What Constitutes Christian Lyrics?

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” Romans 1:16

In the last lyrical review, I promised to present a biblical case for claiming that Nonini’s “Colour kwa Face” and Daddy Owen’s “Mbona” were similar in the “fact” that both songs (or at least both lyrics) did not actually present a biblical/Christian worldview even though both songs did make a reference to the God of the Bible.

Before, I begin, I’d like to first clarify several points of awareness which will be at the back of my mind throughout this post. I am well aware:

  1. That there’s only so much one can do with 4 minutes of song. So, an incomplete message should not be misconstrued for a false message.
  2. That a song is not a sermon and is not expected to be an exhaustive biblical exposition. I should not expect an explicit bible verse interpretation/application  format in every song that claims to be Christian.
  3. That a song is not an essay; it is not restrained by the introduction, body, conclusion format found in many literary works. It is not a dissertation with a thesis to prove or disprove. A song can rightly be made up of a single sentence repeated over and over throughout the 3 or 4 minutes.

So, yes, I am aware of the danger of de-contextualizing lyrics and pointing an accusing finger at a pretext of my own creation. With such considerations in mind, I will proceed to make the following brief presentation:

First, the Bible makes it clear that a Christian is not just a person who simply claims (albeit sincerely) that he is born again, but a person who lives (thinks and acts) as if he is born again (1 John 2:4, John 21:17, 1 John 4:20, James 2:17). He is not just someone who does different things, he is someone different, a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17). This means that it is not just his behavior and/or associations that have changed, but his attitude and worldview have undergone (and are undergoing) a complete overhaul. His transformation is not just a change of heart and a change of acts; it is also a change of mind (Romans 12:2). His mind is not just new, his mind is that of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). His mind is not simply a carnal mind that has been reset or formatted; it is a new, spiritual, redeemed mind (Romans 8:6,9).

Therefore, when it comes to music, we may not have the privilege of witnessing how the artist lives his life, loves his wife or serves his community. But in his lyrics, we get to see how he thinks. Most importantly, we get a glimpse of how he thinks about God, Jesus, the Bible, sin, humanity and life in general. In the lyrics, we get an opportunity to see life and society through the lens of the singer’s mind – his worldview. Which brings us to another important point; if anyone claims to be a Christian minister (or a Christian at all), he must make every effort to train himself to view and interpret the world through a biblical worldview. Christians do not make neutral or idle statements, they are (implicitly or explicitly) declaring their stand for or against Christ (Matthew 12:30).

But what is a biblical worldview? Well, for starters, a biblical worldview does not necessarily mean a point of view that quotes scriptures or is based on isolated bible verses. Anyone can quote scripture to reinforce any point, but it takes the help of the Holy Spirit to do the work that goes into using the Bible biblically. But what does it mean to “use the Bible biblically?” The answer to this question lies in having the correct definition of the term “biblical theology”. One of the most precise and at the same time comprehensive definitions I’ve encountered is that given by Dr. Brian Rosner, a senior lecturer in New Testament and Ethics at Moore Theological College in Australia. He defines biblical theology as the:

“Theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyse and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus (Brian Rosner, ‘Biblical Theology,’ in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T.D. Alexander and B.S. Rosner [Leicester, England: IVP, 2000]: 10).”

What this means in more palatable terms is that any message proclaimed by an artist in his song must consider and prioritize a Christian audience (the church). This is unless the message is missiological (evangelistic) in nature. Secondly, any teachings drawn directly from the Bible must be presented according to the bible’s own terms and language. What this means is that the Bible as a literary work is its own authority and not the prevailing contemporary philosophical theories. Thirdly, any scripture or verse being used must be placed in its proper position in the redemptive-history timeline of the bible. What this means is that a message (or command) that was made in the Old Testament must be acknowledged as such, especially if its fulfillment was to be accomplished in Christ, rather than in Christians.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the theology must be christocentric. It must be done in light of the Cross and the redemption attained therein.  CHRIST, must remain preeminent (Colossians 1:18). What this means is that any reference to God must not assume, overlook or bypass Jesus Christ. This is because any knowledge of God apart from Christ is a false and incomplete knowledge of God. You do not need to be a Christian to acknowledge that God created the universe and that He is going to judge humanity. Even Muslims know and believe that (Romans 1:18-21). But it takes the saving Grace of God to acknowledge God as the redeemer of mankind from sin, and more specifically, Jesus as the redeeming price that was paid on the Cross (Romans 10:9). Only Christians believe this. It is this central fact that clusters Daddy Owen’s and Nonini’s songs as Cross-less, and it is this same double edged sword that separates these two songs from Adawnage’s song.

I am not saying that every song that claims to be Christian must explicitly mention Jesus; but every song that claims to be Christian must, at least, implicitly reveal a mind that acknowledges, submits to and seeks to glorify a redeeming God (through Christ, specifically). As I said in “The Burden” that led to this series of lyrical reviews: “each song must project an attitude that reflects the Fruit of the Spirit, a message that submits to the Truth (Jesus) and an objective that is either to edify the Body of Christ or evangelize the world.”

Now, I am aware that not every musician is a seminary graduate. I am also aware that there are numerous points of theology over which the church is divided over (hence the numerous denominations). Therefore, it is not surprising to find a true and sincere Christian singer writing lyrics that have debatable theological claims. It is essential to acknowledge the contextual background against which a person writes their lyrics. However, there are at least two points in which I find the theology in the lyrics not negotiable:

  1. The first point concerns songs that directly address or mention the central Christian doctrines such as the gospel, salvation and what the implications of faith in Christ are to the life of a Christian. This is one of the areas where a song such as Jimmy Gait’s “Ole” failed greatly. It made the false claim that material poverty is a direct consequence of negative or insufficient faith (belief). On the other hand, Adawnage’s “Uwezo” addressed the theme of dependance on God for wisdom and purpose, and linked this to our need for God’s mercy in a way that revealed a gospel sufficiency and centrality. The song revealed that even our ability to stand on (and for) God’s Word is a product of God’s mercy and grace, not our clout or swagg.
  2. The second non-negotiable point is this: a singer’s lyrics over time reveal an increasingly worldly worldview (and consequently a less biblical worldview) as the singer gains popularity and “grows” in the music industry. In the Christian walk and sanctification, years of experience should bring increased maturity of content, not degradation (Hebrews 5:12). Actually, stagnation of growth is more preferable to degradation. It is a great cause for worry and concern when a person who started out writing lyrics that centralized Christ and glorified God no longer EVEN MENTIONS such themes as central to his songs and social causes. It is sad when a person upholds God’s glory long enough to gain popularity, only to later exchange it for his own (personal) glory and celebrity status.

There’s much more to be said about this subject. For instance, where is the place of songs that express the agony of the human condition due to the various pains and evils of this world? I hope to address such questions in the future. But one thing you will note about such songs is that they are often sung by people who do not have Christ, and they tend to express a soul hunger and thirst that no man can satisfy and quench. This was a major characteristic of old songs such as the “Blues” in America which used to express themes such as heartbreak and suffering without putting them in light of the Gospel or Christ. There is however a major difference between a Christian listening to such songs and a Christians writing (and singing) such songs. I hope this difference will become clearer over time and in future reviews, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Check out this professional article on “What is Christian in Music?” for more insights on this complex and often controversial subject.

“Singing well is praying twice.” – Saint Augustine of Hippo

In His service and for His glory,

3 thoughts on “What Constitutes Christian Lyrics?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s