Entertainment, Pop Music, and Christians

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by John Ellis

When the current pop-hit “Closer” by The Chainsmokers began playing over the car radio, I quickly changed the station. Not out of any sense of morality or desire for the pursuit of holiness, nor was my station change intended to protect my children from being exposed to the sexually charged lyrics[1] – admittedly, mildly-sexually charged lyrics, but sexually charged, nonetheless. I changed the station because I’m a middle-aged man whose taste in music doesn’t generally include pop-styled EDM music. My eleven-year-old daughter, however, immediately groaned her disproval at the station change. When I asked what was wrong, she replied, “I like that song!”

As I changed the station back, I pressed further. “Why do you like it?”

Upon switching the station back, the first lyrics that came through the speakers were, “So, Baby, pull me closer in the back seat of your Rover, that I know you can’t afford. Bite that tattoo on your shoulder.”

As I cocked my head and raised my eyebrows at her, my daughter quickly added, “I don’t like what it’s about; I like the beat.”

Days after that brief exchange, I was still troubled by it. Not so much about what my daughter said, but about being confronted by whether my personal interactions with entertainment provide me with a legitimate framework from which to preach the pursuit of holiness to my children, or to anyone, for that matter.

It’s not that I haven’t formulated a “doctrine of entertainment,” so to speak; in fact, I’ve even articulated my thoughts and beliefs about the subject to others. This past summer, I taught this very topic to the teens at our church. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations and debates with friends about how Christians can engage entertainment while honoring God. However, over the last few weeks, as I’ve reflected on the incident with my daughter, my own lazy ability to take discernment for granted has been revealed in my heart.

By God’s grace, I have repented of my complacency and have committed to engaging entertainment in a prayerful manner that seeks to glorify God above all else. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I will attempt to lead my family in a manner that is consistent with my beliefs about ways in which Christians can engage entertainment in full faith before God. Since the above incident, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss many of the following thoughts with my daughter[2]. I pray that God uses those thoughts in her heart, and I pray that many others will find the following thoughts edifying and encouraging, too.

Admittedly, this is a touchy subject freighted with often unexplored nuance. At the mere mention of the Christian’s responsibility before God in regards to their entertainment choices, many shudder, point their finger, and accuse the speaker of being a dreaded legalist[3]. Undoubtedly, some will want to toss the pejoratives of “fundy” and “legalist” in my direction upon reading my thoughts; that’s fine. Chances are, I will leave too many of the nuances unexplored; I will drift farther into “establishing rules for others” than I intend; I will most definitely step on the quivering toes of those who think it’s ok for Christians to watch Game of Thrones.

At the onset, I encourage those who haven’t already done so to take the time to read my post titled “A Theology of Art.” For the sake of word count, I’m going to put it forward as the other side of this current post’s aesthetic coin.

The opening verses of the Bible reveal many things. Of those things, at least three are immediately pertinent to this discussion – 1. God created everything. 2. God created everything good. 3. Things that were once good became less good. In fact, some things are so far removed from God’s definition of “good” as to render them functionally not good.

John H. Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis is helpful when thinking through the theological implications of Genesis’ creation narrative. For starters, Walton makes a very good argument that as opposed to our modern focus on materialism (an almost myopic focus), “people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system [emphasis kept].”[4] Taking the ancient cosmology further afield from our modern definitions, calling it a “functional ontology,” Walton explains that for the ancient Israelites, “the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humans and humankind.”[5]

To be clear, Walton is not claiming (nor do I believe) that the ancient Israelites were unaware or even dismissed material properties of created things. Nor does Walton’s desire to bear out the rich theological teaching of the literal creation account in the Bible exist at odds with the orthodox belief that God literally created everything out of nothing. But it’s important to note that the ancients had a different perspective on the world and science than do Westerners in the 21st century. For the ancient Israelites, their primary concern was with the ontological function[6] of God’s creation. With that framework informing the exegesis, when God named the things that He had created “good,” He was referring to their functional readiness; their ability to fulfill their intended function in the service of praising God and bringing Him glory. Human’s sin, of course, broke God’s good world and rendered it not as good in some cases, and flat out not good in others (see Footnote 6 for further explanation).

