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11 Reasons to Listen to Christian Music

July 16, 2013

“Christian music” has become a byword. The term is associated with negative words like “boring,” “unoriginal,” “fake” and “The O.C. Supertones.” More than once I’ve heard people describe a band by saying “They’re Christian, but they’re good,” as if a person’s religion affected their musical talent. Christian music, on the whole, is scorned. And the people who scorn it the most are often Christians.

It seems odd that Christians should dislike Christian music so much. After all, you don’t see atheists complaining about how bad atheist music is, or Buddhists refusing to listening to K-Enlightenment. But Christians have the most objections to listening to Christian music. In the old days before the internet, when the only source of Christian music was the radio or CDs from a Christian store, these objections were fairly powerful. But now, with new ways of promoting music, the old objections to Christian music begin to fall down. Yes, we still have a long way to go when it comes to Christian music. If we want to make Christian music better, we need to be promoting new artists who are making quality music. I think that these eleven songs that I showcase answer the most common objections to Christian music.

Objection 1: There isn’t any good Christian music

Sometimes Christian music is just plain bad. Its reputation for awfulness is deserved. If you don’t believe me, listen to this. And this. Heck, give this one a listen too.

The flip side of this coin is that there’s a lot of bad music that isn’t Christian. The main difference is that there is hecka lot more mainstream music than there is Christian music, so bad Christian music is more noticeable. Just like secular music, the lame Christian music tends to be more heavily promoted than the good music. The top 40 stations aren’t spinning any Tame Impala records. If you want to find good Christian music, you need to look beyond the bestsellers and dig around. Look through Noisetrade. Find some saintly hipster who blogs about music. Know what’s out there. Listening to a few sanctified chart-toppers and concluding that Christian music stinks is like hearing Kenny G and then saying that jazz music is awful.

Objection 2: Christian Music is musically derivative

We’ve all heard the soundalike bands. Christian music periodically goes through phases where it tries really hard to ride on a mainstream bandwagon. For a while, every Christian band sounded like ersatz Creed or cleaned-up blink-182. Before that, they were all ska bands. Once the dubstep craze has died down, you can be sure that there will be some Christian dubstep aimed at youth groups. “Wub wub Lord you are holy wub wub wub.”

Things are no different in the mainstream music world. OneRepublic sounds just like Coldplay, FallOutBoy started out sounding like blink, Nickelback sounds just like Nickelback. Christian music isn’t alone in its plagiarism–it’s just more egregious. And sometimes, artists just sound similar and that’s OK. No one is complaining that Mumford and Sons is just a rip-off of the Avett Brothers. “Welcome Wagon sounds just like Sufjan Stevens.” Probably doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they’re on the same record label.

Objection 3: Christian Music is musically uninteresting

My brother once put it this way: “I don’t like Christian music because it’s so repetitive and they all have the same voice.” There’s an unfortunate tendency for Christian artists to sound like easy-listening versions of U2 and Coldplay. If you listen to this song, and then this song and then this song and you’ll see what I mean. It seems like objection 2 is misguided: Christian artists aren’t ripping off mainstream artists; they’re ripping off each other.

Then again, there’s a lot of mainstream music that is pretty uninteresting as well. If you listen to pop radio for any amount of time, you’ll realize that all the songs sound essentially the same, probably because half of them are produced by Calvin Harris. K-Love and Top 40 music both use the same four chords–Top 40 just has a dance beat and lyrics about sex.

This objection is based on bad logic. The argument goes something like this: Casting Crowns is boring compared to Radiohead; therefore, I shouldn’t listen to Christian music. Comparing the best of one genre to the most popular in another is monumentally unfair. It’s like saying “The Followers are way better than Britney Spears; therefore, any music that isn’t Christian music is awful.”

