The buzz around Joel Heng Hartse’s recent book “Sects, Love and Rock and Roll,” which deals with the perhaps inevitable decline of Contemporary Christian Music, has got me thinking about my own experience of the church’s strange relationship to music. (For an “outsider view” of the troubled history and bizarre landscape of CCM, I recommend Andrew Beaujon’s 2006 book “Body Piercing Saved my Life.”) It takes me back to high school youth group, where you were defined by the music you listened to. Unlike most of the kids at my suburban church, I never really liked Christian punk music (MxPx, Ghoti Hook, whatever other bands enthusiastic evangelical youth liked back then). However, I was much more excited about the then-popular genre of “Christian ska,” snapping up records by bands like the OC Supertones, Five Iron Frenzy, the Insyderz and the W’s. Ska music is, or at least was thought to be in the late 1990s, a sort of sped-up reggae where the guitar played on the upbeat under a flurry of horns and rapid-fire drumming. Although I didn’t own any large wooden-bead necklaces, I still counted myself as part of the Christian ska “scene.”
I remember lending a Five Iron Frenzy live album to my friend Steve, not to convert him to Christianity but to awaken his soul to the glory of ska music. This was part of an ill-fated larger plan to reform our sprawling 10-piece funk band into a sleek, popular-among-suburban-kids ska outfit. Steve’s reaction to the Christian ska CD took me by surprise. “Can’t they sing about anything else?” he asked. In fact, every song was wall-to-wall full of religious themes, from the opening track (the lead singer in his distinctive vocal caterwaul leading the audience in a rousing cry of “To Hell with the Devil!”) all the way through a collection of songs about God, Jesus, hope, faith and being in a Christian ska band. The realization that this kind of overpowering Christian-ness in lyrics could be downright annoying was something of an epiphany for me. In fact, it’s a good thing I loaned Steve a FIF album – they at least had a few novelty songs about Canada, combs and dinosaurs, non-religious if somewhat cloying – rather than one by the Supertones, a band which with its endless stream of albums full of songs like “Blood Washed Pilgrim” and “Grace Flood” never quite garnered appeal outside of the Christian circuit.
I have since repented of my ska-loving ways, and apologized to my friends for inflicting on them a relentless stream of upbeats. The evangelical youth subculture which I never quite fit into has become a completely foreign territory to me, if indeed it even still exists in the complex, mediated social world inhabited by today’s churchgoing teenagers. I have also lost interest in the idea of “Christian” music more generally, although of course there are musicians whose work I enjoy who are Christians (Bruce Cockburn, Caedmon’s Call, even sometimes – and my mom will be happy about this – Steve Green). It has become clear to me that a recurring problem with the overall idea of “Christian music” is the expectation it has to be constantly, consistently about God and religious themes. Perhaps a similar problem underlies “Christian” movies and “Christian” art, particularly within evangelicalism. The need to have an explicit Christian theme leads to a lack of imagination, of creativity, in short of artistry. Can a “Christian” musician not release an album about, say, relationships? Hartse has described this as a “Jesus-per-minute” problem; Christian record labels used to put pressure on Christian bands to include more explicit Christian content, constraining the artists to fit into a particular box. But this model of the CCM industry is dying, maybe even dead. The problem now does not come from record label execs, but from artists of the Christian faith who lack any orientation as to what making good art and music are all about. We have a failure of imagination, on the part of artists undernourished by their churches and communities. We end up with the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
I would link the too-much-Jesus problem back to the issue of overrealized eschatology (see this recent post). To just sing about God all the time is to bring the End into the present much too soon. We are still – and will be for a very long time, especially since the world is not going to end on May 21 – living in the here and now, in that famous tension between the “already and the not-yet.” Let’s not pretend the world has been completely healed; it is still a broken place, and its wonderful beauty is still that of a “glorious ruin” (C.S. Lewis). Music that doesn’t keep this tension in mind and takes the easy shortcut of talking about only God, Jesus and angels as if everything else is worthless will miss out on what’s going on all around us. There is lots to sing about, some of it having to do with religious or spiritual themes, and some of it not. To be an artist is precisely not to become mired in a particular ideological or religious agenda, but rather to be able to create with a certain degree of freedom and spontaneity. However, this is a tension I have felt in my own work as an artist and musician, especially coming out of the context of being a worship leader where all the songs you sing really are about God. What if I swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, and end up singing exclusively about Canada, combs and dinosaurs?