In our recent interview with Sinead O'Connor, she shared her spiritual beliefs—some of them in line with traditional Christianity (the Trinity, the nature of prayer) and some far out of step with it (God isn't perfect, all people go to heaven). The article drew a broad range of reader responses, many of them upset over her "pagan" and "pantheist" views.

But the responses that surprised me most were those that said there's nothing remotely "Christian" about O'Connor's music. I wondered if those readers had bothered to listen to her new album, Theology, or if they had simply focused on O'Connor's statements in the interview. After all, most of Theology's lyrics come straight out of the Psalms and prophetic books in Bible, with few revisions and never out of context.

Question O'Connor's personal beliefs if you want, but if the lyrics are straight from Scripture, how can they be un-Christian? Is the singer more important than the words being sung?

It reminds me of the debate over U2's place in Christian culture. The Irish band, born out of a small group Bible study, became one of the world's biggest pop/rock acts while making regular, clear-cut references to their Christian beliefs in their songs.

Still, many conclude that U2 is "not really Christian," either because the band doesn't take an evangelical approach with their artistry, or perhaps because certain band members enjoy an occasional glass of whisky or drop a curse word from time to time. Why then were U2's clear-cut songs about faith—like "Gloria," "40," "Grace," and  "Where the Streets Have No Name"—more acceptable when performed by Audio Adrenaline, Starfield, Nichole Nordeman, and Chris Tomlin for the In the Name of Love project? Because they're "acceptable" Christian artists? Does "Amazing Grace" become "non-Christian" when sung by a non-believer?

There's clearly a disconnect in Christian culture between artists and art. We have an entire industry called "Christian music," and yet Christians can't fully agree on what that really means. Can Christian music only come from Christian artists?

The 3 Ls of Christian Music

A few years back, we attempted to clearly define the editorial coverage policy for Christian Music Today. Part of that task included trying to define "Christian music"—a daunting, if not impossible, assignment. If we drafted too narrow a definition, we'd be omitting some great faith-inspired music. But too broad a definition might stretch well beyond our intentions—not to mention offending and/or confusing many readers.

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We settled on three different criteria by which we felt we could define the genre; I call them the three Ls of Christian Music. Each works in its own way, but each also comes with some loopholes.

The first is label, referring to established record companies that seek out Bible-believing artists and market their music specifically to Christian culture through radio and retail. This principle is actually the simplest, because it assumes that label execs have already screened their artists (and by extension their music) to determine if they are indeed "Christian." In other words, we trust that the label has done the necessary "homework."

A fair assumption, but it's exactly that—you assume the music represents your faith based on a trusted label's expertise. This is a passive approach to defining Christian music. What about Christian artists who cross over to the mainstream—or those who started there in the first place? Are they no longer "Christian" if they're making music for a secular label? What about unsigned independent artists who aren't with any record label? Christian record companies are useful for verifying an artist's beliefs, but it only paints part of the picture.

The second L is lyrics, the most common way to define Christian music. Seems simple enough. A song clearly expressing a Christian worldview lyrically must therefore be Christian music, right?

Not so fast. Now we're back to U2, Sinead O'Connor, and countless others. How, for example, do you handle "Heaven," the prayerful 2004 hit by Los Lonely Boys? They're not considered a Christian band, but there's no mistaking the faith-based hope and sincerity of the song's lyrics. When Salvador, a popular Christian band, covered "Heaven" on their own album, that pretty much established it as a "Christian" song.

Over the years, Christians and non-Christians have recorded covers of hymns ("Amazing Grace"), gospel standards ("Oh! Happy Day"), and spiritual pop songs ("40"). Sometimes a non-believer will even write an original song inspired by Christian beliefs—or else open to interpretation as such. (Incidentally, this became the basis for our Glimpses of God series.) Faith and God are not subjects exclusive to Christian music, hence why a lot of people don't rely on lyrics alone as criteria.

Plus, plenty of established Christian artists have sung about general themes. Michael O'Brien's album Something About Us is a collection of love songs to his wife. You won't find any spiritual references—lyrically, it's no more "Christian" than Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, and there's no obvious reason to shelve it in the "Christian" section of a mainstream record store. But last I checked, Christians fall in love (and as O'Brien pointed out, Song of Solomon is all about romance). And in this case, the album was considered "Christian" because of who is singing the songs, not for what was being sung. If we cover an album like this, then why not any pop album of love songs?

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Our third L, lifestyle, is arguably the clincher of the bunch. If the artist is a practicing Christian, you'd think that would be a clear-cut deciding factor. Except, of course, it's not enough for artists like U2, Moby, Scott Stapp, and Sufjan Stevens to be fully embraced by the Christian culture. They get accused of not letting their light shine through their music, "selling out" to make more money by concealing their beliefs.

