAY 1980.
(4) Quoted by Francis Schaeffer in How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1976), 90.
(5) Marajen Denman, “What’s Music to Your Ears?” Worldwide Challenge, February 1983, 8.
(6) Quentin J. Schultze, et al., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 148.
©1992 Probe Ministries.