The Beauty of “Secular” Music
A Youtube channel, Tripp and Tyler, published a video called “Shoot Christians Say” about six years ago. Whatever one might think of the importance of the video, it made me laugh exhaustively. Tripp and Tyler mock some of the “Christianese” language we often use in Christian circles and in Church. One of the clips in the video shows one of them acting as a worship leader, saying, “we opened with a secular song.”
However silly this video is, this clip really speaks to a legitimate distinction Christians have tried to make—between the sacred and the secular. I want to ask the question, why do we want to say that God is in some areas of our lives but not in others?
I don’t want to say in any way that hymns and worship music aren’t different in significant ways from non-Christian music. Rather, I want to discuss the beauty and truth present in secular music—and how maybe the word “secular” doesn’t really do justice to the importance of non-Christian music.
In order to get out of the abstract, let’s look at a specific song in order to better understand what there is of God’s truth and beauty in a non-Christian song.
“Downward” by Ripe
I have recently started listening to a new jazzy, soul-Rock band called Ripe. They have been making music for about 6 years, and they have a great album out, called “Joy in the Wild Unknown.” The song I want to look at, “Downward,” is on this album. I suggest going to listen to this song before continuing to read.
This song narrates the story of the singer’s involvement with someone he has fallen in love with. It becomes clear that the person he has fallen in love with is not being straightforward with how they feel. He knows that this relationship will likely end poorly, but he still finds himself falling in love with this person and loving it. Below are the lyrics I wish to discuss:
This love keeps pulling me downward
Pulling me downward
This love keeps pulling me downward
Pulling me downward
And I don’t mind the fall
Clearly, these words and notes communicate that the singer knows the detrimental possibilities of falling in love with this person, but he loves falling in love with this person despite that. I believe that this is the surface level and intended meaning of these words.
However, a piece of art is not constrained to what it was intended to be. Once an artist puts something out for others to see, other meanings come forth, whether they are “correct” interpretations of the words or not. In this way, even a non-Christian song can point us to Christ.
So let’s look back at the lyrics I quoted above. The singer is recounting his love and how it is bringing him down, even into suffering. Nevertheless, he enjoys that falling in love. I want to show how this is not the only meaning that these lyrics elicit. They actually show us the love of Christ and the love we are called to as Christians.
Christ’s Downward Love
Let’s look at what Scripture says about Christ’s love and the call of love for Christians. Flip to Philippians 2, when Paul speaks of Christ’s humility:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In this passage, and in its assumptions and implications, the love of God literally called Him downward to us in the incarnation. God was made flesh in the person of Christ. God’s love pulled Him downward to us in order to save us from our sins and save us unto Himself. Not only this but once Christ was living in ministry, His love pulled him down to the uttermost suffering, even suffering on the cross. I think Ripe’s song, even though it didn’t intend to, really speaks to these truths of Christ.
How is this possible? How does a non-Christian band speak to such specific truths of Scripture? The answer, yes, can be found in Scripture.
In Reformed thought, there are two ideas that I think will speak to how much truth can come from secular music. They both are related, and they integrate into why I think Ripe’s “Downward” is able to show us the character of Christ and the character of love. Look to this passage from Matthew:
For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Reformed thinkers have described this as “common grace.” Common grace refers to the idea that God has given gifts and mercies to all, not just His people. He makes the sunrise on the evil and the good. He gives new days to all types of people, whether they are “bad” or “good,” or whether they are Christians or not. Therefore, just because the members of Ripe may not be Christian, does not mean they lack every type of grace that would allow them to see the good things of the world.
Romans 1 shows another aspect of God’s world significant to our conversation:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
In this passage, Paul tells his readers that God has revealed Himself not just to His own people, but He has revealed Himself to all people, namely in His creation. Theologians refer to this concept as “general revelation.” So, even if the members of the band Ripe wouldn’t testify to the person of Jesus Christ, they have been shown the person of God, whether they are aware of it or not. They may know about God’s love by the mere fact that they have experienced human love. Even something as broken and beautiful as human love has shown them the perfect and awesome love of Jesus Christ, whether they know this or not.
This is why I think secular music is so important because it shows us how God has revealed himself to people outside of the Church. As much as I love hymns, I don’t think that will be sufficient in sustaining me as a human. We are not only formed by how “orthodox” our music is, but also by how beautiful our music is—and there is beautiful “secular” music.
A Closing Warning
I will end my article with a warning. I’m not sure how effective this will be, but it is needed nonetheless. Even though I encourage listening to secular music, there is a need for wisdom and prudence in the content we see and hear. You should be aware of your freedom to listen to non-Christian music, but also know that there are precautions that need to be taken when looking or listening to things that are not explicitly pointing us toward Jesus Christ. Read Scripture and pray in order to grow in wisdom and discernment, and come to learn how beautiful non-Christian music can be.