Many will push back on the notion of “things” being functionally not good. In doing so, however, I believe that they are unintentionally undermining their very argument that Christians are free to engage all manner of art (if you haven’t already, this would be a good time to pause reading this article and click over to my article titled “A Theology of Art” and then come back and finish this article). Claiming that God created all things good without taking into account the Fall and the subsequent curses recorded in Genesis 3 removes any reason to believe the claims that things are good to begin with. A person can’t legitimately use Genesis chapters one and two as the basis for claiming the innate goodness of creation if they completely ignore the next chapter.

Unless an individual wants to argue that the Fall had no effect on the world, there is precious little justification to claim that everything is still “good” in the same manner as God claimed in a specific place and time; things are no longer functioning in an unblemished manner, as God intended. Further, well-meaning Believers who argue that things like music are amoral are denying the functional goodness which is inherent in God’s creation. Nothing is amoral because God created everything good. Sin, of course, marred creation, including things; we no longer live in a world in which it can be claimed that anything is unequivocally functionally good.

Nothing in creation is functioning as God intended, included art/entertainment. And some things are less “good” (functioning properly) than other things. Therein lies the question: at what point on the spectrum of “good” and “no longer good” does something become inappropriate for Christians to engage?

Moving forward in the Bible, Christians are commanded in Hebrews 12:14 to “strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” In his commentary on the book of Hebrews, F.F. Bruce expounds, “Those who are called to be partakers of God’s holiness must be holy themselves; this is the recurring theme of the Pentateuchal law of holiness, echoed in the New Testament: ‘You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:45, etc.; cf. 1 Pet. 1:15f.) To see the Lord is the highest and most glorious blessing mortals can enjoy, but the beatific vision is reserved for those who are holy in heart and life.”[7]

Briefly, God’s attribute of holiness is ethical in dimension. Theologian Louis Berkhof explains that “The fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is also that of separation, but in this case it is a separation from moral evil or sin. In virtue of His holiness God can have no communion with sin.”[8] The prophet Habakkuk writes that God “cannot look at wrong.”[9] “The Hebrew word for ‘to be holy,’ quadash, is derived from the root qad, which means to cut or to separate.”[10] Throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God is revealed as having to utterly separate from sin.

For many, the word that is anathema in refence to God’s holiness is “separation.” While an abused concept in some theological circles, separation from sin should be an important aspect in the lives of Christians. At times, separation from sin will look like jeopardizing your career because your boss is oppressing the poor. Other times, separation will look like refraining from casting your ballot for a politician who is far removed from God’s expectations of justice and mercy. The pursuit of holiness should pervade all aspects of a Christian’s life. Even entertainment.

Without question, some forms of entertainment are functionally directed towards sin. Think strip clubs. There is a good and proper context and function for nudity, namely, the marriage bed. Strip clubs have so perverted the function of nudity[11] as to be completely sinful and off limits for Christians[12]. Of course, strip clubs are easy to declare off limits when writing to Christians. Going just a few steps further, however, and proclaiming movies that contain sexually explicit/nude scenes off limits for Christians quickly rouses a “Whoa! Hold on a minute, Mr. Legalist. Standards aren’t holiness.” Except everyone has standards, … allow me to repeat that … everyone has standards, everyone; it’s just that some aren’t willing to put their own personal standards to the test in light of the Bible’s command that Christians pursue holiness. And this is the part of the article where it would be so much easier to make hard and fast lists with hard and fast requirements for entertainment options that Christians can and cannot engage. But I’m not going to do that because it’s not helpful, nor is it possible to begin with.

Some subsets of Christianity have turned making lists into an art form. I grew up in one of those subsets. Any music that even remotely sounded like rock and roll was declared anathema; the lyrics could’ve been the text of the KJV’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer, and just the hint of a syncopated beat or the mere presence of an electric guitar would’ve deemed it unholy. Unless it starred John Wayne, and with other occasional exceptions, my parents refused to rent movies rated above G[13]. Of course, renting movies was the only option because going to the movie theatre was not allowed.

