Friday, June 19, 2009

Redefining "Christian" Music and Music Ministry, Part 2

I am disappointed with a great deal of the "Christian music" that is being produced today.  We are inundated with "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs, as well as Christianized knock-offs of secular artists.  (Ever notice how often the next big thing in secular music finds its Christian equivalent in about six months?  The Christian look-alike/soundalike artist is just a cleaned-up, Jesus version of its secular counterpart and is often marketed as such.  I find this laughable at best and really pathetic at worst.)  We who walk in new life and commune with the Creator of the universe should be free to create and innovate in new, different, and better ways.  We don't need to copy someone else's formula.

Much of this happens, of course, because Christian music is an industry.  It is run like a business, not a ministry.  There are many, many Christian musicians out there who are being new and different and innovative, but generally they aren't the ones getting signed to labels. Christian labels (often run by secular music labels) want to make money and be successful--that is their primary goal.  We shouldn't be surprised or shocked by that.  I do think ministry does happen through this avenue, by God's grace.  But part of me wonders how much more beauty and worship we could be creating if we weren't squeezing ourselves into the secular music model for recording, distribution, and consumption.

To top it all off, much of the "good" Christian music, or at least popular Christian music, is full of bad theology.  (To be fair, there are a good many hymns with bad theology as well, so this isn't necessarily a new phenomenon.)

N.T. Wright has some great insight into the role of beauty and creativity in the mission of the church: 

"I believe that taking creation and new creation seriously is the way to understand and revitalize aesthetic awareness and perhaps even creativity among Christians today.  Beauty matters, dare I say, almost as much as spirituality and justice" (Surprised by Hope, p. 222).  

"But we don't live in the Garden of Eden, and art that attempts to do so quickly becomes flaccid and trivial. (The church doesn't have a monopoly on kitsch or sentimentalism, but if you want to find it the church may well be the easiest place to start.)" (Surprised by Hope, p. 223)

"When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.... This will take serious imagination, imagination fueled by reflection and prayer at the foot of the cross and before the empty tomb, imagination that will discern the mysteries of God's judgment on evil and God's reaffirmation, through resurrection, of his beautiful creation" (Surprised by Hope, p. 224).

That's a pretty high charge we have been given.  As a songwriter, I feel completely inadequate to do such a task.  I don't want to write songs for the Lord and for the church that stink.  On the other hand, I don't want to be lured into the trap of capitalizing and profiting on ministry (yet another reason I am reluctant to be a "Christian artist").  There are a lot of sticky issues that a Christian artist today needs to consider, not the least being maintaining one's integrity in an industry driven by money and fame.  Many Christian artists have navigated this field brilliantly and have been a blessing to the church.  Many more... well, not so much.  

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all guide for musicians and songwriters who want to glorify God with their music.  God uses all types, styles, and presentations for His glory.  But rather than having "hit-making" as our goal, or radio airplay, or big royalty checks, our goal should be solid theology, creative melodies, and top-notch musicianship.  I have kept my praise and worship songs "to myself" for the most part, because I'm afraid that I'm not ready to navigate this balance with integrity and honesty.  I know my own selfish heart, and I've tasted the cut-throat world of Christian music firsthand.  But I also know that keeping my gifts and creativity to myself and withholding that which could benefit the church is also selfish.  Still thinking and praying through this one...

8 comments:

Dan Martin said...

You know I'm with you on this one, Leesha. Whether it's "O Come to the Church in the Wildwood" or "Lift my head and spin around/see the marvelous light I've found", there's an awful lot of rot out there. And it's not all irritating musically, though much of it is. I think that melodically and harmonically, "I come to the garden alone" is a beautiful song (of course I used to sing barbershop). . .but the theology is terrible, right up there with today's "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs as you put it (nothing worse than "I'll let my words be few/Jesus I am so in love with you").

Unless, of course, it means absolutely nothing at all. What on earth is "You spoke the earth into motion/my soul now to stand" supposed to say?

That's why I love something like Michael Card's "God's Own Fool," which doesn't do a great deal for me melodically (not bad, just not great) but absolutely gets to the core of living. A great song, imho, leaves me thinking great thoughts--which by definition means NOT thoughts about me. . .

Anyway, I'm sympathetic to your struggle, except for the fact that I can't write music and only ever tried one song lyric, so I'm not exactly dealing with how to glorify God through my (nonexistant) art. How to glorify him through a meaningless job, now that's another matter. . . ;{)

Dan Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kurt Willems said...

I am with you 100 percent on this! I cant stand some of the cheesy christian music that is put out there!!!! And unfortunately, Christianity is known for its pathetic pop culture that is embodied often time in some of its music. Now, there are some good artists that do the Jesus music thing well, and I am greatful for them. But ya, even they often have some bad theological overtones.

I really liked the Wright quotes that you put out there! As I was reading this post, one thing kept coming to mind. It is one of the "value statements" of Erwin McManus' church Mosaic:
"Creativity is the result of spirituality..."
Thanks for this post my slope sitting friend!

E. A. Harvey said...

Thank you for your comments, Dan and Kurt! I know others within the church are frustrated with the current state of music. But I also know a lot of people who are "really into it" and seem to be able to enter a spirit of worship with the drivel, and it confuses me. I start to wonder if it's just me and my critical self. I don't want to criticize the way other people worship, but if God calls us to worship in spirit and in truth, then we at least need to be singing things that are indeed true.

Thanks again for your insights!

Dan Martin said...

Leesha, your question about people really seeming to worship amid the drivel (I've used the same word frequently) is one I certainly resonate with. I think the problem is at least partly that we've lost a sense of what, actually, "worship" is. Just because people are "into it" and "feel the presence of the Lord" does not, in itself, mean worship is happening. To have redefined an emotional warm fuzzy to mean worship just illustrates how much it's become about the worshippers instead of about the God we're supposed to be focused on.

I'd say it this way--while it's true that genuine focus on God can lead one to feel good, that does not mean that every good feeling signifies that worship has taken place. That "spirit of worship" may in fact be one of the spirits we need to test (1 John 4:1) because not every spirit is of God. . .

E. A. Harvey said...

Well said, Dan. I too have noticed that we seem to be worshipping the act of worship rather than worshipping God Himself. Our intended devotion actually becomes an idol, but it's harder to recognize because our intentions seem good. Emotions-- fickle things, aren't they?

lorenzo said...

Oh yes! Redefining worship as "soulful musical experience" or some such thing is heresy, a deadly substitution . . .

The definition in Romans 12 has to do with bringing one's whole life under the Lordship. That's a lot more costly - and a lot more powerful - than today's music/emotion-as-worship.

Connie said...

This really rang true to me:

"We are inundated with "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs, as well as Christianized knock-offs of secular artists. (Ever notice how often the next big thing in secular music finds its Christian equivalent in about six months? The Christian look-alike/soundalike artist is just a cleaned-up, Jesus version of its secular counterpart and is often marketed as such. I find this laughable at best and really pathetic at worst.)

I've been saying this for years but didn't have the right words, and you just nailed it! Thanks! It's sure nice to hear someone else say what you're thinking.