Part 1 of this series examined the coming out of Tonéx, viewed against a broad history of Christian music in general. Part 2 of the series examined the cultural definition of gospel music, and saw Tonéx as its first reality star.
Here in Part 3, we must dig deeper, ask harder questions, and more importantly, find solid answers. Extensive as it has been, this series was designed not as an exhaustive resource of definitive answers, but a series of solid ideas from which some of these questions can be answered.
If we’re honest and observant, we see the truth found in Scripture illuminated by what we see around us.
Not About Salvation, but Definition
Here is an important caveat.
Liberal theologians, gospel music fans, and critical readers might be tempted to attack this series as being overly judgmental. Some might feel that asking these kinds of questions is tantamount to questioning Tonéx‘s salvation. This accusation seems especially galling considering his church heritage.
But the issue is not eternal salvation. Hebrews 9:27 assures us that eternal judgment happens after a person dies, and it’s not our job to be the arbiter of such salvation. That is a matter between a person and the Almighty. And according to Romans 10:9, if a person confesses and believes, then they are saved. Based on that basic rubric, it seems Tonéx is a Christian.
But that doesn’t help us answer the question of whether his past, present or future musical offerings can or should be classified as Christian music.
See, in the most literal sense, there is no such thing as Christian music, and there never has been.
It impossible for an inanimate, intangible article of intellectual property to come to a saving relationship with Christ Jesus. A song can be no more Christian than a radio, a Frisbee, or a lawnmower.
So when we talk about Christian music, it’s important to have a clear definition of what we mean. Many of the common cultural clashes regarding music written and recorded by and for Christian people stem mostly from misunderstood terms and mismatched expectations.
In 1998, the Gospel Music Association issued a fourfold definition to address the issue of lyrics in songs to be nominated for their annual awards show. In order to be eligible, songs had to be:
• Substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible
• An expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and /or
• Testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or
• Obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view
Based on this criteria, a lot of the music that has been marketed as Christian would be excluded, which is why the GMA eventually rescinded this definition in favor of something less restrictive.
Nevertheless, when most people refer to “Christian music,” they are talking about music with lyrics that, regardless of style, meet one or several of these benchmarks.
Yet, these criteria are still subject to interpretation. Denominations and faith movements have been established, split, and evolved across generations over the particulars of what orthodox Christian truth is, or which ideas can safely be said to be prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.
And even if we agreed on all the particulars, how can we verify all of this in the context of a four-minute song?
In order to satisfy the requirements of nervous parents, youth pastors, and other evangelical gatekeepers, record labels always included biographical information in the press packets and liner notes of the artists they promoted. The idea was, if the lyrics of the songs didn’t convince you that the music was truly Christian, than details of their story could help nudge you off the fence.
But the problem with that approach is found in Romans 11:29, often cited as part of the doctrine of immutability, that God doesn’t change. In particular, this verse asserts that when God gives a gift, he gives it without possibility of being revoked. If He says it, He gives it, then it will come to fruition. Like the popular Tonéx lyric, it means that when it comes to His promises, “ .”
So if God has given someone an anointing to play an instrument skillfully, that anointing doesn’t necessarily leave just because the person is being disobedient in the particulars of how and when that instrument should be played. The King James Version renders that verse as saying that the gifts and callings are given “without repentance.”
We see this clearly as we survey the life of Old Testament patriarch David. The Bible refers to him as a man after God’s own heart, despite many documented examples of David’s disobedience. And the fact that the lineage of Jesus runs through the house of David shows that God kept his promises to David, despite the fact that David wasn’t always faithful to Him.
As it was then, so it is today.
The implications of this idea help explain why some evangelical figures start off ministering in prominence, but end up veering off the path of theological credibility. You can be anointed or gifted in a particular area, say, singing or preaching, and people might continue to respond well to that singing or preaching, regardless of what your actual message is. Though there are always consequences for sin, it’s possible for anointing or gifting to stay in effect despite errant belief or habitual patterns of sin.
(See: Pearson, Carlton)
A Closer Look at “That’s When”
This is a sobering thought, and though it shouldn’t result in a witch hunt, so to speak, it should give us pause to examine the messages in the so-called Christian music that many of us ingest, day after day.
With that in mind, consider some of the lyrics to a popular Tonéx slow-jam called “” from his O2 album (also available in Auto-Tuned, remixed, R&B form ):
All alone, sittin’ thinkin’ here by myself / contemplatin’ bout my life, chewin’ on my nails / Can’t afford to break down, gotta be a man / ain’t the richest guy around, but I do what I can / how it’s gonna go down, homie don’t ask me / I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity / that’s when, that’s when you bless me / that’s when, that’s when you rescue / me from, the pain and the heartache / that’s when, that’s when
For a long time, this was one of my favorite Tonéx songs. The words, and the manner in which they’re sung, indicate a mature believer struggling under the weight of financial responsibility, holding out hope that God will provide.
Yet, if you look closely, there are signs of faith that are sincere, yet not quite Biblical. Consider the last line of the verse, “I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity.”
Reciprocity is a relationship of mutual dependence or action or influence, or a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The use of this word right before the chorus implies that Tonéx expects, or at least desires, a reciprocal relationship from God. When he prays, the song suggests, God will answer with a blessing.
Yet, that’s not the typical relationship with God that we see on display throughout the breadth of the Scriptures.
For every passage like Deuteronomy 15:4-6, where God promises financial blessing in exchange for obedience, there are also passages like Romans 9:14-16, which quotes Exodus 33:19-20. Both of these are about God’s sovereignty, how He will show mercy to whomever He wants, independent of anything or anyone else. Not only that, but there are plenty of examples of times when folks in the Bible have prayed and not gotten what they wanted, including Jesus Himself.
So compared to most of the music that you hear on urban radio stations today, “That’s When” is wonderful. There is no crass innuendo, and it even mentions prayer. Yet, examined against the light of the Scripture, the song still fails to communicate the truth as completely as possible.
Fact is, it’s hard to derive a full and comprehensive Christian worldview from just one song, and one song shouldn’t have to represent the entirety of what an artist stands for. But this one song has many of the same characteristics as a lot of contemporary gospel music – vapid, churchy, positive-thinking clichés, formatted with catchy hooks and solid production value.
Which leaves the song, and a lot of songs like it, in a place of doctrinal limbo. It’s still probably better than listening to most contemporary R&B, but it falls short of communicating the truth of the gospel in an accurate and meaningful way.
Still More Questions
Measured against the fourfold (temporary) GMA definition of gospel music, some Tonéx songs are unabashedly gospel. Others, not so much. Much of his catalog, dare I say, most… is somewhere in the middle. And how we respond to his music depends a lot on our expectations and what we’re looking for.
So the questions remain:
What should those expectations be? How can we tell which songs are worth listening to for the purpose of edification, and which ones aren’t?
More importantly, how should listeners evaluate which songs and artists are worth listening to or investing in?
Stay tuned for the final installment of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.