Is It Okay to Listen to Non-Religious Music?

Test everything. Hold fast what is good.

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A reader writes:

Despite being a Protestant, I enjoy reading your blog. Since I see that you’ve answered other people’s questions before, I thought I’d ask you a question about a problem I’m having.

In my community, people often say that it’s wrong to listen to rock music and to secular music in general.

In addition to that, when I told an older lady I sometimes listen to Asian music (in particular Japanese rock), she told me to avoid all that “pagan stuff.” I didn’t know what to say to her.

Can you please tell me your opinion on this (perhaps giving some Biblical basis to them, so that they won’t be seen just as a Catholic opinion)?

I also wanted to ask you to also share your opinion, from a moral point of view, on EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and metal music

I’d appreciate it if you could write a public blog entry, so that I could share a link to that, instead of showing a private email.

No problem!

First, we need to establish a number of principles.

 

Devoting Attention to Things Other Than God

God gave mankind the gift of intelligence and skills so that we could glorify him by being creative. However, this does not mean that he wants us to be explicitly religious in every creative thing we do.

There are many situations in life where our human nature requires us not to explicitly think about God every moment.

It is enough that we orient our lives toward God in a general way, seeking to please him in whatever we do, even in those moments where we must devote attention to things other than him. St. Paul speaks of this general orientation of our lives to God when he writes:

Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men. (Colossians 3:23)

When we are at work we must devote attention to our work duties rather than be thinking about God every second. When we are with family and friends we must think about them and their needs. Even when we are alone, we have to devote time and attention to our own needs.

While God gave us the ability to multi-task to a degree, it is a limited one, and human nature does not allow us to be thinking about God every single moment of our lives. Since God gave us our nature, this reveals that it is part of God’s plan for us to think about other things also.

Therefore, it is part of his plan for us to periodically re-orient ourselves and our thoughts toward him, asking him to guide and bless us and receive to his glory the work that we do, even when our attention is directed to it rather than to him explicitly.

 

Glorifying God Through Our Cultural Creations

All creation glorifies God by displaying aspects of his greatness. This includes the things humans make as part of culture.

A key aspect of culture is language, and we see how the gift of language glorifies God, even when it is directed to non-religious matters. For example, in Genesis we read:

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name (Genesis 2:19).

Adam’s act of naming the animals brings glory to the Lord by using the God-given gift of language to produce words naming the animals.

Other applications of language—like creating speeches, stories, poems, and lyrics—also glorify God.

The same is true when our skills are used to produce other works of culture, such as music, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art.

 

Misusing God’s Gifts

This is not to say that we can’t misuse God’s gifts. Of course we can. People misuse the skills God has given them in all kinds of ways.

Thus St. Paul writes:

But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)

Note the misuse of language in several of St. Paul’s examples.

The reality of human sinfulness means that sometimes people do create works of art and literature that are marred by sin and that lead people toward sin.

 

Even Non-Christians Have Contributions to Make

Just because a work of art was not written by a Christian does not mean that it doesn’t have admirable qualities or that we as Christians can’t make use of it.

Several times in the New Testament, St. Paul quotes from pre-Christian Greek authors who wrote works of poetry that contained insights he found useful.

Thus when he was before the Areopagus in Athens, he said:

Yet [God] is not far from each one of us, for

          “In him we live and move and have our being”;

as even some of your poets have said,

          “For we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:27-28)

The first quotation (“In him we live and move and have our being”) is from the Greek philosopher-poet Epimenides, and the second (“For we are indeed his offspring”) is from the poet Aratus.

Similarly, he writes the Corinthians:

Do not be deceived:

          “Bad company ruins good morals.”

The quotation “Bad company ruins good morals” is from the comic playwright Menander.

Bear in mind that all of these men were pre-Christian pagans, yet Paul did not balk at using elements from their writings.

 

Sorting the Good from the Bad

Since Paul was aware of these quotations, he was obviously familiar with these pagan authors’ writings. They were part of his cultural education, even though he had been a strict Jew. He describes his background by saying that he was:

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless (Philippians 3:5-6).

Because of his Jewish and later Christian beliefs, he by no means agreed with everything he read in pagan authors. Yet he did agree with genuine insights he found in them, and was willing to quote them, even to fellow Christians (as with the Corinthians).

He thus engaged in a process of sorting the good elements in them from the bad elements and employed a principle he recommends to his readers in another context:

Test everything; hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

On this basis, he is elsewhere able to tell his readers:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

 

Application to Music

If we take the principles from the preceding five sections and apply them to music, we can say the following:

  1. Not every piece of music we listen to has to be explicitly religious. Our lives must have a fundamental orientation to God, but that doesn’t mean we have to be explicitly thinking about him every moment. Thus not every poem, novel, movie, or song has to be explicitly about God.
  2. All of our cultural creations—including music, art, and literature—are based on skills that God gave us and that thus bring glory to him as long as we don’t mar them by sin.
  3. We do need to be on guard against cultural creations—including songs—that lead us toward sin (i.e., that tempt us personally to commit sin in some way).
  4. Just because a song or other work of art is of non-Christian or even pagan origin, that doesn’t mean it will be a temptation for us to commit sin or that it doesn’t have genuinely good points that are worth us knowing about or quoting, as St. Paul did with pagan Greek poets who had genuine insights.
  5. What we should do, therefore, is test every item of culture we encounter—whether it is music, art, or literature—hold fast to what is good, and recognize and appreciate what is good in it while rejecting what is bad.

Therefore, if a particular piece of music (or a particular movie, TV show, novel, or painting) would tempt you personally to sin, it needs to be avoided. However, if it doesn’t then it can be critically evaluated and appreciated the way St. Paul did with works of pre-Christian Greek literature.

This is a sketch of the principles I would apply to listening to (or performing) music. I don’t have feedback to offer on particular genres of music. No genre is categorically good or bad. It’s the individual songs in that genre that are good or bad.

However, I would caution against taking an overly harsh attitude in evaluating individual songs and their lyrics. For example, consider the following song lyrics:

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine.

O that [my beloved’s] left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me!

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful!

Your lips distil nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue

Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.

O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.

Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,

and your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.

As you may have guessed, these lyrics are from a particularly famous song—the Song of Solomon (see Song of Songs 1:2, 2:6, 10, 4:1, 11, 7:3-4, 6-9).

On the human level, the Song of Solomon is about the love of a man and a woman. It also has allegorical applications (e.g., to Christ and the Church), but on the literal level, it is a love song. We even have records of Jewish people in prior centuries who would sing it aloud.

This reveals to us, in a striking way, that God does not have a problem with love songs. It also reveals that he is not a prude. In this divinely inspired love song, we are asked to contemplate:

  • romantic kisses (“O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!”)
  • romantic embraces (“O that [my beloved’s] left hand were under my head,
    and that his right hand embraced me”)
  • romantic getaways (“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”)

We’re also asked to contemplate things like:

  • how beautiful the beloved’s breasts are (repeatedly! “Your two breasts are like two fawns,” “You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters; I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches,” “may your breasts be like clusters of the vine”)
  • how beautiful her neck is (“Your neck is like an ivory tower”)
  • how sweet her breath is (“the scent of your breath like apples”)
  • what it’s like to kiss her (“your kisses like the best wine
    that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth”)

All of this is in the context of married love, but a lot of people today would reject modern songs that invited us to think about the images and sensations described here, even in a marital context.

When a love song this vivid is found right in the pages of the Bible, we should be careful in how we evaluate other compositions.

As always, St. Paul’s principle prevails: “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).