As a child of a particular strand of American Protestantism, I was warned from an early age to be weary of this world and its offerings. “All that glitters is not gold”. Essentially, there were a great many “beautiful” things in this world which would never lead one to God. Instead, they served at the very minimum as mere distractions and at their worst, steps towards a slow deceptively innocuous descent into hell. Beauty and the truth of God simply could not be found outside of Scripture and the church. This thinking applied to a wide array of things in the world – everything from nature to popular culture and art.
Popular culture has oftentimes been looked upon with a good deal of suspicion if not perplexity. As Niebuhr rightly observed in his Christ and Culture treatise, Christians have danced a fairly schizophrenic dance with the world, never collectively settling in one location for very long.
In more recent years, this splintered interaction with culture has certainly fed the relativistic beast that many Christians fear in our post-Christendom society. While that is a worthwhile discussion, this post focuses on how the faith and culture dance has played out in the form of popular music. It has been the normative practice for many Christians when discussing popular music to fall into the false dichotomy between sacred and secular. This has resulted in creating a sub-genre of Christian popular music that has been written off by most of society as overly sentimental and at its worst, plain kitsch. The creation of this sub-genre has sadly led to many people ignoring what is a very rich tradition of musicians and songwriters who respectfully examine the biblical narrative but do not neatly fit into the label of “Christian musician”. This approach can be seen in the writings of musicians such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Marvin Gaye and more recently Sufjan Stevens.
There is a better response to these musicians who are not so easily categorized. We can and should respond to artists whose religious identity may be hard to pin down, but whose understanding or artistic reflection of biblical narratives are beautifully complex and multi-layered. They naturally nullify the sacred/secular dichotomy. On a certain level, I would argue that artists from a wide variety of backgrounds have had a far more profound influence on Christians and the church in the past 60 years than we give credit. These musicians, whether artists of faith or not, are helping carry on an important Judeo-Christian exegetical traditional, that of the Mid-rash. Essentially, when an artist takes a narrative and “fills in the gaps” or expands the story, they join this rich and storied tradition. 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. As Walter Brueggemann put it,
We now know that human transformation does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude, but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality. 
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. God works in surprising and unexpected ways, equally so through surprising and unexpected people. When we close ourselves off to the possibility that these artists can legitimately expand our view of scripture and therefore God, we essentially are attempting to limit what God is doing in the world today. I believe that we should be open to finding God in unexpected places and that God does indeed reveal truths in the most surprising of places and through the most unexpected people. Walter Brueggermann from Cadences of Home (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 29
Nate Risdon is the Associate Director of Communications and Program Development for the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has had a long time fascination with popular music and its influence on society and has just begun to think of these implications on theology and the church. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two children (with another on the way!!).