Should We Ditch the Christian Music Industry?
If a day did come in which we all ditched the Christian music industry and shut it down — as in all Christian record labels and radio stations closed up shop permanently — Marc Barnes at Patheos Press, the author of the article 5 Reasons to Kill Christian Music, would be overjoyed.
This article is a formal response to Marc Barnes and his suggestion that we do away with the Christian music genre forever. It’s not an unfamiliar topic to Rockin’ God’s House — see our article Does Christian Music Really Suck? — especially its section about the overwhelming Nashville influence over Christian music.
Marc Barnes is not a heretic nor is he anti-Christian. He wrote the article because — by all signs evident — he is an on-fire believer with a brilliant grasp of Christian theology, writing, and culture; and he desperately wants to see the music made by Christians effective and fruitful as God intended it to be.
A History of Criticism
He’s not the only one who feels this way. Over the years, I’ve had more conversations than I can count with Christian musicians who believe that the “Contemporary Christian Music” industry (CCM) — shaped mostly by the Bible Belt major labels in Tennessee — does more harm than good to Christendom. There is a perception that Christian labels (or the bands themselves, by their own choosing) function as assembly line replicators that take the latest trends in secular music and duplicate the styles to the tee — but with the requisite amount of Christianeze slogans instead of worldly lyrics.
It is a bold article by Barnes because it is a scathing criticism of thousands of people big and small — from the assistant who gets coffee for the A&R man at the record label to the major label artists themselves. Barnes is essentially telling us all that by enabling the Christian music genre to exist, we are “degrading” the “earth-shaking, intellectual and faithful assent to the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” as he writes.
Ouch. Chill, bro.
That is a serious accusation. If his points have merit, we should all take it very seriously and examine ourselves. If there are problems with his argument, then an equally strong response is necessary.
Though, in all seriousness, I will confess, it does not take very long once you turn on a Christian radio station to find examples that support these stereotypes about the CCM industry: “Oh, hey, this artist sounds exactly like Katy Perry’s latest electro-pop single. Weird! What a coincidence! But oh, hey, except the lyrics are Christian and generally positive. It’s like Katy Perry got saved! Now my kids can listen to trendy pop music without all the junk.”
I do wish Barnes would have exercised a little more empathy towards parents. I have a daughter and, frankly, I get it why Christian labels do what they do. There are parents out there who would do anything to get their daughters away from the sultry pop divas and the messages conveyed in their lyrics and lifestyles. If there’s a Christian artist out there who, by their stylistic imitation, can satisfy their teenybopper daughter’s preference of music and make it easier for their daughter to stay away from unedifying content, then those parents will buy that CD in a heartbeat.
When God Redeems the Work of our Hands
From an artist’s perspective and not a parent’s, I found myself nodding enthusiastically to Barnes’s article and thinking “Amen! What a revelation!” — and then, with a screeching halt in my mind, I stopped dead in my tracks at one of his final points.
Before I get into that, I’d like to pay a little more respect to Barnes. What he wrote was truly excellent. I do hope you read it. He makes some profound points, like this gem here:
Music should blossom from Christianity as vows from love. It is the poetic expression of reality as experienced by the Christian, not the expression of Christianity forced into poetry. If we are going to sing that “Jesus Saves” it should not be because we are writing a Christian song, but because Jesus really does save, and we are writing a good song. In short, we should not write “Christian” music at all. We should be Christians and make incredible, authentic music.
Barnes’s article has prompted some serious soul-searching. After all, the very premise of this website’s name — Rockin’ God’s House — is rooted in the context of a Christian music industry.
But then I came to one of his final points. I will quote it for you directly:
4. As a label, Christianity becomes an excuse for mediocrity.
Isn’t all singing about Jesus inherently valuable?
No. Love covers a multitude of sins, but a cliched refrain of his Most Holy Name will not cover the fact that your melody, chord progression, and overworked synth track are recycled versions of Nickleback’s last single.
Writing a song under the mindset that the Holy Spirit will use that song to “reach people” is a denial that the Holy Spirit uses you to reach people, and has given you the emotional depth, the poetic imagination, the enlightened intellect, and the spiritual sensitivity to write a damn good song.
