A few days ago, there arose a Twitter storm of apocalyptic proportions over news that a young “secular” artiste was invited to sing during a church service. The young artiste is a Christian and the song performed was from his title album, God Win. One must assume that a song titled “God Win” sang in a church setting seemed most appropriate, but these are curious times.
There are many choruses that echo the same sentiment, some using exact same words yet there were a lot of issues raised. The very notion that a non-gospel artiste had been invited to “minister” in church consternated many. And not a few were peeved that the artiste in question performed from the “altar” – a most holy place. And how can an “entertainer” be invited to minister to “the people of God”, some wondered, with righteous and not so righteous indignation. Even the Pastor was not spared. What was his motivation? There was no shortage of opinion, aspersions and castigations. And there was no shortage of exegetes misquoting scriptures. Were Jesus on Earth he would have had to up his signature command of nature to calm the storm. He couldn’t do a reprise. This was no watery issue. But lurking somewhere in the sea was the leviathan of the fundamental challenge as to whether a Christian artiste can even do secular music. It’s not exactly a new issue. The Amy Grants of this world faced that same challenge in the 80s. It’s as if someone somewhere is instigating topical conundrum in generational cycles.
An analytical perusal of the issues however shows a confliction in knowledge on many levels. The idea for example that the “altar” is “sacred” betrays a mix-up in understanding between the concept of the temple in the New Testament and the concept of the temple in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the temple was a building. It was basically partitioned into two parts – the Outer Court and the Tabernacle. The Outer Court contained the Table, Lampstand and Altar of Incense. The congregation could enter here. The Tabernacle was in turn divided into two parts by a heavy hanging curtain – the Holy Place in which only priests from the tribe of Levi could enter; and the Holy of Holies in which resided the Ark of the Covenant. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and he did so once a year, on Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement. The High Priest must make atonement for himself before he entered the Holy of Holies. He would die otherwise. The sacrifice was his life insurance policy. And since no one can enter the Holy of Holies to retrieve his body, tradition says a scarlet rope was tied on his ankle. Small bells were also sewed around the helm of his robe. A priest in the Holy Place tended to the other end of the rope. He would drag him out by the rope in case something went wrong. If the bells stopped jiggling the priest knew something was wrong. You served God with your life as High Priest.
But something curious happened when Jesus died on the cross. As soon as he gave up the ghost the Bible says the thick curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was ripped from top to bottom. Paul would later explain to us the significance of that momentous event. He says we have boldness to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus in consequence. That the curtain was figuratively the flesh of Jesus. And so as they tore into his flesh with those horrible lashes they were ripping apart the curtain in the Tabernacle, in a manner of speaking (Hebrews 10:19-21).
That curtain-ripping incident would usher in a new dispensation. It was a formal signification of a change in the order of priesthood, something Jesus had been working on. He had appointed apostles without consideration of tribal identity. Only Levites could be appointed priests in those days but Jesus appointed non-Levites as apostles. Jesus himself was not from the tribe of Levi. He was from the tribe of Judah yet he became our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15). Indeed, perhaps only Matthew was a Levite. We know Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). The priesthood thus changed from the Levitical Order to the Melchizedekian Order. This Order of Melchizedek is a curious order. Unlike the Levitical Order it is a priest-king equation. It takes its name from Melchizedek, the priest-king who received tithes from Abraham in the Old Testament (Hebrews 7:1-2). Jesus belongs to this order, and he initiated us into the order (Revelation 1:6). It is because we belong to this order that we can “minister” to God though not full time priests, and not belonging to the tribe of Levi. It is why we can be priests though with secular callings. We are priest-kings. And so we have priest-politicians, priest-lawyers, priest-engineers, priest-fashion designers, priest-models, priest-footballers, priest-computer scientists, priest-accountants, priest-doctors… And of course priest-musicians.
