A friend of mine once remarked that “if you mute the sound to most of today’s Gospel music videos, I bet you will not be able to tell whether it is a Christian or a Secular Video playing.” He was right, many Christian songs are increasingly conforming to the MTV standards of music videos. The days of congregational singing on videos are slowly becoming history. While one may argue that it is a general change in culture, I cannot help but notice that, even in the days of Ron Kenoly and Don Moen, secular videos were just as perverted. It is the Christian videos that seem to have conformed to the secular videos with the passage of time. While this may be cause for alarm and concern for many, it is not what I am writing about today. Today I will be thinking through another equally common practice in the Christian music. “Take backs”. This is when Christian artistes take secular songs and remix them (redeem them) by changing the lyrical content to something more biblical and Christ-centered. The debates surrounding the issue range from those who are convinced that music is “spiritual” and secular music has “demonic” influence to those who think that the only spiritual thing in music are the lyrics. I have thought, dialogued, studied and prayed over this issue for years now. The following are some of the considerations that I have found helpful both for those opposed to the practice and those in support of the practice.
In many songs that are “taken back” from their secular versions, the most notable change is usually the lyrics. The soundtrack usually remains the same or undergoes minor edits. It is usually the lyrics which are changed and “Christianized” to conform to a more biblical message. For example, I once heard a “take back” version of Bon Jovi’s song It’s My Life. The “take back” was titled It’s My praise. An example of a line that was edited in the original song is “I ain’t gonna live forever” which was changed to become “I am gonna live forever.” So, given that the lyrics of the original song are changed to conform to a message that is biblical and even to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is this enough to justify the practice? If this approach of changing the lyrics sounds reasonable, noble and praiseworthy, why are so many people still opposed to the whole idea of “take backs”? Does the end justify the means? Perhaps a brief “cultural” consideration will shed some light on the issue. As a matter of fact, it is usually the “cultural” aspects of these “take backs” and not the lyrics that raise an uproar.
Those in support of “take backs” usually give a missiological argument. They are trying to be like the world so that they can win the world. In other words, they are identifying with the culture that they are trying to reach. When people who have been immersed in Eminem or Lil Wayne’s songs hear a familiar beat, they are more likely to pay closer attention. This argument also translates to justifying the playing and performing of the “take backs” in night clubs where such songs are popular. Contextualization is the word that is often used to describe this process. The biblical justification for this approach is Paul’s decision to become all things to all men:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
This, too, seems like a noble idea. One does not have to enjoy the environment in a nightclub or become a drunkard to fit in. There are limits to how far the contextualization will go. We are going there for the sake of the lost souls, not to indulge ourselves in the culture. There is however a question that is seldom answered in taking this approach to culture. It is a question that I have outlined in a previous post on The Cross and Hip Hop Culture: Do beliefs form and inform cultural expressions or do cultural expressions form and inform beliefs? In other words, do Christian beliefs lead to specific types of cultural mannerisms or are they just a mere set of propositions with no practical implications. This question is important because it raises the issue of whether the end justifies the means when the means involve “deceptive” elements. Is it okay to pretend to be someone you’re not so that you can gain the trust and confidence of the person you want to share the Gospel with?
But if this is the case, doesn’t it then mean that Apostle Paul is to be found guilty of the same crime? Well, it’s not that simple. For instance, Paul says that “to the Jew, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” Was Paul a Jew in fact? Yes He was. So what did he mean that he became “like” the Jews? He means that he complied with their rites, customs, prejudices, as far as he could with a good conscience. I actually think many of the artistes who go to the extent of going to the night-clubs for the sake of “being all things to all men” are complying with the rites, customs and prejudices of that life without necessarily defiling their conscience. This is a question of wisdom and discernment and I don’t think it is as black and white as we have often made it to be. However, there is one thing that is black and white regarding “take backs”, the legal aspect.
The act of “taking back” secular songs and then re-mixing them and “Christianizing” them involves taking someone else’s music. There is something called copyright protection for music. Basically, if any music or lyrics are still under copyright protection:
- you CANNOT reproduce the music or lyrics
- you CANNOT distribute the music or lyrics either for free, for no profit, or for profit
- you CANNOT perform the music or lyrics in public
- you CANNOT play a recording of the music or lyrics in public–even if you own the CD
- you CANNOT make a derivative work or arrangement for public use in any form
I think the legal considerations are very straightforward, yet they are the most ignored. Is it okay to become a “law-breaker” so that you can reach the lost world with the Gospel? This is when it is clear that such a law does not in any way compel you to break God’s commandments in keeping it. This alone is enough to write off many “take backs” as illegal and therefore ungodly. If one will bother taking the time and spending the money to obtain consent from the music copyright owners, then I don’t see why “take backs” should be a problem. Even so, I am yet to see that happen. Which means that we still have a big problem in the industry.
Having considered the factors above, the question that remains on our minds and hearts is “now what?” What do we do with this information? What do we make of “take backs” and those who go to such great lengths to defend and make them for the sake of the Gospel?
- Well, the first thing we have to consider is that there are definitely weaker brothers who consider such ministry approaches a stumbling block. They are seeing artistes that they admire and look forward to, artistes that disciple them, embracing something that they consider an abomination before God. It is not enough (or edifying) to simply tell such brethren to “stop listening to the music if it offends” them. Is the artiste willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of the weaker brother and the Gospel?
- Secondly, there is the proverbial elder brother. This is the brother who still cannot wrap his head around the fact that, despite clear signs that many “take-backs” promote sinful behavior and even involve breaking the law, God still uses them to reach lost souls. These elder brothers are torn between “criticizing what God is blessing” and acknowledging God’s sovereignty over the whole matter.
- There is also the eccentric controversialist. He is persuaded that “take backs” are merely a display of the lack of creativity among Christians. He sees the practice as nothing but a lame excuse not to be creative and come up original music that is as good as (if not better than) the music being “taken back.” If interested, you can read more (later) on this and similar guys’ views on this post.
- Finally, there is the pharisee. The take backs are not a personal stumbling block to him, but they offend him because they are not in accordance with what he considers “biblical” approached to ministry. He is therefore determined to ensure that those who do “take backs” receive a piece of his mind. Should artistes yield to the demands of pharisees regarding something that they consider a ministry to God?
While these considerations are bound to lead to even more complex questions on related issues, what I’d like to take home today (if we don’t take away anything else) is this: IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE SOBER ABOUT THE MATTER? Little is accomplished by being inconsiderate and overly dogmatic over “permissible” issues (even when these issues are mixed with some “impermissible” factors – such as the legal consideration above). We are bound to accomplish more concerning this issue through grace-seasoned and edifying personal dialogues than through taking malicious pot shots at one another online.
“One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Romans 14:5
For the fame of His name,