Songwriting is a minor gift of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit becomes an excuse for mediocrity — the divine shoulders on which we dump a work of poetry, the craft of musicianship, and our own authenticity — we aren’t conversing with the Spirit, we’re making excuses, and committing a bizarre sort of heresy. We are saying that God is a magician who makes songs, books, poetry, art, blog posts and all the rest meaningful and life-changing after we’ve created them.
We are the ones who, in participation with God, make art awesome. If your music is bad, and you’re praying that God will do something great with it, stop praying and make better music.
Actually, making our art “meaningful and life-changing after we’ve created [it]” is exactly what God does, Marc — even for those who are not loving God with all of their heart, mind, and strength and giving it their all when they write a song. It’s a part of redemption. God often redeems the work of our hands. And, yes, God even does that for the Christian songwriter who lazily phones it in and hurriedly writes his umpteenth song with whatever cheesy Jesus phrase pops in his head because he’s trying to meet a deadline for his Christian record label; yes, even he is a target for God’s “magic,” as you put it.
Heretics or Vessels of God’s Extravagant Grace?
I studied music in college, but I’ll be honest: I’ve phoned it in before with “Christian songs” that I’ve written. I used to write quick little songs and put them on a CD to encourage certain family members. There was one particular song that I hastily wrote in a lazy fashion. It was stock full of cliches. I put little to no real effort in that song. I wasn’t even in a very worshipful or pleasant mood when I wrote it. It was very generic in its structure and style. But wow did one particular person love it. It was life-changing for them. It impacted their life for years. God used it in amazing ways in that person’s spiritual maturity.
God redeemed what was a terrible work of art — according to general cultural standards of “good” art — and He made it “meaningful and life-changing after it was written.” If you believe that is possible, according to Barnes, you are committing a bizarre form of heresy.
However, I get the broader point he is making: we should never use God’s ability to redeem a poorly constructed work of art as an excuse to be lazy. But there’s something problematic in what Barnes wrote, especially in his answer to this question:
“Isn’t all singing about Jesus inherently valuable?”
Barnes’s answer is “no.” It is not inherently valuable.
At first, I agreed with him. Lazy, boring rip-offs of secular music do not automatically gain artistic value if they insert the Name Above All Names into their lyrics. Barnes is saying that Christians have an entitlement mindset: we don’t need to work hard to write the best possible music or take artistic risks. As long as we throw Jesus in there, we’re good. “In fact,” we say, “you should feel obligated to like my music because it’s all about Jesus. I don’t need to work for your approval of my art.”
That’s a wrong attitude. I agree with Barnes. This is all fine and well until Barnes jumps from artistic value and broadens the definition of “valuable” to include ministry value:
…we’re making excuses, and committing a bizarre sort of heresy. We are saying that God is a magician who makes songs, books, poetry, art, blog posts and all the rest meaningful and life-changing after we’ve created them.
“Life-changing” is the key word. Barnes is stepping over the line into the context of ministry value. This is where I must respectfully disagree.
We can talk all we want about the lack of artistic imagination in the Christian music industry, but in the context of ministry — from my own experience — God seems to have little regard about what we deem to be artistically valuable. Of course, as His creatures, He does care about what we do. After all, the tiniest sparrow doesn’t fall without Him knowing it. He cares about every little detail of our lives. But, frankly, even our greatest artistic achievement is a finger-painting on God’s fridge. In the realm of artistic activity, I believe He cares more about the heart, not our genius or technique. Where was our heart when we created that work of art? How was that art created in the context of our relationship with Him? Barnes’s articles make fantastic points in that regard. Are we really loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength with everything we produce in the Christian music industry? Does having a “Christian” music industry with all its traditions of men and cultural traits inhibit our ability from giving God the very best art we can offer? Do I have any habits of lazy thinking in my art? Do I need to hit the books and learn more about what possibilities exist in the world of music composition? Should I try and create something wholly original instead of doing a pale imitation of Coldplay or [fill-in-the-blank-trendy-band]? These are questions we should always be asking, and we should study Barnes’s article as we ask those questions.