The death of Jesus and the ripping of that curtain also changed the definition of “temple”. God was no longer confined to physical tabernacles. He franchised himself into new abodes – us! Our bodies are now the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It’s why we’re advised to abstain from sexual sin. You can’t join God’s temple to another in fornication. We are spiritual building blocks. The Bible says we’re living stones that God is building into a spiritual temple (1 Peter 2:5-9). The temple of God in the New Testament is not a physical building, it is individuals. The Holy of Holies is now inside us. It’s why the Holy Spirit dwells in us. And so a church can meet in a nightclub, museum, hotel, civic center, tent, private residence, cinema, school, etc. The building is not the holy place, it is the people in who the holy God resides. And so the notion of “altar” being a place a secular musician cannot sing from or “minister” from is fallacious. That view does not align with New Testament realities.
And we question the prevailing notion of “ministration” and ministers. Since all Christians are priest-kings, all Christians are ministers of God. But some have been given special callings, like pastors. But all Christians are ministers of God in the New Testament. And so the idea that a Christian who sings “secular” music cannot minister to God or the people of God is unsustainable. It is not in accordance with scriptures.
The foregoing leads us to the tendentious issue of whether a Christian can even do “secular” music. Must a Christian sing only gospel? Should a Christian perform only “Christian” songs – “songs that glorify God and edify his people”?
If we accept that music is a profession, and we must, that raises these same questions for other professions. Can a Christian do only “Christian” doctoring? Is there anything like “Christian lawyering”, or is there “Christian engineering”, or “Christian computing”? If we’re not ready to entertain these questions concerning other professions then we must lose the moral right to demand of Christian musicians to do only gospel. Will a dying Christian reject medical treatment from a non-Christian doctor in an ideological demand for “Christian doctoring”?
If we must insist Christian musicians do only gospel songs then we must extend the imperative to other arts as well. We must insist on Christian acting, Christian dance and drama, Christian fashion, Christian fine art, Christian writing… They are all creative endeavours, just like music. Should we then insist a Christian professional actor cannot participate in a drama presentation on a church stage because he performed secular dramas like Wole Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi, or acted in Macbeth or Selma? Isn’t he equally violating God’s “altar”? Why the particularisation of musicians?
What the Church has done is place a burdensome limitation on talented young men and women who otherwise would conquer the world with their talent. On any given Sunday the vocal dexterity of the average choir member is incredulous. But it’s limited to church. These talented young men and women are living unfulfilled potentials. They cannot maximize their giftings. And when they insist on their talent paving their way in the world, there is a chorus of accusation from a puritanical mob who purport to defend the sanctity of church. Pejorative expressions like “sell out” are often employed, as if there was ever collective bargaining. It does sound like prejudice, or worse.
In the pursuit of “gospel only” policy the Church absented herself from the cultural space, but then turns around to complain about issues in that spatial dimension. The chief instigator of these controversies is none other than Lucifer himself. He understands a thing or two about music. And he understands talent management being the first notable musical talent. Some interpretations of Ezekiel 28:13 allude to that fact. The passage speaks of embedded tabrets (tambourines) and pipes in the physiology of Lucifer. Seemed Satan was a walking orchestra. Being the first notable managed talent he understands being a rebel. He rebelled. And he understands musicians losing control to fame. He lost control of himself, having become inflated with pride. He sought after worship like a star (He was). As it turns out creatures can’t handle worship. Only the Creator can. Unfortunately we worship our music stars and those among them who can’t barrier their core from the perils of creature-worship begin to malfunction. And that is now used as corroborative evidence against “secular” music by isolationists.
Truth is, many of these artistes being young are merely dealing with the challenges of growth and maturation – a rite of passage into adulthood. They get into experimentations, like we all did and do. Only theirs is amplified because they’re in public glare. And then there are the challenges of fame itself. Fame is lonesome and it has major consequences. If not well managed it generates distortions. Michael Jackson for example had an identity crisis. He seemed lost and searching for meaning and purpose. He suffered from anguish of soul. In seeking to ameliorate loneliness some resort to booze, drugs and sex. And we seem to accept these excesses as part of the package. They’re stars after all, they can do no wrong. Thus we are complicit in that which we condemn.
