Popular Music and Theology: Strange Bedfellows?

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. [1]

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.

[1] 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!!).



  • 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!!).

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  1. says: Jim Watkins

    Nate, thanks for this really interesting post on popular music and theology. I especially like your suggestion that music can perform something like midrashic exegesis for the Christian community. In this way, as you suggest, it can return us to the biblical story with new eyes. I find that this is a helpful way of looking at many different kinds of art, and that it is especially helpful in much liturgical art.

    I thought I would just play the devil’s advocate a bit and raise a question that often comes to my mind when I encourage Christians to search out forms of art beyond the Christian ‘bubble.’ I take your point about Christian kitsch, and I always think it is worthwhile to direct people to works of art that are excellently made. But why should Christians seek out the musicians that you write about? Is the midrash that they offer something fundamentally different from the way that much CCM relates to theology? For example, one might suggest that Third Day songs such as ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ and ‘Your Love, Oh Lord’ send us back to certain Psalms with new eyes. One might also suggest that contemporary worship songs such as these send us back to the scriptures in such a way that allows us to connect our own experience of worship with the worship of Israel. So, are your musicians doing the same thing, but only better? Is the music you are suggestion more challenging, while CCM is comparatively easy? What is the reason that Christians should seek out challenging music rather than stick with the CCM music that they are familiar with?

    I know these are a lot of questions, so don’t feel as though you need to address them all. even though I agree with the main point of the post, I just thought I would raise these questions to take up the side of the CCM fan who may not want to explore other forms of popular music.

  2. says: Debbie Young

    I like some Christian Contemporary Music, but mostly I don’t care for it. As a critical artist the music doesn’t seem to “transport” me in the same way that well crafted, insightful, complex music can. If there is no “transportation”, there can be no “mid-rash”.

    There seems to be a stylistic rut that CCM is in. But maybe I don’t listen to enough of it. Anyway, love this post and the song “Hallelujah. Thanks.

  3. says: Jason Campbell

    This is a response to the comment by Jim Watkins:

    Jim, I think you miss Nate’s point, he is arguing that the understanding offered by Cohen, Cave and others need not be excluded, in fact, is excluded resulting in loss to the believers. Perhaps it is simply false to divide music in such a fashion or even to divide the world in such a way.

    It is as silly as saying that Light in August is non-Christian. Faulkner patterned the book after John’s gospel (21 chapters) and even builds the narrative around that of Christ (with Joe Christmas being tried and killed). The book is insanely violent and disturbing as well … but it is trying to deal with the real world of the south with its insane racism. Beyond that Faulkner is dealing with his own difficult life, with death and failings all around.

    I guess, I don’t really follow what the point would be of trying to decide whether William Faulkner (whom I will never meet in my flesh) was or wasn’t a Christian, was or wasn’t a good Christian, wrote or didn’t write Christian literature.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Jason, thanks for this clarification. You may be right that I was missing the point. And I think you are certainly right to say that the musicians Nate mentions should not be considered as non-Christian. But it still seems to me that Nate’s post is a plea that Christians include these musicians in their diet of music. He seems to be recommending them to a Christian audience that does not fully appreciate them. Perhaps his plea for inclusion is simply an argument that these musicians are doing the same sort of thing that the bands one normally associates with Christian music already do. In which case, Nate might be saying, ‘hey CCM fan, there is more really great music over here and its your loss if you don’t check it out.’ But it seemed to me that Nate is saying he prefers these musicians to the typical CCM crowd (hence his deprecating comments regarding the sub-genre of Christian music that is overly sentimental or just plain kitsch). Perhaps Nate’s preference is ‘merely’ a matter of taste, or maybe it is something more. I don’t really know, and so that is why I asked the question. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Nate has to say about all this!

  4. says: Wesley Vander Lugt

    Is it something about the allusiveness in the music of the likes of Cohen and Stevens that make the music such powerful midrashic witness to the gospel? Could that be an answer to Jim’s question?

  5. says: Jason Campbell

    Jim, thanks for responding. I do think you have a very good question, thank you for patiently clarifying.

    Not knowing anything academic about art, nor definitions for beauty, etc, I am not sure how easy it is to argue if it is taste, eye of the beholder, etc. But what draws me toward the music he mentions and what turns me away from CCM, like Third Day (actually I have never really given them a try, but I have listened to Christian music) is that I don’t think of them as artists at all. I think of them as Christian entertainers. (OK, so now I am sounding really priggish … not sure how to proceed without sounding that way). On one hand, the reason I don’t like CCM is the reason I don’t like listening to pop music at all … everything is very formulaic, it is beauty that causes your ears to lie back under narcotic sound (this is a reference to Charles Ives … making me more priggish than ever).

    Anyway, I will take Tom Waits, The Drones and John Prine any day. They are super creative and seem more authentic and honest.

  6. says: Nate Risdon

    Hi Jim and all,

    Love the discussion so far. Let me begin by saying that it is hard sometimes to avoid blanket statements about a genre or group and not sound “priggish” or downright dismissive. That was not the goal here. I believe that is a good thing when scripture is appropriately set to music and there are some CCM artist who do that well. Yet, we do ourselves a great disservice if we limit our listening to these artists or maybe more appropriately, that approach. In my opinion, it limits the imagination that is absolutely necessary when we read scripture. I would rather have an artist who, as Wesley so wonderfully put it, is “allusive” in their description of the divine through the use of metaphor, allegory, and simile rather than a song that gives a straightforward list of the attributes of God which too many CCM artist feel compelled to do. Again, I am all for singing God’s praises, but I am also all for reflecting on life lived out here and all that this entails. Metaphor, allegory, and simile to me seem like appropriate mediums with which we should approach a infinite and ultimately mysterious God.

    I mourn the fact that in many ways Christian artists have lost their seat at that table to speak in to life’s quintessential experiences. This we should be able to speak into given the God that we worship. Yet, I think some of the artists I listed in my article (and plenty of others) are being invited back again.

    What are some artists you would include CCM or otherwise?

  7. says: Jason Campbell

    A good example of direct scripture commentary that is very powerful from someone well outside the Christian frame is Nick Cave’s introduction to the Gospel of Mark which he wrote for the pocket bible series that came out a while back. It is really powerful, you can find a copy of it on the internet. Here is a sample to see if you are interested (its also short):

    “Mark took from the mouths of teachers and prophets the jumble of events that comprised Christ’s life and fixed these events into some kind of biographical form. He did this with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended upon it, which of course, to Mark, it did. ‘Straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence.


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