Is My Music Warping My Child? My Response

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A few weeks back I posted a question from Coal Miner’s Daughter, a mother who asked whether she, like her parents did before her, should play country music in front of her child. (Her question can be read here.) Y’all gave your responses. Here are my thoughts on the question.

When I was a very young boy, I came under the fiery chastisement of my grandmother because I was singing Conway Twitty songs. I think the song in question contained the lyrics, “I can tell you’ve never been this far before.” Or maybe it was the Twitty classic, “Darlin’, how I love to lay you down.” Whichever it was, she told me it was “nasty.” I can remember wondering how on earth songs about geography or napping could be “nasty.”

Sometime in my teens, I was humming along with Mr. Twitty and stopped to think: “Oh. Wait. I get it now.” And then I didn’t want to see my grandmother for at least six months or until I had completely forgotten about Conway Twitty, whichever came first.

My grandmother probably understood what you seem to: that music is powerful. It can embed concepts in the heart in ways that prose simply can’t. I tear up when I hear the song “Just As I Am” because it reaches me in ways beyond the purely rational. There’s a reason advertisers sell us “free” credit reports with catchy jingles, a reason why the old Arian heresy was put to music. Music reaches, and music persists.

A Christian shouldn’t be surprised by that. Perhaps the very first song-like expression we see in the pages of Scripture is Adam’s poetic exultation in the creation of his bride: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man” (Gen. 2:23). Of course, immediately thereafter, the evil Lamech offers another song-like set of lyrics (Gen. 4:23-24) when he boasts about his polygamy, his vengeance, and his murder of a man who fought with him. (This is kind of the Hebrew equivalent of “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”)

There are some forms of music (country, blues, hip-hop) which, by definition, deal with life as it is lived, with all the pain and sin and grittiness that’s part of the world east of Eden.

What you’re concerned about, as you should be, is the moral imagination of your child. You don’t want divorce or adultery or drunkenness to be “normalized” for him, in song, much less celebrated. That’s why, I think, the indiscriminate use of any kind of media for young children is to be avoided. You are in control (or should be) of what your children read, watch, and hear. That means you should be strategic about what your child hears, and the context you give to it.

There is some music (of any genre) that just shouldn’t be listened to at all. There’s not much of Toby Keith or Hank Williams Jr. that my boys have heard, and they’ll never hear David Allen Coe in my house. But there are many artists that raise issues that make you squirm that still ought to be heard.

Now, I know there are some who would tell you the way to avoid the problem is to do away with “secular” music. But what is secular music? Does the Bible anywhere command us to limit artistic expression only to “spiritual” things? There are songs and poems in the Scripture itself that speak of things ranging from murder to marital sex to the beauty of nature, and so forth.

Moreover, the “Christian” music industry is often, I think, more damaging to children than some secular forms of musical expression. Much of what plays on commercial Christian radio presents an antiseptic view of life, and often as well a trivialized vision of Jesus and the gospel.

Too often, what people want is not a more Christian vision of life but a happier, sanitized vision of life. These are the people who would think the Song of Solomon to be obscene, if it weren’t safely sequestered in the pages of the canon where they can’t get to it. And they’re the people who complain to the pastor that his David and Goliath message was “too violent” for little Connor’s sensibilities.

But this prudence doesn’t mean sheltering your child from the dark side of life and from the consequences of sin, even in lyrical form. Quite the contrary. Part of the power of temptation, after all, is to mystify sin as that which is forbidden and thus desirable (see the serpent’s line of questioning in Genesis 3). The sin is then presented as being free from future consequences (again, listen to the snake’s words).

The Bible takes the opposite tack. God never glorifies sin. He tells us about it honestly, including the fact that it is often temporarily pleasurable (Heb. 11:25), and then he shows us the wages sin demands.

Think, for instance, of the father’s counsel to his son in Proverbs 7 about sexual immorality. The father describes, in poetic detail, what leads up to such an encounter, why it would seem to be so desirable. But he gives the telescopic view of the sin, including the deadly end (Prov. 7:22-23).

I find it helpful to listen with my boys to, for example, Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” and talk through the consequences of falling for temptation. We’ve listened to George Jones’ “Still Doin’ Time” and talked about how drunkenness enslaves and, ultimately, destroys. A song that presents sin, and even describes the powerful enticement toward sin, is perfectly fine in our home, as long as the consequences are seen as well. In many cases, country music (and some other art forms) present what few ever see in our culture: songs of lament from sinners about the consequences of sin. Combined with parental instruction, this could provide opportunity both to teach discernment about sin and to teach compassion for our fellow sinners.

Sometimes my boys and I will listen to songs with a viewpoint I don’t agree with, as an exercise in learning why people think the way they do. For instance, we listened to Brad Paisley’s song “I Wish You’d Stay” while I explained how awful divorce is, and how glad I am that God’s plan is for lifelong marriage, how thankful I am for their mother, and so forth. And, when listening to Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way,” I asked questions to help them think through why the singer might feel so exasperated, but also why children are a blessing from the Lord.

If done in the context of relationship, such conversations can give insight into my children may never otherwise see up close, lives that might seem alluring one day from the outside. I want to give them, in an age appropriate way, an inside view along with all the false promises and illusory hopes waiting out there.

In some ways, then, the music my boys and I listen to becomes what country music often is, something of an Ecclesiastes set to music. Sex, drink, money, power; it’s all vanity in the end. But, like Ecclesiastes, I want to leave them with the word of exhortation at the end: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 12:1).

And, as for Conway Twitty, my boys listen to “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” but that’s about it these days. Thanks Grandma.

What’s your ethical dilemma? Send me an email at [email protected]

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).