Christian musicians are able to create God-glorifying music that gives spiritual and Christian experiences to the Western church without being purely descriptive or having overtly Christian lyrics.
MUSIC MAKES PEOPLE FEEL
Everyone has that one song. Picture the average member of the Western world. As soon as “that song” is turned on, he is suddenly wrapped up in the memories of a time now gone. He can see that person, that place, that time and is transported by a gut feeling back to something he once felt. It is a bit funny how a few guitar chords and poetic words can literally bring back a feeling. Something he felt once, but is not experiencing at the moment, and without the same context, suddenly comes rushing into his emotions. Music makes people feel. It connects people, nations and communities — all evident through national anthems, school songs, and the hundreds of different genres that are claimed by different races and cultures. Even couples have “their song,” which takes them back to a time, place, and emotion. This phenomena is universal.
Music causes three expressions from it’s listener. Favorite songs cause physical expression, mostly obviously, as dance. Think of the huge pop sensation, Michael Jackson, and his famous song, “Thriller.” This song sparked a dance that many people still know today. Most wedding dance floors are filled with people throwing their claws in the air and shuffling back and forth. Music causes a physical reaction that no one can deny.
Music causes reactions both emotionally and spiritually. These two are hard to separate and hard to define, but easy to show by example. There is a reason why music makes people cry. There is a reason why people sob during “Defying Gravity” in the musical, Wicked. There is a reason why Beatle-Mania happened and caused young girls to cry, shout and mob the band anywhere they went. There is a reason why music can be the center of a revolution. There is a reason why Christians have the heated debate every time the conversation of worship is brought up, “Are drum swells emotional manipulation?” That is purely an argument because music causes emotion, manipulation or not. There is a reason why people have sad music playlists, happy music playlists, working-out music playlists. It is fact that music means something to people, otherwise, it would not exist. Even cheesy, horrible pop music means something. One Direction means comfort and belonging to that twelve year old girl. Frank Sinatra means memories and old times to that seventy year old man. KLOVE means something to that forty year old woman. Music means something to someone and no one can strip it of that.
As religious and spiritual people, music is a common way to express worship and praise to our creator. There is a connect that happens through music and this is evident through the Old Testament especially. As human beings with a brain, music affects intellectually. Music has a mysterious power to change people’s minds, to change their emotions, and sometimes change their religion.
Just think for a moment about the wonder of music. The lasting power and impact music has had on culture. Be amazed at the movement. Be amazed at it’s impact. Be amazed of the endless possibilities music can bring. Music is music because it creates meaning.
MUSIC WITHIN WESTERN CULTURE
Music is meaningful and music takes life when someone places meaning into it. This is the ideal, but not always the idea behind the current state of music in western culture. Radio stations, commercials, singing competitions, and covers on YouTube give evidence that the western world is saturated with pop music, which all seem the same, and which essentially can be anything — Mumford and Sons, Lady Gaga and One Direction alike. The word “pop” comes from “popular”, so anything that explodes in popularity becomes pop music. Music tastes vary from one person to another, but these cheesy love songs with catchy beats seem to stick around. The question arises about how these songs become popular and why do people love them? How do people associate meaning to these songs that seem to mean nothing?
PBS Idea Channel claims that pop music gains meaning by how it used and where it is played. Most of the time context and prevalence become way more important than sound. The producers in charge cannot guarantee market stability with every song. Therefore, they need to find a way to get it into the listening ears of the audience. The songs slowly make their way in TV shows, commercials, videos, radios, and malls across the states. At first, someone hears the song. They hear it again. They hear it another time. It is almost if they cannot escape the song. It almost becomes insufferable. Until they learn the lyrics. Until that song plays in the background of a really great memory. Until, now, they are able to stand it. In fact, they enjoy it. They may even love it and seek the song out on their own. That is how pop music works. Meanwhile, big companies and producers are pushing their songs and their money into the laps of those who own the broadcasting networks.
