Cleaning out my room, I’ve found this on a forgotten flash drive. It was for the final class I took at Ivy Tech, a college writing class. I thought my AP grade would excuse me from this general requirement. Nope. So I ended up in this class. I was pleasantly surprised at how I enjoyed that class. The prof respected me greatly. I also taught the students a small tip. One day, the prof said to all of us to bring in a trade publication or an academic journal article. Most of the class brought in small articles, 2-5 pages with pictures. Thinking of nothing, I brought in a 25 page article. The students thought I was crazy to bring in a “large” article.
Guys. When you get to a 4 year college, you will be expected to read these articles and use them in papers. By the time you get a Master’s, these articles are a walk in the park.
I would rack up A-grade papers, mainly because of my years of training at Concordia Irvine and at the Sem. I also imported a bit of Confessional Lutheran theology into arts and culture. Here is one paper from this class, entitled “Why Should the Fluffy Have All the Good Music? An Analysis of Contemporary Christian Music.”
Why Should the Fluffy Have All the Good Music? An Analysis of Contemporary Christian Music
Carol Rutz, 2009
The Christian Church is a singing church. It is the Church of King David the Psalmist, Bach, Mendelssohn, Charles Wesley, and Johnny Cash. It is also the Church where Jars of Clay, Amy Grant, and other Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artists flourish. However, like any form of art, CCM music is subject to review and criticism. Contemporary Christian Music with its cultural isolation, overemphasis on human emotion and light theology, should take steps to become more engaging to the world. A disclaimer: This paper offers a confessional Lutheran viewpoint that is highly liturgical. This differs from the American Evangelical tradition, CCM’s theological roots. Music is a sensitive subject as questioning the content risks offending a variety of people. It is not the intention of this essay to question one’s motivation, dedication and faithfulness to Christ. The question about CCM is not about using language or musical forms that people understand– various churches do incorporate various instruments in their worship. The question is whether popular culture should dictate how artists produce music at the expense of compromising what the Christian Church throughout history believes.
To understand CCM, it is necessary to define it and look into its historical origins. “CCM” is Christian music that runs parallel to various genres of music and adopts current innovations and artistry while carrying a Christian message. Its roots are in the Jesus Movement, a youth-based revival among the hippie subculture of the 60s and 70s. Out of the Jesus Movement spawned various church groups like Calvary Chapel, the charismatic Vineyard churches and Jesus People USA and influenced others like Campus Crusade for Christ and non-denominational churches. CCM is trans-denominational, although it is dominated by the “born-again” evangelicalism inspired by the Jesus Movement. Christians within the movement thought that via rock and folk music, they can reach Vietnam-era alienated youth. They faced challenges such as limited radio coverage and publicity, disapproval and hostility from various Christian organizations, and “technically inferior record production” (Romanowski 103). Over time, CCM became a multi-million dollar industry, with an awards show, magazines, and implemented cutting edge technology.
CCM is a tight-knit enclave that mainly entertains and edifies the converted rather than reaching the unconverted. Peacock (60-65) noted that trend started at the very beginnings when Billy Ray Hearn, under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention, created the folk musicals Good News (1967) and Tell It Like It Is (1968). The Baptists’ aim for these albums was to entertain their own youth so that the youth would not turn to the countercultural rock of the Sixties. Although today there are “crossover” bands and secular bands with professed Christian members like Creed, Sixpence None the Richer, P.O.D., and Jars of Clay, the vast majority of CCM bands rarely find Billboard or Grammy-level success because of its emphasis of being apart from the world with its own subculture. One Barna Group survey reported that while 96% of evangelicals listen regularly to Christian music, only 25% of non-Christians expose themselves to Christian media.
