For whatever reason, the latter quarter of 2013 found me running into article after article questioning the viability, and in some cases, integrity, of what we know to be “Christian music.” Of course, this is no surprise as the genre has been under scrutiny ever since its inception from sources inside and out, the Church skeptical of the use of “worldly” music within our worship services while those without mocked and marveled at the Church’s use of the same sounds on Sunday morning as others were partying to the Saturday night before. And more recent days have seen artists like Derek Webb offering up honest and thoughtful commentary on the argument, notably making the statement, “The word “Christian,” when applied to anything other than a human being, is a marketing term. It’s an attempt to provide a short answer to a question for which there is no short answer. And hard as it may be, we must resist this impulse.”
And while Webb has no doubt been a forerunner of this discussion, these new articles and conversations simply added to the argument and, for me, seeming to pile one on top of the other, coming out of nowhere.
To begin with there was none other than Smashing Pumpkins’ front man, Billy Corgan, who in an interview with CNN, along with encouraging an exploration of God in rock, offered up the simple, yet scathing, suggestion to Christian rockers to “make better music.”
Soon after, I stumbled upon an old blog post from an artist I greatly admire for his creative approach to music, Michael Gungor. Here, Gungor unleashed a torrent of challenges at the CCM establishment, playing around with the idea of a “Christian or not” guessing game that truly did resonate while echoing several of Derek Webb’s sentiments regarding marketing and the like. It was an almost painful read, echoes of truth resounding with the artist’s honest and heartfelt, if rushed, frustrations. (Gungor did offer a later addition to the blog, softening the blow and removing some of the rancor but still holding fast to his stand.)
Then it was another old post, this time from worship artist Matt Papa. In it, Papa wrote of a mythical music listener named “Becky.” “Becky” was the prototypical Christian radio listener, a stay at home soccer mom, active in her church and in volunteer efforts, living a picturesque life in the suburbs and listening to Christian radio exclusively. Papa took no issue with “Becky” herself but instead, here we are again, with the marketing element, the side that finds who the listeners are, “Becky,” and writes songs tailored exclusively to her, failing to reflect not only the scope of breadth of the Church but also losing sight of truth and theology, instead offering up songs that are “safe for the whole family.”
Lastly, the year closed out with an insightful reaction from Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman as he responded to the question of whether or not Switchfoot is a “Christian” band. Here, Foreman echoed the sentiments of these prior writers, drawing comparisons between the music of Keith Green and Bach, adding in the idea that “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. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing.”
It was a lot to process, these articles, and I largely found myself agreeing with most of what was said. I’ve played the “Christian or secular” game myself on road trips and have largely steered clear of most Christian radio due to the fact that much of what is played there does seem overly sanitized and, in some ways, self-serving. I’ve championed the work and ideas of artists like Webb and Gungor while scoffing at many of those who seemed to rise to the top of the charts, citing reason after reason why their work was “inferior.” Even this article itself was poised to follow suit, echoing the sentiments of these artists and offering a challenge for change.
But life has a way of tempering our blood, the passing of time and its subsequent experiences of living, marriage, parenthood, love, and loss coloring these things with more subtle colors than we might expect. That was the case with me. It’s not a clear-cut story because, quite frankly, I agree with what these guys have said. I want the music and art believers in Christ create to be the best that this world has to offer. I long for truth and depth and insight through all of the art being created. Those things haven’t changed in my mind and never will. And while the genre, if we may use that term, is flawed and marked with issues, I can’t help but deny the impact it’s had on me over the years.
It was the music of Michael W. Smith that led me into the idea that faith-based music could be more than old school southern gospel sounds, serving as a bridge into a whole new world.
Likewise, Amy Grant has held sway in my mind, the constant grip of faith in her life and lyrics emerging in what, for me, was one of her best works with “Better Than a Hallelujah,” saying what many of us couldn’t ever put into words.
Serving as something of a “life song” for me, David Crowder’s “All I Can Say” has impacted me beyond its lyric, carrying me through territory rough and painful.
Morgan Cryar’s “What Sin” and, quite frankly, the better catalog of Michael English’s solo and southern gospel work have been constant friends in times of failure and downfall, English’s testimony and soul-stirring songs like “I Bowed on My Knees” and “Stubborn” serving as constant reminders of a Savior’s love for me.
There have been many more, from albums long ago to more recent offerings, far too many to mention here that have made and continue to make an impact on this one simple life. No, they’re not all the most creative albums in the world and yes, in some cases, they find themselves reflections of flavors of the moment. But I simply cannot deny the way that they’ve hit home, providing hope in a moment of need, motivation in a time of apathy, or honest reflection in a world of self-delusion. The bottom line is that many of these songs continue to hit home, their messages a constant reminder that there is more to this life.
I realize that this isn’t much of an argument. I haven’t begun to discuss the ideas of “safe music” or the over-sanitization of much of CCM which I’ll admit is a constant problem. We haven’t begun to talk about the behind the scenes work, of how so many of our labels are owned by companies that are, quite frankly, much more concerned with the bottom line and the profit margin than whether or not that latest single really “reaches” people. It’s an argument that needs to be had but, in my opinion, by others much more in the know and better qualified than I.
All I can say in this moment is that I, for one, am thankful for the move of Christian music in my life. And yes, while I appreciate that it’s a term that’s become more marketing than true definition, I still believe in this music and in what it can and does continue to do.