“Christian” Music

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Marc Barnes on VirtuousPla.net has a few posts  discussing the problem with Christian music on the radio. In the end, his biggest problem is that it lacks authenticity as many bands produce music in imitation of a pop form that is more designed for mass consumption (and thus profits) than it is for serious reflection on the awe of God, which would produce beauty.

Selling out is a problem for every art form, but I’m not sure it alone explains the current dreadful state of Christian music. While reading these posts, it occurred to me that there was a problem with Marc’s analysis. When we discuss Christian music on the radio, perhaps we need to start out by a critique not of the music aspect of it (which Marc does exceptionally well and far better than I could) but with a critique of the “Christian” part. It seems to me that when I listen to powerful. encouraging. KLOVE! I’m not getting a Catholic perspective. I’m not sure a Catholic perspective is even allowed. What I’m getting is at best “mere Christianity” but at times general evangelical Protestantism.

This seems to present a few problems for an achievement of real beauty. In regards to the absence of Catholicism, Catholics who wish to make it on radio suddenly find themselves stripped of a lot of their material. Mary, the Eucharist, the Saints, the Mass, the Sacraments etc. are all topics that can’t be used. While that still leaves plenty of material, there’s stilla problem: it’s natural for a Catholic to talk of Mary are the Eucharist when talking of the love of Jesus; by getting rid of that stuff it becomes more difficult for Catholics to talk about Christ’s love. The act of making something “merely Christian” always avoids the truth by avoiding those areas of the truth where there is disagreement among Christians. To diminish the truth is to diminish beauty and this is all the more true from the Catholic perspective.

But more troubling is that mere Christianity or evangelicalism has a tendency towards a trite emotionalism anyway. The focus of the evangelical is the act of salvation in which theologically a heap of dung is covered by the snow of grace. After this covering, the person is forever saved. While Protestants obvious think that grace is awesome (or amazing), that’s kind of underwhelming compared to the Catholic teaching whereby through the sacraments a heap of dung is converted not covered into real pure snow. That is, the transformation is considered greater in Catholicism, the power of God all the more awesome.

Think of Catholic literature here. The Mestizo & priest of Graham Green’s Power and the Glory, Gollum & Frodo of Lord of the Rings, the various characters of Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy. There’s a lot of struggle there yet even despite that tremendous struggle we get heroes: the bad priest dies a matryr, Frodo destroys Sauron, etc. (though I would probably have a harder time finding heroes in O’Conner’s and Percy’s work). That transformation & victory over struggle is possible (or perhaps natural) only from a Catholic point of view.

Also worth noting is the Protestant tendency towards fideism. If you don’t see the world with both faith & reason you tend not to look in the universe with the same awe. Think of the difference between “wow, there’s a theology of the body such that my body works best when I act in accordance with the natural law and God’s teaching” and “I shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage b/c the Bible says so.” The first one can produce a good song; the second one not so much.

In short, the limitations of Protestantism (and “mere christianity”) are going to affect the ability of its musicians to express beauty in an authentic way. To be sure, there is beautiful Protestant art & music but it’s a lot harder to get there.

And this is BEFORE we decided that all Christian music has to be powerful and encouraging, defined as “the messaege is Jesus loves you.” This is probably more a critique of KLOVE than anything, but it seems like the songs I hear on the radio have two purposes: (1) to be played to hurt teenagers at retreats to try to inspire them to convert and/or (2) to be played as feel-good Jesus-loves-you booty-free music for moms and parents in the car. These are not bad objectives; helping kids know Jesus loves them or allowing people radio music that isn’t antithetical towards truth are good things. But this is hardly the full scope of Christian music.

I noticed in Marc’s piece there was discussion about how there is a tension between rock with started out as rebellion and Christian which emphasizes obedience. While that tension is there, how on earth is Christianity not rebellious, especially in this day and age? Almost every politician, every program, every piece of art, seems to be enticing us away from holiness and into prideful individualism and materialism. To be Christian today entails rebellion and non-conformity with the status quo. While I like Flyleaf and Firelight’s  work as Christian rockers (generally not played on KLOVE), I’m also thinking of Danielle Rose’s “Crucify Him” where she identifies many of the areas of society where we continue to sin and crucify our Lord.

A lot of people need to know that Jesus loves them. But a lot of people also need to know that Jesus because he loves us is calling us to conversion, which is a nice way of saying you are a sinner, and you need to repent. As I mentioned earlier, this is something Catholic literature does especially well (namely, critiquing the absurdities of our secular society and the areas of needed conversion) but maybe for one or two songs it’s not a topic worthy of Christian radio.