Its cultural isolation spawns the attitude that the CCM bands are solely substitutes for Christians so they can not only participate in the commercialized rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll without the sin, but also participate in the consumer culture. That sentiment prevails every time a Christian band gets compared to a secular band. Like drugstore knockoffs of designer perfumes, CCM bands are touted as “safer” alternatives to objectionable secular music. One youth ministry in Troy, Michigan has its own “Alternatives to Secular Music” guide online. The message behind these lists is that if the listeners care enough being a Good Christian, they should support the CCM artists and not the secular bands. The unintended consequence of these lists is that the marks of Christian identity are no longer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and active Christian corporate worship but instead outward consumer consumption of goods from music CDs to themed t-shirts.
Even today, related magazines would review a band, comparing the guitar sounds to secular bands. Here is a sample review for alternative pop CCM duo, Chris and Conrad, written in 2009: “From the first notes of ‘You’re the One,’ the duo bursts out with simple but singable harmonies and lyrics similar to Waller’s vertical-style fare. Next, the techno-flavored ‘Rescue’ boasts a dance beat and enhanced vocals reminiscent of One Republic. Vocally, Chris and Conrad prove quite versatile, with momentary glimpses of The Fray, Goo Goo Dolls and Lifehouse.” Another one for Revive reads: “While chunky guitars a la Third Day are present throughout most songs, Revive is more readily compared to fellow countrymen INXS or Midnight Oil, plus newer secular standouts Glasvegas.” The problem with these comparisons is that CCM bands will be typecasted as analogues (inferior versions) of the secular (real; better) thing.
CCM’s substitutions give a message that their talents are stagnant and years behind the current trends. Note also which secular bands were compared with the CCM bands: INXS, Midnight Oil, and the Goo Goo Dolls were popular in the late 80s and early 90s. To say that Revive is like INXS and Midnight Oil is to say that their newest work sounds like what was popular in the 90s, and to compare Chris and Conrad to the Goo Goo Dolls is to say that their sound is years behind what is trendy in 2009.
Furthermore, the CCM industry prefers that music should be positive and optimistic, even though those outside the subculture do not find it engaging. Peacock (119) recalled one episode of “Seinfeld” when Elaine complained about her boyfriend’s penchant for Christian music. George Constanza’s response: “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.” Peacock was not amused. Despite the popular sentiment, the musicians are forced to follow that trite and true pattern and stay the positive course lest they get scathing criticism. Howard and Streck (177) quoted Peter Fuhler of Newsboys: “We’ve definitely done our share of cliché-driven songs…” and noted that Audio Adrenaline described their first albums as “cheerleader music”. That emphasis stifles creativity and ignores the reality of the Christian life—that a Christian, a saint and a sinner at the same time, will experience joys and struggles until his life on Earth ends.
CCM with its short entertaining lyrics provided little information about Christ and too much emphasis on personal emotions. Christian hymns and songs are singable confessions of the Faith. When a congregation sings a song, it is confessing what they believe, teach, confess, and practice. The Christian Church has a Latin saying: Lex orandi, lex credendi: As one practices, one believes. As religious music is heavily marketed and blurred the lines of entertainment and worship, CCM focuses upon the subjective feelings and reactions of man more than the concrete work of Christ. One explanation by Peacock was that the Charismatic movement was heavily involved in CCM, which placed personal experience and private revelation on par with Scripture (44). Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel, which is a product of the Jesus Movement, admitted that “a lack of sound Bible teaching” was a weakness of the movement. A Barna Group survey reveals the hazards of novelty: “Overall, nearly half of all worship attenders said that the words in the currently popular praise and worship songs lack the spiritual depth of traditional hymns while three out of ten adults noted that too many new worship songs are introduced into their services.”
