Voices

Christian pirates

Many young evangelicals see no Eighth Commandment violation when they download music

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

NO WONDER OUR SOCIETY IS IN TROUBLE. IF WE haven't taught our young people the practical meaning of something so basic as "Thou shalt not steal," and if even evangelical Christians are guilty of such an elementary failure-then no wonder we aren't able to move on to the more complex and nuanced ethical challenges of life.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I read of new findings from the Gospel Music Association last week that evangelical Christian young people are almost as likely as their non-Christian counterparts to download their favorite music from the internet without paying for it.

This was not merely a statistical study. The GMA (as well as reporters from The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times) dug deeper to learn what Christian young people were thinking as well as what they were doing. What they were thinking was astonishing.

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"Deep down," said Jason Maners, a senior at North Carolina State University, identified by the Times as a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, "I may have felt that there was a difference with Christian music, like, 'These guys are trying to spread a good message here, maybe I should help them.'"

Shawn Ames, a 21-year-old singer and guitarist with a Christian band in Moberly, Mo., is also youth minister at a nondenominational charismatic church in the area. He said Christian musicians should make all their music available on a free basis. "If they're going to peg it as a ministry," he said, "the idea is to get the word of God out," not to sustain a business. He admitted that downloading Christian songs was still theft, but "it's like stealing a Bible. Why would someone have a problem with that?"

Derek Tang, a little more seasoned at 30 and a United Methodist youth pastor, acknowledged to the Times that he had "gone through the fires" debating the ethics of file sharing, but had heard no convincing arguments against it. "It doesn't become a faith issue," he said. "If the money went into the artist's pocket, I'd have more of a dilemma. But the companies make enough money."

Scott Flagg, who belongs to the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi at the University of North Texas, told the Morning News that "a lot of students think it's, like, a cheap way to witness to the gospel. They go out and buy a CD, then burn several copies to give away."

The honchos of the recording industry, understandably, don't take things quite that casually. "That's convoluted logic," says Barry Landis, president of Word Records. But he said the situation is like trying to put toothpaste back into a tube. "Maybe we've missed this generation. We all know they shouldn't take the music. We all know they do."

Indeed, Christian pollster George Barna, who conducted the GMA survey, says that only 10 percent of Christian teens consider music piracy to be morally wrong. And even of those, 64 percent say they have engaged in downloading or CD burning anyway.

The Morning News reported how Panheads, the name given to fans of the Christian band Skillet, routinely ask for autographs of the group's CDs. After a recent concert, one fan raved about how he had all of Skillet's music-and how it had changed his life. "Then he asked me to sign the CDs, and they were all burned from a computer," said band member John Cooper. "I always sign because I don't want to be rude. But sometimes I'm tempted to say, 'Man, you've got to buy it.'"

However startling such issues may be for Christians in the music and recording industry, the implications for the rest of us are troublingly broader and deeper. If the coming generation of those most likely to fill evangelical church pews in the years ahead have so shallow an approach to the Eighth Commandment, what about the other nine? And if they are that casual about something so simple as "Thou shalt not steal," then what will they do with harder issues like war and peace, babies born with handicaps, or when to take a 90-year-old off feeding tubes?

Maybe the basic problem isn't so much that Christian kids are so inclined to steal music. Maybe they're learning the wrong music in the first place. Maybe someone should try to popularize a Psalm or two-like the one where David exclaimed, "O, how I love Thy law!"

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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