Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Christian" Music

This post is an offshoot of the ones on my main blog about To Change the World by James Hunter. It also steams from a teaching session on culture I attended at my church's spring retreat, where the topic came up pretty prominently. Specifically, the topic: why are none of my posts any longer tagged as "Christian" music?

Like so many others, I used to divide music into two camps: "Christian" and "secular". "Christian" music had lyrics specifically about God/Jesus or Biblical doctrine, "secular" music was everything else. You see this divide reinforced in many places; "Christian" music has its own radio stations, its own places of performance (churches and festivals), its own record companies, its own sales charts and awards. It's closely tied in with modern styles of worship and sung at many churches and Christian student groups, and is a central part of what I would term the "Christian subculture" in America.

To quote James Hunter, the only problem with this view is that it is mostly wrong. And I think this view has consequences on the witness of Christians who buy into it. For one thing, music of course does not fall neatly into these two camps; if you ranked bands by "Jesus" density in their lyrics (or some other absurd metric), you wouldn't get two clusters but an even distribution. Why is Switchfoot commonly considered to be a "Christian" band and Anberlin considerably less so? What about music about Christianity written by non-Christians? (I think of "Spirit in the Sky" by the Jewish singer-songwriter Norman Greenbaum)

Additionally, music determined to be "Christian" is accepted and embraced uncritically by Christians. I even felt a bit of subconscious pressure to listen to "Christian" music, as if my relationship with God depended on it; for a while I didn't let myself replace "Christian" songs in my main playlist with "secular" ones for fear that this would lead to my faith slipping. I was doing this up until last year, even when I was thinking out so many other parts of my faith. At the same time, this divide leads to unmerited suspicion of "secular" music that isn't about Jesus, no matter its other redeeming qualities. The unspoken question "Why are you listening to this instead of ["Christian" band]?" seems to hang in the air. I've sometimes been hesitant to voice my love for European metal for fear of being superficially judged for it.

This dichotomy is another example of dualism, the sharp division of life into the spiritual, or "Christian", and the worldly, or "secular". Though most Christians rightly claim to be opposed to this philosophy, they often unintentionally reinforce it in their actions with the best possible intentions. The whole (mostly Evangelical) concept of developing institutions that parallel those of the world with a Christian twist, including the music industry, is another. I'll get into this much more in my response to Hunter's book, but dualism is antithetical to Christianity (at least, how we are to live and witness as Christians) because just like Jesus, we are not trying to push away or overpower the things of the world to let distinctly transformed "Christian" versions replace them, but are growing the new like a mustard seed precisely in the midst of the old. Trying to simply replace the institutions of the world with parallel Christian ones leads to many dangers I'll get into in other posts.

I also see dualism played out in a different way within "Christian" music itself, in how the music, song structure, and even lyrics often seem to be instrumentalized (pun intended) to serve as vehicles for the message, as if the aesthetic and intellectual value of the work don't matter, only how "inspirational" it is or if it gets people to believe in Jesus. So you get music that seems to almost slavishly follow the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus model of popular music, written with utterly simple instrumentation and chord progressions and lyrics meant to be taken entirely at face value. If the subject matter were any different I never would have been the slightest bit interested in this music; why does it get a free pass? (I will refrain from naming any names) On an even deeper level, this dualism is somewhat subverted by the nature of the financial relationship between the big "Christian" record companies and the heavily profit-driven "big four" music labels.

I fear I'm getting far too negative and that this post is turning into a tirade. Of course it's not bad for Christians or anyone to listen to "Christian" music, and to the extent that it does awaken people to the glory of God and the goodness of the gospel, that really is a good thing. What I'm getting at is that in the Christian subculture (the existence of which is another matter entirely), music itself just doesn't seem to be as appreciated or valued as it is in the larger culture, instead being seen largely as another medium for the Christian message. Concerns of aesthetics and songwriting are often subordinated next to simply getting this message across. And for a lover of music like myself, this is a tragedy.

This makes it all the more reassuring when I find music that is inspired by the gospel, but also makes a priority of aesthetic legitimacy. And now I will name some names--on the lighter side, I think artists like Gungor, David Crowder band (requiescat in pace), Needtobreathe, Mumford and Sons, and Jars of Clay, to name a few, do a great job of meshing beautiful, thoughtful, joyful lyrics with solid music. For my fellow metal-lovers, I cannot recommend bands like Theocracy, Becoming the Archetype, and Demon Hunter highly enough.

I'm getting a little preachy and not answering the big question--how are Christians to engage in music culture? What is the way past this "Christian"/"secular" dichotomy? I sure don't have the whole answer. But I think part of it is recognizing that Christians don't have a monopoly on truth--on the Truth, yes, but not on the ability to make true, good, and valuable statements. Following Paul's lead in Acts 17, I think we should be seeking to understand the culture we're in and seek out truth in it to affirm. This means not just sticking to a parallel, largely insular music industry but listening to "secular" music, understanding it, being able to think and talk about it. This is one manifestation of a larger paradigm that James Hunter calls "faithful presence within".

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