A similar upbringing has helped produce a libertine spirit in many people that I know. If I’m being honest, and referencing this article’s opening anecdote, I, too, have been frequently guilty of swinging too far towards the libertine side of the Christian liberty/entertainment debate. It’s much easier to shake off the out-of-balanced approach of previous generations than it is to do the hard work of thinking about a personal approach to entertainment that honors God’s commands for Christians to pursue holiness. And speaking of my opening anecdote, if I’m not willing to even ask if allowing my children (and myself) to listen to “Closer” by The Chainsmokers undermines God’s commands to holiness, then I can’t rightly claim to be concerned about holiness to begin with. Compartmentalizing entertainment choices away from the pursuit of holiness is a sin before God. And that takes me to the really hard question.

How do Christians determine whether entertainment choices violate our call to pursue holiness or not?

Well, for starters, honestly asking the question and not dismissing it offhand as a form of legalism is a start. Being tender to the possibility that you might be allowing sin a foothold in your heart through entertainment is a good thing. Being willing to set aside entertainment choices out of obedience to God, for the sake of your sanctification, and for the glory of Jesus is admirable. The fact is that we are often presented with entertainment options that are functionally bad.

An important distinction to keep in mind when considering and praying about entertainment options is that there’s a difference between recognizing the Fall and embracing the Fall. For example, one of the problems with much of what passes for “Christian” entertainment is the genre’s almost complete denial of the Fall. At the risk of wandering into the larger argument’s weeds, overly sentimental art that pretends that the Fall is less serious and has less ramifications on humans is entertainment that may appeal to the selfish, sinful, and gnostic desires of many who engage it. Pursuing holiness does not equal denying the Biblical truth about the Fall (once again, if you haven’t already done so, please consider reading my article “A Theology of Art” for further clarification).

On the other hand, other artists gleefully embrace the Fall; they delight in sin, and celebrate it through their art. In those instances, Christians need to confront themselves with the fact that the entertainment option in question may be so far down the functionally bad spectrum as to be rendered off-limits as an entertainment option under the dictum to pursue holiness. Take the aforementioned song “Black Beatles,” by way of an example (the song was mentioned in a footnote[14]).

“Black Beatles” is a song that needs to be recognized as a song that denigrates women and celebrates illicit sex in such an explicit manner as to call into question why a Christian concerned about holiness would ever want to listen to it. Discussing the Rae Sremmurd song with my daughter, she quickly recognized the vileness of referring to women by derogatory terms and then celebrating the use and role of women as nothing more than objects for men’s enjoyment. Discussing “Black Beatles” with her caused her to recoil in disgust at the song; she vividly saw how it violates God’s command to be holy by wickedly celebrating and promoting the Fall/sin and by denying the equal worth of both genders that is found in both women and men being made in the image of God.

When engaging entertainment, it’s important to be aware of the artist’s thematic objectives. For example, what is Rae Sremmurd communicating about sex and women with the song “Black Beatles?” It’s also important to interact with the artist’s communication about the Biblical narrative often referred to as Creation/Fall/Redemption/Consummation.

All human endeavors reflect the finiteness of man. Art is no different. While there are examples out there that present a balanced portrait of the Creation/Fall/Redemption/Consummation story of the Bible, most art tends to focus on one aspect of that Biblical framework, and that’s ok. What the artist is saying about that focus is important, though.

Many pop songs emphasize the concept of redemptions. Unfortunately, that redemption is often found in crass consumerism or self-centered individualism. In her number-one hit “Shake it Off,” Taylor Swift recognizes that there is a problem (the Fall). That problem, of course, is a severed relationship; the “players,” “heartbreakers” and “fakers” all contribute to an unfair narrative about the protagonist (Taylor Swift). The song is ultimately about how she plans on resolving that problem; how she plans on saving herself. Swift’s salvation is found in individualistic empowerment.

That brief interpretative exercise reveals one of the reasons why I tend to look askew at pop music[15]. It’s not that I believe the genre to be innately unholy or inappropriately sensuous. It’s that it promotes a world-view, more often than not, that encourages people to find salvation in the basest aspects of our modern society. I also don’t believe that the answer is found in complete prohibition.

