When I was formulating a worldview of sex and sexuality – thinking about women and how to relate to them – I had a lot of help from Playboy. Starting very young, I was exposed to the explicit images of pornography from friends of mine whose fathers dabbled in the dark side of sex. This is an odd thing to think, but you have to remember that this was before the advent of the internet when explicit images of women were sought and bought quite purposefully and intentionally. That is to say it shouldn’t have been that easy to come by. But it was.
I don’t remember a lot of images that have passed before my eyes. I will have trouble detailing the particulars of what my coworkers were wearing today. I can’t even recall what color the bridesmaids wore in the wedding I officiated this past Saturday. But I don’t think I will ever forget the image of my first centerfold. I know what color the woman’s hair was, the sheet, the pose, the whole thing. She was holding a book and if the book had had a title, I probably would have been able to tell you that too. And I wasn’t even in middle school. The power of the pornographic image is unmistakable.
In this age, it has become almost accepted that men (and women, too) will look at pornography. My job as a pastor is to tell you that looking at pornographic images is bad. But most people don’t feel bad when they look at pornography. Most people look at pornography because it feels good. It is an entirely solitary way to experience what God meant for us to experience together. Sex and sexuality, from a Christian perspective, is never something experienced alone. The loneliness of the man and the Lord declaring something “not good” tells us that he was lacking something to complete the experience of humanity. That he needed more than just a sexual partner is absolutely true. But it is also absolutely true that he needed a sexual partner. Sex, as it turns out, isn’t a solo flight.
Yet porn, in its alluring way, has offered us just this – solo sex. It comes in any flavor, with anybody, doing anything imaginable, and mostly for free and without the pesky involvement of something I like to call “other people”. The effect on sex and sexuality is devastating. Naomi Wolf, a feminist critic I’m told, makes this comment. “The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women…. For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.”
One of my favorite worship leaders, Bob Kauflin, tells the story of a Christian woman serving the Lord in South Africa. On one occasion, she was visiting a health clinic and heard the beautiful and “haunting” harmonies of some Zulu women singing. She asked, with tears in her eyes, if anyone knew what the words of the song were. Her translator and friend said, “Sure. If you boil the water, you won’t get dysentery.”
Music can move us emotionally even if the words of the song are totally inappropriate. That may be one of the worst things the American church has adopted in the way of evaluating good music. Many times we don’t care what the song is saying as long as it makes us feel good. Sadly, we apply this evaluation to some of the best Christian songs and hymns. I’ve heard men and women in the church completely clobber majestic hymns or praise songs just because it doesn’t fit their sensibilities or preference. It can be difficult for us to look into the message of a song if the vehicle carrying that message isn’t up to our tastes.
I’ve never been a part of a church that engaged in the so-called “worship wars” – where church members decide to be divisive over the style of music sung. Part of this is because I personally have a love for any song of the church, old or new, that has a strong doctrinal and theological foundation. Very rarely do I find myself drawn to a song simply because of it’s sound. I’m much more interested in the words. When we hear a song that may not be right down our alley, it is good to ask ourselves, “What am I saying about God or to God in this song?” This is so helpful because it draws our attention to the real purpose of singing in corporate worship. It helps us to get past the fact that we “feel” like the song is too stodgy or too upbeat and focus on the praise and thanksgiving we are giving to God through it.
I can remember the first time I heard a song by Sovereign Grace Ministries called Soli Deo Gloria. I was excited to hear it because I had read the words and my heart agreed with everything in the song. Yet when the song began to play on my car stereo, I was dismayed to hear the echoes of some tacky hair-metal band straight out of the 80’s! The song’s style was completely cheesy and the vocalist didn’t help much by continually screaming his part at the end of the song. I must confess that I didn’t even make it through the entire song the first time. Even now, it isn’t a song that I would regularly listen to, but I have grown to appreciate the deep message of the lyrics and even accept them in the style offered on the CD. And believe me, for me to rock out to some 80’s hair-metal song while singing one of the cornerstone truths of our protestant heritage is really saying something indeed.
Be very concerned about the words you are singing in worship. Engage with your worship leader on every song. Think deeply about what you are saying and be moved deeply in your praise to the God who has given us music. He has commanded us to sing His praises (Psalm 33:1,3; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). So sing them with your brain engaged and your heart on fire!