Some Christians refuse to listen to certain forms of worldly music, especially what is considered vulgar, obscene, or sexist; other Christians do listen to worldly music. So where does worldly music, with all its swearing and sex, fit into Christian ethics and a Christian understanding of art? Let’s begin with the following scripture passage.
20 And [Jesus] said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Here, speaking of keeping kosher, Jesus draws a contrast between our internal and external actions, and what we expose ourselves to from the outside. Jesus is telling his disciples not to be primarily concerned with being exposed to the unclean and the unholy, but to be concerned with the cleanliness and holiness of their own actions. It is not mere exposure to the profane which is spiritually harmful, but the actions of our hearts which may follow; the responsibility for our actions and defilement belongs to us, to our hearts, and not to any outside exposure.
This is likewise for worldly music, which may be justifiably called profane or unholy. But it is not inherently sinful; rather, worldly music is only sinful if it compels a change of heart towards the worldly and away from God, a change manifested in actions. If worldly music causes one’s “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,” etc. then worldly music is certainly not for that Christian. However, we must not go too far and say that because worldly music may cause this, it is to be normatively rejected in Christianity.
Let us consider for a moment a different medium, literature; many great books are fundamentally profane, for example Lolita and Ulysses. Both faced harsh criticism and even censorship for their obscenity, but now are considered classics of the 20th century. Both novels are incredible works of art — should we ignore these books as Christians because they are vulgar? Does Lolita really turn people into pedophiles? Does Ulysses compel its readers to masturbate? No. We cannot push responsibility for our actions onto art, but we can appreciate art not as a model for moral behavior, but as a means of insight into life — even the obscene parts. Ignoring art about the obscene, about sin, will not remove sin and obscenity from our lives. Rather, we can come to a better understanding of sin and life by engaging with art about them.
Similarly, worldly music must not be thrown out immediately for the presence of the obscene; in fact, music should be expected to cover the entire range of human experience, including the vulgar parts (consider Julian Nunally’s recent article “The Gospel in To Pimp the Butterfly: Metamorphosis as a Symbol for Rebirth”). Music is not necessarily a model for behavior, and can be appreciated as a work of art even if it includes the profane.
This is not to say Christians should use no discretion in their choice of music or exposure to art in general. When we begin to seek out music or any art for the sake of its profanity, then we have a problem; movies can become pornography, literature can become erotica. However, what we must be careful of is fear of things like pornography, or refusing to watch any movie remotely sexual. To borrow from former Justice Potter Stewart’s words (in Jacobellis vs. Ohio) on obscenity, and pornography in particular, we might adopt the view “I know it when I see it.” It’s hard to draw a line between art that is obscene for its own sake and art that happens to obscene; however, in practice, one can recognize when art is being consumed for the sake of its obscenity or not. For example, one can tell the difference when reading 50 Shades of Grey and reading Lolita.
While walking this line between appreciating music with obscenity and seeking music for its obscenity, another caveat is needed. Consider the following passage from Romans.
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Listening to worldly music or appreciating obscene art in general, even if not inherently sinful, may cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to sin. Paul in Romans has conceded that some things, though not inherently sinful, are still harmful to other Christians who find them sinful. Likewise, if one chooses to listen to worldly music, one must do so carefully, so as to not hurt any Christians who for whatever reason may feel the need to abstain from that sort of music. On the other hand, Christians who abstain from worldly music should not create a stumbling block for others by insisting all Christians also abstain.
Furthermore, for those who don’t listen to worldly music, one must not be too quick to condemn it. Looking back on societal (and often Christian) criticisms of ragtime, swing, jazz, and rock and roll, we find critics on the bad side of artistic taste. Also, one would be hard-pressed to find Christians today who refuse to listen to jazz (the “devil’s music”!) because of its vulgar, sensual rhythms. Worse, many of these criticisms have their roots in racism against the music of African Americans. This is an ugly fact that is perhaps still seen today in attacks on hip-hop and rap (cf. lyrics of “Black Skinhead” by Kanye West, in particular its references to Catholics and conservative Baptists). However, this a digression, meant just to show there is a danger in being too safe and too careful about worldly music.
Through all this, it is important to remember that the music we choose to listen to does not constitute the heart of the Christian faith, and that Christians should never let an issue so small divide them. Consider Paul’s call for unity in Romans:
1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Worldly music is a matter worthy of debate, and its debate is one Christians can find themselves on either side of. However, it is not worth quarreling over, and it is not worth contempt or judgement. Let us accept this difference in Christian love, hoping our taste in music is not the deciding matter in our salvation, but rather the love of Christ for us all.
Greg Scalise ’18 lives in Canaday Hall.
Authorial Bias Disclosure: I listen to just about any kind of music (and I hope people can still listen to Kanye someday in Heaven). I read books like Lolita and Ulysses, if they’re particularly good or important. However, I avoid certain movies and television shows because of their obscenity.