Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In Defense of Christian Music

Christian Music: good, bad or ugly?

Marc, over on Bad Catholic, has a blog today titled "5 Reasons to Kill Christian Music".

Now, before I do battle with Marc, let me point out in my defense:
  1. Marc is way smarter than I will ever be. 
  2. Marc is way younger than me (which could be in his disfavor, only see #1)
  3. I have a head cold. Or, "I hab a head colb". okay, maybe it is not much of a defense, but I am clinging to whatever I can!
  4. I am writing (and thinking) to the sounds of a 4 year old rolling marbles in a plastic chair, a 15-year old playing piano and two more sons somewhere fixing lunch and finishing school

 Marc's #1 - 1. Writing a “Christian” song reduces Christianity to a modifying adjective.

  • "German" in "German Chocolate Cake" is not just a modifying adjective. If you take the word "German" out, I would expect a chocolate cake, rich and fudgy, but definitely containing NO coconut (blech!). "German" indicates a change in the very nature of the chocolate cake. It is an identifying adjective, not merely an modifying one.
  • "forest" green and "army green" - makes a difference to your bedroom walls when choosing paint colors!
  • "6-lb-baby" and "10.5 lb baby" - makes a big difference to the mother delivering!
  • "Catholic" church and "Pentecostal" church - two modifiers that mean a big difference in liturgy!
Modifying adjectives are not evil, nor do they reduce their nouns to something less than the perfect noun. Modifying adjectives help us to understand the nouns the modify. They help give some definition.

Music cannot always be labeled, of course. There is a lot of music that glorifies God without ever mentioning God. It does not have to be blatant to be true or beautiful. And there is a danger in labeling. Some people will not trust what is not labeled (or what is labeled with different label. For example, some Christians may never listen to Mumford and Sons, as they are not labeled "Christian", so they miss out on the holy cry that echoes through some of their songs).
However, music that is labeled "Christian" is not automatically toothless and empty - the aspartame additive of the music industry.
That argument just does not hold

2. Music is already Christian.

Marc's argument here is a good one: Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, and these things cannot exist apart from the One who is the Ultimate Truth, the Ultimate Beauty. So, even very misguided music is ultimately rooted in God, and thus, is "Christian". (Be sure to read Marc's post for the fullness of his thesis).

This is really an esoteric point. Yes, Marc is right - whatever is true, beautiful, right - these things find their source in God. Thus, all music, all art, must have its source in the Creator. 

While Marc is clearly not in favor of Big Daddy Weave songs making an appearance at Mass, I would bet he would also not be a fan of a KISS song during Communion, or (shudder) the Beatles "Let it Be" (as I once heard). Not all music is equal in the way it points to God. Not all music is appropriate for times of prayer or liturgy or adoration.
While all music may find its source in God - thus ultimately pointing to God in the end - some music is a little more direct in its path.

3. “If you label me you negate me.”

Marc's argument: The label "Christian" makes a space for "Christian" things, and relegates those who produce in their fields who happen to mention God or be devout, as "Christian" artists, instead of just "artists" in general. We as Christians need to spread out and redeem the world, not hide in a hole of our own making and only preach to the choir. There is also a kick-butt CS Lewis quote in this section (and what CS Lewis quote isn't kick-butt"!).

I get you, Marc, and I agree. We are called to be in the world, and apart from the world. We are meant to spread out and diffuse ourselves in culture, ultimately redeeming the world and claiming all things for Christ - movies, tv, books, art, clothing, architecture, etc. . . If Christians only produce things labeled as "Christian", if we can only speak of our faith in set terms (God, Jesus, church, Scripture), if we can only play by using our own vocabulary, we will never win the world over. Christianity is bigger than a set of definitions and terms, more grand than what many perceive to be the boxed-in-mindset of "all those rules you guys have". In another CS Lewis reference (or maybe it is Dr. Who)  - the inside is larger than it appears on the outside.

However, labeling Christian music does not necesarily negate it. It may negate its potential impact on those who hate it, or those who want nothing to do with it, but it still has meaning for many people.

Sometimes, in the busyness of my life, I want - I NEED - Christian music.

One of the best pieces of advice I received when I was a young mother with 3 children under 5 was from a priest. I spoke to him of not having time to pray with the little ones. I tried - Lord, how I tried. But the sound of the zipper opening my Bible was like a siren call to the boys. It indicated that all hell was to break lose - right then. Frustrated with the reality that being the mother of several young children meant that meditation was less likely to happen (except in the still of the wee hours of the morn as I walked yet another sleepless, unhappy babe around the room in my bleary, numbed, sleepless Dance of the Night Baby), Fr. Bob gave me this piece of sage advice: Put on sacred music during the day, especially when I needed peace. Just by virtue of the music, it would help lift my heart in prayer as I changed my millionth poopy diaper or sat on the couch all day nursing a fussy, teething baby.
And it worked - at least some of the time. I will not pretend that every time I turned on Christian music (be it Tallis Scholars or John Michael Talbot) I was instantly transported to prayer, or able to even settle my spirit. But it worked a lot of the time, simply by drawing my mind to Christ in a blantant, obvious way. And when you are surrounded by many young children, you do not often have the time for panning for gold.
Even though I am down to only one young child today, I remember Fr. Bob's advice, and when I am harried or frazzled or unconnected, I turn to my "Christian" music to help me remember praise in ALL things - even poopy diapers.