Objection 4: Christian Music is an inferior, sanitized version of hard rock

I remember when I listened to Christian “rock” radio. Between the Creed-esque power ballads and the U2-esque  power ballads, there was always a song by Skillet. Despite their silly sounding name, they are probably the most popular Christian rock band. I recently went to a Christian bookstore that was stocked full of Skillet merchandise–Skillet hats, Skillet shirts, Skillet armbands. I forgot to ask if they had any Skillet skillets. The band wears all black, has concerts with flames and lasers, and plays really loud. Their lead singer, the raspy-voiced John Cooper, sings really dark sounding songs like “Whispers in the Dark,” and “Savior” that are supposed to be about Jesus, but sound eerily like the musings of an abusive boyfriend (“Surrender your love, it’s all you can do!”) In the mainstream music world, they would just be another generic rock outfit. In the Christian world, they are superstars.

I’ve heard this objection a lot, even from people who have no problem listening to the superior, unsanitized versions of hard rock. If Christian music is just an excuse to listen to something that you can headbang to, then what’s the point. There are plenty of black-clad, tatooed and pierced bands with vaguely spiritual lyrics being marketed to Christian teens. But, pace fans of For Today and Sleeping Giant, the best Christian music today is almost entirely folk and indie. Maybe Caedmon’s Call is just a sanitized version of Counting Crows or The Wallflowers. I doubt it.

Objection 5 :Christian music appeals to a gnostic dualism, separating the head from the heart.

Gnosticism. Like Freddy, Jason, and Adam Sandler, it just keeps coming back to haunt us. The idea that there is something wrong with our physical selves, that we are really meant for some higher “spiritual” plane, is one that keeps plaguing the church, and by extension, plaguing Christian music. Falling into the tradition of pietism, Christian music becomes focused on “heavenly” things instead of the day to day workings out of the gospel. I guess this is why the songs are always drenched in reverb–nothing says “spiritual” like a lot of echoes.

The charge of pietism is a valid one. The excessive focus on “spiritual,” abstract concepts instead of incarnational, embodied Christian living isn’t just bad theology; it’s bad songwriting. Too many Christian songs have lyrics that vaguely talk about how good God is instead of actually praising him for his mighty works, like the Psalms. However, given the surprising comeback of Reformational thinking, songwriters are gravitating towards a more holistic view of life in their lyrics. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the seas and all that is in them.” This song by Gungor is a perfect commentary on that verse.

Objection 6 : Christian music has theologically weak lyrics

At least it’s not as theologically bad as mainstream music. Then again, no one who listened to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” seriously began to think that the Gospel preached only immanence and not transcendence.

The theological weakness of Christian music is painfully evident. God is presented not as the almighty King of the universe, but as a buddy, a self-help plan, a quasi-girlfriend, or a way to get high. Our theology in our songs will only be as good as our theology in our churches. The problem is not bad theology in Christian music–the problem is bad theology period.

But, like all other “Christian stuff,” there is both good and bad theology to be found. Many Christian books are filled with lifeless apologetics, pietistic individualism, and dispensational eschatology. This doesn’t mean that I stop reading Christian books, or that I only read Christian books that are over 500 pages long and were written by someone with a beard. Not all Christian lyrics are “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that name.” Some of them, like this song, are taken straight from Scripture.

Objection 7: Christian music is trite, feel-good, syrupy pop

Back in the 90s, it became popular for rock bands to be as angry as possible, or at least angry enough to make money. Nirvana released bitter anthems like “In Bloom,” and “Drain You,” Smashing Pumpkins sang about feeling like a rat in a cage, Eddie Vedder growled his way through every Pearl Jam album, and Rage Against The Machine blasted profanity-laced tirades against the government. It was a great time to be angry. I spent most of 1993 screaming at the top of my lungs. This may have something to do with the fact that it was the year I was born.

