Erasing the Line between the Sacred and Secular

In 2005, I went down a road forged by many an American youth group kid before me…

I threw out all of my secular music.

And, unfortunately for you ecologists, I do mean that quite literally. Overcome by conviction while driving home from church, I flipped through my giant CD wallet and threw every non-Christian CD out of the window of my 1997 Chrysler Town & Country.

My winnowing fork was sharp and relentless: bands on Christian labels that did not explicitly mention God were not spared (apologies to The Juliana Theory and He Is Legend). The purge went on the next few days. Even bands with Christian lyricists like Thrice and Sunny Day Real Estate found themselves in the bottom of the trash bag (Thrice for a non-geographical use of Hell, Sunny Day Real Estate for the song “The Shark’s Own Private Fuck,” a song that ironically did not include any profanity outside of the title).

For the next few months, I sought to fill the empty slots in my CD wallet with music that would edify my faith. There were a few good steps there—As Cities Burn’s debut Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest and Mae’s The Everglow became very dear to me, as did Underoath’s They’re Only Chasing Safety and No Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical by Showbread.. A few choices were a little less wise: I immediately returned Control by Pedro the Lion over the line “most everything turns to shit.” I convinced myself that Spoken was a satisfying replacement for Coheed and Cambria.

But then, my sacrificial eye started to wander again. I started eyeing the Christian music I had left. Was I making this too an idol? An As Cities Burn lyric struck me the moment it passed out of my boombox: “At my word, would you bring your Isaacs?” I was unsure. Music was, after Christ of course, my greatest love, my most reliable source of solace. But was it too dear to me? Did my reverence for music surpass my reverence for the Creator?

I don’t remember if my conviction was soothed in prayer or if I simply didn’t want to dig any more deeply into the question, but I didn’t throw out anything else.

Then, I went to college ( a Christian college, of course). Moving into the dorm, I was put into close proximity with many young men who did not have the same strictness of listening habits. For the most part, I allowed myself to coexist alongside them, allowing myself to listen passively. After all, I wasn’t seeking this out, right> I was merely existing next to them while they happened to listen to secular music. My own hands were clean.

But every so often, something would catch my interest. I allowed myself to indulge in the newly discovered Sigur Rós. They didn’t sing in English—or any real language for that matter—so I could assign my own meaning to it, like a sort of like a spiritual Rorschach test (looking back, I realize I should have extrapolated that lesson a lot earlier).

Then, something happened.

Coheed and Cambria announced a new record.

They had been one of my favorites before the purge, and I was eager to hear their newest offering. But I was not as eager to run headlong into disobedience, so I sought the Lord. I fasted from all music for an entire week to clear my mind, and I asked if I might be permitted to sully my ears with non-christian music again. After a few days of silence, I felt like the Spirit told me I had the freedom to make the decision for myself.

So newly freed to listen to whatever I wanted, I picked up my roommates CD wallet and started flipping through. Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium caught my eye. I had been a fan of At the Drive-In, but had never listened to Cedric and Omar’s follow-up project. I put in the disc and sat on my bunk.

When the introductory track exploded into the first real song (you can hear it for yourself here) something happened that I absolutely did not expect.

The Spirit of the Lord fell on my dorm room more fully than I had almost ever feel it.

In the intertwined wailing of Cedric’s voice and Omar’s electric guitar, I witnessed the presence of the Almighty more plainly than almost any of the Christian bands I had isolated myself to in the previous months. In that moment, I realized something.

As God created music (or at least the conditions in which music developed and evolved), His presence is intrinsic to music itself. When a master musician creates, the Creator is plainly seen there. The Mars Volta is not a Christian band. In fact, at times they seem almost intentionally the opposite. And yet, they are masters of their craft, and even their spiritual worldview (or lack thereof) cannot prevent the Creator from appearing in their work.

It’s been fourteen years since that fateful day, and its mark is just as fresh on my mind as if it just happened. Few moments have been as formative to my current worldview as that. And as that moment has permeated my mind, I have come to the conclusion that the boundary between Christian and non-Christian music doesn’t exist. After all, can one tree produce Christian apples and another non-Christian apples? No. They can only create what they were made to create.

And since the Divine is the source of all Creation, then the very act of creating is itself divine—even if the creator does not intend it to be.

Even if there was a line between the Sacred and Secular, where would it be? Is a Christian band only Christian when they are singing about Christ? Certainly not. Jars of Clay doesn’t cease to be a Christian band because they sang a song about a zoo.

By the same token, even “non-Christian” music points to the Creator simply by being created. I’m unsure if Sigur Rós has any divine intentions, but I am absolutely sure that the created work is positively dripping with divinity. I’ve experienced God far more clearly listening to Takk than I ever did listening to Michael W. Smith.

Today, the large majority of my listening time is spent on bands that are not intentionally (or at least obviously) part of any sort of faith agenda. And yet, the times I spend enjoying music are some of the most spiritual of my day, even if I’m listening to Deafheaven or Fugazi or Bon Iver.

Often, when I tell people I’m in a band, I’m asked, “is it a Christian band?” My usual response goes something like, “well, I myself am a Christian and so any art I create exists within that lens.” But I often wish I could say, “any attempt to make a demarcation between the secular and sacred is, in a word, bullshit.”