Why I (Still) Listen to Christian Music

I consider myself a “Christian” for three practical reasons:

1. I believe that there was a human being named Jesus whom his followers and subsequent human beings have referred to as “Christ”. Many variations of Christ’s life were recorded, including in them were his teachings.  I follow many of these teachings as a guide for a meaningful and productive life.
2. I was raised in a Christian church.
3. I live in the United States of America.

Many would (perhaps rightly) disagree my being a Christian for three theological reasons:

1. I don’t really believe God, as is described in the Bible, or any sacred text, exists.
2. More importantly, I’ve zero belief that, even if such a deity existed,  he, she or it would have any meaningful interest in my life. Which means I don’t really consider whether God exists or not worth freaking out about either way.
3. I don’t believe in heaven.

So while I’m probably more accurately described as a Jedi than a Christian, I still say that I’m a Christian. If this offends you and you’d like to revoke my Bible study privileges, take them. If you’d like to take away my access to the throne of God in prayer, feel free. If I have to quit my spot on the church softball team, you’ll regret it.  If you’d like me not to vote for the Republican party, you got it.

But I won’t give up the music. Not How Great Thou Art. Not Great is Thy Faithfulness. Not even Jesus Loves the Little Children. No matter how deep I go in the Church of Christopher Hitchens, I’m keeping these songs.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. The reasons I love music are because I grew up in a church. It was there I discovered the piano. Or great songwriting. Or the relentless energy created by congregational singing. Music is an integral part of the Christian experience and I feel lucky to have been exposed to it at such an early age. It is an integral part of my life and I’ve the Church to thank for that.

Still, this doesn’t explain why I’m still listening to it now. I love reading but I still don’t watch Sesame Street. I love art but I’ve taped over my VHS copies of the Imagination Station. And yet I love music and I still shamelessly sing Shine Jesus Shine.

This might surprise some people. It’s so easy to spout snarky secular talking points laughing at the idiocy of young earth creationism or the War on Christmas or purity rings in a natural history class or commenting on Gawker. Yet when I’m alone, I make a choice to play the music celebrating a God I don’t believe in, learned in a church I’ve rejected, celebrating a lifestyle that intellectually makes me cringe.

So I can’t help but wonder if my listening to Christian music is proof that I still wish I was, in fact, a Christian.

Naturally, I don’t think so.  My devout mother used to say that “one could sing a lie as easily as you could tell a lie.” This stuck with me. As a kid, I’d melodically mumble I Have Decided to Follow Jesus whenever it was sung in church. Even at ten, I wasn’t decided anything.

Which is not to say the song did not affect me. Quite the opposite. The song was like a spotlight in an interrogation room, exposing the doubts I had about religion and forcing me to take a side. It was easy to say I was “saved” when I was five and memorize enough Bible verses to not feel guilty chugging the Communion grape juice. But as I grew older, I knew what the song was demanding and it made me uneasy. That uneasiness sure if evidence that the music mattered.

Other songs bring out similar reactions in me. As I write,  I am listening to the great Negro spiritual Were You There When they Crucified My Lord? Structurally, the song is series of soul-stirring questions. Where you when they crucified my Lord? When they laid him in a tomb? When he rose from the grave?  With each question, the conclusion is the same. Sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

I love this song. On the surface, whether to the devout or the atheist, these questions are very easy to answer. No. We weren’t there. More importantly though, they don’t ask me to make sense of who Jesus Christ was or wasn’t. They don’t ask me to affirm his gospel. They don’t ask me to claim an absolute truth about how his life affects my own. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own price.  They do ask me to remember the legacy of Jesus’ life. They ask me to acknowledge the stakes of his story. They ask me to consider the impact that death has had on my life, and the lives of millions since. That’s power. It’s a song that’s been passed from generations to generations and its helped define me as an African American, a spiritual being and a passionate human being. That’s worth saving.

In its own way, its my history with religion that keeps me returning to this music. I once asked a Catholic what benefit she found in the reciting liturgy, or prewritten prayers of worship. In my opinion, how could repeating the same words, over and over, give the same resonance over time? After a few hundred “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers”, you would think they’d lose their intensity.

She explained it to me this way: every time she says the liturgy, something new resonates in her consciousness. Maybe it’s a phrase she never understood or a phrase she had previously ignored. As her relationship with her faith evolved, the words also spoke to her in different ways. I liked that.

Music, too, is like a liturgy. There are songs which we’ve heard dozens of times and they never get old. With each listen, we discover new things. Maybe its a riff we’ve never noticed, a faint background vocal, or a lyric we never knew we’d come to cherish. This shouldn’t surprise us but it does.  We’ve changed.  Events in our loves cause our music we took for granted reveal themselves in new ways.

Sometimes we stop listening to old favorites. It can be weeks, months, even years until we revisit them again. And although they haven’t changed, we have. And they speak to us in new ways we’ve never experienced before.

I think this is the answer. The reason I listen to Christian music is actually the same reason I have all along. Meaningful music isn’t intended to solely define certain eras of our life. Music is meant to augment and challenge the phases we find ourselves in the future.

When I listen to Christian music, it affirms that the questions I grew up asking about God, faith, my humanity and my life’s purpose were worth asking in the first place. It honors the earnestness with which I pursued a spiritual identity and the need to continue to do so.

So the next time Sister Mahalia Jackson asks me if I was there when they crucified my Lord my answer will still be the same. No. Of course I wasn’t there.  And while I may not tremble, I’ll feel something. Tomorrow, I might cry. In a year, I may weep. I can’t say. There is no certainty to how the music will move me. That’s the point. I listen to Christian music because the reason those songs moved me once are still worth discovering how or if they still do.

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