I could probably go on, but the point is that the failure of Christian music is often tied with failures in Christianity. Pursuit of mainstream success is a part of that, but it’s our modern fear of saying anything really Christian lest we offend as well as the theological presumptions behind a merely Christian radio station that have prevented Christian musicians from producing the kind of beauty that their subject deserves.

P.S. I should state that simply because one is Catholic that does not mean that their music is better than a Protestant’s. Catholics have shown themselves quite capable of producing material that is trite and flat.

P.P.S. I leave unanswered the question of “If Protestantism is such a hinderance towards real beauty, then how can a Catholic musician find the success necessary to maintain a livelihood?” I’ve noted that a lot of bigger Catholic artists try not to advertise their Catholicism too much, presumably for fear of alienating the folks who buy Christian music and organize music festivals. I’m not quite sure Catholics are ready to have their own radio station but perhaps separation from KLOVE would not be an inadvisable goal.


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  1. I know plenty of people who will only listen to Christian rock. I live near a Christian rock station. These folks look at it, not so much as an art form, but as part of life — they listen to the radio and to CDs — and they want an alternative to the secular. And, yes, they are often looking for a positive and “worshipful” emotional experience. That’s how they worship (with no, or only a few, sacraments) and they want that feeling to extend to their whole lives. Yes, it often produces trite or derivative music, and (to me, anyway) cloying messages. And yes, most of it is profoundly un-Catholic. But I don’t think that criticizing it is the way to go. It’s here to stay! It’s important to help Catholics see that Protestant messages are DIFFERENT from Catholic ones. I have heard many Catholics say, “it’s all the same.” But it’s not.

    Several years ago I tried to get our parish to host a series of Catholic concerts — I was going to go for a contemporary Catholic rock band, an 80s-sounding Catholic rock band, and a Catholic alternative band. Local Protestant churches host these things all the time and people from other churches come. My parish was not interested (sigh). But in talking to the bands, I found that they had a very difficult time getting any Catholic churches to hire them! Even for festivals. The parishes want familiar local secular bands or big-name “Christian” bands. Most of these Catholic bands, as you mentioned, market themselves as Christian bands and tone down their Catholicism for other Christian communities — who ACTUALLY HIRE THEM. If people want Catholic music, they have to hire Catholic bands.

  2. I am far from a connoisuer of Christian contemporary music, but the little of it I have come across seems to suffer from being too obviously or overtly Christian. Much of the same problem exists with other forms of performance art. What makes works such as LOTR so appealing is that you are not being hammered over the head with Christianity, rather Christian themes are subtley woven in.

  3. Back when I was at China Lake, I donated to Air1 right up until they changed their statement to include sola scriptura. Sure, there’s a lot of drek “Christian music” out there– Sturgeons law. There’s also some gems out there– even if it does tend to be pretty dang protestant, or even go into Buddy Christ territory.

    The really good stuff I can think of is pretty disparate… There’s Dolly Parton’s “He’s Alive,” Stuart Hamblen’s “This Old House,” Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Dive” and DC Talk’s “Supernatural“.

    C Matt’s quite right– it takes a heck of a song to make sledge-hammer-Christianity into a good song, same way that CS Lewis’ books would’ve been horrible from a lesser writer. (Yes, I would instantly put Dolly Parton in the same class of artist as CS Lewis. The lady has my respect.)

  4. I gravitate toward classical hymnody. Give me Amazing Grace, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, or Come Christians Join to Sing anyday. I’ll always prefer them over contemporary church music, though I do love I am the Bread of Life. I felt lifted into an “upper room” experience each time I sang it after Communion in my old Episcopal church. Like the last Passover. Truly incredible. It conveys the most wondrous miracle since creation!

  5. You know, I’m reminded of a real classic called O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go….I think of how we must die a thousand deaths to be born anew. That song says it so well. In four lines this Scottish preacher, George Mattheson, blind as he was, told it. He said it was the fruit of much bitterness and sorrow. That he wrote it quickly and that it came to him easily, like no other. It reiterates how the glorious hope trumps all tragic dissapointment. You’ve just got to read all four lines and hear the melody, St. Margaret’s tune with it. Fabulous.

