The tension of loving music and being a child growing up in a Christian home was real. And I don’t just mean enjoying music like Outkast, Blink 182, and Rage Against The Machine. Even “Christian music” made me uncomfortable, even shameful at times. I remember being a 10 year old kid, buying DC Talk’s album “Free At Last,” and enjoying every song. That was until I heard the following intro to the song “I Don’t Want It.”
“S-E-X is test when I’m pressed
So back up off with less of that zest”
I IMMEDIATELY turned my cassette player down so my parents didn’t hear what I assumed was vulgar and inappropriate language coming from my room. If that wasn’t bad enough, my embarrassment grew when I heard the hook, sung in the sultry, R&B style of the time.
“I don’t want it, I don’t want it, want it
I don’t want it, want your sex for now”
I was mortified. I remember skipping that song every time, or, if I was brave, playing that song in my room as quietly as possible. It didn’t stop there, though. I recall my youth pastor chastising me for listening to Christian metal because the beats and lyrics were demonic. I remember being told that bands like MxPx and Ninety Pound Wuss weren’t REALLY Christians and their music was inappropriate for someone who claimed to love God.
That led me to do two things: I would hide music from other Christians OR, more commonly, I would choose to buy edited CDs and listen to radio edits of popular music. I’d go to Warehouse Music, grab two copies of the same album, and pick the one that didn’t have the “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT” sticker in the bottom right corner. I’d take it home, and feel confident that I made a wise choice that any good Christian kid would make.
Except that I didn’t make a wise choice, and I wasn’t a good Christian kid.
The idea of listening to edited versions of popular music is pervasive in the Christian world. It seems like a reasonable alternative to listening to “bad words” or “vulgar content” that would be problematic for most church people. But listening to censored music also raises several concerns.
How many of us have heard the radio edit to a song, only to SHOUT the missing word and laugh with their friends? Just me? I didn’t think so. Listening to censored music doesn’t solve the core problem; if anything it highlights what is viewed by the listener as inappropriate.
The biggest example when I was young was the song “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. What did we really think was being sung during the line “I WANT TO ________ YOU LIKE AN ANIMAL!”? A more recent example is in the AMAZING song “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo. What do you think is in the gap when she says, in the most heartfelt way, “I still ________ love you”?
Listening to edited songs won’t stop your mind from filling in the gaps, but it will bring a spotlight on the words that are missing. It doesn’t fix the problem, it highlights it.
One of my favorite musicians is Elliott Smith. I enjoyed every single album he released, I was so excited when he was featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, and I was devastated when this man who suffered from intense depression took his own life in 2003. I love Elliott Smith’s music so much that I named my first son Elliott, in part because of Elliott Smith. In his song “Say Yes” Elliott Smith says the following:
“It’s always been, wait and see
A happy day and then you pay
And feel like shit the morning after”
Now, it’d be real easy to change that line to “feel real bad the morning after” or some other “clean” variation. But to do that would be to change the words of this artist I love and respect.
Not only did he write them, he chose each word intentionally and specifically. He chose each word to express a specific thought and emotion, and when I edit those words I edit the heart of the artist, as broken as that heart may be.
The sad thing is that so often we do the same with the Bible. We clean it up or avoid parts that make us uncomfortable. We love the comfort and hope in Psalm 23, but we minimize Psalm 88, a Psalm with no hope and ending in the author embracing darkness. We teach our youth group that “sex is a gift” while never reading from or acknowledging the fact that Song of Songs references necks and legs and stomachs and (GASP!) breasts. In censoring the Bible we do the same thing as when we censor the artist: we demean and minimize the heart and nullify the intentionality of every word.
This may be the most subversively detrimental outcome of censoring music. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us that “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” and “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Jesus is teaching us the importance of removing things from our lives that cause us to sin. He’s warning us, in no uncertain terms: “DON’T MESS AROUND WITH THIS STUFF!”
When we come across a song that raises red flags in our conscience, but we listen anyway because “at least it’s the clean version,” we’re not heeding the warning from Jesus. We’re keeping that sin at arms length, thinking we can control it. Nothing could be further from the truth. James 4:17 says “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” If your conscience is being pressed on by the Holy Spirit, letting you know that something you’re listening to is not what God desires you to listen to, taking in the censored, edited, “clean” version doesn’t alleviate that pressing. Instead it justifies and creates excuses, and that creates a pattern that is dangerous and that grieves the Spirit of God inside of us.
So, if listening to censored music isn’t the answer, what is the answer?
Listen To Uncensored Music
This may be a road too far for some people, but when we remember that songs are an expression of people’s hearts we can be comforted in knowing they’re doing their best with what they have. We are all broken people in a broken world trying to describe increasingly complex emotions with a limited vocabulary and a limited amount of time to articulate exactly what we’re trying to say. These musicians, like all artists, feel an increased pressure to get each aspect of their expression as accurate as they can; if a “bad word” does the job, so be it.
Not only that, we can also take solace in what Jesus said in Mark 7:15:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” That doesn’t mean we can fill up exclusively on awful, worldly music and expect to be mentally and spiritually healthy any more than we could fill up exclusively on junk food and expect to be physically healthy. It does mean that we can listen to the expressions of these broken people pouring out their hearts through music and lyrics and know that how we digest, filter, and respond to their pain is of much more importance than listening to their pain.
Choose To Abstain From Music You Feel Inappropriate
NEWS FLASH: you don’t HAVE to listen to music you feel is inappropriate. If you get that feeling that a song, an album, or an artist may not be something that you feel settled listening to, turn it off! Just because you have permission to do something doesn’t mean you’re required to do something.
1 Corinthians 10:23 says “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” Paul continues talking about how, for some people, eating meat is totally fine. For others, eating meat would be sin. We have to be obedient to Spirit urging each of us in our own conscience. We’re also taught that, if by eating meat we cause another brother to stumble, we should be willing to set it down. So with that understanding, I need to be sensitive to what I listen to around others, making sure I’m not violating their conscience in their presence or causing them to sin. I may be ok with listening to “D.N.A.” by Kendrick Lamar, but I wouldn’t play it in front of my 10 year old son at this point in his life because I wouldn’t want to cause him to sin. Look, like most issues we face, this isn’t black and white. Instead it requires us to take inventory of our heart, our mind, and our soul, and weigh out the benefit and the drawback to our actions.
Before you allow anything or forbid anything, do the hard work of reasoning out what you’re doing and answering the question “WHY?”.