But in the context of ministry value and what He uses to transform lives, God is not desperately reliant on our artistic subtleties and sophistication to convict and change the hearts of people. Marc criticizes the radio station K-Life, but God has used those “positive” K-Life cliche-ridden songs to stop non-believers from committing suicide. They just happened to flip on the radio at the right moment. I’ve heard the testimonies. Not all atheists automatically tune out songs on the radio if they’re not worthy of a GRAMMY like Marc’s example of Mumford & Sons. Even though many of the “recycled” Christian songs bother people for their blatant (and sometimes unconvincing) rip-off of secular music, God does use them to preach the Good News — despite their simple, non-intellectual cheesy language, as some describe it — and He does use them to save people’s lives.
Who are we to tell God what He can or can’t use to change someone’s life?
In Search of Authenticity
In his criticism of K-Life, Marc writes: “Music should be our beautiful, authentic expressions of reality, and there is nothing authentic about ‘positive’ Christianity.”
But who are we to say whether any one song on the Christian radio is an “authentic” expression of the reality that the songwriter has experienced in Christ? Yes, we live in the “Valley of Tears” that C.S. Lewis wrote about after his wife died, and we do serve a Suffering God; but we also serve a King who told us to “be of good cheer.” And, honestly, I have known people who have encountered very little suffering in their lives, and — not taking this for granted — they have written songs genuinely thanking God for the unusual protection they have experienced in situations. If you didn’t know the person, you might hear the song and write it off as “unrealistic” and Pollyannic.
I do realize these is a big difference between a masterpiece and a poorly written song. And, frankly, the secular world does produce some incredibly powerful songwriters who can capture all of the little colors, shadows, and realities of life on earth in ways that make your jaw drop (in a good way). The Christian industry’s bar for what makes a good song might be a little low. We should do some serious soul-searching in that regard. Marc would really prefer to see Christians writing songs on the highest level possible — as would I. For example, Bob Dylan has been praised for writing lyrics with incredible literary power. Some professors study his songs as literature. So why can’t Christians produce literature in their lyrics as well? Why do we have to use overly simplistic language that sounds like a poem written in elementary school? Why can’t we have the depth of John Keats or John Donne or Shakespeare in our lyrics? Why can’t our corporate expression of our 2000-year-old faith be, well, a little deeper and a little less juvenile in its technique and presentation? I get where Marc is coming from. It’s incredibly frustrating. There have been times when I have slammed the radio knob in frustration to turn the Christian station off.
I’m not saying that I’m the greatest songwriter in the world, but I’ve certainly heard what can be done when a highly disciplined, well-read artist pours all of his heart and artistic brilliance into a masterful creation that presents the glory of Christ in an astonishing, thought-provoking, wholly original way. I’ve seen others do it, in other words. I’ve tasted the fruit of the highest art when a Christian full of the Holy Spirit makes it. It is truly something to behold. It is something you don’t forget. Why can’t the Christian music industry as a whole shoot for the same depth?
But all of this goes out the window in the context of what God can use to change lives. Sure, maybe a guy writes an unimaginative, banal song that comes across as inauthentic; but maybe that really was his best effort and maybe his heart was genuinely full of praise to God. Why shouldn’t God honor that? And, even if the guy wrote a poor song, even if his heart wasn’t sincere at all and he was being lazy, who says God can’t give ministry value to it? I’ve seen Him do it before. He is very resourceful, and He uses whatever materials are present to accomplish His purposes. After all, he used King Cyrus — a heathen who had no belief in the Most High — to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
As deflating as it might sound, I believe God has a much smaller opinion of our collective artistic brilliance than we realize — at least as it correlates to ministry and changing lives. We tend to become self-important with how well our art expresses “the human experience.” I don’t see an ironclad correlation between artistic quality and ministry power. Ministry effectiveness is more likely correlated with prayer. Just ask Charles Spurgeon and his giant team of prayer warriors who interceded feverishly for him during every one of his sermons. Sure, when I heard Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait” on the radio for the first time, I broke down in tears because of the sheer power of the song. But I have had the same reaction to music that was absolutely horrible from an artistic view point. Why? Because God’s Spirit was working in my heart, and a ton of people were praying for me. At that point, I didn’t need to hear some poetic masterpiece from an artistically vibrant, GRAMMY-winning band. Just one singer praising Jesus with cliches I’ve heard a thousand times in an out-of-tune voice was enough to cave my heart in — even when the sound system started feeding back because the sound guy didn’t know what he was doing. In that moment, somehow the cliches stopped being cliches.
