Keith Getty’s Problem with Modern Christian Music

I recently read an interview with Keith Getty, a song-writer most famous for writing the modern hymn In Christ Alone (one of my favorites), and his concern over modern Christian music calling it “utterly dangerous” contributing to the “de-Christianizing of God’s people,” focused on “catharsis” and “cultural relevance”.

As someone who believes there are legitimate issues with music played on Christian radio today, I was curious to read what Getty had to say. Click HERE to real the full article.

Unfortunately, The Christian Post wrote an article lacking in depth that was necessary for such a bold claim by Getty. The reporter seemed more interested in promoting Getty’s newest Christmas album, than digging into the ethics of modern Christian music.

I decided to write this article because I believe if you are going to publicly criticize an entire generation/genre of music, and say you, “have no quibbles saying, ‘Enough is enough.’” You should be more specific in your explanation than, “Many worship songs are focused on this Earth,” and unsubstantiated, unfounded claims like the one quoted below:

Over 75 percent of what are called the great hymns of the faith talk about eternity, Heaven, Hell, and the fact that we have peace with God. Yet, less than 5 percent of modern worship songs talk about eternity.

Keith Getty

Getty says that themes of “eternity, Heaven, Hell, and the fact that we have peace with God” are not found in most modern worship songs. However, if we look at any of the most popular Christian artists such as Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Chris Tomlin, or Hillsong, we regularly find these themes throughout their albums.

So, what is Getty really upset about?

In Getty’s most popular song, In Christ Alone, which I mentioned above, there is a famous (or infamous) lyric:

“Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

This line is referring to a particular theory on how humans get saved called “Penal Substitution.” Some famous theologians who preach Penal Substitution are John Piper, John Stott, and J.I. Packer.

In the Penal Substitution model, Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, making all of humanity fully guilty for their sin. Sin always provokes God’s wrath, and in order for his wrath to be “satisfied,” he must punish sin with death. So, Jesus, who was completely blameless for sin, is punished in humanity’s place so that humans – if they put their faith in Jesus – can be seen as righteous in God’s eyes and escape their deserved punishment.

So, when Getty refers to “sound doctrine,” “Scriptural truths,” “the God of the Bible,” or “eternity, heaven, hell, and the fact that we have peace with God,” he has a very specific way of understanding these concepts, one that is not shared by everyone. “The Great Hymns of the Faith,” as Getty defines them, are ones that specifically mention these phrases and mean them the way Getty does: in the framework of Penal Substitution.

However, as I just mentioned, the view of Penal Substitution is not a universally supported one. Many theologians have other interpretations of the Gospel message including prominent theologians and Bible scholars such as N.T. Wright, Douglas Campbell, and Richard Hays.

To illustrate the differences, I have included links to an article by John Piper who interprets the book of Romans HERE. And another, summarizing the work of Douglas Campbell, who interprets the same passage in a completely different way, see HERE.

In fact, Getty’s line is so controversial, PCUSA (The Presbyterian Church USA) had the line changed to “the love of God was magnified.”

N.T. Wright, an influential evangelical scholar, even directly refutes Getty’s line:

“It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.”

N.T. Wright

Are these dissenting interpretations aimed at “catharsis” as Getty says? Are they tampering with an “authentic picture of the God of the Bible?” Absolutely not. These theologians are famous for their rigorous study of the bible. They have simply come to a different conclusion than those who agree with Getty.

I do not mean to suggest that truth is relative, or that all interpretations are equally valid, but the theologians who disagree with Penal Substitution did not arrive at these positions flippantly; they have legitimate disagreements with the theory.

Even the earliest interpreters of the Bible, those who first articulated central Christian doctrines like the trinity and the divinity of Christ, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great, or St. Athanasius, have a very different framework for understanding the Gospel than Getty.

Without broaching who’s interpretation is correct (there are dozens of entire books dedicated to the topic), I would like to point out more is that since the view of Penal Substitution is not a view universally accepted among Christians, it is unfair of Getty to say that such songs are simply striving for “cultural relevance” when it may be that they are both thoroughly immersed in the language of the Bible, but have different frameworks in which they read it.

Other Worthy Topics

When it comes to covering theological pillars of Christian faith, I agree that it is important. But, in a book that is actually a compilation of over 60 books, there is a lot of material to sing about.

Keith suggests that the proof of the “great hymns of the faith” superiority over modern worship songs is that the former frequently mentions eternity, while the latter does not. However, his standard would even discredit the Psalms. The writer of the Psalms had no concept of reward or punishment in the afterlife, or eschatological deliverance. Those concepts had not yet been introduced to the Jewish people.

Getty’s “heaven, hell, eternity and peace we have with God,” standard fails to recognize that there are many songs which do not mention these themes but are still firmly rooted in Scripture. He claims that many modern songs are all about “Earth”, but the Scriptures have much to say about earthly things. For example, a key pillar of the New Testament is to serve the neighbor, the poor, and lowly; an earthly calling.

Look at Leeland’s song “Follow You” which landed on No. 18 of Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs. The song has no mention of “eternity, heaven, hell, or the peace we have with God,” only of serving one’s neighbor as Christ commanded, which of course, is a central Biblical theme.

You live among the least of these
The weary and the weak
And it would be a tragedy
For me to turn away
All my needs You have supplied
When I was dead You gave me life
So how could I not give it away so freely?

I'll Follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy God
Follow You into the world

Use my hands use my feet
To make Your kingdom come
To the corners of the earth
Until Your work is done
Faith without works is dead
On the cross Your blood was shed
So how could we not give it away so freely?

Follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy God
Follow You into the world

Follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy God
Follow You into the world

I give all myself, I give all myself
I give all myself to You
I give all myself, I give all myself
I give all myself to You

Follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy God
Follow You into the world
Follow You into the homes of the broken
Follow You into the world
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy God

A Place for Catharsis

Getty is quoted saying “An authentic generation doesn’t begin with catharsis; it has to begin with an authentic picture of the God of the Bible.” However, I would like to direct your attention to the piece he wrote HERE about him performing Silent Night, a two-hundred-year old hymn you can hear on nearly every Christian (or Country) Christmas album.

He talks about the soul-soothing significance of the song Silent Night. If I typed in “soul-soothing” into the thesaurus, I might come back with the synonym cathartic.

I point this out because I think there is a place for cathartic worship music. That is why we have the liturgy, why we have holidays, why we play music, these tools help us enter into a place of worship.

Furthermore, I do not see how a song like Silent Night (lyrics HERE) has more to offer theologically than a modern song like Peace Has Come by Hillsong (lyrics HERE) .

What Do I Think?

While I cannot endorse most of what Keith said in this article, I do believe there is something missing from today’s Christian radio stations (Although KLOVE, a popular station, only advertised that it is Positive and Encouraging, not Enlightening and Convicting. Or Christian for that matter.) I would have loved to hear Getty’s thoughts on the ethics of worship (perhaps the signs of a healthy worship song.) Especially when there are so many clear examples of good and bad worship songs.

For example, there are songs like Jamie Grace’s 2011 hit, “Hold Me” which Grace publicly stated was originally written about a “Snuggy” (Yes, the popular blanket with sleeves for your arms.) You can read that lyrics and statement HERE.

I would also argue that her lyrics, “Don’t have time for my friends, no time to chit-chat,” do not even represent Christian values like sacrifice and community.

Grace’s song was produced by famous Christian singer-songwriter Tobymac whose explosive concerts cost millions of dollars in lighting, effects, and sound technology to sell out arenas. I think there is a place to talk about the ethics of Christian radio and artists, including bands like Hillsong and Bethel (and mega churches around the world), generating millions of dollars in revenue and spending as much on theatrical equipment or use of cheap tricks and celebrity appearances to entice audiences. However, I have enough to discuss in this post and will leave that discussion to another time.

Conclusion

I do not mean to undermine everything Getty said, but I do want to leave you with a different take-away. Getty’s claims should remind us to be vigilant about the music we use for worship. Not all modern songs are shallow, not all classic hymns are theologically rich. I would be very careful when listening to Christian radio because there are many songs, like Jamie Grace’s Hold Me, which are shallow and not glorifying to God. However, if you flip through any hymnal resting behind a pew, you will find many songs with flawed theology. For example, you can often find America (My country, ’tis of thee,) a song that was used as America’s National Anthem before The Star Spangled Banner was adopted. While beautiful, it does not give due glory to God.

It can be easy to look at hymns that have been in our hymnals for hundreds of years and say: “these songs are the pillars of the faith” or “this is sound doctrine,” but not only is this not true, but I hope I am alive in 30 years to see a redistribution of church song books that include songs from Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, Brooke Fraser, Matt Redman, Audrey Assad, Andrew Peterson and so so many more who are writing profound, biblical, emotional, and sanctifying music which will enrich the authentic Christian faith for years to come.

I created a playlist of some examples of modern Christian music that I believe are theologically sound. If you have any suggestions for songs, let me know and I will add to the playlist.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel from Pexels

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