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The problem with Christian music – Part I

August 5, 2010

“My favorite band just went mainstream, and now I can’t listen to them anymore.”

Wait. What?

That’s right. For some Christians, the minute that their favorite artist decides not to throw/keep their career in the toilet continue in the mainstream Christian music venue and move to the secular market, listener support will cease.

Is that even sane?

Time out. What is secular vs. Christian music anyway? Secular (via Merriam-Webster) means “not overtly or specifically religious.” What is the definition of Christian music? I believe there are 2 ways to get your music labeled as “Christian”. First, you write songs that are definite in their approach regarding Christianity. Using the words “Jesus”, “Savior”, “Bible”, “grace”, or “salvation” will generally suffice. If this is too in-your-face for your particular group, signing with a Christian label will generally default you into this category, and you can write songs about whatever you want.

The problem with these definitions is that there is overlap. Much like Christianity itself, there is no black and white. There are “Christian artists” on Christian record labels who act no more like Christians off the stage than does Black Sabbath, and there are artists in the mainstream secular music scene who practice Christianity. There are songs in the Christian music scene that have nothing to do with faith, and there are songs in the secular scene about men and women’s souls yearning for God/truth. I can distinctly remember hearing Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel” as a special music in a church in the not too distant past. Now, this offended me on 2 levels: 1) the song just offends me in general because of its overall crappiness, and 2) we are singing a song written by a person who within 2 songs of JTTW on her album Some Hearts sings “Before He Cheats”, a song about exacting revenge on a cheating mate by destroying his truck. However, many churchgoers that day got blessing out of JTTW because the motif of that song is about giving your worries to God. This is a perfect example of how Christian music is not black or white, but inherently gray.  While the artist herself probably does not practice true Christianity, her song touches people that do.

So why do these definitions stand? And what difference does it make?

The reason that Christian music is black and white is because of… you guessed it, black and white Christians. Christians with the mentality of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to their proverbial virgin ears, and now the only music that gets played on Christian stations has to be “uplifting” and “overtly spiritual”. I will save my rant on Christian radio stations for part II, but the simple truth here is this: once these definitions took hold, they effectively crippled most bands. Why? Because you can only have one audience or the other. You can’t have both.

Let’s use a hypothetical situation. Your favorite artist (who we’ll call sweetchfÜt for the remainder of this blog) has been making music for 5-10 years in the Christian venue, with a moderate level of success. SweetchfÜt now decides that their music is popular enough and their image is marketable enough to go into the “secular” music scene. Many diehard sweetchfÜt fans will continue to listen to the band because they like their musical style, but many fans will swear off sweetchfÜt because of the move to the secular market. No matter what music sweetchfÜt goes on to make, no matter what the lyrics or overtones, they have lost an audience that they will never be able to reclaim.

Similarly, real band U2 has written many songs that have overtly spiritual lyrics and undertones. Name for me the last time (or any time) you have ever heard U2 played on a Christian station. I’m fairly confident. So why is it that whenever Chris Tomlin and others collaborated on a U2 tribute album that suddenly, “Where the Streets Have No Name” became a single on Christian radio? Did Tomlin do anything to augment the original song? No. Did he change the lyrics to make them more “Christian-friendly”? No. News flash – IT’S THE SAME FREAKING SONG, yet it took a “Christian” artist to get it airplay on a “Christian” station. You can’t convince me there’s not something wrong with that system. It is a prime example of the “for us or against us” mentality. Tomlin is for us, we will praise his songs like the Christ of music. U2 has never claimed to be for us, therefore they get no airplay.

So this brings up the elephant in the room: who is Christian music for? Is it for Christians, to be uplifted and renewed, to take strength in the ideas and lyrics portrayed by the artist about their Savior? Is it for the non-believer, who will hear and begin to question their own spirituality? Or is it for everyone, that each person can take the song and glean from it what they desire?

As it stands, it’s one or the other.

Check back next week for part II of the Christian music rant, and later this month for part III.

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4 Comments
  1. Tim Thomas permalink

    Well said Jay… I agree wholeheartedly.

  2. nick permalink

    Carrie Underwood did not write jesus take the wheel.

    • True Nick, but by singing the song, certainly she must have some sort of positive relationship. Noone sings a song that is completely against what they believe. Except for maybe you, haha.

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