Larry Norman once famously asked, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” It might be a bit snarky to ask the opposite of that — “Why should the Church have all the bad music?” — but for us Christians who think that a) music (and art in general) should be creative, challenging, insightful, passionate, honest, and beautiful, and b) that the Church should be at the forefront of creating such material, that question has been one we’ve asked time and again.
In ages past, the Church was a (if not the) major patron of art and artists, and its doctrines were the inspiration for some of the greatest art (including music, paintings, sculpture, and architecture) the world has ever seen. However, the modern Church — and specifically, the Protestant Church (aka, my particular tribe) — has all but abandoned that role, opting instead to churn out music, etc., that is less art and more kitsch.
I suspect there are many reasons for this, but a major reason has been the Church’s decision to treat music (along with books, movies, etc.) as evangelical tools almost to the exclusion of anything else. Music becomes less a vehicle through which one can explore human nature and experience the divine, and more a tool for spreading the Good News, getting people to attend church (and entertaining them while they’re there), converting the unbelieving, and uplifting the converted.
Of course, older Christian art certainly had an evangelistic aspect to it. In cultures and ages with low literacy rates, for example, the Church’s art was very much a tool for educating and catechizing the masses. Even the architectural forms of the soaring Gothic cathedrals were intended to communicate theological and philosophical ideas. Such art was also intended to give people a sense of something greater than themselves, to give them a sense of the supernatural. But in our extremely consumer-driven modern society, in which everything is commodified and individual preferences are treated as supreme, much of that numinous, transcendent sense has been lost.
As such, it’s easy to become jaded about Christian music. For years, my friends and I would mock much of the Christian music we heard as being perennially outdated, behind the times, and emotionally shallow and manipulative. To our ears, “contemporary Christian music” sounded like a bad carbon copy of whatever happened to be popular in the mainstream five years earlier, only further watered down with cheesy production and lame “cheerleading for Jesus” lyrics intended to be “positive and encouraging” for the Sunday morning crowd.
In his inimitable manner, Andy Whitman called such music “Infomercials for Christ” and described it as “riddled with cliches, prone to drab loss/cross and grace/face rhymes, and safe as milk.” And in a brilliant article for GQ titled “What Would Jesus Do?,” Walter Kirn dismissed what he called “ark culture,” i.e., “the upshot of some dumb decision that… the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music… and instead of all that head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale.”
So imagine my surprise and delight when I came across a recent Quietus article titled “Why There’s More To Christian Music Than Tepid Praise Songs.” In it, author Mark Brend explores music that is obviously Christian but that also exists way outside the safe, comfortable forms that Christian music so often takes.
Brend’s article begins with a discussion of the Salm worship albums: “This is not art music, or concert music, or performance music, but the sound of a congregation of Christian believers singing to God. The music is motivated by the faith, and cannot be separated from it.” Interestingly, this primal and very obviously Christian form of music — in which an entire church congregation sings together, unaccompanied, from the book of Psalms (and in Gaelic no less) — has garnered praise from secular corners. Brend considers why:
So what’s the appeal? Authenticity is an over-used concept devalued almost to the point of meaninglessness. But in the Salm albums you hear conviction, commitment — a sense that people really believe what they’re singing. It is not music made to impress, or make money, or attract attention. It is not a product, nor even really a performance. It overwhelms. In this respect it bears some comparison to early African-American gospel: music so intense, raw and powerful that it compels an audience that might not share the faith that drives it.
Later in his article, Brend makes this very astute and poignant observation:
Taken on its own terms, the Christian faith is a deep mystery going to the heart of the human connection with the divine. It follows, then, that you’d expect it to inspire art of depth and challenges, rather than bland mediocrity.
Thankfully, there are artists who observe the “deep mystery” of the Christian faith and are inspired it. Brend mentions several of them: The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, who blend an aesthetic inspired by Orthodox Christianity with folk and industrial music; The Trees Community, a ‘70s Christian commune that recorded truly otherworldly psychedelic worship music; and even a Norwegian folk jazz outfit called That’s Why.
There are others, as well: Wovenhand, Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Jay Tholen, The Violet Burning, Soul-Junk, Joy Electric, Starflyer 59, Over the Rhine, The Innocence Mission, Ecovillage, and Paavoharju, to name but a few. These artists exist outside the usual Christian music circles and yet, in spite of that outsider status — or perhaps more accurately, because of said outsider status — they’ve made inroads where more obviously Christian music has not. And more importantly, they eschew the safety that Christian music often embraces, opting to write as much about pain, suffering, sorrow, failure, and doubt as they do about more “positive and encouraging” topics. And in some cases, they simply and unashamedly embrace Christianity’s weirdness and otherworldliness.
Back in 2006, J.L. Aronson released Danielson: A Family Movie, a fascinating and inspiring documentary about Daniel Smith (the man behind the Danielson, Danielson Famile, and Tri-Danielson projects). Sprinkled between scenes of Smith working hard in his studio and discussing music and faith with producer Steve Albini are interviews with non-Christian fans who express surprise, amusement, fascination, and even consternation with Smith’s open Christianity even as they express love and admiration for his music. No doubt, many of these fans were drawn to the strangeness and quirkiness of Smith’s music, but I can’t help but wonder how many of them were drawn in — even, perhaps, against their natural inclinations — by Smith’s conviction and passion, whereas musicians located more safely in the Christian mainstream would’ve meant little to them.
Artists like those mentioned above, and the art they create, aren’t necessarily safe or uplifting: they challenge as much as they thrill, disturb as much as they comfort. And within Christian circles, such artists often seem to be viewed with suspicion, if not condemnation. I once played Wovenhand’s “To Make a Ring” in a church discussion group and more concern was expressed regarding the song’s dark, brooding sound than there was discussion of David Eugene Edwards’ reverent lyrics (e.g., “Judgement will not be avoided by your unbelief/By your lack of fear/Nor by your prayers to any little idol here/He owns all those cattle/He owns all these hills”).
Brend closes his Quietus article with this insight:
The church always generates its own music, usually influenced by the prevailing forms it hears wherever it plants roots. Perhaps, then, it’s not so surprising that much contemporary Christian music sounds insipid, reflecting as it does secular music from slap bang in the middle of the road. But it isn’t all like that. There’s the Salm albums. There’s the Indian church in Devon. There must be so much more.
Rest assured, there is, indeed, so much more. Early on in his article, Brend asks “[I]s there more Christian music hiding in the fringes of culture, deserving of renewed attention because of the faith it expresses, not in spite of it?” The answer, which I hope is obvious by now, is yes.
But in order to find it, you must be willing to venture beyond the Christian music industry and eschew the safe, familiar trends and topics that have unfortunately defined that industry for several decades now. You must be willing to ignore the temptation to simply settle for whatever sounds might be useful tools for outreach and little more. (That stuff isn’t art, it’s propaganda.) But if you do so, the music that you’ll hear can be sublime.
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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.