WARNING: Hymns Can be Damaging to Your Seminary Health

Words, words, words. If you’re in seminary, then your world is based wholly on words. Deep words. Big words. In seminary you will hear many words, you will read many words, you will write many words, and you will speak many words. This being the case, I have a very simple suggestion I have found very helpful. When you need to relax and unwind, don’t listen to music with words – or at least big, deep words. This seems sort of simple, I know, but I have found it enormously helpful. I’m not saying that one should never listen to “lyriced” songs, just not when you’re really trying to clear your mind and relax.

I don’t know about you, but I love hymns. Oh, how they resonate in the deepest parts of me! But really, why do they? The words. Not so much the melody (they’re mostly old pub-song melodies anyway). It’s the lyrics that carry the weight of the song, so my mind is always active trying to listen, meditate, and internalize while it’s playing. My mind never gets a rest.

I know, I know. It really does feel like you’re relaxing when listening to worship music or hymns or the like. But just try what I’m saying and I think you will find there’s a difference. There’s a grace one experiences when listening to those Christ-centered songs, but there’s a grace of a different quality when filling your rest time with wordless songs. There’s a different type of worship that forms inside of you—the type of worship that finds its source in beauty, art, science, and nature rather than just words. God wrote two books of revelation for a reason. Discover the amazing complexities of jazz, the soul-stirring movements of classical, or the vivid imagery that movie soundtracks evoke. Or, find some guilty pleasure pop artists you can enjoy. I mean some really cheesy bad contemporary MTV adolescent-girl pop, not 80’s stuff. Try more secular music. What makes Christian music Christian is the words after all, so your mind would still be drawn to focus on the lyrics. But, of course, based on how God has wired you, there may be some conscience issues to be aware of. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for your listening pleasure:

Personal Favorite – Coldplay: I know, they have words. But when I want to worship God with songs that are not explicitly Christian, the first place I go is Coldplay. Their music at least isn’t word-focused. I know hardly any of their words, though they are my third-or-so favorite band. Just play “Fix You” with your eyes closed and see if you don’t have a greater affection for Christ when it’s done.

Classical – Bach: the Cello Suites (Yo-Yo Ma): for the string lover, these suites are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. It’s just Yo-Yo Ma and a Cello. That’s it. Oh, yeah, and a whole lot of goodness as well. My other favorites: anything by Bach, Chopin’s Etudes for the piano lover, Luigi Boccherini for more strings, George Winston if you want a Christian piano artist

Jazz – A Kind of Blue (Miles Davis), Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, and El-p and the Blue Series Continuum (if you can find them anywhere)

Alternative – Sigur Ros: most beautiful Icelandic lounge rock (sort of) you’ll ever hear. Also check out: The Books, Andrew Bird, Band of Horses, Bernard, Cool Hand Luke and Anathallo. The last three are very Christian and amazing.

Singer/Songwriter – Jeff Buckley: for the lover of melody-centric singer-songwriters Also: Glen Hansard, Elliott Smith, Sia, Amos Lee and Damien Rice. Jon Foreman’s solo stuff and Andy Gullahorn for the Christian equivalents

Pop – Katy Perry: some questionable lyrics, I know, but we all need some guilty pleasures. This is mine. She is the daughter of missionaries and has gone all out prodigal. She used to be a Christian artist name Katy Hudson (an okay album), but her stuff now is great musically (and some lyrically, actually), but remember, conscience issues abound for this artist. Other good pop artists: Ingrid Michaelson, A Fine Frenzy, She&Him, and Gnarls Barkley (more R&B than Pop, I know).

Soundtracks – Movie soundtracks can be your best friend. They are written to evoke the imagery of the film, so they are very visceral in their compositions. Also, the tracks are usually in the typical two- to four-minute range of normal songs, so you can feel like you’re listening to real Classical music without sitting through half-hour movements. My favorite: the soundtrack for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I cannot recommend this soundtrack enough. Other good movies whose soundtracks are amazing: Meet Joe Black, Braveheart, Gladiator, Spy Games, Dan in Real Life, Little Miss Sunshine, Road to Perdition, Pan’s Labyrinth, and lastly, John Williams can do no wrong (Angela’s Ashes, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Munich)

Please let me know your thoughts. If you try any of these artists or albums let me know what you think. If you want to give a hearty amen to any of them or if you have any of your own favorites, feel free to leave a comment below for everyone else to enjoy as well. Now go relax.

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Written by
Paul Burkhart
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  • The music I listen to depends on the type of work I’m doing. Reading requires largely lyric-less music, while writing a paper I can listen to death metal cranked full blast if I wanted to (not that I do).

    For reading, I generally listen to classical, particularly baroque era. I could spin Handel and Vivaldi all day. Sometimes for a change of pace, though, I’ll actually turn on some downtempo/electronica type stuff on a low volume. Bands like Air, Télépopmusik, Yonderboi, Parov Stelar, and Thievery Corporation have some quieter stuff that doesn’t have a lot of lyrics and functions as good background noise. Sigur Rós is a good option, although sometimes I get lost in the music and start daydreaming.

    Last.fm is a great tool for study music (and from what I understand, Pandora is like it). You plug in an artist you like, click play, and it will stream all kinds of similar artists. For instance, if I want classical, I’ll select the Academy of Ancient Music for the artist, click play, and I’ll get a full day of great classical music.

