Thursday, January 30, 2014

Compartmentalize your Music

[This post is filled with generalizations. You will be able to think of exceptions to my generalizations. I'm absolutely self-aware in this regard. With that being said, let the unfair, broad generalizations begin...]

On Sunday night, the Grammy's took place. I won't report on proceedings, because that is for other websites to do. But during Macklemore's performance of the song "Same Love," 34 people got married in front of the watching world by Queen Latifa. Some of these couples were straight, most of them were gay. The song itself is making a political and moral statement. Here's just a sample:
The right wing conservatives think it's a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don't know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don't know
It was Andrew Fletcher who once said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws." In spite of the many problems and contradiction in the song, "Same Love" has become the public popular face of a quickly shifting morality in the northwestern hemisphere today. I watched the performance of this song on YouTube the next day, and I couldn't help but think that the performance was phoned-in and obnoxiously preachy. If conservatives are accused of shoving their morality "down the throat" of everybody else, liberals are now guilty of the same.

Tom Barnes (who I do not believe is a Christian of any sort), writing over at Policymic, seemed to see just how preachy the music and performance were, as well.
But just as pop music's social consciousness is becoming increasingly performed rather than felt, so too was this performance flawed. It was one of those deliberately crafted "beautiful" TV moments where the audience can see all the strings, but has to applaud because the "APPLAUSE" sign is on. 
Those 34 couples became stage props in the most absurd publicity stunting in the history of the Grammys. The performance lacked all the emotional subtly and storytelling mastery apparent in the track's music video and the lyrics themselves. Instead, it substituted these elements with show biz cheese. How was that performance supposed to support the cause? I can imagine no skeptical homophobe saying: "Yes, gay marriage should be legalized because I want to see more people mass married by pop musicians." That's because even the Grammys knows that, increasingly, people want to see their politics in their rap songs, and that they care less about genuine artistry.
Genuine artistic (that nebulous idea!) integrity, in other words, is taking a backseat, now, to message in mainstream music. You would be forgiven for reading the previous section and seeing simply a critique of an artist who is overstepping into sanctimonious territory. But then Barnes says something that everyone needs to hear about the musical climate of the day:
Either way, this is what audiences seem to want from music. They want hip-hop clean and poppy with smooth-tongued argumentative elegance. They want hopeful tracks like "Same Love" and swanky, light and playfully critical numbers like "Thrift Shop." This style won over albums that offered transcendent, visceral and artistic expressions, like Kendrick Lamar's good kid m.A.A.d. city, which is a more proper rap album when compared with The Heist, which is, at its core, a pop album. The Grammys seem to want to pretend that isn't the case.
The struggle between artistic integrity and preachy messages is not something that only exists in the rap music world, but the Christian music world, too. I get lots of flack from friends who don't like that I pick on Christian music. (This is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) If you want to hear that the state of the Christian musical union is strong, go listen to something more positive and encouraging.

But as a Christian, I listen to commentary from this writer in the midst of the rap world and I immediately think of the music that I, as a Christian, am supposed to like. The stuff I'm expected to get behind. And even if I don't like it, I'm supposed to throw my support behind it because these "artists" have a good message, or worse yet, they "mean well." For many Christians, music is as invested with weight and importance as the word preached is supposed to be. This isn't surprising, considering the vast majority of Christians listen to far more music than they do Biblical preaching.

The fact is, Christian music artists are supposed to be artists, not necessarily preachers. This doesn't mean they can't have a biblical message, but it might mean more subtlety if one is to be a good artist. I can list on a couple of hands the names of artists who self-identify as Christian who, in my opinion (that dreaded subjective word!), seem to balance art and message well. But the stuff I hear on Christian radio, when I am subjected to it, is so overt, so shallow and preachy (on the message side), so sugary and mainstream (on the artistic side) that it really has jettisoned any pretentions of artistic integrity.

Many Christians are fine with music that is artistically shallow. They don't see the harm if the lyrics are good. Most hymns are in this category. As are my CDs of the Westminster Catechisms set to music. They're an excellent way to learn biblical truths or memorize Scripture, but this is far from good art and doesn't pretend to be.

