The Devil Has no Right to all the Good Tunes

I recently found this song online that is a cover of a Katy Perry song, Teenage Dream, performed by Boyce Avenue. In this version, he sings it from a guy perspective and changes a handful of the lyrics. I would argue that his version is far more romantic, and surprisingly, better. This goes against what I generally think happens when someone changes the lyrics to an original song.

This idea actually has a long history. Many of what are now considered traditional hymns were originally melodies from “secular” music. The early church adapted these melodies to biblical truth and hymns were produced. As once source states:

“The saying that ‘the devil has no right to all the good tunes’ has been attributed to both William Booth and Charles Spurgeon. But it was George Scott Railton, who was to become William’s lieutenant general in 1873 and was well-known as an author and songwriter, who concluded an article ‘About Singing’ (1874) with this impassioned plea: ‘Oh, let us rescue this precious instrument from the clutches of the devil, and make it, as it may be made, a bright and lively power for good!'”

The people in the Salvation Army weren’t the first to use secular music for sacred purposes, though. Note the following:

“[The absence of contrast between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ styles of music in the Middle Ages] ‘can be shown simply by the observation that a secular song, if given a set of sacred words, could serve as sacred music, and vice versa. Only recently has it been recognized how frequently such interchange took place, and the more we learn about medieval music, the more important it becomes. The practice of borrowing a song from one sphere and making it suitable for use in the other by the substitution of words is known as “parody” or contrafactum.'”

(Source: Manfred F. Bukofzer, ‘Popular and Secular Music in England’, in The New Oxford History of Music 3: Ars Nova and the Renaissance, 1300-1540, ed. Anselm Hughes and Gerald Abraham (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 108.)

The tension for me is this: I love the potential of the idea. I personally hate what many Christians understand as “Christian” (sacred) vs “secular.” All truth is inspired by the Holy Spirit no matter where it is found. This is the greatest reason why so many Christians sadly have such a small view of God and are so uncomfortable with those of us who “liberally” see Him all over the place.

But the problem, as I see it, is that rarely do I think that changing lyrics to a catchy song is actually done in a way that improves the song. Usually, it’s painfully awkward or funny. But I wonder if this is something the creative among us should put more effort into in the hopes of bridging the superficial gap between Christian and secular? Can we use some of what artists such as Eminem or Metallica have written and actually use them to communicate truth? Are we robbing the revelation of God by not doing so? It’s a sad day if we’ve told God to live in a church building and then convinced ourselves that He actually did it.

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co. https://linktr.ee/JeremyJernigan