Please bear in mind, I am not saying that we should accept the status quo and feel good about making generic, unoriginal music. I wish every Christian music producer and label executive in the world would read Marc’s article and think long and hard about what they’re doing. But when you correlate artistic value with ministry value, that’s a problem.
There’s Always a Bigger Fish
I also do not agree with Marc’s framework for determining if a band has somehow achieved the status of “good music.” As he writes here in his discussion questions:
…does it follow that Marcus Mumford writes “Christian” music?
(d) No. Marcus Mumford writes good music. Mumford & Sons did not win album of the year for each of their albums in spite of the Christian content of their lyrics. They are not the rising generation’s most universally beloved band because they managed to effectively disguise their Christianity. The Christian content of their lyrics springs from an authentic source. Their music does not strive to be “Christian music”. Marcus is a Christian and his songs reflect his experience of reality. Because there is no need whatsoever to conform to a genre of Christianity, Mumford & Sons have utterly no need of cliches, and are free to express the brutal truth of Christianity in all her darkness and joy, using a language entirely real and universal. Thus thousands of drunk hipsters who would laugh at a chorus that shouts about shouting about letting all the world know that Jesus saves…will praise Jesus at a Mumford & Sons show.
Like Marc, I also think that Marcus Mumford writes good music. However, it is from this higher branch that we then turn our eyes to survey the Christian music industry and call it generic and unoriginal.
But there are always bigger fish that come along.
When I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and earned a B.A. in Music Composition, I studied some of the most advanced, creative composition techniques around: everything from Beethoven and Mozart to 12-tone serialism and phase shifting minimalism — even a genre called microsound, which is supported by advanced computer engineering. MIT geniuses, like my former professor Curtis Roads who was featured in Wired magazine, compose microsound. Curtis Roads has been working on the same piece for 20 years. If Tony Stark had become a composer instead of Iron Man, he would’ve become Curtis Roads. None of these music professors would consider Mumford & Sons “good” music. Interestingly, I have heard these professors use the same language to describe big-time secular artists that Marc used to describe Christian music in his article.
In other words, some of the most intelligent composers alive today would scoff at the notion that Mumford & Sons or any artist who receives airplay on mainstream radio — whether secular or Christian — is “good music.”
When we try to define “good” artistic value from a human perspective — not even looking at how small our achievements are in God’s eyes — there is always endless debate and disagreement. In my college days, the students in the Ivory Tower of music composition obsessed over it. Even when we all came to some consensus, our firmly held beliefs were shifting sands. Soon some other trend in music composition — some mind-blowing work from an obscure genius — would come and sweep all our opinions away, and the debate would begin anew.
Sisyphus would start pushing the rock back up the hill.
“One man’s artistic trash is another man’s spiritual treasure.”
Marc writes: “We are the ones who, in participation with God, make art awesome. If your music is bad, and you’re praying that God will do something great with it, stop praying and make better music.”
His advice is half-right, in my opinion. Yes, make better music. Give God your best. But do not stop praying or asking God to do something great with your efforts, even with the work that was lazy or wasn’t your best. You might have written the worst song in the world, but you never know whose life it might change. One man’s artistic trash is another man’s spiritual treasure. Never stop believing that God can use even your worst efforts to touch the lives of others.
Never stop relying on God’s miraculous grace to turn your puny loaves of bread into a feast for thousands.
And, despite any criticisms, Marc’s article on Patheos.com is truly excellent, and it has been very challenging to consider. We should never make excuses for poor artistic efforts, and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if artists like Jeremy Camp, tobyMac, Kirk Franklin, or Colton Dixon left their Christian record labels and took Marc’s advice: enter the secular fray and make great music with a Christian worldview as its anchor point — even if they don’t overtly say “Praise Jesus” in every song or call their songs “Christian music.”
I will be mulling over the points of his article for a long time to come, and I hope you will do the same.