I recently read an article celebrating a singer who refused to be labelled a “Christian artist”. I get this. Some of us don’t want to be pigeonholed. Others beg the pigeonhole to own us! My favourite artist/singer/songwriter is Brooke Fraser – not because her beliefs coincide with mine but because she’s an incredible craftswoman. The fact that she’s a “sister” is icing on the cake.
The aforementioned article was well-written and thought out, but I had one beef with it: it decried almost all “Christian music” of the 20th Century. I have a definite problem with this, and I’ll tell you why. It implies that the enormous scope of Christian artists and genres represented by faith-filled people were not only all universally untalented but that they were the only ones making bad music that century. And this is patently untrue. It further implies that it was the faith that rendered the musicianship null. This is ridiculous: we don’t suddenly lose our talents at altar calls, like a reverse miracle! So to clarify:-
1) While it may be true that a percentage of “Christian music” was not great, this was also true of what was on the radio at the time. We could argue the percentages, but I promise you that for every song that was essentially a thinly-veiled sermon on wonky wheels, there was a “secular” song that was pure idiocy on rollerskates.
2) And because of the prevalence of such idiocy, Christian people were looking for music that would feed their spirit as well as their ears. We’d found the meaning of life; bubblegum pop wasn’t cutting it anymore, and neither was despair, not that year. Music goes into us like a sponge soaks up water, and we wanted holy water. There were great truths we wanted to never forget, and we needed earworms for them, to help with absorption. Artists that wrote and sang such things helped me get through my teenage years. They drew me closer to Christ and they fed me. I can never be ungrateful for that, and I am even more grateful that some effort was put into making the songs palatable to contemporary ears. It is absolutely untrue to imply that a generation of these artists were, as a bloc, untalented and insincere. Some of them were brilliant. Some of them were not. Some were charlatans and some were entrepreneurs, but some were wordsmiths and warriors. And the same is true today, but as I said above, you get that across the board in all music – and sometimes within a given artist’s catalogue.
3) It can’t be denied, and nor should it be, that a great number of Christians with some modicum of talent joined the CCM bandwagon specifically to evangelise. But stop and think about that for a minute. It means that people who had a genuine desire to stand in front of the cliff and shout “CLIFF!” and who happened to have a nice big voice, chose to dedicate their lives to doing that. And whether they did it in three-part harmony or even on-key, in velvet, in plaid, or in Spandex, that is commendable as a public service. They looked at what gifts they had, and they picked the one that would attract the most attention and reach the widest audience, and they did it. Bravo, I say.
4) They say “write what you know”. Jesus has revolutionised many lives. Of course those whose lives have been revolutionised, if they sing, are going to sing about that. It’s what they know! It matters to them! It’s no more surprising than the lonely writing songs about finding love, porn addicts writing songs about using women, or truckers writing about being on the road. I don’t understand why we’re criticised for knowing our speciality and sticking to it. I get that the solely-Christian musician is like a chef who refuses to cook anything but pasta. But if you’re passionate about pasta … feel that pasta is your born vocation, a literal Calling … well then. But I do understand why we’re criticised for not applying it in a wider sense, because one should actually know what other foods are out there. Some of them go very well with pasta. And some of them are nourishing even without pasta! See Point 6.
5) A word about the sales. It may seem that a large chunk of CCM is dreck because (referring to the hunger in point 2) Christian people were so enamoured of music that celebrated and affirmed them that they bought whatever was available; and that meant that sales of the not-so-skilled came into prominence along with the very-skilled. For every craftsman there was a hack. Fame, sales and marketing are a reversible cycle. So it doesn’t surprise me that if sales of the good and the bad were both going up, the genre (if you can call it that) would become famous for its lack of musical reliability.