The Christian music industry seems like the reverse of the 90s. Instead of being filled with bitterness, anger, and angst, it’s filled with happiness, smiles and optimism. And it’s nauseating. The lyrics often seem to take more cues from “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” than Psalm 88. A friend once described Christian music as One Direction covering “Wonderwall.” And he wasn’t far off. It makes me wonder what would happen if people tried to take classics of theology and turn them into rock albums. Spiritual Depression doesn’t sound like something you’d find in the Christian section of the music store. Unless its the new record by Demon Hunter.

There is a great joy in Christian life, but it is counterbalanced by the great sorrow that Christians experience. The superficial happiness that pervades Christian music marginalized Christians with sensitive temperaments. TobyMac doesn’t provide the vocabulary for our serious experiences with God. But maybe Matthew Perryman Jones can. Just as top 40 music focuses on the glitz and glamour of the party life, Christian pop focuses on the easily marketable aspects of Christianity–Love, Joy, Peace, etc. with an American spin on it. Dig deeper, and you’ll find artists who write seriously about their faith; the green pastures as well as the valley of the shadow of death.

Objection 8: Christian Music doesn’t have anything interesting to say about social issues

Out of this week’s Air1 Top Ten Songs, only one of them has to do with anything to do with anything that deals with anything like a social justice issue–“Gold” by Britt Nicole. It’s more of a self-esteem anthem than a call for social justice. The rest of the songs are all completely inwardly focused. They all focus on the singer’s inner relationship with Christ rather than how that relationship changes the way they live and relate to the world. Contrast this with the hot topics at Wheaton College:

  1. The LGBTQ community
  2. Abortion
  3. Economics and caring for the poor
  4. Racial reconciliation
  5. Mission Work
  6. Just War vs. Pacifism
  7. Environmental Stewardship

Christian radio isn’t addressing these issues. It’s not even on the same planet. It’s embarrassing that the punks and the rockers and the indie kids have had a stronger social conscience than some of the Christian musicians. I might disagree with “Same Love” by Macklemore + Ryan Lewis or “Killing In The Name” by Rage Against The Machine, but at least they’re saying something. Where is the Church?

Fortunately, beyond Christian radio, there are artists who are seriously addressing these issues. Some of them may fall too much into political liberalism or the Social Gospel, but they are applying their faith to real problems in the world, instead of hiding it under a bushel. Derek Webb has been at the forefront of these artists, as a listen to any of his albums will show. He is probably the best lyricist in Christian music today, and his words are both poetic and insightful.

Objection 9: Christian music tries to hard to be “safe,” “positive,” “family-friendly” without dealing with any real issues.

The Song of Solomon would never make it on Christian radio. Nor would Psalm 137. Jesus probably wouldn’t have been allowed to DJ for K-Whatever. He would have been too dogmatic, too angry, too mean to the Pharisees. And St. Paul wouldn’t even have a chance. Just look at what he said about the Judaizers in the letter to the Galatians. Shocking!

There’s nothing wrong with “positive” and “family-friendly” music. I don’t have kids, but if I did, I would want to have some music that I could listen to while they were in the car. But the goal of Christian art isn’t just to be “safer” than non-Christian art. Aslan is not a tame lion, but he’s good. We need to judge art by the Bible’s standards, not by our own culturally constructed standards. There are definitely times and places for certain things, and we want to exercise good taste rather than crass voyeurism when dealing with sin. But sin must be dealt with as such. And sin is ugly. Any attempt to cover up the ugliness of sin is an attempt to cover up the ugliness of the cross.

I tried really hard not to have two Derek Webb songs in a row, but this one just fit so perfectly.

Objection 10: Christian music is enthnocentric and promotes American Christianity rather than Biblical Christianity.

For better or for worse, most of us reading this are American Christians. It’s easy to get comfortable with being an American Christian. If you go to a Christian bookstore, you can purchase the regrettable spectacle of a cross painted with an American flag design. The idea that God and Country go hand in hand is an idea firmly implanted in many Christian minds. It is an idea that probably needs to be firmly uprooted in many Christian minds.