It is easy to see how many people latch onto pop music when they associate their own meanings to it. It is also easy to see how people find their identity in these songs. In a fallen word, people — who have not yet found their identities in Christ — are searching for something to fill the void. Music can fill the void, but lately, music does not seem to be enough. Being a musician means being a brand. No longer can it be a girl with a good voice. Pop stars like Lady Gaga, Madonna, and others have broken down the barriers to make it obvious that it is not just about the music anymore, it is their brand. They are the product. These people become the meanings of the music and to their listeners.
MUSIC WITHIN THE WESTERN CHURCH
The western world creates meaning to their listeners by playing songs over and over until the listener has an attached identity to it. How, then, should Christian culture respond to this idea? How has the church created and given meaning to music?
It is often said that Christian Media can become a copy of the overall culture it is engrossed in. Art & Soul, a book for christian artists, by Hillary Brand, states that, “if we begin simply with an attempt to communicate a worldview it will miscarry: it will be merely propaganda.” (161) The current state of the music in western culture leaks it’s way into christian culture and christian music. To clarify, what is specially discussed is not the music heard on sunday morning, like hymns, but what would be called Christian pop music (For a great article on Christian worship music and the theology within lyrics, please read “Make Us Mountaineers” by Melissa Barber). This is music that is that is featured on airwaves like KLOVE and other christian radio stations around the country. It is hard to draw a line between praise and worship music and what is not when it comes to Christian music — but the focus will be on contemporary Christian pop music.
As stated above, Christian media often will copy it’s surrounding overall culture and create a produced slightly altered version with clean words and safe themes. Christian music often sounds exactly like current music played on secular top 40 hits station.”Hey, this song sounds exactly like Mumford and Sons, but it’s about Jesus wrapping His arms around the church.” “Woah, this song is great! It sounds like a Christian version of Miley Cyrus.” But whereas these songs by Mumford and Sons and, yes, even, Miley Cyrus allow the listeners to relate, feel, and interpret, (this possible coming the idea that the music industry pushes these songs on listeners over and over until they create meaning around the songs) these Christian “copy cats” leave nothing up for interpretation. Michael Gungor talks about this in his latest viral article. He talks about the feeling that popular Christian songs are often faking or pretending emotion:
The false emotion that I’m talking about might be familiar to some of you. There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. — Michael Gungor
Music is good when it creates meaning for the listener. Music is good when it allows it’s listener to react. Music is good when a listener can interpret the song for their own. Most of the time, Christian music will take the melody and the tune, but change the lyrics to fit proper theology and doctrine. Clean it up. Yes, the quality of the music will be excellent. It will be well produced and it will sound good, but the idea of allowing the listener to feel is lost. Secular music of the western culture allows listeners to associate meaning to these songs that seem like nothing but cheesy love songs that are fun to dance along to with friends (but the listeners are still allowed to form meaning — which is important). While, Christian pop music takes the melody and shoves doctrine on it, shoves their salvation on it, shoves everything on it — so that the listening is no longer allowed to find meaning for themselves. The current situation of the music within the church is that listeners are no longer allowed to feel. They are told what to feel.
Art & Soul dives into this issue deeper. When opinions are pushed onto the audience, there is no more room for them to explore or discover. Suddenly, there is no room for interpretation. This causes music to become inherently cheesy and bad. When no meaning or no reaction can come from the music, it becomes bad. In a recent article, the frontman of Gungor explains a game that he and his band play: “Christian or Secular?” Where they will listen or say a few lyrics on a song and take turns guessing if it is a Christian song or a secular song. He explains how he figures out what to guess, “This is something I can simply feel at a gut level. If I hear a song, and I hear any sort of pretending or false emotion, that’s a good first indicator. I’m really not trying to throw mud here, I’m being honest at how I am good at this game. Christian music often has a sheen to it that other music doesn’t have.”