This is not what gets played on Christian radio.  The lyrics of most mainstream songs are filled with platitudes so shallow that if we tried to dive into them our brains would be spilled across the bottom of the pool. There is no way to accurately or fairly paint an entire musical scene. There is variety out there. There is really, really good stuff out there. But when I turn on that positive and encouraging station (which, again, seems to represent the mainstream of what Christians in America are listening to), most of what I hear is the Christian equivalent of Sunday night's Grammy performance.

Is there a way out? Well, I'm no artist. In many ways, I'm like an armchair quarterback who knows a bad pass when I see one but could never throw the ball, myself. But my gut tells me that Christians need to start listening to good music and stop worrying so much about the message. ("Heresy!") And they need to make sure that the pastors in their churches are feeding them well from the Scriptures. This, of course, might require that Christians not be afraid to hear something they disagree with on the radio and to sort wheat from chaff as they're listening, but they should already be doing that.

Yes, I'm calling for Christians to compartmentalize. Christians need to know where they should expect to be spiritually fed and where they should not expect to be fed. I remember years ago, Rich Mullins (Christian musician par excellence) was speaking at a concert, and here's what he said:
It's so funny being a Christian musician. It always scares me when people think so highly of Christian music, Contemporary Christian music especially. Because I kinda go, I know a lot of us, and we don't know jack about anything. Not that I don't want you to buy our records and come to our concerts. I sure do. But you should come for entertainment. If you really want spiritual nourishment, you should go to should read the Scriptures.
Christians today spend more time being "fed" through a medium trying to be a hybrid of "art" and "preaching" than they actually do with the God-given means for growth that's been provided. God has given the church three primary means of grace already: The Word (read and preached), Sacraments (baptism and the Lord's supper), and Prayer. Creating a functional fourth category of "Christian Music" has only resulted in a theologically diluted and artistically compromised category of music that is musically and theologically mainstream in the worst possible sense of the word.


  1. Thanks for the post Adam, I enjoyed it. I'm pleased to see I'm not the only one out there who thinks the overwhelming majority of popular Christian music feels scripted and is, well, cheesy. At least it's not as bad as most "Christian movies." Yikes.

    I'm a big fan of Switchfoot and I get a lot of flak for my explanation of why I like them so much, which no doubt has something to do with the fact that it involves pointing out that they have what many other "Christian bands" lack. I'm no writer, and I feel like someone desperately grasping at wind when I try to put my thoughts or feeling into words, but their music just feels...real.

    When I tell some of my brothers and sisters in Christ that they are my favorite band, inevitably they are concerned with the bands lyrical content. Not with explicit or profane content mind you, but with a supposed lack of required mentions of Jesus' name. If they are a "Christian Band" they need to follow the script! They aren't handing out the musical equivalent of Velveeta-smothered Hallelujah tchotchkes so they must be ashamed of Jesus or bending the knee to culture! Sorry, I'm getting all riled up and my snark is showing.

    There's a quote from lead singer Jon Foreman that I think hits the nail right on the head. It is a well thought out response to the never ending questions they get along the lines of: why they don't mention Jesus explicitly in every song and whether they consider themselves a "Christian band." It is well worth the read I think. I’ll post it in the next comment due to the length of this “comment.”

  2. Jon Foreman, lead singer of Switchfoot quote: “To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple Switchfoot tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty. Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music. None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing. I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me. I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions. My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that. We all have a different calling; Switchfoot is trying to be obedient to who we are called to be. We’re not trying to be Audio A or U2 or POD or Bach: we’re trying to be Switchfoot. You see, a song that has the words: ‘Jesus Christ’ is no more or less ‘Christian’ than an instrumental piece. (I’ve heard lots of people say Jesus Christ and they weren’t talking about their redeemer.) You see, Jesus didn’t die for any of my tunes. So there is no hierarchy of life or songs or occupation only obedience. We have a call to take up our cross and follow. We can be sure that these roads will be different for all of us. Just as you have one body and every part has a different function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each of us belongs to all the others. Please be slow to judge ‘brothers’ who have a different calling.”

    Anywho, this comment has gotten to novel length already so I will not comment on the rest of the article. I do believe we share the same views in that regard as well.

    God bless, Jonathan.


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