Music: The Sacred, the Secular, and the Subjective
Sat., Feb. 25. 2023 3:27pm EST
J. Jackson, lead singer and lyricist for ApologetiX here again.
In May 2020, I started a daily Facebook feature (which we reprint in a weekly digest form in the ApologetiX newsletter) about albums that influenced me along the way.
I told readers in advance that I was trying to write my entries in a rough chronological order of when those albums and artists first made an impact on my life. Consequently, I warned them that they wouldn't see many overtly Christian albums (although there would be a few exceptions) until we got to the part where I became a born-again Christian, almost two years after I graduated college.
In November 2022, we finally reached that momentous moment, and for the next three months almost all of the entries were Christian albums, because that was just about all I listened to in 1988 and 1989. However, as I began writing Christian parodies of secular songs midway through '88 and into '89 and then God started laying the groundwork for ApologetiX in 1990, I started listening to secular music again in addition to Christian music.
Let me be clear here: Secular music was never the same for me after 1988. Up until that point, I collected records, cassettes, 8-tracks, and CDs by the hundreds. I was always buying more and had music playing all the time in my car and in my house. It had been the most important thing in my life. I was determined to never let that happen again.
However, God changed me in such a way that music became a secondary interest, which is ironic, since it wound up being my primary occupation. Don't get me wrong; I still love music, but it's not my life. It's just something I do with my life. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), and He affects how I listen to music and what I do with it.
TO EACH HIS OWN
I think the music we listen to is a matter of personal conscience, like some of the other things Paul discussed in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. What affects one person one way might not affect another person the same way. Of course, there are some overtly unholy songs out there, just as there some overtly holy songs out there … just as in life there are some overtly unholy activities and some overtly holy ones. But there's a lot of stuff in between.
Some people claim they don't pay attention to the lyrics of the songs they listen to. That would be really hard for me, because I'm a singer and a writer, and words are necessary for both of those activities.
In a typical day, I interact with Christians and non-Christians. Both groups of people talk about everyday things with me. Some of them are polite and proper as can be, others slip up sometimes but are still decent human beings. I enjoy hearing about their lives and their feelings, so I can overlook it if they occasionally use a word I wouldn't. To me, songs and the artists who sing them are a bit like that.
But I have to be careful about the company I keep. I don't want to be dragged down by rampant profanity, pervasive cynicism, snarky pessimism, nihilistic hopelessness, divisive attitudes, anti-God ideologies, or folks promoting promiscuity and dwelling on things that might tempt me to engage in sinful behavior.
It's bad enough when that kind of stuff pops up in conversation with living human beings; it's worse when it's on a recording that's played repeatedly. At least, if I'm interacting with another person, I can try to impact them positively in return and steer the conversation to godly things. If it's a recording, it can influence me, but I can't influence it. Well, technically I can, but only because I write biblical parodies. In fact, that's one of the reasons I started doing so.
THE SOUNDTRACKS OF OUR LIVES
Although I write a lot about music, I don't spend an enormous amount of time listening to old albums, because I'm generally working on writing a new parody every week, and that takes up a lot of my listening time. Believe me, playing a song ad nauseam while you're trying to rewrite it is a surefire way to kill your desire to ever hear the original again once you've completed the task.
My "albums of influence" articles are mainly to show how God used music — both secular and Christian — to help turn me into the person I became and to develop what I do in ApologetiX. I also write these entries as a backdrop to tell the story of what was going on in my life at particular times. And, man, music may be the closest thing there is to time travel. If I put on an old song, it can take me right back to certain points in my life if I want it to.
Music is also a great way to connect with people who lived through the same eras as I did. It's a great conversation starter, just like sports. When I share these entries on Facebook, some of my old friends from before I became a born-again Christian and my unchurched friends since then can still find some common ground with me.
If I can communicate credibly and interestingly about music and sports, it helps people see I'm still a (reasonably) normal human being. It makes me more relatable and approachable. I'm reminded of the things the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, most notably this statement in verse 22: "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."
As I continue with my list of albums, you'll see both Christian and secular recordings appearing as we get into the '90s portion of my life. A big reason for that is that I was now in a Christian parody band, and I started having to familiarize myself with the music that was popular at the time (because we were getting asked to play for so many youth groups) and also re-familiarize myself with the classic stuff, so I could write and perform parodies that were as close to the original as possible.
I do seek out new and old music from time to time for when I'm walking or washing/drying dishes or doing data entry, and it helps me develop as a lyricist, because I'm a "words" guy. It also sometimes gives me ideas to spoof certain songs I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. But before I came to Christ, music was like a drug to me. I was never into narcotics, but I was addicted to music, and I could use different songs as uppers or downers.
CRITICS WITHIN THE CHURCH
When I became a born-again Christian in 1988, I got caught up in reading a few books that were down on both secular and Christian rock and roll. Some of them would lead you to believe there's a massive conspiracy among rockers and that all rock music is satanic. Even though I detected that the authors included unsubstantiated rumors and incorrect facts (as a former journalist, that perturbed me and still does), I got paranoid and almost bought what they were saying.
I used to let some of my old friends look at those books, and it never ceased to stir up controversy. I thought they'd relate better to those books than to the Bible, but I found out just the opposite. Those books seldom gave well-documented answers and often contained blatant, careless errors.
My friends could see it plainly. It gave them a very negative opinion of evangelical Christianity. Ironically, when I finally started to just talk to my friends about the Bible (rather than those anti-rock books or rock and roll in general), they (usually) really respected that! And they listened!
Just a disclaimer here, though: In ApologetiX, we realize that rock music is a very powerful tool and can be used for good or evil — just as a gun can be used to enforce the law or to break the law. The Bible says that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father (James 1:17). Obviously, music belonged to God before Satan distorted it for his purposes.
Consequently, all music belongs to God — not just classical or easy-listening, etc. Although all people are created in God's image, Satan attempts to distort that image, but God can reclaim that person. The same thing goes for music.
Just as we judge people by what they say and do, I think we should judge music by what it says (the lyrics) and does (the effect it has on individuals). Since becoming a father in 1996, I've tried to expose my kids to both Christian and secular music, but I'm careful what secular songs I expose them to. My wife and I felt it was important not to build a wall between the two types of music, and to help our kids learn to appreciate the good things in each.
THE ROOTS & FRUIT OF MUSIC
Music is a language just as Greek is a language. The Greeks who developed that language were pagans, but that didn't stop the writers of the New Testament from writing it in Greek ... or Jewish scribes in the third and second century B.C. from translating the Old Testament into Greek. They were not yoking themselves with unbelievers; they were merely using the language as a tool, which is what we do with music.
Some people say that rock music has evil roots. I would point out that rock historians generally acknowledge that much of the roots of rock music comes from church music. Others would say that Christians should come up with something different than rock music, rather than conforming to the standards of the world. Did the New Testament writers invent a new language to convey the truths of the Gospel? No, they used the language they knew would reach the most people.
I've been writing and singing Christian parodies now for 35 years. I can testify that once I have rewritten a song I often have trouble remembering the original title and almost never have problems with accidentally singing or remembering the original words to a song. Parody is powerful when it is accomplishing something for God.
As far as my personal life, I still read my Bible every day (Genesis through Revelation at least once a year, and sometimes more than once a year), and I estimate I've read it the whole way through at least 40 times (many more times when it comes to the New Testament), not counting numerous times listening to it through on cassette, studying individual chapters, reading commentaries, etc.
Thirty-five years after becoming a born again Christian, I am more convinced than ever that Jesus Christ is the One Way to Heaven and that the Bible is 100 percent true. People often ask me what my plans are for the future, and I always tell them it's in God's hands, but one thing I know: Whether I'm singing or not — even if I lose my voice — I plan to be sharing the Gospel with others.
Even though I have a great life (a wonderful wife, five fabulous children, many faithful friends, and a satisfying job that enables me to use my various talents and skills in full-time ministry), without Jesus Christ my life isn't worth living. This is my story, this is my song ... and that's one song I plan to never change.