I can remember the day I first heard the word “secular.”
I was in a van, headed to Christian camp with six other 13-year-old girls and two leaders.
About an hour into the drive, a couple of the girls broke out in song—a sappy R&B hit that had been playing everywhere that summer.
In the midst of our fun, I saw the two leaders swap a look from the front seat—a look I had never seen before, but would grow all too accustomed to in the coming years. After they exchanged the look, one of them spoke up.
“We need to not sing that song,” she said, eyeing us from the rearview mirror.
“Why?” asked one of my friends, who had only recently joined the youth group.
“Because it is secular,” the leader said. “Secular things do not honor God.”
I wasn’t sure what “secular” meant, but by the way she said it, it sounded very bad. No further explanation was provided. We were silenced under the premise of the song being secular, and we sung no longer.
This small moment marked the beginning of an era for me, in which I sought out solely Christian music in order to honor God. By that age, I had already been introduced to the Beatles, folk music and Broadway tunes, so I found it pretty painful to switch to the stuff the contemporary Christian music industry was churning out in the early 2000s. While I never did fully reform my taste in music, I was very careful to only play my Christian stuff around church leaders.
I even had a handy chart that was intended to help teens purge their secular music collection:
If you like: Eminem / Then try: DC Talk
If you like: Ben Folds Five / Then try: Plus One
If you like: Pearl Jam / Then try: Sonic Flood
If you like: Celine Dion / Then try: Jaci Velasquez
I took that chart to the Christian bookstore dozens of times, hoping to grow in holiness with each CD I purchased. Sometimes I’d throw in a Christian novel too.
I could write for days on my decade-long journey toward grace. But I’ll keep it short for now: After letting the labels “Christian” and “secular” pollute my mind for many years, I’ve finally found freedom to love art.
Here is what I have come to believe: God loves art—music included. And art that makes us happy or makes us think is glorifying to Him.
For many years now, I’ve known that I’m not dishonoring God by listening to beautiful music, even if the lyrics don’t explicitly worship Him. They don’t need to. When instruments dance and mingle, hanging poetry by a melody, that is worship.
I think most of us would agree that secular art isn’t “bad.” But I want to take that thought one step further. Permission to engage in secular art—and I hate even using that term—isn’t enough. I believe we are actually honoring to God when we do engage.
Art plays an important part in a life well lived.
A skilled painting, sculpture or photograph can make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions. Film can inspire us. Good literature can give us empathy for others outside our own limited realm and shed light on the triumph and destitution of the human condition. Great art points us to grace.
To be completely honest, The Grapes of Wrath spoke to me more than most Christian books I have read.
Who are we to say what is God’s and what is not?
I can hear the angry comments now. For the record, I’m not talking about “art” that perpetuates sexual violence or objectifies women—you know, that latest hit by what’s-his-name about conquering giant booty. I don’t need to give you a list. You are all intelligent enough to know the difference between art and trash.
But when we shy away from “non-Christian” art thinking we are godlier for it, we are closing ourselves off to the depths and heights of the human experience God intends us to live. We are closing ourselves off to others.
The Church is called to be set apart from the world, yes. But maybe that set apartness is supposed to be more in the way we show grace for people we dislike, or the way we treat others, not in what aspects of modern culture we eschew.
So I allow art to enrich my life. I read books about fascinating people and ideas, even ideas I disagree with. I watch films that challenge my thinking. I read The New Yorker (or at least pretend to, if I’m all caught up reading everything on the Internet). I admire murals and watercolor paintings and photography. I listen to the Avett Brothers and bluegrass and Celtic hymns. I thoroughly enjoy all of these artistic expressions, these slices of life as seen by hurting and healing people who are made in the image of love.
And I believe they all point to God.
Carly Gelsinger is a wife, mother to a 1-year-old girl and an overall mess maker. A former newspaper reporter, she now writes about rediscovering Jesus apart from her legalistic past, her chronic struggle with feeling like an oddball, motherhood, and her journey toward letting go. Follow her on Twitter @carlygelsinger, find her on Facebook or check out her blog.