Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Reflections on "Christian Music"

I love music.

I sometimes remark to people that music was my God before I found God. Listening to it is what I do to relax - it's part of how I live and breathe during the day. You're probably familiar with my type. We are the ones who rag on the X Factor and complain about the state of music on the radio. We're the ones who want the actual physical CD (or vinyl), not just mp3s. We like albums, not isolated tracks and we'll probably be a bit too keen to browse through your iPod to 'rate your taste'. A bit pretentious perhaps, but we put it down to passion, or artistic integrity ... or something. Anyway I like a good tune.

But Christian music has a lousy rep. "Christian music sucks" the mantra goes. And I largely agree although I think the statement needs qualifying.

It should be said first of all that the label, "Christian music", certainly as a genre label, is rather suspect. Taken literally as 'music composed by Christians' it would be the most stylistically diverse genre on earth, ranging from hymns to black metal; certainly the label couldn't denote anything musically unique about "Christian music". The only uniqueness it identifies is ideological, but we don't have "Feminist music" as a genre or "Humanist music". Splitting the musical spectrum along ideological lines would leave a very fragmented aftermath, one not worth pursuing.

The "Christian music" label is also rather suspect on theological grounds as it suggests the validity of the great sacred/secular divide, as if all music written by non-Christians is not appropriate for Christians to listen to. But the Bible is not afraid to quote pagan literature when it affirms truth. The whole world is God's and non-Christians can speak truth and make beautiful art too, and that should be affirmed.

Despite these reasons, somehow "Christian music" has become a label with currency and it's usually given to bands not because they have Christian members, but because they have explicit Christian content. The message of the lyrics is seen as a little "preachy" and there is often a perception that the band is trying to imitate styles made popular by non-Christian artists. The impression this stuff leaves is "laaame." No doubt, as with all broad labels or stereotypes, it's a bit crude and sweeping (I myself do like a couple popular Christian bands), but there's some truth in this characterisation. How have so many (presumably well-meaning) Christian artists given off such a bad impression?

I got thinking about this when I watched a lecture recently by Ravi Zacharias on worldviews. I can't reproduce his words ad verbatim but what he basically said was, we will never effectively communicate to a culture unless we understand that culture's pain. He said that Christians have frequently done a miserable job of doing this. Nail. On. The. Head.

Christians make bad music when they want to communicate a good message, but fail to treat the audience with respect. It is offensive to take the huge complex morass of emotions and questions that make up the culture this generation - my generation - lives in, and remedy it with pithy sayings and one liners that reveal that you just haven't understood. Musical styles have evolved to express these feelings and voice these questions, and you cannot merely hi-jack them and sprinkle a veneer of Christianity over it. Oh no. It has to be deeper than that. You can bring your faith into it, yes, but make sure you "get it" first. And not in a merely theoretical sense either. You need to show you're human enough to hurt like the rest of us, and then you can talk about where you've found the strength, comfort, and guidance to get through. If you don't your message will have no validity and we shan't trust it. This, I think, is where Christian music often falters.

Anyone who hopes to impact a culture needs to understand this. I feel I need to understand this; I need to keep connected to people, I need to keep engaging with what engages them.

Although it is sad that people have a negative view of Christians in music, I do think there are a number of great Christian artists who are being empathetic and organic in expressing their worldview - people who are being real. I've leave you with a personal favourite example, the band Thrice. Not all of Thrice's members are Christians but a couple are, including the lyricist and vocalist, Dustin Kensrue.

This song of theirs, 'Lost Continent', breaks me ...


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