In America, repenting of sins and confessing the name of Jesus Christ does not always come with an expectation of the transformation of the mind and the supernatural process of becoming holy; it tends to come with the expectation of a transformation of cultural taste. Instead of celebrating the kingdom of heaven that she is to inherit and the reality of the Body of Christ that she has been grafted into, the new believer is expected to celebrate the Christian sub-culture and understand the Body of Christ to be a group of Christians that listen to the same music and support the same politicians.
So this new Christian, often remorsefully, begins to avoid secular, meaning without God, music like it is a sketchy suitcase at a crowded airport. And to fill the musical void now in her life, she is directed to the tidy world of alternative “Christian” music—complete with a conversion chart to make an easy transition. The message becomes clear to the new believer: secular music is dangerous and anti-God; Christian music is safe and godly. So the new believer is handed the list of approved artists on approved labels and told never to turn back. But this does not help her understand what makes her “pre-conversion” music secular, or worldly; it only tells her that it is. This encourages the new believer to flee from one genre and settle for another, all with little amount of critical thought and reflection. It is best that Christians, instead of encouraging believers to abstain or embrace one musical genre over another, guide one another in theological thought and responsible interaction with musicians and their art—no matter the genre.
The Musical Dilemma
Jay Howard and John Streck, in Apostles of Rock, seek to define the purpose and usefulness of contemporary Christian music (CCM). They begin their examination by defining the draw of mainstream rock music. “For much of America’s youth rock and roll would seem to remain a source of faith, hope, and refuge, and it is the first and best medium for carrying creative and powerful stories about the things that count most in their daily lives.” They also point out that rock music promotes identity-building and community-forming. For humans who, at the Fall, were left with a disassociation from their identity and a desperate longing for communion, the relational draw of music is almost inevitable. When a person is looking for someone to relate to her brokenness and explain the woes of humanity and most music seems to meet that need in some way, of course she will appreciate it and even become emotionally intimate with the content and experience of that music.
But the messages within the culture of mainstream rock music and the answers to human query too often contradict Christian values and the responsibilities of theology. Where there are many artists whose music does not point the listener to profanity or heresy, there are many others whose music is at odds with the concept of holiness. The new believer either quickly recognizes this tension in her music play list or is told by other Christians that her music is no longer acceptable, forcing her into a musical dilemma. Enter, CCM. This genre of music, including many subgenres (i.e. Christian rock, Christian pop, Christian indie, etc), allows for the believer to still listen to the sound that she likes, but with cleaned up “Christian” messages, keeping her from having to surrender her holiness in relating with the evil found in mainstream music. So CCM not only solves the musical dilemma, but grants a person to believe that one genre of music is equated with holiness or Christian-ness.
CCM: A Doctrinal Hodgepodge
Howard and Streck determine that unlike all other music genres, CCM has no musical qualifications for being a music genre; it has no “code of sonic requirement.” The authors point out that there are historically, three unifying elements of CCM: artist, lyric and organization. “Most frequently adopted by fans, the artist-based conception for contemporary Christian music requires a connection between the beliefs of the artist and her creative output,” thus Howard and Streck observe the defining characteristic in the Christian genre. The result of this categorization is a music genre that is not defined by the music, but by the artists creating the music. This then requires a definition of faith and outline of values that indicates the artist as a Christian in order for her music to be labeled or marketed as Christian. Of course a record label or church group could determine the music created by a person understood to be Christian, but how if this determination is simply made and then declared to the new believer, how is she to comprehend on her own what makes this music or this person a Christian?
Rather than meeting this concern with a call to teach the listener how and why to discern for herself, those within the CCM culture disagree on the qualifiers of Christian music and even the purpose of it all. Howard and Streck contend that these differing viewpoints come from varying assumptions regarding approaches to the proper relationships of Christian and secular cultures. “As they coalesce into discrete belief sets, these differing assumptions have led to distinct artistic motivations and rationales, distinct generic forms, and distinct responses to the Christian-capitalist paradoxes that emerge from the marriage of religious thought with commercial entertainment.” They point out a trend toward self-analyzing and criticism from within the CCM and those that worry over its effectiveness and authenticity, citing a near obsession with authenticity—like that of the mainstream artists. They conclude that there are no actual standards of authenticity within CCM—that the questions are subjective according the presuppositions of the artists and producers (yet they still go on to defend a theory of transformational benefit to CCM if approached with a still rather unclear mindset).
There are many definitions of Christian music because there are many definitions of Christian and many ideals involving the purpose of music. Yet all of these differing ideas are produced and marketed as the same Christian alternative to the music of the (evil) world. If the Christian version of music is meant to teach Christian values or even to evangelize, then it does so with quite a collection of doctrines and purposes. Is this helpful or hurtful to the believer—especially the believer with little understanding of theology?