This is not a discussion of whether someone likes the music or not. It is not a discussion if it is technically good or bad. This is a discussion of what makes music meaningful and how this makes good music. Melody cannot be stolen while lyrics are changed. These two ideas are not inseparable. Christian music today is using a transmission mode of communication. This mode of communication means that the artists is producing the message through a medium (whether it be a song, a video, or written word) and send it to the audience. When the audience experiences the medium, they have received the message. This mode of communication is a one-way street. Christian music today should use the ritual model of communication. This is a mode that keep an on-going loop of interaction between the technology, the audience, and the artist, a loop circling back and forth without disconnect. There is not a loop of interaction involved currently in Christian music. There is no system, technology, or group of people being involved or being allowed to be involved. Musicians sing songs, they are pushed to their audience and the audience listens. The musicians are not looking for how their audience is responding and the audience is not responding for the musician. Music is being thrown at the group without feedback or involvement. Music becomes predictable. Just transmitting technical excellent things is not understand the way media and culture work. It is not representational of what this interpersonal communication should look like.
THE CHRISTIAN SONG-WRITER
What I do stand by after the years that have passed since I wrote this blog is that there is too much fear in the world and we ought to create and behave from a place of passion, belief, and love rather than truing to homogenize, pander, and cater with our art. — Michael Gungor
After making the connection of what music is and what it is lacking, it is important to define what a Christian song-writer should be. It is no mystery that Christians are called to be creative and are called to use their God-given talents. The evidence is held within the first book, first chapter, first verse of the Scriptures, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The story explains the work of the Creator and how He formed the earth, the sky above, the water below and the people who inhabited the planet. One simple glance around at creation — water, wind, sun, and stars — it is obvious there is a amazing creative reigning over the world. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God is creator. God has created man in His own image. Therefore, God has intended for man to be creative.
There is no set standard for art in the Scriptures. Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse makes clear what is required of all Christians – to see what he has shown is good and act upon it. It allows a Christian to figure it our for themselves. Whatever is good is God’s. There is clear evidence in the scriptures proving that song-writing is “right” by the standards of the bible. But again, no clear definition for what to write about or who to write for — as many examples within scriptures have vast themes and audiences. Andrew Schmutzer once said, “Write for God, not for men,” as he explained about how written prayers are less common in the church today (because people tend to write for the congregation and it becomes less authentic). The same truth can apply for song-writing. The overall truth is that one must write for God, no matter the topic, feeling or situation behind the song – write for God. Ephesians 4:6 says, “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” The biblical truth that pours our of this verse is that God is in his people and He is above everything. Because He is in his people and his people are made in his image, through sanctification, they are able to reflect Him – even through songs without overtly descriptive lyrics or themes. He is above all and works through all.
And yes, sin is still present in the Christian’s life and the Christian is still fallen in this world. Yet, because we are constantly being conformed to the image of Christ through sanctification, Christians are able to reflect in what they do.
Break down the barrier of the standard definition of a Christian musician. Find the identity first in Christ with a god-given talent of music and writing. By sharing life through song, Christ will be found. It all boils down to the heart, as most sin issues do. Give listeners the truth they are longing for. Let them feel the music. Let them experience emotions. Let them react physically, mentally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. John Foreman was recently asked if his band, Switch Foot sang Christian songs or not. His answer reflects a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian song-writer:
Many songs are worthy of being written… 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… 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.
Let them interpret, because the prayer is that because the music comes from a heart of God, that the Holy Spirit will move them to interpret Christ. It is not up to the musician to be the Holy Spirit. Songs are not born-again believers and they do not need to be.
Sometimes things exist purely to be beautiful. Let them exist. Let people find joy and laughter in creation and art. Some art makes people think. Sometimes it will make them cry. Usually, it will make them think. All of the time, it should make them feel.
We do not need to double justify. We do not need to double justify our art, because everything needs to be overtly evangelistic or holy. Meaning, we do not need to make excuses for creating art or music just to laugh, just to cry, just to express pain, or just to praise God. We do not need to make something something even if it is not.
Let the Spirit work.
And stop putting so much pressure on your HUMAN words.
My conclusion about the matter is this: spend your energy on things you believe in, and do them honestly and to the best of your ability. — Michael Gungor