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Heaven and Honky-Tonks: The Theology of Country Music

On Behalf of Dr. Keven Blackwell
| January 3, 2022
Category: Featured
closeup of man playing country music on a guitar
closeup of man playing country music on a guitar

When I was 16 years old, in the days of hair bands and English rock ballads, I was given a cassette tape that changed my music preferences forever. Though I don’t remember who gave it to me, Randy Travis’ legendary Always and Forever album found its way into the tape deck of my 1985 Dodge Charger. With great hesitation, I ejected my Def Leppard cassette and popped in the country album.

Since that time, I have been an admirer and consumer of country music, though I still have an eclectic musical appetite. Yet, I must admit that there has always been a bit of discomfort in my heart concerning the way country lyrics blend heaven and honky-tonks, whiskey and worship, Bibles and beer, and Saturday night with Sunday morning.  The conflicting and confusing marriage between country music and theology goes all the way back to the 1940s and 1950s when Hank Williams sang I Saw the Light with a slurred twang.

It is no surprise that country music and Christianity have had a long lyrical history.  Country music was birthed from the farms and mountains of the Deep South where religion and music have been a way of life for decades.  Most all country music legends released a gospel album during their career, while also singing songs about infidelity and drunkenness.  Many old-timers have shed a tear while listening to George Jones sing The Old Rugged Cross.  As a country music admirer, I understand the passion for these musical legends and have great admiration for a Merle, Cash, or Waylon song.

I, however, cringe every time I hear a country song present a warped view of God and a carnal commitment to the Christian life. A great example is the latest song from Chase Rice, Drinking Beer, Talking God, Amen. Thousands of people are singing the catchy tune in their cars with the radio turned up, including influential teens and children who might be sitting in the back seat.  Here is a sample of the lyrics:

I ain’t never Been the church going type can’t quote much past 3:16 even though it’s a Friday night church found me. Sittin’ here, drinkin’ beer, talkin’ God, amen, Killing time livin life with some down-home friends. When the world’s gone crazy man it all makes sense. Sittin’ here, drinkin’ beer, talkin’ God, Amen

It might make sense to Chase, but as a pastor and theologian, none of the lyrics make Biblical sense to me. This confusing and contradictory lyrical relationship with God is also reflected in countless other tunes including Scotty McCreery’s song In Between. As a confession of an often-conflicted commitment, Scotty sings, “I ain’t all holy water and I ain’t all Jim Beam, I am somewhere in between.” Scotty, I hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t work that way.

I know that some reading this article will see me as a prude, but these lyrics are not simply innocent, aw-shucks, good ole’ boy attempts at being honest about a flawed relationship with God. It is more than just a few folks singing about giving a Christian commitment their best shot. It is reinforcing a dangerous concept to the millions who listen and sing along.

The idea that you can be a regular Saturday drunk and a Sunday saint is foreign to Scripture. A lukewarm faith is not a saving faith. Not according to Jesus in Revelation 3:16: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” I can unequivocally say that it is difficult to follow Jesus with a Jim Beam bottle in your hand.

In the Deep South, there is a cultural belief, often unspoken, that Christianity and heaven are inherent rights. In other words, if you believe in God, occasionally attend church, drop a few bucks in the offering plate, and do the best you can, then God will surely reserve a place for you in heaven.  After all, how could an all-loving God not let good ole’ boys into heaven?

A good reflection of this thinking is found in country music superstar Brantley Gilbert’s comments to Rolling Stone:

“If they listen to the whole record, they see that, ‘Man, this dude can be pretty rough at times, but really the core of what he does and who he is stems from something a whole lot deeper.’ And that is the one place that’s always been a safe place for me to show weakness, to show strength, to find it, to ask for it, and that’s the Man Upstairs. It’s important to me to write about my faith because it is such a big part of who I am. It doesn’t always reflect in the way I speak sometimes. He who is without sin can throw the first stone anytime they’re ready, and I’ll be glad to take it.”

While I appreciate Brantley’s sincerity, do his comments represent an actual gospel conversion? It is vague at best. His comments, however, do reflect the spiritual attitudes of so many people who try to be spiritual enough to qualify themselves as people of faith. But does faith in the “man upstairs” and a honky-tonk lifestyle match the scriptural definition of a true born-again believer of Jesus Christ? The easy answer is no. While that is difficult for some to read, we must understand that the idea of belief in God without a repentant heart is foreign to Scripture. (Acts 2:38).

There is a great danger in basing your theological conclusions on Nashville instead of the Bible. Dozens of country songs present this warped view of what it means to be a Christian, and it is having an impact on those that listen. The theological assumptions shared by these powerful influencers ultimately lead to a cultural Christianity which is lacking in a pursuit of knowing Jesus Christ and pursuing holiness. (1 Peter 1:16). 

Enjoy the country music, appreciate the Southern roots, and steel guitars, but please do me a favor: Base your theology on Luke’s gospel rather than Luke Bryan’s.  Not all good ole’ boys go to heaven. A saving faith in Jesus turns good ole’ boys into blood-bought saints dressed in the righteousness of Christ.

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