6) A word about theology. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and there was a lot of talk, firstly about being separate from the world (as opposed to “worldly” or “carnal”) and later about reinventing ourselves into “relevance”. Jesus Himself told us to go into all the world; it was ancient Israel who was told to “come out and be separate”. Paul told us not to hold ourselves aloof because we’d soon find ourselves in solitary. We had this attitude that we were called to a different life, so we must make it “really stand out”. So we stood out; but this created a divide that degenerated into contempt on both sides. It was a far cry from a lifestyle of love. “Carnal”, by the way, simply means “fleshly” or “old-skool human”. It is a differentiation made in the Bible between the spiritual and the natural. It has been strongly implied in church circles over the years that “carnal” = “evil”, but I believe this has its roots more in Gnosticism’s hatred of corporeality than any true Biblical teaching. God did, after all, create the body. It’s not evil. It’s just not the same thing as spirit or soul; but all three are corruptible in this life, not just the flesh.
7) As far as relevance goes, I agree that evangelism ought to be relevant to people’s lives, and we ought to be speaking the same language, even playing similar riffs. But being relevant isn’t all about styling. It’s about being there for people in their practical daily lives, rather than throwing out abstract clichés from an ivory tower. As for the portion of our music that was filled with abstract clichés – even clever ones – all the distortion pedals in the world weren’t going to make those suckers fly.
8) A word about ’tude. I agree that a lot of 80s Christian music sounded tame. I think it’s because it had no anger or passion observable in it. And then along came U2, who had this incredible intensity, fury at injustice, longing and compassion, sheer joy of living … and we said, “He eats with sinner and prostitutes, he’s a glutton and a drunkard, and besides, what on earth do those lyrics MEAN?” There is no pleasing us believers sometimes; so there is no real surprise that our brand was characterised by a common denominator of Bland. However … the most common complaint about our music is that the music itself lacks quality. Have you ever listened to those early (secularly-fêted) U2 albums? Bono’s not even on pitch some of the time. He’d never pass an Australian Idol audition. And you know what? None of us care! Because U2! So to say that production values and perfect talent are the benchmark of good music is also misleading. Good music is simply what calls to us. The best music calls to many, while making all feel personally spoken to. It’s not about perfection, it’s about spirit.
9) Let’s say that a great deal of Christian music that is not praise is preaching. I am far more worried about the Christian music and book companies being owned by nonChristians than I am about its overall quality. I hate the idea that people who don’t share our faith get to decide which ‘sermons’ we are allowed to hear. But then again, you know, a great proportion of CEOs are mostly concerned with figures; so perhaps, as long as the money comes in, they’re not that interested in policing content. It’s worth a pause, though.
10) I mentioned the separation of church and state – I mean, sacred and secular. Let me tell you this. I’ve had Christian music speak profoundly into my life, causing positive change. I’ve had it articulate my deepest emotions and motivations and describe for me my condition and its cure. But one of the most amazing turning points for me was seeing my friend Sarah’s “secular” band play and realising that God is glorified in beauty and wonder as well as soundbites and sermonettes. We think unsaved people will hear our godly music and be set free, but on that day, I heard secular music and I was set free. Must we always insist that we are so full of answers we have nothing at all to learn from the outside world? So hear me: God likes art for art’s sake. Deal with it. When we insist, like the Old Attic playwrights that “drama must be didactic” – and, by extension, all the arts – we are choosing Greek philosophy over the Bible, which instructs us “if anything is noble and excellent … think on these things!”
I want to make excellent art that speaks to all levels of life, including Jesus-based spirituality and all it touches, which is, well, all. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s my calling, and ya gotta do what ya gotta do. So I’m taking my modicum of talent, as I’ve always done, and seeing what I can cook up, and then I’m calling you all for dinner, and we’ll see if it calls to you – even if very little of it contains pasta. And if it doesn’t, I hope we can still be friends, and that when you speak of what I do, you look at it on its merits and in its context. You certainly don’t have to like it. The story so far (it’s a 9-year-old album now) is at http://www.beckr.com and it has a lot of pasta, but it’s very nice pasta, I hope. Next up: salad.