I listened to two albums on my commute this week: The Avett Brothers’ Magpie and the Dandelion and Gungor’s I Am Mountain. The former band is one of those hard-to-define alt-rock-country-bluegrass-Americana bands that caught fire when they performed along with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons at the 2011 Grammys. That same year, that latter band had two nominations of their own. Gungor has roots in leading worship but is now equally hard-to-define, with a sound that so defies genre Michael Gungor had to invent one: “liturgical post-rock.”
The Avett Brothers are members of the “Mainstream music” industry, but they’ve written songs with Christian themes. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Scott Avett said, “I would say every song on — probably everything we’ve written — has been what we would believe to be some sort of a conversation with us and some would say the Maker, some would say God. Something greater.”
Gungor is a member of the “Christian music” industry, sort of. In a comment on his blog, Michael Gungor wrote, “Though I don’t really consider [I Am Mountain] to be a Christian album, I never want my music to be nothing more than entertainment to pass the time. My hope is and always has been that our music will open the human heart.”
More interesting parallels: Seth Avett said about the Christian music industry, “The contemporary Christian genre has sort of backfired in a way because people have forced a genre on something that doesn’t need a genre to be put into a box. There can be spirituality and there can be references to faith in lots of different kinds of music, and it doesn’t have to be squarely put into this one genre, which, let’s be honest, turns a lot of folks off.”
Gungor wrote a blog post critical of much of the Christian music industry that went famously viral a couple of years ago, and though he’s since deleted it it keeps popping up and fostering renewed discussion.
My point here is not to debate the merits of the Christian music industry. Instead, I’d like to address something I noticed as I listened to both of these outstanding albums back-to-back. Though it was unintentional, I realized I was listening with a fascinating and maybe troubling double standard:
Since Magpie is from a “mainstream” band with Christian themes, I listened carefully for hints of spirituality, for symbols that might refer to faith or God or the soul. And when I found them, I celebrated a little. “Yeah!” I said to myself. “These guys are mainstream, they’re out there, and they’re still willing to tackle spirituality.”
Since Mountain is from a “Christian” industry band (read: you can buy it at many Christian bookstores) that’s not really singing what you’d expect from CCM, I listened carefully for hints of anything that might run counter to my beliefs. I’m not sure if I found any (some of these lyrics still baffle me), but when I came close I furrowed my brow in spite of myself.
And then I asked myself: Why do I look for God in what I might not expect will point to Him, and look for the absence of God in what’s been pre-defined as “spiritual”? It’s like I sometimes place more value on a little glimpse of God I find in a song by Paul Simon or Bruce Springsteen than I do on a vivid spiritual portrait painted by Rich Mullins or Andrew Peterson.
I’m using broad strokes here. The vast majority of the time, I listen to good music because it’s art, and it has an effect on me. But sometimes, this double standard creeps in, and I applaud the good in one while haranguing the flaws in another.
I think this boils down to a deceptive desire to judge. Yes, we should guard what we consume, but we should also recognize God’s ability to live in what His children create, as flawed or as excellent as it might be. When we always listen in order to judge – and by extension judge the creators through their creation – do we ever get to enjoy the creation itself? The same is sometimes true of sermons, books, and even visual arts.
There is a case for drawing a line against what we might consider anathema. But God is by His very nature a Creator, and when we create, there’s a chance that we’re doing it in His image, for His people. Regardless of the industry label, there are created works that edify, or challenge, or are just beautiful. Enjoy them.