Christian Bands and Biases

As my teen years ended, my interest in music dropped off. I still enjoyed listening to it, but I no longer bothered to learn the lyrics to songs I liked. These days, I tend not to pay attention to what the musicians are actually singing. This has led to some very odd moments where I only paid attention to a song’s lyrics on a whim and discovered it was about something completely different than I’d thought.

For example, a few months ago I listened to a song I had liked for years and realized what it was actually about. It wasn’t a deep metaphor I found, but what the singer was literally saying. The song was explicitly anti-neo-nazi, and I loved it even more after realizing that.

Sometimes it goes the other way though, I pay attention to a song I own and realize the lyrics are very preachy and full of condemnation for anyone who doesn’t share their religious faith. As much as I actively seek out opinions different to my own, I’m not a big fan of being preached to by religions I don’t believe in.

It was while looking up to the lyrics to a song about god by my favorite music artist that I fell into one of those infamous internet time holes. You know, the ones were you click a couple links and then glance at the clock and realize two hours have gone by. I found myself reading about musicians in Christian rock bands objecting to being called “Christian bands.” Reading their arguments was a lot like being in the room when an incredibly privileged person is called “privileged” by someone. Then comes a strange combination of denial and doubling down.

I spent a few more hours reflecting on what delineates a religious music group from a non-religious one, and I think I figured it out in a way that is useful for teaching. Or not. It might be a bit of a stretch.

One good point the groups in question made was stating that just being Christian didn’t mean everything they did was going to be religious. That is true, but the reason these bands were called “Christian bands” was not because the members shared a religious belief, but because they put it in their music. Mentioning something from a religion isn’t enough, because many religious metaphors don’t need any kind of belief. Saying something is “hell on earth” doesn’t need a speaker or listener to believe in a literal hell to be understandable. To determine whether a band should really be called a “Christian band” when they’re not just making songs about Jesus, I thought of a question. Regardless of whether the religious stuff is implicit or explicit, would it still be presented that way if the creator was not religious?

I would ask those artists the following: if you think about all of your songs with any religious themes or references, would you have written them in that way if you did not believe in that religion? Or put another way, could you swap out the religious references with something you know is not real (replace “god” or “Jesus” with “Santa Klaus” or “Tooth Fairy”) and not lose your intention?

For example, if a song changed “she sang like an angel” to “she sang like a siren” the simile about her having a wonderful voice would still be there. The artist doesn’t need to believe in angels to make that kind of comparison. However, changing “god is on my side” to “the Tooth Fairy is on my side” doesn’t work in the same way.

The issue I found with many of these Christian bands was that they took their own beliefs for granted. They didn’t think they were making Christian music, because their music was only Christian incidentally. The trouble with biases is that being unintentional doesn’t mean they’re not real. It’s like when someone makes a comment about everyone in a particular ethnic group looking the same and not realizing that was racist.

So where is that tenuous connection with teaching I was going to make? Yup, you’ve reached it. A few months ago I was teaching politics and had to present a very over-simplified version of the main political positions of the world in general. Based on a lot of research, I wrote about two main “sides” that my students could use in the lesson.

As I wrote about the positions, I realized that my own political views would necessarily bias my perspective on the way I approached it. I then considered, if my views were the opposite of the way they are, would I still present the material like this?

Okay, so you should be thinking at this point “No shit Sherlock. That’s called ‘seeing things from a different perspective’ or ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.’”

The problem is that I suck at that. I can barely relate to people on my best days, I can’t get out of my own head. I tried looking at my political lesson from the opposite perspective and thought it looked exactly the same. The negative points about my imagined position weren’t offensive because they were factually true. It looked weaker than the other side because it was. I got nowhere with that exercise, and had to resort to asking another teacher to check my biases for me and then presenting my lesson to my students extremely carefully.

Analogies, on the other hand, work well for me. Next time I’ll remember the Christian bands who tried to claim overtly religious lyrics were spiritually neutral, and replace my metaphorical Jesus with a Tooth Fairy to see how my own assumptions turn out.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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