Christian vs. Secular Music? These 5 Artists Don’t Make That Distinction

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By Sara Knutson

Cat or dog. Blonde or brunette. Coke or Pepsi. For better or worse, we tend to create opposing categories and forget the rabbits, redheads, and Dr. Peppers of the world.

The same is true in music. “Christian or secular” has long been used to categorize artists, but the stark contrast it implies oversimplifies the musical landscape and masks the long history of religiously-informed music.

By that I mean music created by artists who are thinking about life’s biggest questions from a perspective of faith. Their music may or may not reference God and would rarely be defined as part of the praise and worship genre. They may play both religious and secular festivals. They usually avoid Christian record labels. But their themes are undeniably spiritual, often drawing from Scripture.

Religiously-informed music is nothing new—Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, among many others, can speak to that—but it often goes unrecognized, even if the group itself is extraordinarily popular. That’s unfortunate, because the lyrics and overall musicality of such artists is deserving of notice and reflection.

So here are a few top-quality artists making music informed by faith:

MUMFORD & SONS

Despite the incredible popularity of Marcus Mumford and Co., the soul-searching found in nearly every song has been largely unnoticed. Their biblical allusions are constant, subtle, and creative, integrated seamlessly in a way that demonstrates a deep familiarity with Scripture. “Roll Away Your Stone,” with its prodigal son and resurrection imagery, is one particularly good example.


SWITCHFOOT

Switchfoot’s alt rock sound and eloquent lyricism captivated me back in high school, and both qualities remain in full force 15 years later with this year’s release of Fading West. The band’s biggest hit, “Meant to Live,” was back in 2003, but the more recent “Hello Hurricane” demonstrates that Switchfoot has maintained and even improved over time.


OH HELLOS

Putting out their first album in 2011, the Oh Hellos are recent and welcome additions to the folk scene. Though their lyrics are occasionally too simple, the Oh Hellos have a distinctive sound and boundless energy. Tunes range from a meditation on the Fall in “I Was Wrong” to a reflection on truth, grace, and conversion in “The Truth Is a Cave.”


OVER THE RHINE

Over the Rhine has been under the radar for most of their 25 years as a band. It may be because they straddle the line of sacred-secular more than almost anyone, doing interviews with Christianity Today but rarely referencing God in their music. Why? “In terms of whispering hope versus shouting from the mountaintops, I’m much more interested in the former,” says frontman Linford Detwiler. “I just doubt my ability to shout convincingly from the mountaintops.” All the music is beautiful, but I have particular affection for their classic Born.


SUFJAN STEVENS

Stevens is famously eclectic, with 2 albums devoted to states (Illinois and Michigan) and a whopping 10 to Christmas. In the midst of all that, he also explores themes of faith, particularly on his Seven Swans album. “The Transfiguration” demonstrates his style; “Holy, Holy, Holy” demonstrates his faith.


This list is limited, of course; the artists are largely male and entirely white, and the style leans strongly toward folk and alternative music. In reality, nearly every genre has birthed great music of faith. Leave ideas in the com box, and go seek some out for yourself.

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