During my second week as a barista-in-training, I had a customer exclaim, “You guys are playing nonChristian music? Who’s in charge of this?”
I deflected the question, saying I wasn’t in charge of music, and I hadn’t even noticed. It’s true; until she pointed it out, I hadn’t paid attention to the music we were playing in the background. Then I listened, and was happy to hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an indie-rock band whose music I thoroughly enjoy.
I wish I could say I had no idea why the woman had an issue with secular music. Unfortunately, I can: I grew up in the same evangelical environment that called any form of nonChristian media dangerous at best, and completely sinful at worst (which was often). It was a great irony, because my parents and I loved to make fun of the endlessly repetitive and unoriginal covers on Christian radio stations, while at home appreciating the excellent quality and variety of Putumayo’s world music collections. Nevertheless, at church, in youth groups, and at bible studies, I was taught that secular music was dangerous, especially for its erotic qualities. Careful, our elders said, if you listen to secular music, you might just want to have sex.
As a young gay teen, this message caused deeper problems than even those with a puritanical streak anticipated. I was wary of music with any hint of sexuality (which was most music), because for me, sexuality itself was sinful and dangerous. The distinction between love and lust did not exist when it came to how music affected me: because I was to repress any and all gay feelings, I was also to avoid any and all sexually suggestive music that would affect me in any way. Not because they could lead my burgeoning self astray; my sexually gendered body was already damaged goods, and only needed the slightest push to fall into irredeemable sin.
Back in 2014, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot explained why he does not use a Christian label for his music:
“What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds… An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.”
In an article responding to Switchfoot’s comments on what counts as “Christian” music, Kristie Eshelman maintains that “it is so important for us to have a kingdom-oriented mindset in everything we do. It’s not necessarily about slapping a Christian label on everything we touch; it’s about our faithfulness and obedience in our vocations and in the workplace.”
This should be intuitive to dedicated Christians who care about God’s kingdom on Earth; certainly for Christians who care so much about proper piety that they refuse to listen to anything but Christian music. However, the label itself can keep us from faithfulness and obedience in our vocations.
Warren Cole Smith, author of “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church,” argues that commercializing the term “Christian” has caused great amounts of harm to our witness and our communities. He uses the term “Christian industrial complex” to describe this problem: a “pathological relationship [that] has emerged between the Christian retail industry and the Christian church.”
Rather than regurgitate his careful research and wide-ranging analysis of Christian culture, I want to assume that my audience shares at least an unease about the state of the church today, and that this unease can be loosely attributed to a feeling that we’ve capitulated to the culture we’re supposed to be “set apart” from. So many Christians, of all age groups and backgrounds, feel a disconnect between what the church is and what it should be. Whether that encompasses young people leaving the church in droves, the rise of the megachurch and subsequent floundering of smaller, local congregations, or disillusionment with modern ways of doing church, we feel that something has been lost, or not quite attained.
For me as a young closeted teen, having no words or context to understand where these feelings of angst and dissatisfaction came from, avoiding sexuality in music proved an impossible and endlessly frustrating task, and only served to exacerbate the desperation of my repressed sexuality. As I discovered the world of dance, I slowly gave up any pretense of disliking “secular” erotic music from a moralizing perspective. I still wrote poems about the power of sexually charged music, and always ended them with how I would remain steadfastly immune to it. But in time, that too proved to be not only impossible but disingenuous.
Because to my great surprise, as I matured, I began to notice the erotic in sacred, “Christian” music as much as it was in “secular” music. Countless worship songs posture the singer and the sung-to in an all-but-explicit erotic relationship. And these contemporary examples of eroticized spirituality are just the latest iteration of a long tradition of Christian mysticism: everything from the Song of Songs to the desert mothers and fathers’ insistence on using the language of the erotic speaks to the long-standing embodied nature of our worship.
But in our theologies, at least as they’re dumbed down into language kids can understand, we uphold the artificial dichotomy between the body and the spirit; between the sacred and secular; between the sexual and the spiritual.
It’s time to bridge the gap and heal the rift, if we are to encourage young folks, especially lgbt people, to worship the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We do a disservice to our Creator when we posture “Christian” music as pure, sexless, and holy, against “secular” music as dirty, lustful, and sinful. This distinction does not keep our children from secular music, it keeps them from their bodies.
I’ve always had a sacred connection to sexual music. I could never fully separate the two: in the most hallowed of worship songs, I found the erotic. In the basest of love-sick ballads or club hits, I found pangs of the divine.
It seems Rob Bell was right: this is really about that. The sexual and the spiritual are intimately intertwined, especially in the realm of music. This connection should be embraced and explored, not avoided. For young lgbt people, it could mean the difference between holistic healing, and perpetuating our fractured selves.