To demonstrate the paucity of theological content in these hymns, here is Pastor Todd Wilken’s diagnostic with two popular songs: “I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever” by Delirious? [sic], and “Radiator” by 2009 CCM Magazine Readers’ Choice winner Family Force 5. Wilken, host of the radio talk show Issues Etc., introduced a diagnostic for sermons, hymns and song writing as a way to expose weak theological points. The first question states: “How often is Jesus mentioned? For His purposes, a simple tally will suffice.” This is not a license to produce heavily commercialized “Jesus Per Minute” music so a band gets heavy rotation in Christian radio stations. In fact, the other two questions erases the notion that only mentioning Jesus’ name suffices for good songwriting. The second question asks: “Is Jesus the subject of the verbs? Is Jesus the one who acts, or are you?” The final question is: “What are the verbs? What has Jesus done and what is He doing?”
In “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”, there is no mention of God or Jesus, although Delirious? used capitalized pronouns and referred to God as “the Healer”. The second Wilken question reveals that the singer—represented by the pronoun “I”– is the subject of most of the verbs: “Over the mountains and the sea,/ Your river runs with love for me,/and I will open up my heart/and let the Healer set me free./ I’m happy to be in the truth,/and I will daily lift my hands:/for I will always sing of when/ Your love came down.” In the third question, those verbs reveal the lack of what Jesus did, except with hazy terms: “Your river runs”, “The Healer set me free” (from what?). Family Force 5’s “Radiator” is like the first song in that Jesus was not mentioned except in third-person pronouns: “Hey You You’re blowing my mind again/Out of my skull, I feel the levitation/I feel my skin crawling up from my soul/I feel Your radiation/I’ll be a radiator just like You/Radiate it on me, burn it all through.” Most of the verbs described what the singer is feeling, and if the third person refers to Jesus, He is “blowing [the singer’s] mind again.” How is Jesus “blowing away” one’s mind? According to singer Nathan “Nadaddy” Currin in an interview on JesusFreakHideout.com, the lyrics reveal an out-of-body experience, death and the here-after. The listener must provide the meaning of this song instead of the song explicitly teaching what Christ did. Unless one reads an interview, it is unclear whether Family Force was talking about Jesus. Note also the use of “I feel” in both songs (Delirious? : “Oh, I feel like dancing -/it’s foolishness I know”, Family Force 5: “I feel the levitation/I feel my skin…”). Neither song mentioned any Scriptural reference, which makes it unsuitable for worship or catechesis.
What does CCM must do to improve? On the part of the artists, an intense period of personal catechesis and continuing theological education. If a singer wants to sing about Jesus, she must know about Him and His work for mankind. A serious regimen of study can lead to not only theologically rich content, it will also provide creative insights. Another avenue for artists to express creativity is to incorporate older hymns and adapt them to new music for modern styles. Of course, artists must exercise discernment when selecting hymns, as even the seemingly conservative hymnals of yesteryear are guilty of assimilating popular culture of past eras and focusing upon human-centered actions. The Wilken Diagnostic is a good way to gauge and adjust the content of these hymns. This is not to say: Throw away the guitar and keyboard. The use of musical instruments is what theologians call “adiaphora”, indifferent matters that people can disagree. But solid Christocentric doctrine is NOT adiaphora, especially in worship environments. To introduce faddish sound and man-centered lyrics into corporate worship is to strip away the holiness of God, making the Christian life into an exercise of kitsch.
The final suggestion is that the artists should not consider music as Sunday School lessons promoting morality and happy platitudes but creative works of art that can be judged by their own merits. Romanowski in his 2005 essay refers to CCM as “propaganda” with diluted and sanitized musical styles. If CCM artists want the secular world to take their art seriously, they should first meditate upon Huxley (1932): “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” According to Franky Schaffer (113), the whole world belongs to God without any compartments between real life and Christianity. That means that artists should be free to sing about a whole range of topics in a whole range of emotions without adding a gloss of spirituality as an afterthought so the album is easily accepted by the industry. It also means that the “transformational” artists described in Howard and Streck have an idea and vision worth looking at. Brown (147) points out that kitsch is immature, like the mawkish Precious Moments figurines. What CCM need are more maturity and substance, and they are located outside the range of shallow “selling Jesus” pop consumerism.
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