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Preach the Gospel at all Times; Use Guitar Solos as necessary.

January 10, 2013

Christian Music, Contemporary Christian Music, Christian Rock and all the other variations on the theme have been greeted with cringes by many in the Christian community. And rightly so, in too many cases. It is sad, but oftentimes the words associated with Christian music are words like “cheesy,” “sappy,” and “derivative.” And often this is the case.

A prime cause of this has been the improper attitude of Christians towards the arts. Christians viewed music as an evangelism tool to the young, a way to be “hip” and “cool” and “relevant.” And, like all attempts to be relevant, the Christian rock scene ended up in irrelevancy. Frankly, most of the bands stunk. They were corny rip-offs of bands that weren’t that great in the first place. Certain Christians thought that the purpose of Christian music was to provide a “positive alternative” to the popular music out there, and as a result, formed a bunch of copycat bands. Like Papa Roach? You’ll love Skillet? Think blink-182 is cool? You’ll love Hawk Nelson. Are you a fan of hip-hop? Listen to TobyMac. Because all these bands, unlike their secular counterparts, didn’t say the “f-word” and their songs are about Jesus. Sort of. Outside of the youth group subculture, no one was listening. Christian music, or music by Christians, wasn’t taken seriously, because it wasn’t serious enough to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, Christians kept trying to come up with more gimmicky ways to try to get kids into it. They started Christian hardcore and metal bands, kind of like the secular ones, except these had some positive lyrics, amidst the screaming. It seemed like more of a joke than anything.

Can you really take these guys seriously?

However, despite the damage that sanctified mall-pop has done, both to Christian music’s reputation and to our psyches (I don’t know if I’ll ever fully recover from Stellar Kart), Christian music underwent a remarkable resurrection. Bands and artists started to appear that were serious about music, serious about lyrics, and serious about Christianity. And some of them started to earn respect from the “secular” world. It seemed that Christian artists could finally talk about faith without sounding like a hokey Bible tract. How is this possible.

I think part of the answer comes from H. R. Rookmaaker, the great Christian art critic of the 2oth century. In his book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, he has a section on how Christians should view the role of art. He writes “Is there any such thing in fact as Christian art? Can art be used for Christian purposes? Here I must say emphatically: art must never be used to show the validity of Christianity. Rather the validity of art should be shown through Christianity” (228),  and further in the chapter,  “…it would be false to say that art is only good if it promotes Christianity. This would be a perverted kind of utilitarianism. Art and singing can be used to promote worship–indeed, worship without good music is almost unthinkable–and art may be used in evangelism. But art does not need to be justified because it can be useful in this way…quite apart from the use to which it is put, art has its own justification” (230). Art is not an evangelism tool used to herd young people into the church. This was the mistake of the mainstream Christian music crowd. They didn’t care about the quality of the music or lyrics, only that they had a “Christian message” and that they replaced the “bad music” with their own music. What they ended up with was music for Churchianity–weak, cliche, unconfrontational, legalistic. The music wasn’t good enough to reach out to unbelievers, and it fed the believing kids a diet of watered-down chicken noodle soup for the eardrums. Theologically it was a total wash. There is more spiritual content in Joan Osborne’s “What if God was One of Us?” than in the entire Skillet discography.

Sorry, guys.

In the wake of Mainstream Christian Pop music, artists started to crop up who were able to talk about God, faith, and the Christian life in their songs without being “preachy,” shoving “religion” down people’s throats, or sounding like a youth group kid who just had a Red Bull. I hate to bring up U2, as everyone brings them up in discussions of music and faith, but they were one of the first bands to talk about Christian themes in an honest way. When Bono sang about Jesus, he wasn’t trying to snag souls–he was telling the truth. U2 was able to use Christian themes successfully because those themes were not a marketing gimmick or an attempt to be “relevant.” Rather, they were the result of honest songwriting. Bono’s lyrics about God and faith are authentic because everything that he writes is authentic. After U2, more artists started cropping up. The enigmatic Sufjan Stevens managed to bring Christian themes into the indie music world (a place usually hostile to “organized religion”)for the same reason that U2 was able to–because they were the result of honest songwriting, instead of being tacked on to make it more “religious.” Derek Webb went solo and started writing his songs confronting serious issues within the church. Instead of being aimed at “the world,” his barbs were aimed at the church. His songwriting was smart, witty, and convicting–but not a “positive alternative.” But a look at the Bible shows that the words of the prophets are rarely positive or alternative. The Christian artist has a responsibility to portray the world truthfully, and that includes portraying sin  truthfully, not minimizing it like Mainstream Christian Music or glorifying it like Mainstream Not-Christian Music.

These guys have to be cool. Look at those square glasses.

In recent years, more artists have appeared who better understand the way Christians should approach music. Gungor is the best Christian band in years–Ghosts Upon The Earth is a classic on the level of Dark Side of the Moon–and they don’t talk or write songs in
“Christianese.” Matthew Perryman Jones, Paper Route, Chelsey Scott, and many other indie artists have written songs that deal with Christian themes–Jones’ work is suffused with a Christian sensibility. None of them, however, do art for a “Christian” subculture or ghetto. Their art is meant for the world. When they sing about Christian themes, they aren’t trying to evangelize. Rather, they are saying, “This is what I write about. This is how it is. This is my art. Take it. Listen to it. Engage with it.” I feel that this approach is more successful than the approach of music as an evangelism tool. Music can’t bring people to Christ–only the work of the holy Spirit can do that. But music can show beauty, tell truth, and present goodness, and these new artists are doing just that.

“Christian artists” or artists with Christian themes to look out for: Sufjan Stevens, Derek Webb, Gungor, Matthew Perryman Jones, Paper Route, Chelsey Scott, Katie Herzig, The Vespers, The Followers, The Avett Brothers, The Welcome Wagon, Rosie Thomas, Heath McNease, Abandon Kansas, The Civil Wars, Ivan and Alyosha, Burlap to Cashmere, Young Oceans.

Admit it: You used to love us.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 11, 2013 1:56 am

    I really, really love this article. So funny, too.

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