Loving 70s Music Without Guilt

A few years ago I provided on this blog a complete listing of all the songs and episodes of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown. I had listened to this program during high school, and to this day it elicits as warm a nostalgia in me as I seem capable of. It seems to do the same for others, who periodically write to thank me for making the full history of this program available.

I had an interesting email from one such person who, knowing my Christian faith, posed the following question–a question I’ve pondered as well: “As a good and believing Christian, how do I reconcile my love for ‘70’s music and the talents and voices of those great musicians, while recognizing the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ that permeated the era is so opposite of what Jesus Christ teaches as we follow him?” I’ll call this person Al.

As it is, I was born in 1960 and came of age in the 70s. For me, it’s not just that I enjoy the music of the 70s. Because of the time in my life when it impacted me, this music speaks to me in a way that no other music does.

I’ve also felt the force of Al’s concern. In 1979 I became a Christian, and shortly thereafter I listened to a speaker (I don’t recall his name) who made a case for just how bad the rock-and-rollers were and how evil their music was. He prompted me, in supposed faithfulness to Christ, to get rid of many of my vinyl albums. For several years, 70s music was no longer in my life. But my yearning for it remained, and eventually I bought back some of the albums I had destroyed.

As I reflect on Al’s concern and the extremes I went to by, at least temporarily, repudiating the music of the 70s, I think that Christians can, nonetheless, legitimately make their peace with 70s music, at least much of it, without engaging in shameless rationalization or trying to justify something that is inherently unjustifiable.

Where I’ve come to in my thinking is that everything needs to be taken on its own merits. That means the source of something, however reputable or disreputable, needs ultimately to be separated from the inherent good or bad of the thing in question. As it is, when Jesus was once addressed as “good master,” his response was, “why do you call me good — there’s only one who is good — God.” We are all sinners. And not just sinners. None of us has a leg to stand on. We all depend on the grace of God through the work of Christ on the cross.

But even if we accept that, in a practical sense, some people are better than others (e.g., Mother Teresa vs Jeffrey Dahmer), it does not follow that bad people can’t produce good things or that good people will necessarily avoid producing bad things. A lot of “holy people” (such as William Jennings Bryan) were behind the enactment of prohibition in the 1920s, and yet prohibition was a national catastrophe that empowered organized crime and whose negative effects we feel to this day. On the other hand, highly compromised people have produced things of great value, as the history of music and art attests (and not just during the 1970s).

One thing that helped me make my peace with 70s music — after I became a Christian and had for a brief while repudiated it — is that the Christian music from the 70s and 80s that I was exposed to didn’t, in my view, measure up the best “secular” music that I knew from that era. I put the word secular in scare quotes because I’m not sure anything is really secular.

Take a song like Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia.” It captures a sense of loss and disappointment as well as a painful finding of one’s way back home that I’ve not found in any explicitly Christian music of the era. Because we are creatures made in God’s image, it seems legitimate for music to speak of human pain, longing, and aspiration, and yet without instantly invoking faith as a deus ex machina that will render everything right in the end. Yes, everything will be rendered right in the end (the new heaven and the new earth, where God wipes away every tear), but in the moment it often doesn’t feel like that, and it is the better music that lets us linger with that feeling rather than dismiss it because everything will be all right in the sweet bye and bye.

I frankly wonder what music Jesus listened to when he was at the home of tax collectors and sinners and they entertained him. Yes, we are told that at the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn, and I’m sure it was theologically sound. And I’m sure Jesus heard theologically sound music when he was entertained at the home of Pharisees. But Jesus’ heart was with the sinners, those that need him as a physician. And I suspect that Jesus heard a lot of songs among these sinners that were “secular.”

In a court of law, it’s common to attack the credibility of a witness so that nothing he or she says will be taken seriously. “So-and-so is a known liar, here are some of the lies they’ve told, so don’t trust anything they say.” Fair enough. But most of life is not a court of law. People are mixed bags, and they produce things of varying quality, and their quality can be assessed on independent grounds.

One trend in our cancel culture is that when someone is shown to be an egregious sinner, everything they’ve done must be repudiated. Sure, if someone is shown to be an egregious sinner, by all means reevaluate their work. But don’t throw it out unless the work is inherently bad. I’ve worked professionally in the field of Christian apologetics. One famous apologist recently passed away. I always found his work solid, and he even provided an endorsement for one of my books. But after his death, it was discovered that he was a sexual predator. In consequence, the Christian publishers that had published his work decided no longer to publish it.

But that seems to me ill-conceived. Even the Bible “publishes” the work of really bad sinners. Consider the Prayer of Manasseh, which appears in the historical books of the Bible. Manasseh is portrayed in the Bible as the very worst of the kings of Judah, bar none. Or consider Solomon, who at the end of his life violated the first and second commandments of Moses by worshipping the gods of his foreign wives. And yet we read to our edification to this day his proverbs and psalms as recorded in the Bible.

So when it comes to the music of the 70s, or any era and genre, my advice is to look for what is good in it and enjoy it. Yes, a lot of the people who created that music had their moral struggles. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died from substance abuse in a single year–1971. But we are all made in the image of God and however flawed or broken we are, the image of God is in us and can shine through us in unexpected and even redemptive ways. And it does so in the music of the 70s.