Christian radio most likely follows the status quo unknowingly, because they aren’t dealing with any social issues at all (see objection #8). A few Christian artists think that the alternative is a brash and rude anti-Americanism. Showbread has recently been promoting a hateful pacifism in their last few albums. I’m convinced that singer Josh Dies is the ideological love child of Shane Claiborne and Sam Harris.

And then there are Christian artists who deal seriously with the issue of being a Christian in America. It’s a touchy subject, and it’s easy to fall into Americanist Rightism or Pious Leftism without actually thinking about what the Bible says. But as Christians, we should always be providing a loving critique of whatever political system we are under. Injustice is injustice, even if it is cloaked in the guise of patriotism. This oldie by Larry Norman provides an excellent example of a Christian critique of the American Way of Life.

Objection 11: All music is Christian Music

I confess–I’ve been lying this entire time. There is no such thing as Christian music. Derek Webb says that whenever you see “Christian” attached to anything other than a person, it’s a marketing term. I’ve been pulling the wool over your eyes. I’m sorry.

Webb’s insight is spot-on. Most of the time “Christian” music is music created for and marketed to a specific demographic. It’s a business, just like hip-hop or hardcore. There is no such thing as the devil’s music. All truth is God’s truth, even if the people singing it hate God. When Jimmy Page played the solo on “Rock and Roll,” when The National wrote Boxer, whenever Josh Ritter does an acoustic set, they are all praising God, even if they don’t know it. Hallelujah!

And yet, there is still music that is specifically made for the community of Christians. This is why I didn’t include bands on here that have spiritual or religious themes, but aren’t “Christian bands,” such as Vigilantes of Love, or Ivan and Alyosha. Some music is made to address the needs and issues of the Christian community. It is written and performed specifically for those within the community, and it gives them something that music not written for that community, no matter how good, cannot give. Music that is written especially to reflect the divine drama of God’s redemptive acts in history, to put our beliefs and theology into melody and rhythm, to translate the particular needs, cares, interests, and ideas of the community of faith into musical language–that is Christian music.

10 More Reasons to Listen to Christian Music

  1. The Weight of Glory: Songs Inspired by C.S. Lewis by Heath McNease
  2. Ghosts Upon the Earth by Gungor
  3. She Must and Shall Go Free by Derek Webb
  4. Wounded Healer by The Followers
  5. Land of The Living by Matthew Perryman Jones
  6. The Shelter by Jars of Clay
  7. Hymns and Sacred Songs by Leigh Nash
  8. What Are You Afraid Of? by Kevin Marble
  9. Rasing Up The Dead by Caedmon’s Call
  10. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by The Welcome Wagon
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2013 12:46 am

    This is real good. I can raise two personal objections to what we call “Christian music.”

    1. There’s no sacred music; the music you hear on the radio you’re just as likely to hear in church. In aiming for both, they missed both very badly. Most of the good Christian music is written as, well, music: not for a praise band. Which leads me to my second:

    2.. God is not the primary actor in many P&W songs. I realized this in Edinburgh, where a very odd Presbyterian church mixed a capella metrical psalms with happy-clappy praise music. It was very surreal. But it helped me realize a key distinction: in the Psalms, God is ALWAYS the primary actor, whether or not David is speaking in first person or not. When he DOES say “I,” it’s usually to set up a situation or initiate a call for God to act. This is not a be-all-end-all criticism but it’s gone a long way in shaping my thought towards P&W (which I realize your post was not about…).

  2. July 17, 2013 4:15 pm

    I, for one, LOVE Christian music. Been listening to it nonstop. Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, or the Requiem? Or the gorgeous sounds of Renaissance motets?

    Christians are capable of producing beauty.

    The real problem came in when we started caring more that the lyrics reflected God’s character than the sounds, the music itself. People want to listen to music that reflects God’s character, but they don’t want to be preached at. Simple as that.

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