  6. I’ve been following these recent posts about Christian music. Being a Catholic musician I am naturally drawn to this subject. I’ve been a professional musician for over 40 years. The comments I’ve read recently seem to confirm my own personal observation that most Christians listening to Christian music seek the traditional (loosely speaking) “praise-and-worship” content that they’ve become accustomed to. This in contrast to a declarative use of music, with a view to evangelization. Music is also powerful in ways that parallel lectio divina in the contemplation and meditation of Sacred Scripture. The fact that music that makes it into the main stream, be it a Christian radio station or crosses over into secular main stream should not lead one to presume the musician sold out, in spite of the obvious monetary gain that would accompany this shift. “…”You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven….” (Matthew (RSV) 5)

    If you read between the lines, the sentiment in most recent comments here and elsewhere is “I want”. A musician can also read this as “I thirst”. When a musician assumes the role of servant and responds to this thirst through the promptings of The Holy Spirit, music transcends ‘entertainment’ and becomes food. “…”For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it….” (Isaiah (RSV) 55)

    The book of psalms is generally understood to be prayers – that were set to music. This book was traditionally divided into 5 books, for most an allusion to the 5 books of the Pentateuch. It’s good to have “praise-and-worship” music. But it is incumbent on musicians that are led by The Holy Spirit to not ignore the other aspects or dimensions we have received in Sacred Scripture. Perhaps many readers and commenter’s here intuited this.

    For any Catholic musicians here that have recorded original music, I invite you to sign up here: http://www.indiemusicworks.com It’s free, and for now at least, it can offer you an opportunity to be featured and interviewed on one of my Saturday night internet radio shows.

    My own music can be found here: http://www1.indiemusicworks.com/Kephas/ and here: http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/Kephas

    Peace be with you…


  7. I note that Catholic musicians can write and play Catholic songs if they refuse to compromise. Perhaps they will and do find it very difficult to find a market for their music; however, if their music is filled with beauty and truth and they preserve, their music will be heard.

  8. Christian music must be biblically informed. It must also flow from the Christian life experience. To have music that merely teaches doctrine or to have music that only reflects our experience is insufficient. We must have both kinds.

    Hymns and preaching—they together contribute toward worship. Can’t have one without the other. I must sing, and I must be preached to. I can do without liturgy, though missed. I can never make it without singing and a sermon, however. I have to hear a message spoken. And I have to sing loudly alongside others who sing loudly. Christianity is a singing religion. And it’s a preaching religion. This is because we’ve been given a story and a song. Let’s tell the story and sing the song!

  9. Ok. since this music will never be played in Church – it doesn’t meet the criteria of the liturgy..why are we bashing the music??? I look at Christian music as this – an ALTERNATIVE to what is being played on the radio. And unless you have XM/Sirius to listen to a Catholic station or your AM station doesn’t sound like aliens trying to take over the world..you are limited to what you can listen to. And although Catholic performers are few, most of the music is not bad. Most of them have a good message whether it is limited. And the message that God loves you no matter what is not exactly a horrible message!!! I for one while driving would like to listen to something up-beat and praiseful. I have my ipod and listed to true catholic classics in church to drown out the noise of rude people making noise in church and to enter conteplative prayer. Compared to the nasty word rap garbage out there and sex filled music – what would YOU rather listen to?? The music is not meant to please us old folks – and if the kids like it and get something good out of it – what is the harm???? Hmmm kids singing “Praise Jesus” or “kill cops”????

  10. Laurie:

    I don’t think my post ought to be construed as a “Christian music is bad” but rather “Christian music needs to be improved.” I would much rather listen to KLOVE than the latest Lady Gaga, but I think KLOVE & Christian music in general is capable of producing better music.

  11. Laurie Schultz: Because much of the message of Christian pop is opposed to Catholic theology. As I said in my post above, it is not all the same! But again, if people won’t listen to Catholic bands, or hire them for their events, they will never survive. Catholic music is just getting to be where generic Christian music was 10-15 years ago — but it won’t get any better without people to listen to it. Christian music, 25 years ago when I was in high school, was pretty bad. There was little reason to listen except the dogged determination to have CHRISTIAN pop music, dang it! Now a lot of the bands are really good, or at least on par with mainstream pop, rock, alternative, country, and every other genre out there.

  12. Laurie, i think much of Christian pop is generic. And bland. That’s why i don’t like it. Much of it is repetitive. Emotive words and phrases are used again and again. Yet many people like it. I don’t think it conflicts with Catholic or any other kind of theology. I don’t think it could.

