This post is part of an ongoing series about the relationship Christians have with music. It explores what we’re really asking when we ask “Are they a Christian band?” There’s an introduction to the series that explains this concept better, but in many more words. If you’d like to read it, you can check it out here.
The question we’ll be looking at today is one that is most often at the heart of the “Are they Christian” question in some form or another. It’s also one of the most valuable questions we can ask about a piece of art.
Will this music benefit my relationship with God?
This question sounds great on the surface, but where it runs into problems is when people try to use it to objectively categorize art. The main issue lies in the fact that this question defines music by its effect on the listener, so a band that’s Christian to you may not be Christian to me.
For example, let’s think about Jon Mark McMillan’s How He Loves and the infamous “sloppy wet kiss” line. To me, the line is a profoundly worshipful image of God’s messy, over-the-top, and occasionally embarrassing way of showering his creation with love. Others may like it, but are uncomfortable singing it in church because they know the song wasn’t originally written with corporate worship in mind. Still others can’t get past the idea of French-kissing the creator of the universe.
So, is How He Loves a Christian song?
If we answer this question in terms of its benefit to the listener’s relationship with God, I and others who think like me would see How He Loves as a Christian song that’s beneficial to sing in church with fellow believers. The second group might see it as a Christian song, but not necessarily something to be sung in a corporate setting. At best, the third group sees it as a well-intentioned song that missed the mark of being truly Christian.
But if “sloppy wet kiss” gets changed to “unforseen kiss?” Now we’ve got a whole new line of debate.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask ourselves how the music we listen to affects our relationship with God. In fact, it’s a question I could probably stand to ask more. My problem is I save it for “on-the-fence” artists. I ask how my faith is affected when I listen to U2 or Mumford & Sons or Onerepublic, but what if I asked this question about the worship artists whose songs we sing in church? What if I asked it about the artists I hear on the local Top 40 radio station?
Art As Message Bearer
Sometimes, the question of how beneficial a piece of art will be to the listener’s faith comes with the unstated expectation that the benefit should be in the form of an obvious lesson. We Christians like our art to have a clear message, and this can be a problem.
Granted, there are tons of great Christian songs out there with strong, easily-discernible messages. Digging through a hymnal will reveal fantastic message-forward songs like Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, and It Is Well. These are timeless songs, and their lyrics are very on-the-nose. They don’t hide behind much metaphor or ambiguity. There’s no question what they’re talking about.
But what makes these songs great isn’t how easy it is to see the author’s intent. The message isn’t even the primary reason they’ve stood the test of time, though it’s certainly contributed. No, these songs became classics because of their overall craftsmanship. The lyrics speak to powerful truth with evocative language and ordered meter. The melody lines and chord progressions work together well and have lodged themselves in the memories of churchgoers and even people outside the Church.
Too often, Christians look to Christian music as a medium whose primary function is to bear a message. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying Christian music – or Christian art in general – shouldn’t come with a message. I’m saying that when the only thing you ask of a piece of art is that it have a clear message, you’re not really asking for Christian art. You’re asking for Christian propaganda.
This is a difficult line to walk, because I do believe that one of the primary roles of art is to share truth. This is something I’ve only recently begun to process, so I’m open to talking more about it, but I truly believe that message and truth aren’t exactly the same thing.
The way I see it, messages can be true, but truth can exist without a message. There is truth when It Is Well speaks to the importance of praising God even in difficult times, but there is also truth when exactly the right chord is struck at exactly the right time. There is truth when an author crafts a sentence that perfectly encapsulates the feel of a city. There is truth when an actor is able to become another person so completely that you don’t see the guy who guest starred on your favorite sitcom only a week ago.
We take this level of art away from Christian musicians when we require their songs to have clear-cut messages.
Christian Music and High School Football
What’s worse is we don’t even stop there. We want clear-cut messages, and we want them about very specific things. We want meditations on scripture, descriptions of worshipful experiences, declarations of loyalty to Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. These are great things to sing about, but if this is going to be our definition of Christian art, we have severely narrowed our scope.
People point to how bad Christian art is or how far behind “non-Christian art” it is, and I think this narrowing of scope might be a part of it. We have such a restrictive definition of what constitutes art beneficial to the Christian faith that our sample size is only a fraction of the market.
I saw this same principle when I played football in high school. I went to a small school, graduating in a class of less than fifty students. We had some great athletes on our team, but the schools with several hundred students per class had incredible athletes. This wasn’t because the best athletes only went to big schools; it was because big schools had that many more athletes to choose from. The odds were simply higher that a five-star college recruit was wandering their halls.
And so in Christian music, we have a tiny group of artists that we allow in the “Christian musician” circle. Asking why there aren’t as many good Christian bands as mainstream bands is a little like asking why there aren’t as many good bands who exclusively write love songs.
On top of this, I wonder how many more talented Christian songwriters are driven away from Christian music when they realize how many subjects are off-limits.
When you think about it, the whole thing is absurd. Christianity isn’t a religion that applies only to Scripture memorization and super-spiritual moments of worship. Our God is the God of everything, and our art needs to communicate that.
Read more in the series: