I have followed the spirited conversation in recent weeks on the policy reported in The Chimes last month — that “Christian music” is the only permissible genre of music allowed to be played in campus coffee shops. This has also been a matter that we have pondered as administrators. I want to express thanks to Biola’s University Services division, especially vice president Greg Balsano and senior director Don Sims, for the seriousness with which they have processed this policy, the rationale for why it has become a matter of discussion and their willingness to revisit the policy that has been long in existence but short in application.
For students, I have two responses to share.
First is on the decision itself. The update is that going forward, University Services will work together with SGA student senators to select Pandora stations and music play schedules for public spaces on campus. These stations will not play exclusively “Christian” music.
Second, this conversation has a deeper level than policies on lyrics or labels. We are a campus that is, and will continue to be, one that celebrates the beauty of art and the insights of ideas from both believers and nonbelievers. Just as we are a campus open to learning from non-Christian philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Confucius, filmmakers, novelists, scientists, psychologists and other academics, so too are we open to the contributions of non-Christian musicians.
Firm & Soft
This is what it means to be a “firm center, soft edges” community. We hold firm to our biblical foundations but engage with the wider world God has created, appreciating the breadth and beauty of the liberal arts. With Christ as our strong center, we have the freedom and confidence to learn from and learn about everything in this world. Why? Because Christ is Lord of all things (Col. 1:15-19) and illuminator of all. C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Look
We see all things more clearly because of Christ. But we cannot see if we are afraid to look. We see the beauty, truth, brokenness, goodness, badness, redemption, creation and relationships of life through the lens of the arts. And this includes music.
One of the reasons for this policy change is that “Christian music” is difficult to define as a distinctive genre. What qualifies as “Christian” music and what does not? Is it just any piece of music that is made by a Christian person? What if the music a Christian artist makes has no reference to Jesus or God and includes a few curse words? Or what if an atheist makes an album where the lyrics are entirely taken from the Psalms? Would that qualify as “Christian music?” What about instrumental music like jazz, classical or Explosions in the Sky?
A Problematic Category
As Jacqueline Lewis wrote in The Chimes a few weeks back in an article entitled “Christian music has a broader definition” on Oct. 13, Christian music is a problematic category. “Due to the fuzzy definition of what qualifies as Christian entertainment, we must be wary of labeling songs as purely secular or purely Christian,” she concluded.
I agree. What makes one piece of music “sacred” and another “secular?” In my mind there is something sacred about U2’s “With or Without You,” or the jazz piano of Keith Jarrett, or the “Les Miserables” soundtrack. On the other hand there is some “contemporary Christian music” that feels thoroughly secular, with its superficially soothing lyrics and blatantly commercial ambitions, not to mention bad theology.
Biola professor George Boespflug, director of the Conservatory of Music, recently wrote in Bravo! about the tensions of Christian music higher education. Boespflug suggested that rather than seeing music in clearly defined sacred vs. secular terms, students should “consider the experience of musical performance as a redemptive agent, whose effectiveness is not limited to church settings, but can be experienced wherever music is made with integrity of purpose.”
Wherever music is made with integrity of purpose. I think this is a helpful rubric for how we discern which music to engage and even celebrate on a Christian college campus. Of course “made with integrity of purpose” is not always a clear-cut and agreed upon descriptor. But it is nevertheless a conversation we must embrace rather than avoid. Especially at a place like Biola.
Mature & Respectful
I agree some songs may paint a picture of humanity’s fall by using profanity or highly offensive language in such a vivid way that it would be distasteful for some who would rather not listen; I think of parents or visitors or children visiting our campus. In these cases, let us be mature and respectful of what we play.
But the fact is there are many good, true and beautiful things in culture that having nothing explicitly to say about God but which nevertheless grapple with truth and bring him glory. This is because all humans are created in the image of God, which includes being creators in the image of the Creator. As Dorothy Sayers once wrote, the characteristic common to God and man is “the desire and the ability to make things.” This was not lost in the Fall, thanks be to God.
Art as Representative
My friend Philip Ryken, current president of Wheaton College, puts it well in his 2006 book “Art for God’s Sake,” “The doctrine of creation teaches that by God’s common grace, the gift of art inevitably declares the praise of its Giver. Thus non-Christian as well as Christian artists can represent virtue, beauty, and truth.”
Sin wreaks havoc in our world, yes, but it does not negate the fact that God created a good world full of good things — mountain ranges, olive groves, shooting stars, So Cal sunsets — which declare his glory. He also created mankind with the ability to create beautiful things out of raw materials — color, light, texture, sonic vibration, etc. — of this world. This includes music.
Evocative of Heaven
God created a world where sounds and words exist and where we have ears and minds to process it as music, to hear in a certain chord progression something evocative of heaven, to see in poetic lyrics the same sorts of longing and lament we see in Scripture. What a remarkable reality this is, and one that should result in gratitude and worship of our benevolent God.