The Christian Ghetto
In his The Rock Cries Out, Steve Stockman speaks of the Christian vs. secular argument: “Christian music and films and novels and everything else have appeared in the market because Christians do not think that it is good to be entertained by ‘secular’ art. As well as the safety angle, there is also, of course, the idea that Christian art will be communicating truth, whereas the ‘secular’ will perpetrate lies.” How is the believer to understand the truth in CCM if there is not a consistent understanding of truth? One song is played after another on the radio—often with two entirely different theologies and intentions. Yet they are sold as the same thing: Christian. And believers, along with all of those watching, are told, “This is Christian thought and we’ve set it to a beat—a popular beat at that!” So the consumer of this music is given a milieu of assumptions, presuppositions, ambiguous vocabulary and an entirely new culture of music open to interpretation on their parts.
Even more unfortunate than CCM’s confusion and lack of clear purpose is the lack of treatment of the human condition. “Most of it is evangelistic and thus limited in its ability to communicate the widest of human experiences and the breath of truth with which the Bible is concerned.” Any sampling of the top CCM songs of the day will show that the popular songs are either worship-related or carry an evangelistic message. “There are very few songs on Christian albums about poverty or social justice or racism,” Stockman concludes. And when musicians include themselves in these social conversations or participate in outreach that is not labeled as the “mission field,” they are shunned by the CCM community. Finding success in the real world, says Stockman, “is portrayed immediately as a losing of faith, the slippery slope of backsliding into the abyss. As a result we have created a vast industry that, as well as making Christian businessmen bucketloads of money, has also isolated the Christian faith in a ghetto.” This excommunication from the fiscal support of Christians is not even a result of the shunned artists’ renouncing of the Gospel; it is a result of their separation from the musical ghetto of Christians.
In UnChristian, the result of Barna Group research pertaining to the rest of society’s view of Christians and the culture they have created, authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons devote an entire section to the outsiders’ views that Christians are sheltered. They discuss, in detail, the relation of this view to shifts within the attitudes of each generation and their religious attitudes, carefully pointing out the tendencies of the millennial group. Young adults today have signficant needs, which most feed through their media uses, and are constantly “pushing the boundaries of conventional lifestyles.” These young adults, who live on the edge of new technology, cultural advancements and the plague of human condition being manifest still in each direction they turn, observe Christianity as being irrelevent and not up to the challenge. What is offered in the Christian alternative culture, and the cleaned-up versions of the art and questions of the mainstream, or secular, is not genuine and they see right through it. Ultimately,
“Young people’s perspectives about the world are not going to be neat and tidy. They find themselves brushing aside those unwilling to explore life’s intricacy and irony and idiocy…A faith that does not effectively address convoluted and thorny issues seems out of tune with a generation asking big questions and expressing big doubts. Spirituality that is merely focused on “dos and don’ts” rings hollow.”
It seems that in the fleeing and the sheltering within the CCM ghettos, Christians tend to lose the connection with the thorny issues that all—believers and unbelivers—are pricking their ways through. This is not to say that all music and artists in CCM are failing to do this, nor is it saying that all musicians in mainstream music are doing this well or responsibly. The point is that, in an effort to effect moral values and bridge a sort of musical gap between God and man, CCM writers go too far in the sterilizing of content and abstaining from anything that might show the depravity of man—including themselves.
Handling the Intricacies and Ironies
In the Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom states, “For those who are interested in psychological heath, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason.” He speaks of the influence of modern philosophy and also capitalism on the shaping of the rock music content and industry. “It has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is not intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions.” Bloom talks about the loss of parental control in their children’s lives—especially as it pertains to moral values—and how the rock, or popular music industry, has taken over in a concerning way. This all makes a very appealing case for fleeing to the CCM culture and regaining a moral foothold in the lives of children. CCM can serve as a moral alternative—but there is still concern for the youth being sheltered in this sub-culture and not gaining an intimate understanding of the problems associated with the music from which they are fleeing. They need to be taught by their pastors—not their music—how to rightly handle philosophical questions and creatively treat them with theological responsibility.
David Powlison is the leading voice in the biblical counseling movement today. In “Modern Therapies and the Church of Faith,” he writes on the shift of counseling and matters of the soul from being a domain of the church to now being pushed into the realm of secular thought and psychology. Pastors and churches (in general—of course we do not mean all) today will counsel on small issues, and offer spiritual “quick-fixes” and devotionals, but when it comes to the deepest, most grievous heart-searching in the throes of a tainted world, secular psychologists are so often given the realm of influence and domain. “In short,” Powlison says, “the church of Christ lost her heartland, the understanding and cure of souls.” He says that the Church has allowed herself to be squeezed out of the margins and given the heartland that she is meant to know best over to the realms of secular psychology.
