Fully aware that I am not the first kid raised in Christian fundamentalism to think or write about the trappings of “Christian” music versus “secular” music, I hope to make this post not about that stuff. For what it’s worth, like many others who say it better, I do not believe there is a difference between Christian and secular music. There’s just music; it can be redemptive or fallen, and possibly a beautiful or terrible mix of both.
As is the case with any art medium (or human), freeing music from its labeled restrictions is the primary way to allow the power of music to speak. This is not just an ideological thought for me, it is my salvation experience…but that’s another post.
Christian music and Christian musicians don’t exist. There is music about Christ and musicians who are Christians, but that’s not the same thing. Furthermore, people who evangelicals don’t popularly define as Christian can make great music about Christ (see Matthews, Dave; Joel, Billy; West, Kanye; Underground, The Velvet; or Vatican, The to name a few). And there are Christian songs that are just terrible (see Screen Door On A Submarine (Rich Mullins), Power In The Blood (the hymn), Jesus Is Still Alright With Me (dc talk), Lord I Lift Your Name On High (Petra’s cover of it), Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music (Larry Norman), This Is The Air I Breathe (the praise song)). I could go forever.
I got thinking anew about this concept when our illustrious TheoCult editor emailed me an interview with Billy Corgan he saw online. Knowing me to be a Smashing Pumpkins fan, and particularly a fan of the poetry, music and thinking of Corgan, he shared it with me and I share it with you:
The process matters. Corgan’s point is that taking a bunch of U2 sounds and throwing words about Jesus into it is not good music, and he’s right. And just singing or rapping the name Jesus or things about Jesus or Christian stuff in general is not redemptive music. Music is about wrestle, the oft-times wretched and painfully beautiful marriage of poetry, melody, harmony, instrumentation, and personality getting funneled into a song or series of songs.
The beauty of art is process, but in my experience, evangelical Christianity pretty much cares about product. That’s why contemporary Christian music is attractive to so many Christians. For the most part, it is a bunch of packaged, easy-to-swallow, poppy doses of Jesus. Many musicians who are Christians — or even artists in general who are Christians — learn quickly that it is your product is that matters most. No darkness, no strong language, no unanswered questions, no offensive concepts leveled at God, nothing sensual, and female Christian musicians had better keep it modest as evangelicalism popularly understands it. And not too depressive…Christian music should always come back to hope or love or faith.
Think about the music in the Bible, though. The psalms are the story of God and His people given through music. The psalms are resplendent with all the things that Christian music is not — darkness, strong language, unanswered questions, offensive concepts leveled at God. Song of Songs is deeply sensual, and the woman in that song is anything but modest according to our safe definitions. What hope is there in Lamentations or the song of Israel’s idolatry in Amos? Music in the Bible is often praise. Praise is the glorification of the story that is God. Music in the Bible is often lament. Lament is the story of pain and heartache on the part of people. Music in the Bible is often a person’s struggle with who God is and how He is acting or not acting toward them. Why do you have to be a Christian to do any of these things and why do Christians think they should only listen to Christians sing their stories or God’s story? Is God not active in His pursuit of musicians who are not Christian? Can they not offer something beautiful or helpful or interesting to this journey that is the creation-fall-redemption-consummation continuum?
To your point (for those of you thinking this), I’m not advocating for blatant unrighteousness in music just because it’s someone’s story. No, I don’t listen to Tupac’s sexual exploits because he considers it “his story”. Nor do I want to listen to Mayhem’s demonism or Katy Perry’s faux-lesbian fantasy songs. I scoff at people who say they love the music and the words don’t mean anything to them. But I’d say that’s the problem with Christian music too. I have no idea what “spread wide in the arms of Christ” means, nor do I understand how friends will be friends forever because Jesus is the Lord of them, or why the Supertones need to strike back so vociferously. We are dying for deeper thinking, engagement, and beauty for which we as humans together — all of us — are reaching.
“To the pure, all things are pure…” — if you’re not looking for redemption in music, then you won’t find it. It’s like the person who lives at the beach but misses the sunset, or the skier focused on the speed and neglecting the beauty of the mountains. The heavens declare the glory of God, creation sings His majesty, but if there are not eyes to see or ears to hear, then you won’t see the presence of God that is so clearly there. The responsibility is not only on the artist to produce good art, but on the receiver of the art to be looking for Christ and what the Holy Spirit might be saying within it [not just music, but TV, film, painting, sports, dance, food, fragrance, etc]. No matter what culture tells you, you are not a consumer and engaging art (including, but not limited to music) should never be a consumeristic, passive activity.
I dunno, maybe I’m just ranting. When you’re a kid raised as a classically-trained musician who grew up in Christian fundamentalism where even Christian contemporary music was off-limits and then Jesus miraculously finds you through MTV and an R.E.M. song, you find there’s a lot inside you that needs a lifetime’s worth of processing.
The other day, I was watching the Glastonbury music festival on Palladia. Mumford & Sons played “The Cave” there:
Marcus Mumford and his band of minstrels are declaring struggle, vulnerability and deep hope landing squarely at the redemption of faith and solidification of identity while thousands of people — many of whom don’t care a bit for or struggle deeply with the concepts of Christ and His Kingdom — are raising their hands in the air toward God, singing this redemptive song.
If that’s not the creative, redemptive power of good music, then I don’t know what is.