My main priority with my children is that they love Jesus; that they bow the knee in repentance and faith before Jesus and accept his life, death, and resurrection as the only possible way to restore a right relationship with God. Banning or not banning entertainment isn’t going to help with that[16]. The power of the Holy Spirit in and through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is what will accomplish the salvation of my children. I do, however, know that being actively involved in my children’s entertainment choices provides opportunities to preach the gospel to my kids.

Sitting down and listening to “Closer” with my daughter ended up being a great starting point to a conversation with her about God’s holiness, humans’ sinfulness, and how most humans ignore God’s holiness because they want to be king over their own life to be free to fulfill the lust of their flesh. That’s not to say that I want her to listen to “Closer;” I don’t. I do believe that the content is inappropriate for an eleven-year old.

By way of boots-on-the-ground practicality, my wife and I have access to our daughter’s mp3 player and her music library. To purchase albums, she has to go through us and our iTunes and Amazon accounts. She’s not allowed to own the song “Closer” by The Chainsmokers, either as an mp3 or a physical CD[17]. We’ve told her that if she wants to buy music, we’ll have to listen to it first and then a discussion will ensue; we want to make sure that our daughter (and eventually our son, who, at this point, is only interested in the band Grace & Tony and the cover of “Sound of Silence” by Disturbed) is appropriately interacting with entertainment. We (and by “we,” I really mean “me”) have over 1,000 albums in our music library. If our kids want to “borrow” one of those albums, they have to check with us first. Some albums are off limits. Some albums will be handed over, no questions asked. Other albums will require a discussion before our children are allowed unfettered, unsupervised access to them. Through it all, we want to make sure that we are teaching and modeling for our kids the command for Christians to pursue holiness.

Now, disappointing some of you that are about to regret sharing this article on Facebook before reading it in its entirety, I’m not sure that I can make an argument that “Closer” should be considered off limits for everyone[18]. It’s not sexually explicit in a way that I believe makes it functionally bad like a strip club, “Black Beatles,” or Game of Thrones. It does celebrate an illicit sexual relationship[19], and it is thematically inappropriate for an eleven-year old. For a married forty-one year old, however, assuming that “he” likes the song to begin with, “Closer” may be able to be engaged without violating God’s command to pursue holiness; please note the “may be able” qualifier.

As I conclude this post, readers hoping for a blueprint for engaging entertainment in a manner that glorifies God and honors the command to pursue holiness are probably disappointed at the above “may be able.” Wrapped up in pursuing holiness is an honest assessment of our weaknesses and propensities towards sin. Some things, like strip clubs, are so diametrically opposed to God’s holiness and so brazenly celebrate and promote sin as to be off limits for all Christians (see my final note below which talks about a coming post that will directly interact with this). Other things may be inappropriate for some to engage and ok for others; I can’t determine that for anyone else. I can only determine that for myself and attempt to make determinations for my family as I strive to lead them, disciple them, and point them to Jesus. My concern for my brothers and sisters in Christ is that they prayerfully and thoughtfully consider their entertainment choices in light of God’s command that Christians pursue holiness.

Romans 6:18 gives the glorious promise that Christians “having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” One of the reasons that Jesus took on the form of human flesh was to “redeem us to be obedient.”[20] Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, died for the sins of his people, and then rose from the dead in order that we could obey God by pursuing holiness. Thoughtlessly and cavalierly engaging entertainment is disobeying God’s command that His people pursue holiness.

(Note: one of common rejoinders to my above thoughts that I’ve heard in the past is based on Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 15:11 that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth.” Originally, I had planned on interacting with that rebuttal. However, partly due to an already excessive word count and partly due to the fact that I believe that it deserves its own post, I’m going to hold my thoughts, for now. Lord willing, I am planning on writing a post in my “Progressive Proof-texting” series about Matthew 15:11.)


[1] To be fair, “Closer” is quite tame compared to other currently popular songs. While trying to determine the name of the song, I utilized Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and listened to songs long enough to determine if it was the song that played on the radio that evening or not. The #1 song “Black Beatles” is much more explicit than “Closer.” It should also be pointed out that this generation didn’t invent sexually charged lyrics.