This, I believe, is what we see happening in our involvement in music too. The deepest issues of humanity and the messiest issues of the soul are not addressed in the general content (there are always exceptions, of course) of CCM and those looking in see this, so they look to other places that are more relevant to the profound issues in their lives. All of the negative emotions, Powlison says, have left the church (grief, guilt, anxiety, anger, death, etc.). “And yet these are the issues that the Bible is fundamentally about. Our task as Christians is to reclaim the heartland.”Powlison sees this opportunity in counseling. I think it can also be seen in media and music.
Humanity in Music
Response from the Christians cannot happen until the questions and issues are heard and understood. In Modern Art and the Death of Culture, Hans Rookmaker speaks of the desperation in the reasoning displayed in the raw passions of music:”Man today is in revolt against the world in which he lives, against its dehumanizing tendencies, against slavery under the bosses of the new Galbraith elite, under a computerized bureaucracy, against alienation and the loneliness of the mass man. He searches frantically for a new world.” Humanity longs for reconciliation to the God that he wars against. And this is evidenced in all that we do—including music. The overarching themes in mainstream music show this longing and serve as a way of listening to the specific questions and revelations of our culture. Gilmour champions the academic treatment of popular music and in God’s and Guitars says that not giving attention to aspect of culture would be to overlook an important example of the religious experience in contemporary society.
Through music, many songwriters reveal curiosities about religion, the rawness of pain and sorrow, the celebration of life, views regarding the roles of men, women and love in a generation, the value of a certain person or thing in society, etc. What we offer, whether through discussion or music, should treat with great care the ideas and issues addressed through popular music today. As Christians, we have the answers to these questions and we should not be afraid to treat the pains of humanity and the philosophical questions raised by society through our interaction with music (whether as creators or connoisseurs).
Whether or not CCM is a justified or necessary entity is irrelevant at this point. What matters is that Christians know and are intimately acquainted with the Gospel (not the 60 second “God saved you so that you could live happily ever after, now let’s say this 10 second prayer” version: but the actual living, eternal reality of the Gospel). Therefore we know well the horror of humanities alienation from real, eternal Love and what it means to wrestle and persevere through the throes of life. The music that we make and listen to or the ways we choose to interact with music—secular or not—should wear on its sleeves the evidences of this knowledge and understanding of the heartland.
Pushing Outside of the Circles
It seems that critiquing and solving the concerns within CCM turns into a circular conversation, garnering more frustration and disillusionment with each go ‘round. So let us not make it our purpose to solve that dilemma here. Instead let us argue for a reach outside of the musical ghetto. It is ignorant to simply declare a song or a genre as holy or unholy (that shows a serious lack of reverence for the concept of holiness) without understanding what makes it so potentially horrifying or lovely. This requires thought, time and theological responsibility.
For any believer to consume only “Christian” versions of music without questioning its theological value or musical quality can confuse her in her theological growth and also keep her from understanding the mainstream, or secular, culture. The believer needs to understand how and why to interact with all musical content—both Christian and secular—and not just blindly consume one genre while fleeing another. More importantly, she needs to be grounded in theology and biblical mediation in order to responsibly meet the needs of those crying out around her. For if she retreats and remains sheltered, she will not only become disassociated and apathetic to the conversations of the surrounding culture, but she will also get lost in the doctrinal hodgepodge of a loosely defined culture and fail to distinguish right theology on her own.
The Thoughtful Listener
There are many like Gilmour who are dedicated to the discourse of music and have examined the art and ideologies of popular musicians in our culture. They take time to attempt to understand the artist—beyond what they or the media have declared them to be. Then they look at the themes in all of the music, considering band interviews and other insights. If they are examining one particular song, it will be considered in light of understanding the previously mentioned information. Considering the background of an artist and the recurring themes in his work is much like an instructor would give their students biographical information on the author of the novel they are studying. It is important that the artist’s message or doctrinal positions (if they are Christians) are understood by the listener so that she can perceptively interact with the music.
Many conversations about music are taking place online. These conversations come in the form of You Tube comments, song lyric sites, discussion forums, blog posts, music reviews/comments, etc. But none of these forums lend themselves to thoughtful discourse.
So in an effort to talk more about popular artist, their music and right ways of responding, I created a section on my blog specifically for having this conversation–at least with those in my life. I don’t mean this to be a widespread, mass media type of effort at this point. As I myself am still stretching my wings in theology and public discourse, it’s probably best that I keep the conversation within a group of readers that will keep me accountable, rather than many who will just take all of my words as Truth.
My hope is that no matter what song or artist I write about it, readers will be encouraged to interact more intimately with the music that they listen to and the music of the culture as well. The conversation is not meant to declare one music holy or another not (humans cannot declare anything holy), but to affirm that those lines do not to exist if believers are prepared to think on their own and understand how to respond to the cries of music.