Trying to go deep in the shallow end of the pool

Yesterday my good friend and former youth group student Wade Baker posted a link on my Facebook wall on the topic of Christian music that started an interesting conversation and inspired a couple of thoughts that I wanted to address here on the blog side (FB friends who are interested can read the original conversation on my timeline).

The link was to an article written by a guy named Matt Papa (find it here), a musician who takes the Christian music industry in general, and Christian radio specifically, to task for being, as he says, “altogether banal and shallow in both a musical sense and a spiritual sense.” Much of what he says is hard to argue with…that “mainstream” Christian music is (with some notable exceptions), shallow, insipid, formulaic, theologically questionable, and largely self-centered from a lyrical standpoint; and is weakly composed, arranged, performed and produced from a musical perspective. The deeper criticism is that this kind of music fails to reach listeners with an accurate presentation of the Gospel.

The question I want to address here, though, is one I raised in the original Facebook conversation: Is weak Christian music a case of art imitating life or life imitating art? Does shallow Christian music breed shallow Christians, or does shallow Christianity breed shallow Christian music?

The popularity of the so-called “prosperity gospel” (Jesus wants you to be happy, healthy and wealthy) is certainly reflected in much of what plays on Christian radio. Listen for less than an hour and you’ll pick up on the formula: my life sucked, Jesus came along (just for me!), now I’m happy. All set to a simple 4-chord progression. Wade says it’s like prom music to Jesus, making him sound more like a girl you want to date than the Lord & savior of the universe.

Hence the art-imitates-life-imitates-art conundrum. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Certainly, the shallowness of mainstream Christian music is reflective of much of mainstream evangelical Christianity in America today. Whether it’s the prosperity gospel or the “fire insurance” message (say a prayer to stay out of hell), the American church has failed in many ways to take people into an authentic understanding of Jesus and the gospel. The message of personal happiness, comfort and contentment fails to recognize the socially and politically subversive life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his message of radical love and forgiveness. In many ways it reduces God’s grace to a happiness pill. Just swallow this and you’ll feel better.

At the same time, there is a propensity for the kind of music that pours out of Christian radio to influence the church. Go into almost any church with a “contemporary” service, and you’ll hear many of the same shallow songs opening the worship service. (We even do it in my church, where I play acoustic guitar in the band.) The songs are easy to play, easy to sing, elicit happy emotions, and don’t require much in the way of mental or spiritual investment.

To be fair, there are, thankfully, many exceptions. Artists like Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, John Mark McMillan, Phil Wickham, and others do write songs that are theologically and musically rich and sophisticated, and they get their share of airplay on Christian radio and from church praise & worship bands. Our praise team at FUMC Williamstown likes to joke that we’re a Chris Tomlin cover band because we perform so many of his songs out of appreciation for both his theology and his musical complexity.

And as long as I’m on the issue of fairness, even some of the shallower offerings of Christian radio have value, especially for people who are new to the faith and need encouragement on a very basic level. Babies need milk. In fact, it takes awhile before they can consume anything else. But eventually you’ve got to introduce some meat into your diet.

Personally, my biggest issue with most mainstream Christian music is that it doesn’t reflect Christ. I know musical appreciation is a very subjective thing, but I find most of it to just be bad. And if Christ is to be glorified, the music that celebrates him should be nothing short of excellent.

Yes, music is entertainment and Christian music is Christian entertainment, and every song doesn’t have to be dripping with atonement theology to have value. But bad music with bad theology reflects badly on Jesus just as shallow teaching in superficial church settings does. It’s a barrier to the gospel. We deserve better from our music and from our churches. Jesus deserves better from all of us.

3 thoughts on “Trying to go deep in the shallow end of the pool

  1. I am reminded of a quote of Luther’s I came across while reading The Divine Conspiracy, it was something along the lines of “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making exceptional shoes.” I searched all though that book but couldn’t find where I read that particular section. I believe the same holds true to music and Luther would agree, I think A Mighty Fortress is Our God is a great song. But every song doesn’t have to be the next Mighty Fortress, it just needs to be truthful and exceptional.

    I have one more thought, if we are not singing songs in church that do not teach us about the greatness and glory of God, the work of Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and all its doctrine, I fear some may not learn anything. All too many people zone out for the sermon, where the scripture is actually taught, we therefore need the music to do that job too.

  2. I’ve been chewing on this since I read Matt Papa’s post last night, and I’m still not sure I can adequately express my thoughts but I’ll try.

    I agree with the comments Susan D. shared on your Facebook page (sentiments that you echo here) that CCM does have value. How much value depends on the listener and how they use the music. I personally love music and love to sing (mostly in the shower or my car alone!), but I’m really not at all interested in the complexity of the music or how many chords it employs (though repetition does get annoying). I’m mostly concerned with how/whether it speaks to my heart. Some people listen to music for learning purposes, some for comfort, some for inspiration, and some just to have background noise — and I’m willing to bet that most people use music for all these purposes depending on their mood, needs or situations.

    And really, what’s wrong with simplicity? What’s wrong with a simple praise song? God sent the Savior of the world as a child to be born in a manger. The people and leaders of the time expected a mighty king, and what they got was a baby. Simple. Humble. Perfect.

    I don’t think Matt Papa is wrong to say that we need more sophisticated, scripture-based music. We absolutely need that! But his post seemed to argue that this type of music should completely eradicate and replace mainstream CCM, which just seems absurd, especially since today’s Christian music can be a really useful tool (particularly for newbies) in learning about Christ’s love and the importance of a personal relationship with him. That’s not to say that Christian artists and listeners shouldn’t strive to produce and hear deeper music — there’s room for it all. But perhaps the balance needs shifted a bit to include more of the heavy stuff.

    Yes, babies need milk. And as you said, at some point some meat needs added to the diet. But remember that a good diet is based on variety, and everyone’s nutritional needs are different. As long as we’re getting what we need and staying away from what is truly junk, aren’t we still being fed?

    Thanks for making me think!

    • Well said Jennifer. It’s always tempting to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I really have no problem with simplicity. If it weren’t for simple music I could never get up in front of the congregation with a guitar in my hand! Simple isn’t the same thing as mediocre, though, or just outright bad. Of course, that’s very subjective and it’s why I don’t cite any particular musicians that I personally dislike, because I’ll surely insult someone’s favorite, and that’s not the point. I think the biggest issue, and the one that really started the whole conversation, is not so much with music that is simple and comforting, but embraces bad theology…a really self-centered view of and response to Jesus. More to come on this topic later today…thanks for joining the conversation!

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