Music; Secular Versus Sacred

18 July 2017 Written by  Rabbi Michael Wolf

Today I want to deal with a sensitive subject. I know it’s sensitive, because I have so often heard the passion of those who have given themselves to a holy walk with the Lord, and who have strong convictions about their music making and listening habits. I heard it recently from a singer-guitarist who was a fairly new believer, and was playing in a Christian coffee house setting. I heard it from a more seasoned believer, in a passing remark around the table at a restaurant. I’ve heard it various other times.

All of these people have shared their conviction that all secular music was off limits for them. Only music written about and for the Lord was acceptable. Some of them were convinced that what was true for them should also be true for all believers.

I would like to begin my response by stating that I respect the believer who chooses to avoid all music except “sacred” music, as they might term it. I remember once being around an excellent musician who was in a Messianic band, and who had been a professional secular musician before he was a believer. His previous life had included drugs, alcohol, and all that goes with that lifestyle. When a certain light-hearted secular love song from the sixties played somewhere near us, perhaps at a restaurant (specifically, The Beatles “Drive My Car”,) he expressed discomfort. I sensed in my spirit that memories were triggered that created a stumbling-block for him. I feel that this was a perfect example of a principle expressed in Romans 14:14.

“I know and am convinced by the Lord Yeshua that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”

I realize that even what some might consider an innocuous song could present a significant problem for them. And I also realize that there are some songs that, by their very nature and focus, might be inappropriate for anyone to listen to or play. These might include songs with graphic sexual references, profanity and the vain use of God’s name, etc. However, I have a problem with a carte blanche application of the second conviction stated earlier—the one that considers anyone who plays or listens to what might be called secular music as unspiritual—or at the very least, the practice as unspiritual. Below are a few reasons for my disagreement with this stand.

First, when one is calling all secular music off-limits, they would have to include all secular music throughout history—whether the themes involved romance, historical subjects, comedy, mythology, or whatever. One would have to include Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” for example. And almost all operas and operettas would have to be included, as well as almost all show music and American standards. Would Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, Handel’s “Messiah”, and Schwartz’ “Godspell” be representative of the rare listenable vocal material?

Second, why single out music, and separate it from all other art forms? Almost none of those who hold to the “no exposure to secular music” standard would avoid all films. This represents hypocrisy on two levels. First, even if one would restrict themselves to PG films, they would still expose themselves to secular material, and that material would cover some of the same territory subject-wise that various songs do. The other level relates to the songs on the film soundtracks. Most of these songs are either songs written for the film, like “Flashlight” from recent film “Pitch Perfect 2,” or songs from some composer’s catalogue, such as “I Will Follow Him” in “Sister Act.” If one would be consistent, they would avoid all films. But very few of those who would shut out all secular music would avoid a film like the recent “Wonder Woman,” of even an “art” film like “Woman in Gold.” And what about the viewers’ favorite TV shows? Some binge watch series on Netflix or Amazon Prime for hours at a time. Others watch their preferred shows on cable TV. They are not to be judged. But it is also important for them not to judge others for their music preferences.

Third, restriction of all secular songs would present a dilemma for anyone attending school, whether junior high, high school, or higher education. What if the English class includes a study of the lyrics in Bog Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” or the theater department is casting for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” and the student cast in the role of Ado Annie is tasked with singing the song “I Cain’t Say No?”

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that I understand the choice to not listen to secular music, and I certainly can appreciate the preference for listening to sacred music that many might have in their daily experience. However, before believers declare all secular music off-limits at all times, I think that some of the above thoughts should be taken into account.

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