Or else such artists get filtered by the lens of legalism. How can they possibly be "Christian" when they went through a divorce, used profanity in an interview, appeared on a secular television program, or voted for a Democrat? I doubt any of us could hold up to similar scrutiny. Do our individual failings prevent us from being Christian artists? Do only perfect people make Christian music?

We all sin and fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:22-24), and most of us understand the difference between right and wrong. But the definition of "practicing Christian" varies from person to person, making the "lifestyle" criteria a particularly sticky one.

Should we recognize that Christian artists stumble like any of us? Or should they be held to a higher standard, like pastors? And if so, then how far do we dig into a person's life before we're satisfied that they're "Christian" enough? Lifestyle is the grayest of the Ls because try as we might to evaluate the sincerity of a heart, all that can be done is compare an artist's words and actions with God's Word, and see if they're congruent.

Hopefully it's apparent that none of the three L's completely hold up on their own, or even in conjunction with one another. Mat Kearney started on a Christian record label, but he has since gone mainstream, and his song lyrics don't always reflect his faith. Rickie Lee Jones doesn't profess to be a Christian, yet her album The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is inspired by the words of Jesus. And guitarist Phil Keaggy is a highly respected Christian music pioneer, but he's no longer on a Christian label, and most of his recent albums don't even have lyrics!

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Labels, lyrics, and lifestyles are indicators, and helpful for Christian music publications to figure out who to cover—and for that matter, who not to cover. But they're not the end-all, be-all for determining Christian music.

Intentions and Interpretations

Two of the three Ls—label and lifestyle—essentially force us to rely on what other people say to decide whether or not something is "Christian music." Those Ls depend on your personal knowledge of the artist's background/lifestyle and the company they work for. But what about the music itself? Does the artist matter more than the art?

It's as if Christian culture is sometimes more concerned with an artist's intentions than our own individual interpretations. Some responded to our Sinead O'Connor interview by saying, "Even the Devil can quote Scripture," in reference to Matthew 4:1-11. True, but even God can speak through a donkey (Numbers 22). The difference is being able to recognize God's voice in the everyday.

That's why, for me, Christian music is simply defined by two words: personaldiscernment.

The beauty of it is, discernment is concerned with all three Ls without relying on them. Personally, I'm less concerned with the artist's individual beliefs and the record label they're with than I am with my interpretation of the music's content, as based on my understanding of God's Word. Which isn't to say that I don't care about an artist's relationship with Jesus or the accountability support they receive from their label. Those things matter, and certainly help shape my discernment.

But I care most about what speaks to me—what God is using to touch my heart through the Holy Spirit. If a song makes me wonder whether I'm truly showing love to my fellow man, that's Christian music to me. If a song makes me consider my spiritual health or brings me to my knees, that's Christian music to me. If a song causes me to think about amazing grace and the sacrifice of Jesus, whatever draws me to God's Word and helps me gain new insight to his awesome mystery, power, mercy, and love—even if it's just for a moment—that's Christian music to me.

But discernment works both ways. It forces me to consider whether a song is out of step with God's Word and how it may or may not affect my life. For that very reason, using good discernment shouldn't limit our understanding of Christian music, or place the Holy Spirit in a box. Instead, discernment expands our understanding of Christian music, by forcing us to consider whatever we encounter against what we believe, as opposed to passively accepting whatever is handed to us by others on reputation alone.

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Christian artist and writer John Fischer makes a great point in his brilliant (and sadly, out-of-print) book, What on Earth Are We Doing?Philippians 4:8-9 is often used as justification for Christian culture to insulate itself: "Think only about the high and lofty—don't be distracted by the world." Fischer asks us to consider it from another angle: What if it means we should think about the high and lofty as it applies to the world around us day to day?

Yes, we're in the world, not of it—but let us never forget we're still in it. Fully embracing the world can lead to secularism, true; we must remain guarded against that which would cause us to fall away. But guarded is not the same as isolated, and ignoring the world can lead to Gnosticism (the idea that the spiritual is separate from the physical), an equally misguided perspective. Once again we find that a healthy balance is key.

Sinead O'Connor's answers in our interview seem to have caused many to reject her music, allowing the artist's misunderstanding of basic Christian theology to get in the way of enjoying the music itself. But those theological misunderstandings don't manifest themselves in O'Connor's Theology album. If they did, that'd be another matter.

Whatever your opinion, my challenge to you is to remain active in your search for "Christian music," not passive. Discernment certainly considers labels, lyrics and lifestyle, but looks past those qualities as well—beyond labeling, marketing, and judging. Instead, it puts the onus on you the listener to actively seek God's Word and decide for yourself whether something works in conjunction with or contradiction to the Christian faith. Let your faith define the music you listen to, not the other way around.