50 thoughts on turning 50: #26 What is Christian music and why do you care?

I amassed quite the collection of CDs over my years covering Christian music, most of which just collects dust.

I amassed quite the collection of CDs over my years covering Christian music, most of which just collects dust

I was contacted recently by a new Christian music magazine about maybe doing some writing for them. I admit I was tempted enough to ask for more information. I miss my artist friends. I miss my publicist friends. I miss my fellow music writing friends. I need the money.

But then I saw this post today about TobyMac, and it reminded me of the reasons why I stopped writing about music and entertainment.

I don’t miss the bullshit.

Is TobyMac singing about the Illuminati? Who knows. Who cares. Do you like his music? Then listen. If not, then don’t. If listening to a song that may or may not be about the Illuminati is dangerous to your faith, then the problem isn’t TobyMac. The problem is that your beliefs are so shaky that they can be wavered by a guy wearing a t-shirt with an eyeball on it.

I wrote the following post back in 2009 for a website called Wrecked For The Ordinary. I share it as part of my 50 Thoughts On Turning 50 series because I learned a lot of lessons in my years covering Christian music. Mostly that there’s no such thing as Christian music, because music can’t be Christian. It’s music.

Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I certainly heard that often enough.

But what I learned, at least by the time I got to writing the essay that follows, is that my faith is not a commercial product, and when you strip away all of the extraneous bullshit, you get … well, God. Faith. The wonder of Creation. No Jesus fish stickers required.

In the end, I didn’t pursue the offer to write for this new magazine, in no small part because every time I asked what the assignment paid, they avoided the question. That’s because in the Christian genre, writers are often expected to write for free, because, you know, it’s about Jesus and all, and you should just do it for the Lord.

But that’s another story for another day.

* * * * * * **

What Is Christian Music And Why Do You Care?
(This originally ran in 2009 on the website Wrecked For The Ordinary.)

I once wrote a post on my blog at Beliefnet.com in which I threw out this joke:

“You might be a Christian music fan if you didn’t let your kids listen to the Jonas Brothers until you found out they were Christians. But you did let your kids listen to David Archuleta until you found out he was Mormon.”

It was a joke about the hypocrisy of Christian music fans, obviously. Or maybe not obviously, because the post – and the other jokes, like “You might be a Christian music fan you’ll go see Third Day play at a mega-church but won’t go see them at your local concert arena” – went over the heads of most of my readers.

I don’t think all Christian music fans are hypocrites. I think the problem is that Christian music fans just don’t really know what Christian music is and so base their musical choices on a vague label that doesn’t really mean anything.

Consider the Jonas Brothers, for example. The trio started out in Christian music, got a little attention, and then really blew up when they moved to mainstream. None of their music would ever be mistaken for praise and worship or songs that promote a Christian message; it’s just fun, clean teen pop. But their albums are available in the Christian bookstore. So, are the Jonas Brothers Christian musicians or not?

I’ve been writing lately about Ray Boltz and his decision to come out of the closet and admit that he’s gay. I heard from a lot of readers who said they couldn’t listen to his music any more, even the pre-out-of-the-closet stuff. And yet I was recently told (off the record) by an industry professional that if fans knew the number of artists struggling with homosexuality (and not always successfully, by evangelical standards) they would have to ditch a significant portion of their music collection. Is it still Christian music, as long as you don’t know about the artist’s personal life?

There was a time when a Christian song was defined by the number of times the artist used the “J word” – a.k.a. mentioned Jesus by name. That would make Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” a Christian song, right?

Sometimes we define our artists by the label they’re signed to. Relient K was Christian when they were with Gotee and when they moved to Columbia were criticized by fans for not being Christian anymore. So your record label determines your spiritual standing, right?

While the restrictions of the early Christian music industry hampered the creativity of many artists (there are only so many ways you can work a J-word-a-minute into a song and still be creative) I don’t know that the current “anything goes” mindset serves Christian music fans any better.

When you ask Christians to define Christian music, they say things like “It’s music created by an artist with a Christian worldview” or “It’s music that glorifies God.”

That definition applies appropriately to bands from various musical genres whose lyrical content is focused clearly on the contemplation of God, Christ, redemption, and faith, even if it’s more poetic than outright “Jesus Saves” – from Chris Tomlin to downhere to CeCe Winans. But what about the “Jesus is my girlfriend” category, where lyrics are deliberately vague so listeners can make up their own mind what the band is singing about? Those bands don’t need to be labeled “Christian.”

And yet when they’re not, savvy music fans catch the spiritual undertones in their songs and want to make them admit they’re Christians. In every interview I’ve read lately with Anberlin, for example, the band is asked if they’re a Christian band. Does it really matter? Can’t you listen to music and examine the lyrics for yourself and see if they challenge you spiritually? Can’t you just enjoy the music for its artist quality, as long as the lyrics aren’t completely contrary to your own beliefs? Don’t like the subject matter of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”? Then turn it off. But don’t waste time examining whether she is or isn’t a Christian now, just because she released a Christian album in 2001 and still sports a Jesus tattoo. You either like her music or not.

Churches across the country are holding services they call U2charists, using songs from the band U2 for worship. I don’t know anyone, including U2, who would label the band “Christian”. But do you ever wonder how many Christians are praying for Bono to just don the Jesus fish so we can assign him a spot on our team?

I think sometimes the Christian label just gives us permission to listen to the music, rather than really offer a clear definition of what to expect when we pop the CD into our stereo. We’ve become a culture that relies on Christian books, CDs, t-shirts and other merchandise to help make us holy, and so buying Christian music just seems more godly. Rather than examine art for its creative and artistic qualities and be challenged by the exploration of life, death, faith, and yes, even doubt, we look for the Jesus fish stamp of approval so we don’t have to think about it.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about Amy Grant. You know you’re a Christian music fan if you’ve never gotten over her divorce.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.


One response to “50 thoughts on turning 50: #26 What is Christian music and why do you care?

  1. Thank you Joanne! Very honest. And very funny. Keep cutting through the junk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s