October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 10, 2004
Christian music. What is it? And why is it? Before Keith Green, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith, I suppose “Christian music” in the United States would have been black and white Gospel expressions, campfire songs, hymns, and classical music with distinct Christian purpose such as Handel’s Messiah. Beyond those roots, the Christian music industry has developed over the last several decades into a powerful musical and economic force. Now, music stores and online music venues have significant sections called “Christian music,” or for the inclusive folks it may be labeled “spiritual music.” Among other mandates, the church is to be a community of worshipers of Jesus Christ who present the good news of Christ’s love to the world. Therefore, it is important to ask whether or not “Christian” music is helpful to the work of the church.
The answer is as complex as the question. It is yes and no. Of course music with overt Christian language is valuable. Christian worship is often enhanced with hymns, chants, rhythms, hand-clapping, and liturgical readings that often fall into rhythmic pulse. Music is in the human soul and always finds a variety of expressions in worship of all types. From Psalm singing to chanting in magnificent medieval cathedrals, from African drumbeats to campfire singing, the Christian faith has always found itself expressed in melody, harmony, and rhythm. Corporate Christian worship would be lacking indeed without music, and personal faith is often expressed in song. Unquestionably, the Christian church has produced some of the greatest works of music of all time. Without such contribution, Western society would certainly be greatly impoverished. Additionally, I often hear stories of people coming to faith in Christ through song. Songs that carry the particular message of the good news of the gospel are a beautiful means by which the Spirit moves the soul. Therefore, Christian music certainly has its place and purpose in the Kingdom.
On the other hand, the development of the Christian music industry has also highlighted and encouraged a particular world view that may not be as positive as it first seems. The roots of modern Christian music are undoubtedly complex, so to reduce it to one or two statements is certainly to miss many of the contributions. However, for present purposes, a specific idea is helpful. The church, specifically the conservative element of the church, became increasingly concerned that “secular” music was becoming unacceptable in its message and form. Rock-and-roll, R&B, and the ever increasing number of genres of music were becoming unmoored from conservative American ideals and thus Christian morals. Therefore, many Christians pursued alternative musical expressions by producing music with overt Christian lyrics that mirrored the styles of contemporary culture. Of course, it is wise to critique current entertainment because all art forms ride on particular philosophies and beliefs, and it is particularly important to monitor what children are allowed to consume. Yet, it is important not to miss the implied message that accompanies the decision to produce a set of music that is an alternative to cultural expressions of music. Put simply, the message is the world is bad and the church is good and the two must remain entirely separate. This is a significant problem.
Christian music often arrives as a clean version of popular genres. The tragedy is that music, or life in general, is seldom clean. For it to reach into the human soul with all its power it has to live at the edge of creativity, represent life in honest language, be disharmonious at times, or grand beyond compare. Handel’s work will always be grand because it was an expression of music at its magnificent best. He set the pace for musical imagination. Likewise, Dave Brubeck has laid a beautiful path for jazz. Today it is not unheard of, but uncommon, that a Christian musician lives at this creative edge and thus influences the whole of the craft.
It is critical that the church critique the worldview that has alienated it from the broader culture and thus left it irrelevant to the world. In other words, Christians often assume that non-Christian music is actually not Christian and therefore should not be enjoyed or at least should only be enjoyed cautiously. The us-them mentality of Christian music is actually chipping away at the good news that is the great gospel of Christ because it may indicate a church that sees itself as a club with distinct musical tastes. Instead, the church is called to be a people of love who join God’s reconciling work by seeking to address broken relationships with individuals, God, society, cultures, nature, and all of creation.
It is too easy to label music without distinct Christian lyrics as non-Christian. This music may not be any more non-Christian than some Christian music is not Christian. We must begin with the notion that all people are created in the magnificent and creative image of God. Therefore, each person, Christian or not, reveals God. It is impossible to erase completely God’s mark upon each soul and thus impossible to eradicate the revealing of God in all human expressions. Granted, there are many expressions of humanity that are antithetical to the name and revelation of God. However, to turn our eyes away from God’s revelation in its multitudinous form would be to miss a great deal of God’s character. It is quite ironic that the church would proclaim in one moment that knowing God is of paramount importance but, in the next moment, turn its eyes away from the fullness of God’s revelation. God’s imprint is on all that is created and therefore Christians, perhaps more than anyone else, should have their senses heightened to experience that Divine mark.
If God’s imprint is in the music then how is it to be seen and enjoyed? Some artists have found the middle ground between obvious Christian music and broader musical expressions. David Wilcox is a fine example. He uses his folk style to tell stories in order to draw the listener toward the things of God. The stories are not usually overt in their Christian message, yet they ignite passions and belief in the audience. I watched him perform in a wonderful old bar in a small mountain town of Colorado. The bar was overrun with Wilcox fans. The stage was dressed in its normal attire, women’s brassieres hanging from the roof. This was not a place that most Christian musicians would perform, but here was a musical “evangelist” playing for the beer drinking crowd. The audience was obviously quite moved by his stories and called for more. Many of his songs reach deep into matters of the soul and then travel outward toward that which is bigger than us all, God. As he ended these rich musical offerings, the audience would breathe a collective sigh. We were caught in his stories. The applause was loud and long. Wilcox has found the artistic road into the human heart that stirs up desire for the gospel.
Of course, most popular music is not born from a deliberate attempt to illuminate a Christian message either overtly or covertly. Nevertheless, God has arrived in the music before us all and can be experienced through the words, styles, and artists if we have ears to hear. If the gospel is the good news that God has established relationship with us despite all our attempts to exit the relationship, then the world’s music expresses those themes brilliantly. If the gospel recognizes the profound ache of the human soul and responds to that ache with the statement “I will never forget you,” then music has been telling that story for millennia. What better form of music than the blues can convey the story of struggle and ache? Jazz expresses the tensions and resolutions of God’s eternal story with His people as well as the spontaneous creativity that is required to tell an eternally good story. Folk music, in all its forms, lyrically expresses stories of a community’s harms, hopes, and redemptions. And every other pop music song tries to explain some aspect, be it in quite shallow ways, of love. Outstanding artists of any genre have mastered their craft through years of very hard work and the detailed and creative exploration of the human soul. The themes of music have always been, and will always be, the desires, disappointments, and hope of the human story. As soon as we talk of hope, loss, reconciliation, and relationship, then we are talking about the gospel. It is impossible to speak of these eternally significant matters without engaging the face of God. The Rap artists Mos Def and Talib Kweli are “findin’ beauty in the hideous” Without God there would be no beauty to discover. Mos Def reveals that work and calls us all to never forget the constant and present need for reconciliation. As Christians, we must hear the call of those who are harmed. Otherwise, our deaf ears have called our faith into question. Similarly, Pink Floyd has told the story for many years about our desire to face the pain of the world with comfortably numb souls and the possible freedom that comes from restored relationships. “The Wall” can be addressed and it can even fall. I know of no better musical metaphor for the good news of the gospel.
God is revealed in the ever drumming beat. God speaks in the stories. God meets humanity in our desires. For as long as humanity has realized that our voices could tell melodic stories and we could fashion instruments, in whatever form, to bring forth the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies, both dissonant and reconciled, we have been speaking God’s story. He is in song. Let us not miss Christ by being too Christian.