Culture, Music, and Uncle Willie's Garage

There are a couple of preset buttons on the radio in my car that I never push. These radio stations have been pre-progammed by my kids and, if I were to push one of these buttons, I would be inundated with "today's hits," which would result in me vomiting violently and quite possibly totaling my car. As one who grew up in the 1970's, survived the 1980's, and rejoiced over the musical revolution of the 1990's, I simply cannot stomach much of what passes for new music today.

I had the pleasure of growing up in a time when music was made with real instruments being played by real people, not some digitized alt-recorded track that relies on computers to produce it. Yeah, I know, the electronic sounds of the 1980's want to refute my claim, but I don't count that as music. My first two real concerts were The Police and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom I saw when I was in middle school. My R.E.M. cassette tapes serenaded me to and from high school and I remember exactly where I was when Nirvana saved music in the early 1990's. THAT, my friends, is music!

I realize that not everyone agrees with my factual assessment of what is audibly pleasing, and that is okay. You can roll your eyes at me like my kids do. One of the wonderful aspects of music is that there are so many different varieties and genres from multiple eras that we all have something to choose from. What sounds beautiful to me might sound like dying hippos to you, and I would probably say the same about your music.

The interesting thing to me about so much of the music that I have listened to over the years is that I remember almost all of the words to the songs that I used to have in heavy rotation. Do you want to know something even more crazy? When I recall those lyrics, I truly don't know what half of them meant. Have you ever listened to R.E.M. and tried to figure out what Michael Stipe was saying? Good luck with that! Even the lyrics that do make sense have no real meaning to me - they are just words to songs that I can't seem to forget, even as I struggle to remember my kids' names and birth dates.

This is a phenomenon that is not unique to just popular music - we do it all the time with Christian music as well. The Christian music industry has evolved over the decades just as popular music has. While I am eternally grateful that the ancient hymns of the faith are still sung with regularity and fervency, I am even more thankful that we have moved past the over-synthesized sounds of the 1980's that made my ears want to bleed (sorry Michael W. Smith - I still see you as pioneer but those neon shirts and those keyboards...). Whether you listen to contemporary Christian radio or playlists of modern worship songs on your phone, you know the words and can sing them by heart, which is a good thing. I love that so many gifted artists have set God's word to music, for in listening to and singing those songs it better helps me to hide God's word in my heart.

Except for when that is not the case.

You see, it is just as easy for us to mindlessly sing the words to songs that were written for the glory of God while not even really knowing what we are singing. Think about it. You may feel embarrassed admitting that you can recall all the lyrics to songs by the Chainsmokers or Ariana Grande, yet knowing all the lyrics to songs that glorify God but having no clue what those words truly mean is pretty embarrassing too.

I realize this may sound harsh and maybe it should be. Perhaps it's time that we take more seriously all aspects of our expressions of faith and not just the ones that we label as more formal during our Sunday morning gatherings. When you are riding in the car or listening in your headphones to Hillsong United, trying desperately to sound like Taya Smith when she sings Oceans but failing miserably, are you worshiping God or simply singing words that you have come to know by heart?

The fact that our expressions of worship, especially through music, have kept up with the pace of culture is something that excites me. I believe that Christians are called to engage and transform culture, not simply oppose and battle it. When Christian artists are creating music that actually sounds like it was produced in a modern studio and not Uncle Willie's garage, we all win.

I love music and I often listen to music just for the sake of the sound and quality of it, and that is perfectly fine. But if my goal is to use music as means to worship my God and my King, then absently reciting lyrics that hold no real meaning for me contradicts my intention to do just that. That is no different than knowing all the words to the songs on the radio that add no real value to my life. The same can be said of other artistic and cultural expressions of our faith. Culture can be great as well as the music that it spawns. Let's be diligent to pursue the WHO of our worship as we dive into the mediums of our worship expressions.

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