One of my favorite songs these days to listen to is Hold On To What You Believe by Mumford & Sons. It’s ultimately about encouraging someone to hold onto hope and to not allow the problems and struggle of the world to bring you down. In vivid language the song talks about staying in the light, not yielding to the darkness, and living by sight. There is also talk of one of the problems in the world being that people love things more than their Creator. Then, the song turns to a longing for a loved one and the hope of an encouragement to them even though distanced.
It’s quite beautiful and the fact that the crescendo in the song occurs during the chorus which is the title of the song makes it even more beautiful. I have often been drawn to songs like this because they bear semblance to the message of the Gospel. However, although they bear some of the details of the message of the Gospel they fall short of ultimately hitting a home run in pointing to the Gospel.
This song is not alone amidst the common theme of singing the Gospel, but not naming or pointing to Jesus. These songs are attractive because there is sooo much Scripture in them, and typically it is intentional though sometimes unintentional, but the problem is these songs tend to present a Christ-less Christianity. A Gospel void of Jesus, with all the language one might muster from any of the four gospels in the Bible but without grounding it in Jesus, with no mention of God unless it is a slang vulgarity.
It is not a new development. The Beatles enjoyed preaching a gospel without Jesus. They sang about a love that could transform the world and that it is easy because love is all you need. They sang about a peace for the world in which all the people of the world could be united as one, if you could only imagine. Though, there are little jests at Christianity and religion speckled about such as “… imagine there’s no Heaven, it’s easy if you try…” The principles of Jesus are good, but Jesus and the actual purpose of His coming into the world are absent from their lyrics.
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals sing a song actually called The Power of the Gospel, promoting much of the language of the biblical Gospel verbatim in a beautiful, bold, wonderful tune, yet, Christ is absent here as well. Brett Dennon has a popular song called Ain’t No Reason where he sings “… love will come set me free, I do believe, love will come set me free…” You will not find Christ in this song though. Then, there is Bob Marley and much of the Reggae genre which sings about love, peace, and some polemical words pointed toward various authorities. However, despite parts of the Bible being used in Reggae, especially Bob Marley’s lyrics, you don’t have the Christian Gospel.
Movies do something similar. If I said a new movie was coming out starring some major actors and it was about evil and injustice going on, then someone who appears to be the chosen one makes a stand against this evil, leads a rebellion against this evil, and even sacrifices his life to save others, perhaps the world; most people would think, “Hmm, sounds like a great movie.” I could have just described the Harry Potter series, Superman, Batman, A Tale of Two Cities, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, I Am Legend, Braveheart, Tron: Legacy, Spiderman, Gladiator, Super 8, The Iron Giant, Hero, Dune, and I could go on forever. If I said I was talking about Jesus and the Gospel, then, suddenly people put their hypothetical earmuffs on and stop listening.
However, let us think for a moment, why is it that so many people want to hear the Gospel, yet, don’t want to hear about Jesus Christ? The story of the gospel is so popular over the years, it has become common for it to show up in music and movies and even for politicians and others to make mention of parts of the Bible or even reference a god alluding to the Christian God but then again, not being clear on it and intentionally so. It would seem like we live in world and culture where the Gospel is what everybody wants to hear, however, even though the average person on the street will say they like Jesus but not the church, the reality is they like the story of Jesus and teachings of Jesus, but they do not like the one, true Gospel of Jesus.
It’s become commonplace in our world today to make use of pieces of Christianity to benefit and make money on it in pop-music, movies/tv, and in many other places. It has become uncommon to make mention of Jesus. It is cool today to say you believe in spiritual things, but decidedly uncool to land on any specific thing such as orthodox, biblical Christianity. This is what makes the language and culture that embraces “tolerance” so strange. On the one hand, the Western world promotes “tolerance” as gospel, but on the other hand for anyone to claim they believe any one thing is true, they then become demonized by popular culture and labeled “intolerant” for believing anything at all.
As the music today has become popular in speaking of spiritual realities without giving reference to the Gospel of Jesus, so called religious pluralists boast of a belief in a god while affirming other beliefs in a god or gods, and in so doing discount their own belief in anything at all. The question isn’t what people believe in anymore, but rather how can one argue for the validity of their belief. With religious pluralists, they could be labeled oddly polytheists affirming all gods (though typically denying their own belief), or atheists in denying all gods. Now, I have not been a fan of Christian music of some time as it has been even more vague than secular music, apart from certain worship artists and new hip-hop artists in the Christian world of music. Though, one might wonder, could music that is geared to invite the spiritually seeking and curious while never landing in any given place in regards to God be a good thing to listen to all the time?