  13. Another one I totally love is Will the Circle be Unbroken. THis bittersweet hymn reflects how we feel. That this world though tragic, finds redemption. Johnny Cash did an excellent rendition of it, and the tempo is nice and fast.

  14. So I am a die-hard Catholic who has really found grace and peace listening to Christian music. Christian music has become so varied in the past decade that I don’t think it’s been done justice here. Michael, while I see where you’re coming from as regards Christian Pop or P&W music as played on K-Love (that’s positive, not powerful) and others like it, there is much more out there that would be worth your while to listen to and perhaps change your idea of where Christian music has come.

    Let’s look at where Christian Rock has brought us. I love your take on the rebellion of rock music and how Christian rock artists have really brought that to the forefront as the rebellion of the Gospel. But while Flyleaf and Fireflight have some great stuff, bands like Disciple, RED, TFK, and Pillar, although more hard rock musically, really bring forth Christian messages that I think really speak to people where they are at. They are certainly not trite and often point to finding Christ within yourself and allowing Him to transform you, which is the ultimate goal of the Christian life, no matter whether you’re Catholic or not.

    Although not Catholic in the traditional theological sense, so many of the messages they give are Catholic at heart. Sometimes it takes some interpretation and the ability to look at things from a Catholic viewpoint, to really see the beauty that these artists bring with their music. I don’t think whacking people over the head with theology, like Danielle Rose does every now and again, is the way to go either. Simple is not always trite. Instead, if we allow the deep theology that the Church gives us to inform our listening, what may seem trite can lead us to appreciate the glory of God and pray to Him with a thankful and open heart.

    And these bands in rock are just a part of it, check out what’s happening in Christian Rap, with Lecrae or Group 1 Crew, or Christian Metal, with August Burns Red or As I Lay Dying, to find more great Christian music; you’ve just got to open up your horizons. Even Toby and the Newsboys are rooted in faith and bring great messages along with some great music, regardless of their Evangelical interpretation of the Gospel or their more mainstream success. So don’t disregard the leaps and bounds that Christian music has taken in other musical genres, even if you’d rather not listen to the screaming of the metalheads. (Just think of it as the cry of the soul for what it cannot find in the world, what it thirsts for in Christ.)

    Much of what you hear on K-Love is blatantly evangelical, but just because the beauty and truth is found amidst error doesn’t mean that it is less beautiful or less true. So instead of being negative about the errors, look for the grace of God in everything, praise Him for the grace that He has given us to sing to Him even when we don’t always get it right, and let us pray and sing with our brothers and sisters in Christ, always affirmed and rooted in the truth of the Catholic Faith.

  15. I find contemporary Christian music banal. Its words are sincere and emotive, but lacking in any depth. It fails to convey anything beyond our feelings. And Christianity is not really about feelings. It goes much deeper than that. It’s about faith and conviction. Knowing the God you serve. I feel hymns should speak of our experiences and of God’s nature, and of our interactions. That’s what I see classical hymnody as conveying. I just don’t find that in contemporary praise music.

  16. Yes, modern Protestant music strikes one as extremely emotional at times. Very unthoughtful, even. Classical hymnody–those hymns one finds in Protestant hymnals–represents the experiences of Christians and the attributes of God. All one has to do is turn to a Baptist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal hymnal to see that.

    The issue among Protestants is that the last generation has mostly grown up in a different context. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, they neither relate to those hymns nor to the style of worship of which they were a part. The whole approach to worship in some of these churches has changed. People no longer look down at a hymnal and sing lyrics with notation. Often, their eyes are shut and their hands are in the air. Sometimes they seem to be transported, though fewer words are expressed verbally. I’m really convinced something drastic has occurred within the past ten or twenty years. They’re thinking and feeling something different from what people thought and felt as they sang a generation ago. I just can’t identify it. I only know from watching it. Some would claim it’s more spiritual. I just think it’s different. I know too well that Christians of great stature sang the old way for the longest time. No one will convince me that this new approach is more spiritual. Just different.

  17. Another hymn I dearly love is For All the Saints. Each time I sing it I feel a part of that universal church which transcends time and space. Each line develops further until the last line speaks of the countless host entering the gates hailing the Trinity. I’ve always heard it on the organ, and the tempo is pretty quick. Beautiful. Especially when a loved one has passed. I also think of Palestrina’s The Strife is O’er. Perfect for a funeral.

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