The Redemptive Power Of Good Music [jay]

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.


If you ask me, the most beautifully poetic, Gospel-centric song released in the last few years is “The Cave” by Mumford & Sons (read this).  The lyrics for this song are here.

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.

7 thoughts on “The Redemptive Power Of Good Music [jay]

  1. Yes, so many good thoughts in here. There is good music, and bad music. Good art and bad art. There is no “Christian” or “non-Christian” art! There is beauty and creation to be explored and there is twisted destruction in art that would drag its recipient to hell. I think it is so incredible that salvation can be brought through a music video titled “Loosing My Religion”. That is so hopeful and beautiful.

    May redemptive music find its way through these troubling times and emerge victoriously!

    I do take offense to your little shot at the Supertones though…for what it’s worth, I’m a firm believer in them striking back.

  2. That article is lousy. Anyone that knows anything about Plato and/or Homer’s Odyssey can see the brilliance and redemption in the lyrics that are The Cave. I’m not saying Mumford & Sosn is the greatest folk-rock band ever…I’ll still take Bob Dylan, The Pogues or Simon & Garfunkel any day…I am saying that song is redemptively incredible.

    • Actually (to to your chagrin, I’m sure), I generally agree with Mr. Chang’s article. While I (unlike Chang) loved Sigh No More, I thought Babel was borderline meaningless, artistically speaking. No development in style or depth, just rehashing the same thing as before. I also think Mumford’s lyrics (mostly on Babel, although their first album isn’t totally exempt either) are often empty, bearing the earnest appearance of depth (call it ‘authenticity,’ ‘substance,’ whatever) but lacking the real deal. Which is why, when Babel came out, I reevaluated the Mumford bandwagon being formed by Christians who found their earnestness so freeing or refreshing. Babel seems like struggle, but it’s just as much a stylized product as CCM has been for the last 40 years. I’m not saying they’re doomed to life of artistic purgatory, but they still need to prove themselves as artists (not just as performers) by really digging, really risking, really struggling, and thus really creating.

      One thing I do admire about them is that they are unapologetic believers who are uninterested in labels and who make music because it’s in them to make. They didn’t conform themselves or their music to the standards of “Christian music,” but instead strove to be “successful” (touchy word) based on passion and (let’s call it) “artistic merit” alone. This is also part of why artists like Sufjan Stevens, Thrice, or mewithoutYou are so incredible (although mewithoutYou has now fallen into a spiritual-philosophical mire of self-inquiry and numbness to God — but that’s another story).

  3. I was hoping you’d bring Mumford into the conversation! One of the sweetest concert moments of my life happened a few weeks ago when I saw them live and watched literally thousands of people–half of them drunk–waving their hands in the air and shouting the chorus lines to their songs. Every song is filled with wrestle and hope and longing toward God. “Awake my soul // For you were meant to meet your Maker” I joined in, thinking: Do you KNOW what you are singing??? Do you KNOW what you’re asking? What a beautiful thing.

    Anyway, thanks for the article. I’m still catching up with music, as you know, but this puts a little more fire in my bones to do so.

    Btw, this is good for a laugh and a trip down memory lane:

  4. As someone not as familiar with their music, I enjoyed reading the back and forth discussion on Mumford.

    Not to change pace, but here is a personal story. I can still see/hear my junior high school music teacher going through the FM radio stations twice each school year and giving Ceaser’s thumbs up/thumbs down to what we could listen to. There were 1-2 stations that got a thumbs up and the rest got the death sentence. He would literally go through all the stations pausing for 2-3 seconds (if we were lucky) on each station before giving his verdict. I suppose we should have been grateful for the illusion of choice between two radio stations. One less choice and we would have lived in a dictatorship.

  5. Great perspective Jay. I live through the heyday of CCM music (80s & 90s) and survived. With all the bad music produced at the time I consider myself luck that I still love music! I happened to marry a great girl who grew up in Lancaster county in the same era, I took her to see Ben Harper about 8 years ago and to this day she still says that was the most spiritual concert she has ever been too.

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