Philosophy is something people don’t talk about that often and don’t always understand when specific names are mentioned, but the philosophy of the day has a way of trickling down to the streets and households and t-shirts and bumper stickers. How? Through music and entertainment. Then, when the average fan watches the lives of the rich and famous in Hollywood, the same message that nearly the whole of Hollywood promotes starts to gain footing in the mind of the person who makes it a point of following their favorite star celebrity. Today, it has never been easier to follow one’s favorite musician or actor/actress with social media and how common television is today. Someone once told me that if you don’t like a song, all you have to do is listen to it enough times and eventually you will start liking it. I know some songs where this definitely doesn’t work, but I think it is a good point. I wonder if someone watches a certain worldview on tv and listens on their iPod/radio enough or follows their favorite star through social media enough, if the same effect could take place. What if your exposure to terrible things and things that sound cool, at first are only for a cheap laugh, but over time you become desensitized to the terrible thing and actually start to believe it and promote it?
I feel like this could be a real problem with American Christianity. There is so much focus on entertainment, so much concern for material things, celebrities, music, tv, movies, fashion; where does the line get drawn between Christianity and the world?
We are called to be, as Christians, in the world and not of the world. I don’t believe that means we become monks and live in a monastery, or hardline fundamentalist Christians who essentially do the same thing except throw stones at everyone who isn’t like you. However, there needs to be a balance between how much one exposes oneself to culture void of Christ and how much one exposes oneself to the explicit Gospel. Jesus didn’t stay with His disciples and talk about how unholy everyone else was nor did He ever spend time sinning with others outside of the disciples. Obviously, He was without sin. Jesus had a balance in spending time with the disciples which later would be called His Church, and spending time with unbelieving sinners.
I have found it challenging to be in a non-Christian atmosphere for long without mentioning the Gospel, then, if I don’t mention the Gospel for long the challenge is making that a habit until I become accustomed to not sharing the Gospel in a non-Christian context in order to be accepted by non-Christians so that I can share the Gospel with them, but then there is the challenge of finding when and how to share the Gospel with non-Christians after some time has gone by with pleasantries and establishing a relationship. Then, if too much time is spent with non-Christians I will find that I listen to far more non-Christian music than I ought which promote Christ-less lyrics and eventually these Christ-less lyrics find a way into my mind and fall short of encouraging me and giving me any hope. This is how I know that I’ve gone too far and need to make more clear lines in the sand between Christ and culture.
What I have found that has been redeeming for me has been to saturate myself with the Gospel. Like leaving a tea bag in a cup of hot water a tad to long, eventually the tea and flavor become incredibly strong. This is how I’ve found a good way to engage culture better and always be prepared and strong in the Gospel when in a non-Christian context. Secondly, the discipline of holiness is something that is not popular today, but is something sorely lacking among most American Christians. Spending time in the Word and in prayer, and cultivating limits and barriers in your life to help you in your faith are important. Again, not saying we need to be fundamentalist Christians, that is an extreme, but too much of something doesn’t mean the whole thing is bad, back off the extreme fundamentalism and back off the extreme liberal Christianity and find a balance between right belief and right practice and perhaps some good safeguards which don’t need to be dogmatically held as Gospel, but might be good help you combat temptations and sin in your life. Another thing I’ve found which helps me is not listening to too much music, especially non-Christian worship music. Yes, I classify secular and most Christian music to be very close to one another, granted, the secular music tends to be far more musically appealing and artistic. I need good, solidly biblical Christian worship music in my life though because it helps my mind to be transformed and helps my affections to be stirred to praise God. Too much non-Christian music can make for a non-Christian mindset which is void of any real hope and where Christ is fully absent. This is not how our mind is to be. We need a balance here and objectivity in approaching non-Christian music. We can enjoy it, no doubt, but we should respond differently to that which praises the creature in secular music as opposed to that which praises the Creator in Christian worship music (which is solidly biblical).
Living in a world where spiritual ambiguities and contradictory beliefs are welcome, and orthodox Christian belief is viewed as intolerant, archaic, unprogressive, unenlightened, less evolved, and bigoted is not an easy task. However, it is the plate we’ve been given. If you take anything from this post of ramblings, I hope that you take this one thing, we don’t have a choice to live in this world. We live in this world. We cannot change the fact that some cultures are decidedly unChristian, some increasingly so, and we cannot change the fact that the world is still opposed to Christ Jesus and the one, true Gospel (at least by complaining about such things). However, we can make an effort to better understand how we can better engage the culture we find ourselves in with the Gospel of Jesus Christ while also being careful to guard our hearts so that we don’t become too close to the culture to the point that we are more like the culture in the world than Christ. We need to exercise sound judgment and cultivate a healthy discernment in confronting these things. When we listen to music or watch a movie, what message is being promoted? Does what we listen to promote a counterfeit gospel or an alternative to the one, true Gospel of Jesus?
May we all learn to live for Christ in this fallen world and as we grow deeper in love with Him may we learn how to further love those who live in the world around us better, and find new ways to share the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we learn how to navigate the endless fields of God’s saving grace while wandering amongst the fallen and lost and depraved in the world. May we learn how to find a balance between Christ and culture, as Christ is made sweet and our lives are lived for His glory. Amen.