I stopped paying attention to most “Christian” music years ago, not because I stopped agreeing with the theology behind the songs — though that was probably true in some cases — but because I couldn’t stomach their emotional tenor anymore. Not surprisingly, I really appreciated Leah Libresco’s recent analysis of modern Christian pop and its overwhelming cheerfulness.
After analyzing the lyrics of Billboard’s top 50 Christian songs from the last five years, she found that positive words and phrases far outweighed negative ones:
There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”
Of course, this lyrical analysis says nothing about the songs’ musical arrangements and production values, all of which affect their emotional tenor, too. (I have a musician/producer friend who once played in a Christian band that toured with some pretty major CCM artists, and he despises Christian music for its production, which he considers too shiny and fake-sounding.)
So why does it matter if Christian music is too happy and upbeat? After all, aren’t we supposed to make a joyful noise to the Lord? To put it simply, the Christian music that I so often heard, both on the radio and in the church, seemed irrelevant and out-of-step with reality — with the fact that life is emotionally complex and frequently characterized by disappointment, doubt, pain, and sorrow. And when your music — your art — doesn’t allow for the honest expression and exploration of these darker experiences and emotions, then it’s doing your community a disservice. Especially if your community contains any “winter Christians.” Libresco again:
Beck… identifies one group of Christians who are particularly poorly served by uniformly upbeat themes in worship: “Winter Christians,” a group that Beck describes as having a relationship with God that is more touched by pain, distance or doubt. They can’t recognize themselves in the “Walt Disney-fication” of contemporary Christian music, Beck said, and when their experiences with Christianity aren’t reflected in hymns, they tend to assume that there’s something “wrong or diseased about who they are.” But Winter Christians aren’t alien to Christianity, Beck said: The Bible’s psalms of complaint reflect their struggles.
Or, to put it another way, if the Bible has room for Job, Psalm 88, and Lamentations — all of which contain lengthy passages filled with despair, doubt, and pain — then the Church’s music ought to have room for such content, as well.
When I shared Libresco’s article on Facebook, a friend pointed me to The Preacher, a previously-unknown-to-me documentary about David Eugene Edwards, the frontman of Wovenhand and Sixteen Horsepower.
For the last two decades, Edwards — who is a devout Christian — has made a career out of penning dark, ominous, foreboding songs steeped in Christian themes and imagery. Tone-wise, his blend of American and European folk music is about as far as you can get from the tunes you’ll hear on “positive and encouraging” Christian radio, but there’s a passion and intensity that makes his music uniquely convicting and powerful.
At the beginning of The Preacher, Edwards sums up his view of Christian music, and what attracted him to darker music (emphasis mine):
I’ve never liked Christian music outside of the Church, like Christian rock music or contemporary Christian music like Amy Grant. I agree with what they’re singing about but I don’t care if they sing about it or not. The way they sing about it… does not affect me at all. It doesn’t make me want to worship God or follow after God. I think God used other music, more aggressive, kind of darker music to stir up my soul. I guess I grew up around a lot of sad things so it was very easy and comfortable… for it to be part of my life. And that’s what attracted me probably to music like Joy Division and The Birthday Party or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Music that people would say, “Oh, this is depressing music, dark music.” What I find beautiful in the music that I was attracted to was people were being very honest. I felt like Ian Curtis was being very honest with me when he was singing to me. I felt like Bön Scott from AC/DC was being very honest with me when he sang to me. And even though it was stuff I did not agree with, I thought it was very sincere.
Much of what Edwards says here rings true for me, too. Back in high school, my Christian peers were listening to the likes of Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys, and of course, DC Talk. That may have been the music that, as a good Christian kid, I was supposed to listen to, but I couldn’t stand it. I was a nerdy, scrawny kid who was introverted and painfully shy around girls; I had no significant athletic ability, was frequently picked on, and was unsure of where I fit in the social hierarchy — both at church and school. At the time, I saw very little success or opportunity in my future. The perky, happy, triumphant music that my peers enjoyed had nothing to offer me.
Not surprisingly, when I heard the likes of Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and, of course, The Cure, I finally heard music that — at the risk of sounding all goth-y and melodramatic — spoke to me specifically because it was dark, aggressive, and sad. These artists sang, often explicitly so, about topics that would’ve normally offended my Christian sensibilities. However, hearing Trent Reznor sing “Gray would be the color if I had a heart” or Robert Smith mope about Elise while disintegrating on the edge of the deep, green sea — yes, they indulged my teenage angst to the nth degree, but those songs was all truer and more recognizable given the tumultuous state I was in.
Then, during my senior year — which was one of the darkest times in my life — some friends shared with me several Christian artists who were also tackling heavier, rawer emotional territory. These artists included The Violet Burning, The Prayer Chain, Mortal, Writ on Water, and Michael Knott. From there I learned about Steve Taylor, Terry Taylor and Daniel Amos, Brian Healy, The Choir, Ronnie Martin, and a slew of others operating on the fringes of Christendom.
These artists were, quite simply, a lifeline for me. They were writing songs from a Christian perspective, songs that honored the Lord while still honestly tackling life’s emotional complexity. They never felt the need to be “uplifting” or wrap everything up in a nice, neat little bow by the time they reached the chorus. They were sincere about the both the glories and struggles inherent to the faith, which is precisely what I needed.
After reading Leah Libresco’s piece, I started to wonder: Was I still wrongfully holding onto a bit of high school rebellion in my attitude towards popular, mainstream Christian music? Was it really as cheerful as Libresco made it out to be? I thought I’d do an informal experiment: while driving around town, I’d listen to as much “positive and encouraging” Christian music as possible.
I probably wanted to roll my eyes quite a bit at first, but after a couple of weeks, it’s all pretty inoffensive to me. There is, however, a definite softness to the songs, an urge to be, well, positive and encouraging. In the songs I’ve heard, God is always there, refuge is always near, there’s never a need to worry, your struggles will always be overcome, and so on. And if the lyrics don’t necessarily communicate that, there’s the music, which is almost always uptempo, upbeat, in a major key, and polished to a shine by studio wizardry (as if any flaw in sonic quality might be mistaken for diminished spirituality).
It sounds terribly un-Christian to complain about those lyrical sentiments, especially since I know and believe those things are all true… in the long run, that is. But the truth is, we still need to make it day by day, and for some, that’s a literal life or death struggle. We still have to face suffering, pain, injustice, loneliness, despair, sickness, and doubt, and not just ours but that of our friends, neighbors, and loved ones. There are times when those realities are completely overwhelming, and in those times, acting — and singing — otherwise may do more harm than good, even if you’re not a “winter Christian.” At worst, it makes the Gospel seem light, frivolous, and incapable of engaging with the brokenness and pain that is so easily encountered on this side of eternity.
The most interesting song that I’ve heard so far during my experiment is one that, both lyrically and musically, allows some room for this tension. In contrast to the overly produced pop that dominates today’s Christian airwaves, Francesca Battistelli’s “If We’re Honest” is a spare, slow-burning piano ballad that immediately caught my ear the first time I heard it.
Lyrically, it leaves room for the reality of pain and brokenness in people’s lives (“Truth is harder than a lie/The dark seems safer than the light/And everyone has a heart that loves to hide”) while still ultimately pointing to the hope of the Cross. A quick survey of Battistelli’s If We’re Honest LP reveals that the album largely consists of the aforementioned brand of pop music, which just makes “If We’re Honest” all the more of a welcome and refreshing change of pace.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.