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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

"Firework" in Church

  • Dr. James Emery White
    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
  • 2011 Jul 05
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Did your church use Katy Perry’s song “Firework” this past weekend?  Many did (or already had in earlier weeks).  In many ways, it was irresistible.  A hit song titled “Firework,” a 4th of July weekend, seemingly innocent lyrics about reaching your potential, and the desire of many churches to use music to connect with contemporary culture for the sake of Christ.

Was that “okay?”

Let me begin by saying I have no intention of slamming the ones who did.  That was their decision, and many churches (and church leaders) I know and respect used the song.

But I wish they hadn’t.

One of the most frequent questions I get from church leaders has to do with the specifics of making choices related to connecting with culture.  What songs can, or should, be used?  What videos should be shown?  What illustrations, or language, in a talk is permissible?  It’s a challenging question, as each specific has its own set of dynamics to be considered.

Let’s use Katy Perry’s “Firework” as a case study, a song which Meck did not – and at this point, would not – use.  It’s not the lyrics (we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it had been about her first hit, “Kissed a Girl”); it’s not even Katy, though she has drifted more than a bit from her evangelical roots (though I appreciate her recent “Jesus” tattoo). 

The problem with “Firework” is the video for the song and its purposeful attempt to make the lyrics about the acceptance and promotion of a homosexual lifestyle.  A story within the video portrays a young man finally breaking free and kissing another young man to fulfill his sense of identity and become the person he was made to be.

Little wonder it has become a gay anthem. 

Some will say, “I didn’t know about the video!”  But that’s one of the points; you should have.  No church or leader should use a song without a full understanding of its cultural significance. 

In our day, songs are not just songs.  The video that accompanies the song, as well as the artists themselves, provides a narrative context that cannot be ignored or disconnected from the music itself.  To say that a video is irrelevant to a song in terms of its message is culturally naïve at best and ignorant at worst. 

Songs have a message, they carry a context, they convey a meaning; just consider how strongly some artists object to politicians using their songs at campaign rallies.  Michele Bachmann wanted to enter to “American Girl” and Tom Petty quickly put an end to that.  Why?  Songs are not just songs; if not already, they can become part of a larger message, and that larger message is something real and significant.       

Churches typically fall into one of two extremes when wrestling with this dynamic. The first is to ban secular music entirely, considering all of it to be tainted. The second takes the liberty of using any "tainted" music and simply applying it in the context they desire.

For balance, let’s go to the quintessential cultural subversive, Daniel, who lived boldly and convincingly for God in the midst of the deeply pagan Babylonian culture of his day. 

Daniel accepted many things when he was brought in to serve his new king:  a new name, a new language, a new educational curriculum, a new job…but strangely, he drew the line at a select menu of food and drink offered by the king at the king’s table.

Why?

In the ancient near eastern culture of Daniel’s time, to share someone’s food at their table – officially, in preparation for service – was to swear loyalty to them.  It bore covenant significance.  To eat such food would be to enter into a relationship that would express allegiance - or an obligation, of loyalty - to the Babylonian king above all other kings.  That was a line Daniel would not, and could not, cross; his allegiance was to God and God alone.

What Daniel modeled was doing everything he could to settle in and position himself as a player for transforming his culture, and even accepting numerous cultural adaptations and amendments to his own life and culture, while preserving that which was essential to his faith.

That is the line we must not cross.  It is one thing to attempt to build a bridge into culture; it is another to mirror it – or even worse, give tacit approval of its message.  So for our case study, use secular songs as they make sense; don’t use one that conveys a strongly anti-Christian message that compromises the gospel. 

And there are such songs…songs that carry such a strong and specific cultural message that they cannot be separated from that message.  At this point, “Firework” – through video and subsequent usage – has entered that domain. 

That is, of course, our culture’s prerogative.

But it is our prerogative not to use it in church.

James Emery White

Editor’s Note

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