To engage or not to engage: responding to ungodliness in music

When depravity is masqueraded as 'avant-garde art', how do we, as listeners and practitioners, respond? e.g. stark-naked dancers masturbating onstage, and porn being screened on the projector during an opera premiere at the Salzburg Festpiele. Obviously all art forms throughout the centuries have engaged with sinful content, but that does not negate the degree to which depravity is normalised in some new music artworks. Refusing to engage with anything ‘un-Godly’ is difficult as a practitioner when it feels like a large part of the repertoire can fall into this category.

This is one of the thorny topics that was discussed at the Music Network's experimental/contemporary/new music colloquium on 29th February 2020. Huge thanks to Mark Hutchinson, Churen Li, Rebecca Reavley, Tyrone Isaac-Stuart, Kerry Yong and Charlie Watkins who joined us for the colloquium and brought the following ideas to the table. I hope you find them helpful as you navigate music from all genres and eras.

God can use ‘un-Godly’ artwork

Churen Li shared how, after attending the aforementioned opera premiere (with the nakedness, masturbation and pornography), she had wonderfully open discussions with her peers about faith and a biblical view of sex. Regardless of their religious beliefs, most of them recognised that something seemed wrong about how humanity and sexuality was portrayed in the opera and that led to good conversations about faith. This doesn't mean we should seek out shocking scenes as conversation starters, but it is encouraging to be reminded that God is sovereign over everything and can turn something intended for evil into good! [1]

Painful honesty

There are truly shocking narratives in the Bible that do no censor depraved, sinful actions. The book of Judges is full of deeply disturbing situations, such as a woman being abused all night by a group of men, then found dead on the doorstep by her husband who cut her into twelves pieces and sent them the twelve tribes of Israel.[2] The Bible is not censorious about such depravity; it is honest. The content is shocking but the tone seems deadpan; it is a truthfully, well-written narrative that does not revel in the gore and the darkness.[3] The same can be done in art that truthfully shows us the fallenness of the world for the sake of honesty rather than sensationalism.

Truth is often warped; sinful actions are portrayed as good or desirable. Being painfully honest about depravity will portray it as wrong and damaging instead. International opera singer Constance Fee was given a chance to do this when she was cast as Carmen only shortly after returning to the Lord following several prodigal years. Initially she wasn’t sure why God had given her that role – it seemed very 'un-Christian'! However, she clearly felt God leading her to perform the role to the full and, in so doing, to show what can happen to a life that is not devoted to following Him. The stage director was so impressed by her interpretation that she was asked to play Carmen for the premiere even though she was third cast, and unbeknownst to her at the time, this stopped her being fired, which had been the theatre director’s plan! Led by God, she portrayed Carmen from a completely different perspective for many different productions in many countries, showing sin as damaging and degrading rather than sexy and appealing.  Not everyone can make such decisions, but it is a wonderful example of being painfully honest about depravity. (To hear more of Constance Fee’s remarkable testimony, listen to this episode of the Music Network podcast, Spotlight.)

Titillating or challenging

A good question to ask is, ‘is this piece of art aiming to be titillating or challenging?’ Sometimes a composer or director tries to convey something honest about the world that they feel needs to be presented in a challenging and uncomfortable way. There is biblical precedent for this: Isaiah prophesied naked for three years and Ezekiel lay on his side and cooked his food over dung for more than a year.[4] God instructed both of these prophets to do these shocking things in order to share His warning and message, even though these actions were deeply transgressive in the prophets’ cultures.

Though obviously not in the same category as Old Testament prophecy, some art can be similarly transgressive in order to challenge and confront wrong that is being done in the world. A Royal Opera House production of Rossini's William Tell changed a scene where local women are made to dance for the invading soldiers to a scene of more explicit, distressing abuse. The audience booed the scene, critics called it ‘crass’ and ‘gratuitous’, and personally I would have been very distressed had I been in the audience. However, the director explained that, ‘the production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war’.[5] The scene was meant to be shocking and uncomfortable rather than sensuous or titillating. Perhaps the real verdict on this scene does not depend on whether the audience approved of it, but whether it raised public awareness of this brutal reality that might lead to increased aid and protection for vulnerable women. This example shows that it is an ethically complex field. As Christian musicians, we need not be immediately censorious of depraved content if it is used as a call for social justice.

On the other hand, some art simply uses depraved or distressing content to titillate for cheap shock factor. I am sure we can all think of music set in brothels that makes them seem like wonderful, life-affirming places where a good time is had by all. As a flautist, I am caught in a conundrum about how to approach Piazzolla’s jolly, bubbly piece for flute and guitar called Bordel 1900 for this reason. A pleasant, enticing depiction of brothels may titillate or just amuse an audience whilst covering up the real issues surrounding prostitution and human trafficking that loom sickeningly large in the world.  