[2] She keeps bugging me to finish this post so that she can read it. I think this is the first time that she’s expressed an impatient desire to read something that I’ve written.

[3] It should be pointed out that the vast majority of the people in my life who had/have strict rules in regards to music, movies, and entertainment options in general did/do not believe that their personal standards of holiness in reference to entertainment plays any role whatsoever in their salvation. Accusing them of being a legalist betrays that the accuser either doesn’t understand the term or they are so angry that they never got to see Titanic in the movie theatre that they will accuse well-meaning Christ followers of a damnable heresy.

[4] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 24.

[5] Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 24.

[6] Another word for it is “teleology” which means that things have an innate function. All things, including humans, are directed towards something. For example, a clock’s teleology is to keep time. If a clock is inconsistent when keeping time, it is still a clock, but it’s a bad clock. That bad clock fails to fulfill its teleology, or, in John Walton’s term, that clock fails to fulfill its ontological function.

[7] F.F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle To The Hebrews, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 348-349.

[8] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 73.

[9] Habakkuk 1:13, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1722.

[10] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 73.

[11] Part of that perversion is the degradation of women. Years ago, when our daughter was about four years old, we would drive by a Hooters restaurant on the way to church. One Sunday, our daughter asked why we never ate at that restaurant. I replied that it’s because Hooters hates women and, by extension, hates God. Hooters tells women that their primary worth is found in enticing lustful thoughts in men. Functionally, strip clubs, Hooters, the SI Swimsuit Issue, Game of Thrones, etc. treat nudity (and women) the same way, even if their actual practices differ somewhat.

[12] I could extend that to all humans since all humans are created by God and owe Him obedience.

[13] Leading up to the release of Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray in 1993, Christians were making a big deal about the lack of profanity in the movie. My mom eagerly awaited the movie’s release on VHS, and rented it from Blockbuster shortly after its release on video. To her chagrin and embarrassment, the movie contains a sex scene. A very mild sex scene, but a sex scene nonetheless. Sitting in our living room and listening to my mom’s sighs and declarations of disgust as my dad debated whether or not to stop the movie he was enjoying, I knew that any hope of her ever renting a new movie rated over G had probably just vanished.

[14] This is why you should read the footnotes.

[15] I’m using the tag “pop music” in its most limited sense. Straight up rock and roll, metal, punk, hip-hop, etc. don’t usually present the same failings that cause me to look askew at pop music. That’s not to say that they don’t have their own problems, but whatever (if) problems exist, those problems tend to be different.

[16] Believing otherwise is quite probably Neoplatonism, which is a fancy way of saying that those who believe that protecting children from sin aids in their eventual salvation are guilty of the heresy of Gnosticism. Shielding children from the Fall and the effects of sin and God’s curse on sin is a dangerous game to play.

[17] I don’t know enough about The Chainsmokers to comment on any of the group’s other songs and/or albums. I’m assuming that all of their albums will be off-limits for my children.

[18] For the record, nothing that you’re about to read in regards to my thoughts about “Closer” mean that I like the song any more now than when I began writing this article several days ago. I don’t have a dog in the fight about this specific song. It’s a dumb song; an artistically bad song, even. In fact, I could probably make an argument that Christians shouldn’t listen to “Closer” because they want to honor God’s love of art and aesthetic standards.

[19] Illicit as defined by God in His revealed Word.

[20] Joel R. Beeke and William Boekestein, Why Christ Came: 31 Reflections on the Incarnation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 43.

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6 thoughts on “Entertainment, Pop Music, and Christians

  1. […] There are things, many things, in fact, that should be avoided by those who are concerned about joyfully obeying the command to pursue holiness as an outworking of the salvation paid for by Jesus. To say otherwise is rejection of the Bible’s teaching. I’ve already made this argument in a previous article; with some minor editing, I’m going to “plagiarize” myself and repeat my previous argument (if you’re interested in reading the previous article, which gave rise to the article you’re currently reading, in fact, click on the link here). […]

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