Music's only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.
Many of the Christians I know (and certainly all the atheists) hold the genre of Christian Contemporary Music in contempt. I don't mean that they actively hate it (though some do), but they certainly label it as lame, amateur, or feel-good clap-trap. Unfortunately, the majority of the stuff you'll hear on CCM radio stations is just that: Fluff. Mass-produced and very popular Fluff, but still Fluff. Only a few artists rise from the masses to actually deliver a profound and good song. Even then, it probably only made it to the radio for the sake of its catchy tune. Don't get me wrong - there can be good songs on the radio, but it has to be in a certain format. And it's a format that doesn't allow for much wiggling space. At most, you'll get that one good song.
But there's a big However. There are scads and scads of Christian musicians that never make it to CCM radio stations. Among the group I call the Fringe Artists lies a reservoir of rich talent seldom credited to the Christian musician. There's truly a little of something for everyone: pop, acoustic and electric rock, folksy-artistic-groovy, instrumental, plumb-good stuff, laments, rap (both lighter and heavier), heavy metal, southern rock, country, punk, rock in home-made spaceships, songs about Dutch artists, Peter Pan (with C.S. Lewis references), bio-ethics, living rooms, Aslan, and The Grey Havens. There are more music genres than I've even heard of. Let's contrast some Fluff with some Fringe.
Trading my Sorrows - Israel Houghton
I'm trading my sorrows
I'm trading my shame
I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord
I'm trading my sickness
I'm trading my pain
I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord
And we say yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord,
Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord,
Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, Amen
Now I'm not criticizing (okay, maybe a little). That sort of music appeals to many people - and that song in particular I rather like, though I don't turn to it for any great theological insight. I don't mean to be so negative as to accuse the whole industry of being a zombie factory, like Michael Gungor, though he had bit of a point, for in some cases, it seems like just singing about Jesus completely obviates creativity. Let's look at some lyrics from someone you'd never hear on Christian radio:
Land of the Living - Matthew Perryman Jones
Into the land of the living,
Black bleeds orange into blue,
I am coming to life,
Light is breaking through.
You cannot love in moderation
Dancing with a dead man's bones
Lay your soul
On the threshing floor
I heard the distant battle drum
The mockingbird spoke in tongues
Longing for the day to come
I set my face, forsook my fears
I saw the city through my tears
The darkness soon will disappear
And be swallowed by the sun
I am coming home...
That, ladies and gents, is art. It's also not on the radio. But I assure you, there's more of the same out there.
Last year, I went to my first live Andrew Peterson concert in Winston-Salem. During the concert (which was great), he described when, late in high school, a friend asked him to play a song called If I Stand.
"Who's it by?" Andrew asked.
"Is he a Christian singer?"
"Bleh..." thought Andrew. Which is rather amusing, considering what he does now. Anyway, he said that listening to that song profoundly changed how he thought of Christian music (or, as I prefer to label: music made by Christians). Later on, in college, he got to meet Rich briefly (he brought him his pre-show supper, which I think is a bit symbolic, since Andrew's pretty much his musical successor.)
Rich Mullins was one of the first Christian musicians who were "cool." There were many before, but he was among the first major stars, along with Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant (who partly rode to fame on the great Michael Card's songs: El Shaddai and I Have Decided). But everyone seems to forget that a whole generation of fans have grown up and are now in the music industry. There's some really artistic stuff out there that is as good as, if not better, than secular music. So when people tell me "I'm not really into Christian music, that's not my kind of music" it makes me groan for the world. Everyone will find something, but they must take the trouble to look. One can find any genre of music in CCM, and in many cases, it's ten times better and deeper than secular music. In fact, I would say that I could find a more artistic, more creative, deeper alternative for nearly every secular genre.
But don't take my word for it. Just ask David Letterman. Yeah. He's had two Christian bands on his show, as has Jimmy Kimmel. Four (at least) CCM artists have been played on Grey's Anatomy. (This I know from YouTube, since we don't have cable). I don't see why being a Christian and being a good musician are somehow mutually exclusive. There's so much talent there that's written off because CCM is supposed to be amateurish. And not every song is like a love-letter to God - we write about all sorts of other things. See the mass of links up at the top of the article.
As Christians, we're called to not only evangelize the earth, but subdue it. I don't mean force anyone to do anything, but to take all forms of art and turn them to God's glory, to do the very best we can do. This goes for fiction, music, architecture, synchronized swimming, advertising, plumbing, and athletics.
There is a (possibly apocryphal) story told about Bach. One night, he arrived at a church where he was to debut a new piece of music. To his surprise, he found it completely deserted. An apologetic caretaker tried to makes an excuse, but Bach shook his head. "We'll do it anyway." And so, Bach, and a group of confused musicians, played to an empty church, and the glory echoed in the eaves.
The CCM radio stuff panders to a certain sound, to a marketable ideal. That's not bad. It's just capitalism working, after all. Lots of people like it. But people who don't listen to Fluff often turn over into the secular industry. Nobody knows about the little-known bands in the middle, and if I call them Christian, they're immediately tarred with the same pink feathers.
I don't mind listening to secular music, if it is well-made and engages with deeper ideas. I love U2, though the band is not formally Christian. I know many Christians that like the actually secular Paul Simon. It just annoys me when people immediately say all music made by Christians is bad. That's far too sweeping a generalization.
In my campaign to make quality Christian-made music known, I often have to make sure my potential victims don't know that the artist is as a Christian or even occasionally writes a song that mentions God. That's how much power the stereotype has. It's awfully hard to drag people off the beaten (and broad) path that leads to musical destruction. (Okay, I couldn't resist that metaphor). I don't mean to say that for music to be good, it can't be generally liked. For literature to be good, it doesn't have to be unappealing to the common man (see Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien). Still, in this shallow age, one often has to dig a little deeper than just the easily found. Take the time.
Bach and Tolkien and Dickens were Christians, but everyone finds them creative. There is another Bach out there, another Tolkien, another Dickens, creating beauty. But I'm betting you won't find them on the radio.
Soli Deo Gloria,