Sometimes flee!

Lust

Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eyes causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.[6]

These stark words remind us that we must guard our own hearts and prioritise our personal purity and sanctification. Perhaps we want to engage with a piece of art because it honestly challenges social injustice, but if it causes us to stumble in our godliness or tempts us to sin, even in our hearts, we must flee temptation. Keep praying and keep accountable to other Christians about the art you are involved in, particularly if you know it may lead to temptation. As we keep one another accountable, it is important to remember that everyone has different sensitivities to naked bodies such that some can paint wonderful life drawings without lust and others should avert their eyes as they pass a lingerie shop.

Cynicism and darkness

Lust isn’t the only temptation, for example Ted Turnau discusses how at school he found that being immersed in the music of Pink Floyd encouraged him to cultivate an attitude of alienation and cynicism about others. He writes:

I had a choice: nourish and cultivate that attitude of cynicism towards my brothers and sisters in Christ or give up the music. So I gave up listening to that music for a couple of years until I had matured to a place where I didn’t struggle in that way. And I was glad that I did.[7]

Certain music may also tempt us to unhelpful anger, violence, or laziness. Ted Turnau also points out that sometimes things are so sick and twisted, we feel that we just can’t engage with them, even though they offer no temptation, and again we’ll all have different sensitivities for darkness and degradation.[8]

The emotional price tag

Know the emotional price tag’ is another rule of thumb that Ted Turnau gives for deciding what to engage with. He writes:

Even if a piece of popular culture [or in our case any sort of music] doesn’t tempt or degrade, it still carries an emotional core that can have a powerful impact….The effects on your own mood can linger for days, even weeks, like an unwanted houseguest.[9]

If we are taking part in a production or recording project, the effect it may have on your mood could even linger for months. It can make us irritable with other people, feel alienated, suspicious, jumpy, or very downhearted as we take on the emotions presented in the music we are working with. Everyone has different emotional sensitivities. For example, mine are incredibly fragile so being distressed because of music makes me distressed about the whole of life for a long time, whereas my husband Tom seems to compartmentalise his emotions so his moods connected to music don’t impact the whole of his life in the same way. As a result there are lots of things that I would flee from but that Tom needn’t (though he often does just to keep me company!)

Exploitation

Another good question to ask is, ‘Is someone being exploited here?’ For example, in a recent production of Carmen the female chorus were asked to only wear nipple tassels and risked a pay cut if they didn’t comply. There is obvious exploitation going on here, as the director puts women (who are on relatively low and unstable incomes) in what could be an uncomfortable or demeaning situation that may in turn cause others to lust. What would you do if you were a member of the chorus? Likewise, we met a Christian student who was training as a pop singer and was told by a teacher that if all the men in the audience didn’t want to have sex with her, she hadn’t done her job. There is a big difference between this obvious degradation and exploitation and an artist choosing to take on a potentially compromising role because they want to make a point to society. There is growing opposition in society to the objectification and exploitation of women, particularly in the film industry. Let’s hope and pray it continues!

Be a Daniel

Whilst exiled in Babylon, Daniel was constantly confronted with actions that went against his beliefs. Like us, he couldn't completely opt out of everything: he worked in an environment of idol worship, immorality, fortune-tellers and magicians who acted contrary to God's commands. Daniel continued to get down onto his knees and pray to the Lord three times a day even though it was banned and he was thrown into the lions' den for it![10]  There were some Babylonian practices, such as eating food offered to idols and bowing down to the golden idol, from which he chose to flee because of his faith, even though the consequences could be dire. He did engage in other practices, but only in a way that acknowledged God’s Lordship. For example, he interpreted the king's dreams – a form of fortune-telling – but made it clear that God had given him the interpretations. He said to the king, ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.[11] The dream became God's prophecy and not a way of inflating Daniel’s own importance or taking control over the future.[12] He connected with the culture around him but simultaneously challenged it, pointing it to God. How might we create and respond to music in this way?

In the world of music, we are called to be distinctive like Daniel was. Keep praying, keep accountable to other Christians, flee from sin, and when possible speak truthfully about the world we are in and God’s view of it with the aim of fighting against social injustice and making Jesus known. Be a Daniel.

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[1] cf. Genesis 50:20

[2] Judges 12 - the entire story is even worse.

[3] Particular thanks to Kerry Yong for these reflections based on Judges.

[4] Isaiah 20 and Ezekiel 4

[6] Matthew 5:27-30 (ESV)

[7] Ted Turnau, Popologetics, (P&R Publishing Company, 2012), 101.

[8] ibid, 101-102.

[9] ibid, 102-103.

[10] Daniel 6

[11] Daniel 2:27-28

[12] Particular thanks to Mark Hutchinson for this discussion of Daniel.

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