It is hard to minister to those you condemn. Yet Christ died for all. There ought to be specialized ministry to stars, those in the public glare and those battling with fame. If we can have specialized fellowships for over-40s, widows, singles and executives why not one for the stars! They need a confidential system. They need a spiritual figure they can confide in, someone who’s not judgmental. They need to be able to talk about their fears, their challenges, their struggles, without feeling condemned. And they need to know their secrets are safe. Perhaps our pastors should consider such mentoring programs.
Many of the great musical talents started out in church. Many were in the choir. Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Tonex, Beyoncé, Fantasia, Chris Brown, Usher, Jessica Simpson, Diana Ross, R. Kelly, Kate Perry, John Legend, Aretha Franklin, Avril Lavigne, Faith Evans, Anthony Hamilton, Brandy, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Price, Little Richard, D Banj, Waje, Banky W, MI, Faze, Chidinma, Praiz, J. Martins, Tiwa Savage, P-Square, Sheyi Shay, Harry Song, Don Jazzy, Flavor, Masterkraft, Yemi Alade, Selebobo, Whizkid, Jesse Jagz, Wande Coal, Korede Bello… They all had their roots in church. Incidentally Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was the son of a reverend gentleman – Rev. Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti.
Now, here’s the irony. The Church discovers the talents but abandons the talents as they make way through the world. Satan then moves into the space abdicated by the Church and he soon destroys many employing concupiscence and other vices. He even introduces some to Satanism. And when he has wasted these young lives he sends their corpses back to church for burial!
The controversy over secular or non-secular music is so unnecessary. There are three genres of music introduced in scriptures – music focused on God (what we now call Gospel), martial music and social music. Martial music was employed by the army in the time of war. The psalms are God focused, and even when they talk about human troubles, struggles and inadequacies they still end up appealing to God. The end-all-and-be-all of the Psalms is God. The psalms are what we’ll call rap today. They even followed the production pattern of today’s rap music. After David had written the lyrics he’d call a producer – the “Chief Musician” who set the words to music. One such producer was Jeduthun aka Ethan (see opening notes of Psalm 39). David did all classes of music – worship, dance and instrumentals. He used to play soothing instrumentals for King Saul’s depression.
But then we have the musical compositions of Solomon too. He was a second-generation musician, philosopher and poet – kind of like an ancient Bob Dylan. He inherited his father’s lyrical skills. He wrote the Song of Solomon popularly known as Song of Songs. It’s a matrimonial love song, a bit explicit actually – “You’re so beautiful my darling, so beautiful, and your dove eyes are veiled by your hair as it flows and shimmers… Your smile is generous and full, expressive and strong and clean. Your lips are jewel red, your mouth elegant and inviting… The smooth, lithe lines of your neck command notice – all heads turn in awe and admiration! Your breasts are like fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing among the first spring flowers” (SS. 4:1-5). Imagine a Christian artiste writing these lyrics today…
Of course the Song of Songs has figurative application. It can be used to illustrate the love of Christ for his bride, the Church. But the truth is, when Solomon wrote the song he had no figurativeness in mind. He just wrote a love song. He wrote it as a man, a mere man. He didn’t know, and couldn’t have known that the Church would emerge centuries down the line. The Church was God’s secret. It is an intercalation. Solomon didn’t write with the Church in view. It’s almost as if God is telling us, it’s okay to be human, to have feelings, to have emotions… And it’s okay to write about those feelings and put them in song. God is not against emotional expression in song.
