Over the summer while I was working at Beaver Cross Camp there was a daily session of Christian teaching for the campers led by a minister, Father Tyler. Father Tyler isn’t your typical boring, grey haired, slightly out of touch stereotypical minister. He is a sport fanatic with the best baseball hit I have ever seen (although in fairness I tend to avoid watching baseball where at all possible, so I haven’t exactly seen many/any pros). He has this real gift of being able to powerful communicate to young people in a way that they listen and take seriously what God has to share through him. But that is beside the point.
During the last week of camp it was high school campers, and we were doing a worship session before Father Tyler was going to speak. I was operating the powerpoint for the song lyrics so I was sitting up at the front beside him, and during one of the songs he asked me if I had a pen on me that he could borrow. I passed him one, and, being somewhat nosey, glanced over at what he was writing. I could see the words “John Mayer” and some lyrics from his song “Half of my heart”. Being a big John Mayer fan (I had even been to see him in concert the year before) I was quite excited to see how he was going to weave that into his talk, especially as that song is a duet with Taylor Swift who I also really like (for her musical talent, obviously…).
Father Tyler got up to speak, and started sharing about how if you want to find God you need to seek him with your whole heart. Then he mentioned how there was this song that sometimes got played in his gym that made him so angry he just wanted to smash things. The song? None other than ‘Half of my heart’ – because love is meaningless if it is not wholehearted. So far so understandable. But what came next threw me. “If anyone offers you only half their heart you need to run away from them, John Mayer is a mean bastard.” I wasn’t expecting that. Sure he may not be a Christian, but was his music really that bad that the B word needed to be unleashed? (And by the way, Eugene Peterson uses it in The Message’s paraphrase of John 8 MSG)
It got me thinking about discernment. Because while John Mayer was the example he used of a pop star whose lyrics were promoting a lifestyle we as Christians need to avoid he is by no means the only one. Listen to any pop station on the radio and you will be bombarded with messages telling you that you will only be happy when you are with a guy/girl having lots of sex, living for the moment, not caring about commitment, making out with whoever, whenever, drinking and not caring about the consequences. But Paul tells us “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8). Now don’t get me wrong – there are many secular bands making great music that doesn’t have a bad message to it- we don’t have to listen exclusively to worship music. But we need to be careful about what we are letting into our minds. And not just through music, through TV, the internet, through books. But I think we need to be particularly careful with music, because it is so easy to dismiss it as “just a song” but then you find Rhianna lyrics like “sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me” stuck in your head all day, which definitely don’t fall in the category of true and honourable and right and pure and lovely.(True story – I once was rocking out to that song in a car being driven by an ex-monk, oops…). Because if we are not careful they will end up affecting how we think and act. At the very least it distracts us from focusing on Jesus.
I’m not saying we should only listen to hymns like Amazing Grace – simply that we need to have some discernment about the messages we choose to listen to – will we fill our iPods with messages of hope and God’s love or will it be full of the songs of the fallen world? Jesus called us to be “in the world but not of it” (see John 17:15-16). We are in the world, we will hear stuff we don’t agree with, but we need to have discernment and know that it is not the way we are meant to live. In Philippians 1:1-9 ESV Paul tells us “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”We need to have discernment so that we can remain pure, focusing our attention and time on things that will help us grow closer to God, rather than filling our minds with messages that are contrary to His Word and plan for your life.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be some boring fire and brimstone guy laying down strict rules on what music you can and can’t listen to. And I don’t have a vendetta against John Mayer – I am a big fan of his music (although I would argue from experience that sometimes it actually isn’t better to say too much rather than never to say what you need to say…). I am simply saying that Paul warns us to have discernment, and that we need to apply that to all areas of our lives, which means thinking carefully about what messages we allow ourselves to take in through the songs we listen to. Listening with discernment means being aware of the moral lifestyle being promoted by the song you are listening to, and recognising if it goes against what God teaches us through the Bible. Sometimes it will be fine to listen to it so long as you are aware you need to reject the lifestyle promoted by it. Sometimes it will be a better idea to hit skip before it plants any seeds in your heart. The important thing is that you don’t just passively listen and take it in but that you actively discern if the lyrical content is true and honourable and right and pure and lovely.