  • I loved this post. I’ve heard some of the suggestions, and others I’ll be checking out. Thanks, Paul.

    That said, I know they’ve been around forever, and every hip and trendy Christian says they like them, but listen to U2. It’s good for the soul.

  • Cool post. I too somewhat instinctively listen to instrumental music after a heavy load of reading and writing. I love Sigur Ros and I would recommend The Album Leaf as well if you’re into stuff like that.

    Lastly, you should check out Dustin Kensrue if you like country-ish singer songwriters. He falls somewhere between Cash & Springsteen…probably in the same category as Ryan Adams. But Dustin is an extremely gifted lyricist and writer. Check out his song about the prodigal son called “Please Come Home”.


  • [quote]”Just play “Fix You” with your eyes closed and see if you don’t have a greater affection for Christ when it’s done.”[/quote]

    I really need to increase my affection for Jesus Christ. This is how? Sorry, g2sem. This is too important a topic to give such advice. Were you just trying to say it’s good?

    Maybe your topic got away from you. It started with suggestions for good study music when your mind is too full of words and ideas. Then, it ended with a hodge-podge of music recommendations, including admittedly questionable lyrics, and artists known for including profanity.

    To quote Bob Kauflin, “I don’t believe music controls or governs our behavior, but can influence it in ways we might be unaware. Basically, I think that listening to music without discernment or godly intent reveals a heart willing to flirt with love for the world.”

    And I’m not saying go burn your secular CDs. I would simply say that it would seem your discernment meter should be fully functional during such input — not chilled out.


  • I think this is important. I’ve received a couple of similar comments. First off, I’m a new contributor to GoingToSeminary, and this is technically mt first post as an actual contributor, and I’m still a young writer (23 in his first year of seminary), so I apologize for not having thought through the implications of all the above more thoroughly.

    That being said, I would hope in this context there are some things that go without saying. I’m not saying you turn on the first secular radio station you can find and just turn your discernment off. No, I’m just encouraging seminarians that there’s a freedom to listen to music that’s not overtly religious when trying to really relax. You use your discernment in finding these artists for yourself in the first place, and then once you feel comfortable with them, listen freely. Research, then relax.

    There are obviously conscience issues here. I tried to make that clear. Admittedly, I can only think of a few of the artists above that use any profanity at all, and even when they do its usually very rare and not on every song. Should we not enjoy a movie with some language or questionable content in it? Different people are free in different ways.

    For example, I’ve always thought I had the freedom to watch and listen to very secular things as a study of the culture. My current job is tutoring inner city kids, so I’ve been listening to a lot of the secular hip-hop and rap they talk about to try and get a common place to talk to them (and maybe introduce them to some Christian artists). I realized last week I don’t have the grace to do this. It certainly did flood my mind with trash that I did not expect it to. I’ve never experienced that before. I wrote this post and sent it in to the admin over a month ago. If I had written it last week, it probably would have sounded very different and focused more on discernment.

    But, at the same time, I must say, God stirs our affections using things that are not explicitly expressing his attributes. Not only things in nature, but the most pagan of artists can create a piece of art that stirs me for Christ in a way that no hillsong song can. God is bigger than just our little corner of “Christian” music. And yes, I meant every word I said in that quote. Listening to that song “Fix You” really has, multiple times, led me to moments of worship and crying in my car over the beauty and grace of Christ to extend to all of us the ability to create and love beauty – all as a shadow of who He is.

    I appreciate Kaughlin’s quote, but I think there’s room for most of my post to still stand alongside it. You use your discernment in artist selection, then listen and enjoy. I would also say it’s just as equally dangerous and soul-shriveling to listen to the vast amounts of “Christian” music out there that is absolutely theologically off. I would almost say (in all seriousness) it may be more dangerous for people to listen to most Christian radio stations than secular.

    And finally, yes, my topic did get away from me. I remember having written this those weeks ago and being kind of out of it (I mean, the post is about wordless songs and most of my suggestions have words!). I was hoping no one would call me out on it, ha ha. I encourage you to read my other posts here on on my sites and I hope you see that this particular article is sort of atypical for me. So thank you for your thoughts. I would love to hear more of them. Sorry, everyone for leaving such a long comment.

  • Very gracious, Paul. I am glad you are writing for the blog, and look forward to reading many things from you in the future.

    And let me pile on your very accurate note about Christian radio. Not only is much of it “theologically off”, but also simply soul shriveling.

    The condition of the soul is of utmost priority to the believer. As a seminarian (also in my first year), there are many factors that drain our faith away — many of which I’ve been carefully warned about at this website. Entertainment (music, movies, sports) can be one of these and discernment MUST be used.

    However, we must also be careful that simplistic labels of “christian” and “non-christian” music are often devised for us by people that do not have the outcome of our faith in mind. They are sometimes devised by people trying to take our money.

    Since God created all music, there is a way in which listening to it can REVEAL Him. However, we must guard against any gift of His RIVALing Him. (See Piper, “When I Don’t Desire God”).

    And, if you minister in an urban context, please listen to some secular hip-hop. My recommendations are Illmatic and Bulletproof by Nas and J-Zee, and the ‘Pac Machavelli stuff. (Did I earn back any cool points? 🙂

    God help us as we live between “All things are yours, and you belong to Christ,” and “all things are lawfull, but not all things are helpful or build up.”

Written by Paul Burkhart