Some of course would rather expunge Song of Songs from the Bible if they had their way. They struggle with it morally and try to explain it away, as if the language is not plain enough. When we try to morally sanitise the Word of God we run into absurdities of reinterpretation. God is the sanctifier. He is Jehovah Mekaddishkem – the God who sanctifies. Who will sanctify the words of the Sanctifier?
The Song of Songs is unlike any other book in scriptures, but it’s in the Bible. God put it there. It is one of the “practical” books, like Proverbs (another Solomon output) and the Book of Job which talks about trials; and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is the philosophical musing of a human in a state of human-ness. It is replete with self second-guessing, frustrations and submission to the incomprehension of this animal called life. It highlights absurdities, like the man with no heir who keeps amassing wealth. To whom would he leave his wealth, Solomon wondered! In other words the Bible was written from two perspectives: there’s the perspective from above, and we find that in the prophets, the epistles and the like; and there is the perspective from below – the human dimension – Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Job. To the extent that both perspectives make up the Bible God is not against human expressiveness. Therefore in the tradition of the Psalms, a Christian artiste can sing gospel music. In the tradition of the Song of Songs he can sing about love, feelings and emotions. In the tradition of Proverbs, he can lace his songs with practical wisdom. And in the tradition of Ecclesiastes, he can philosophize in song, like Bob Dylan, or the man in black, the late Johnny Cash. And in the tradition of Job he can write about pain, suffering, difficulties and trials. And in the tradition of Heman and Jeduthun he can prophesy through song.
To imagine that a Christian can only do “gospel” is our self-imposed limitation. It is not backed by scriptures. Yes, Paul enjoins us to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and making melody in our hearts to God (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), but that is not an exclusive list. Try and imagine a man proposing to a woman and singing a chorus!
Now here’s another truth. Lucifer didn’t invent music, God did. Nowhere in scriptures is Lucifer credited with invention of music. Lucifer perverts music, just as he perverts everything else. He’s an unrepentant pervert. His corporate mission is to kill, to steal and to destroy (John 10:10). Music is not the problem. Perversion is the problem.
But what about the nudity in music videos and the explicit lyrics of some songs? Isn’t that the bane and essence of secular music, you ask? But there are many secular musicians who don’t do explicit lyrics, and they’re successful. Just like there are many people who don’t use four-letter words and are successful; just like there are many actors who don’t do nude scenes, and they’re successful, like Denzel Washington. It’s the personal choice of the musician what he wants to sing about. To then use someone’s explicitness to tar “secular” music in general is a rather illogical and desperate attempt to permute a conviction. There are many clean rap songs. And there are music without words. Think instrumentals and instrumental jazz. Doesn’t jazz belong to the “secular” spectrum? Can a Christian do jazz? If yes, our argument against secular music is inconsistent. And how do we classify music set to movies? Aren’t they secular? Yet Christians watch movies and listen to those music. How about classical music? Handel’s Messiah instrumentals? Is it gospel or secular? And what about the national anthem? Isn’t it “secular” music? It’s not gospel, yet it’s sung in churches. Now you see the absurdities of isolationism emerging.
This is not saying a Christian artiste can’t devote himself to gospel music. It’s his choice. And gospel has its place and role. If an artiste is naturally disposed to gospel or that’s what God has asked him or her to do, let him do it and let her do it. But those are proprietary decisions. They should not be extended into collective ethos.
Culture is a powerful thing. It has a huge leverage on society. Culture is zeitgeist. It is the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place. Culture is highly propagated through media. When the Church abdicates the culturo-media space, we might as well pack our bags and go to yonder place. A Church that abdicates cultural influence is well nigh on its way to irrelevance and generational obsolescence. The Church needs to learn to manage talent. Perhaps it’s time to consider setting up a professionally managed and independent talent agency, lest we continue to lose our brilliant talents to Satan’s agenda, or keep tormenting our young ones with manufactured guilt.
It’s time we lay the debate over secular/gospel music to rest. It’s a storm in a teacup after all.
© Leke Alder.