“Secular” Music in a “Religious” Playlist

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One of the questions I have fielded occasionally regarding the liturgical year playlists I put together is: why do you include “secular” or “non-religious” music on a playlist meant for worship?

There’s a lot of ways I could go about answering that question, but for me there is one main reason.

A number of years ago I read an essay (whose author and title have long left me) in which the author described so-called “secular” art—be it visual, music, poetry, or whatever else—as an offering upon an altar.  Instead of seeing this “non-religious” art as anti-sacred, the author called us to understand this art from the perspective of someone who is calling out to God, who is confessing desire and confessing brokenness, who is lamenting, etc…  I love that.

It reminds me of the story in Acts where Paul sees all the Athenians offering up their sacrifices and worship, but to an unknown god.  Paul doesn’t lambaste them for their acts of worship, but instead reframes it in light of the life of Christ.  The Athenian poets proclaim “in whom we live and move and have our being” and Paul sparks their imaginations to wander after God “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

I include songs that have no overt religious imagery or traditional religious language because I believe the story of Christ is large enough to encompass all persons and all stories; that the temptations, brokenness, desires, are linked to the Word made flesh even when we can’t see or understand that.  I believe that in the context of the other songs which are explicitly Christian in language, these “hymns to an unknown god” become beautiful acts of worship at the altar of confession and faith.