4. As a label, Christianity becomes an excuse for mediocrity.

There is something to be said for this. Sometimes we act so grateful to have Christian things, we take whatever we can get. Even bad writing, rehashed melodies, boring tv programs. 
My favorite comedian, Bone Hampton, has a bit about this. "Just because you say "in the name of Jesus", don't make it Christian" You can't rob a liquor store, "in the name of Jesus"!"

I have read my share of crappy Christian novels - some just poor writing, some trashy (but they go to church, so it's Christian!). Art Guy and I have had many, MANY talks on the plethora of horrible art and design on items in Catholic catalogs/websites.
For example, a story about a guardian angel who looks into the "black pits" of the heathen baby's eyes and who gives thanks that said baby gets burned in a fire, because it leads to his baptism,  is a bit of a turn-off, even if it is an a Catholic (!) book. Tommie dePaola's books on "The Holy Twins" or "Las Posadas" do more the show the beauty and charm of stories of holy men and women than many labeled stories of faith.

But again, I think Marc just misses some of the point: "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."

Good grief! Really? If you write a song (as a Christian), of course you hope that the Holy Spirit uses that song to reach others. It does not mean the Holy Spirit has not worked through and in you. I pray every time I approach the cantor stand that the Holy Spirit works through me - my voice, my musicianship, even my mistakes. But if I approach the cantor stand to sing Norah Jone's "Turn Me On", it is not the same as "Panis Angelicus"  - the lyrics, the notes, the chords, the progressions - they are all part of the whole package. (aaaaand, we are back to the "all music is Christian by virtue of being art" argument).
And not all writers of music sing their own music. Even those that do may have others sing that same song at a later date, and you better hope there is something of the divine in the song itself that communicates itself to others.
I have heard wonderful songs butchered by terrible musicianship, sometimes to the point that it cannot minister to anyone. But I have also heard a lot of good Church music performed by mediocre musicians, and it can still minister to people. Sometimes the words alone bring balm to hearts. Now, if those words are sung well, it can lift the experience higher.

Songs and singer go together, but can have value apart, as well. Take Marc's example of Mumford and Sons. I really dug their sound, but I being LOUSY at hearing lyrics, I did not know what they were singing! I liked the band. But when I READ the lyrics, I was transported, moved, stilled. The words were the key to opening up what my ear liked into something that transports me every time I listen.

5. “Christian” music isn’t Christian.

Marc does not want Christian music that is pop-y or bright or popular. He wants "music with teeth". Well, I hate to break it to him, but there IS Christian music out there with teeth.

And you know what, damn it! Sometimes I want the bright, the pop-y, the fun music that is about God and faith and life as a Christian. I want to crank my windows down on a warm, sunny day and belt out Steven Curtis Chapman's "Live Out Loud" or Avalon's "Testify to Love"!

Marc objects to the slogans of many Christian stations -the promise to have family-friendly music, to be "safe for the whole family", to be "positive" or "uplifting".
March says, "But “positive” — as in “positive feelings” — indicates a certain shallow happiness as foreign to Christianity as Scientology."

Good gracious, man! What are you objecting to now? Music we can turn on in the car and not be worried about the "f" word (Mumford and Sons, Glen Hansard - my favorite musicians use these words, and while I do not object to my kids listening to it with me, I certainly do not want my 4 year old hearing it, repeating it, and singing it). Or my sons listening to music all the time that glorifies the objectifying of women. Sometimes I do not want to be on-call. I want something "safe", yes, harmless, yes, that makes no bones about being Christian in focus.

And not all Christian music is bubbly and happy. "Praise You in This Storm" (Casting Crowns - I know! Don't mock!), "The Valley Song" (Jars of Clay), "Held" (Natalie Grant - I can't even listen to this in the car, because I cry buckets of tears). Anything by Rich Mullins. There IS music with teeth, even in the "Christian" genre. And there is bubble-gum. But there are finely-pointed teeth, too.

The debate of music and faith and the intersection of sacred and profane in art or music is a HUGE topic with a thousand-million opinions. Music is, at its heart, subjective. What I find beautiful is not the same as what my BFF finds beautiful. We are moved by different experiences of beauty. No, this is not moral relativism, because we are talking about art here - art is personal and one's experience of art is subjective.

The quality of music in the world of faith deserves to be examined. It should be looked at, hard. It should be prodded, questioned, kneaded, looked at inside and out, upside and backwards. But to say "All Christian music is crap" is as wrong to say "all Christian music is good". To even say "Most Christian music is crap" is simply an opinion - and a valid one for any person, so long as they realize that it IS an opinion and not everyone agrees and those people may have valid points, too.

Even if they are older, and not so smart!
(And here I end. I have spent too much time today on this, trying to hammer out a reasonable defense of my position, while my children free-range. At the moment, one is playing piano, another the bugle, the third a flute, and the youngest is yelling. Not exactly the atmosphere in which to sit and reason and think! And yes, I pray the Holy Spirit is in my words! So there!)


LAMBmom said...

Preach it sista!

Chris said...

I think Christian music generally falls into two categories: liturgical and non-liturgical. I think Protestants have a blurrier line between those two than Catholics do (and perhaps the Orthodox as well), though Catholics have been attempting to blur that distinction too. For example, hymns have a Catholic liturgical function, but historically they've been more closely linked with the Liturgy of the Hours than with the Mass (though this is in very general terms).

Music, in general, has two categories, as per Duke Ellington: "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind."

Note that Song Of Songs does not directly mention God, though I've read some questionable translations that have included "God" in them (cf 8:6), but it has been explored extensively by Christian mystics.

Cool that you like Glen Hansard!