Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bad Words III: "Christian Music Industry"

I have listened to and enjoyed a lot of "Christian music" in my time; even promoted it as such. Especially back in the day when I felt like it had some original stuff going on and was particularly important to me. But calling it that has always felt off, for some reason. I guess it seems too flippant, too in/out, too narrowly conceived, too inbred, too blatantly niche-seeking, and too presumptuous.

Now, I do think there can be legitimately unique music which would seek for a proper descriptor and with reverence land on the adjective "Christian". I also do think there is an industry aimed at producing music for the church which can have some really good stuff in it. But the notion that an industry or a label or an artist can be so bold as to control the giving of this adjective, or even that listeners can look to such a labelling enterprise in a trusting way, is troubling. I think Karl Barth might say it best:

"It is not the Church which makes its special activity holy. It is not itself which by its special activity in the world marks itself off from that of other societies. But this means that it does not lie in its power or under its control to give to its own activity the predicate "Christian." It would do well always to apply this adjective to its own activities only with the greatest reserve and therefore relatively seldom.

In all seriousness there are what we may call "Christian" activities, which are as such different from all others and as such holy, a holy activity of the community within the world. There is in fact a coincidence of its divine separation and its own separations in and with its activity (in its preaching, in its worship, in its constitution, in its ordinances, in its theology, in its attitude in questions and decisions which affect the world). There are human acts and attitudes which are holy as such, i.e., which have the character of real witness to the One whose earthly historical existence the Church is allowed to be.

But that they have this character is always dependent upon the answering witness of the One whom they aim and profess to attest."

Even the first Christians were themselves so named by the Antiochan public. Even Mary does not call herself "blessed" but rejoices in the grace that generations would refer to her as such. Even the Christ himself is happy to mutter a mere "you have said so" and let the declaration of his Kingship echo off the lips of Pilate; the one who would let him be killed.

I think we can appreciate when the industries and arts of church people are unconcerned to self-define---but are genuinely living instead from the reverent and unassuming prayer that on the earth and in the world they might bear God's savour and light.

- Quotation from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 693-694, cf. IV.2, 188ff.


Adam Nigh said...

This was a major issue for me in the late 90's. Mark Solomon, the singer of bands the Crucified and Stavesacre, wrote a book called "Simplicity" that has some fascinating insights into this from a guy who knows the inner and outer workings of the Christian music industry pretty darn well.

Tony Tanti said...

Well said.

The time has come (and came long ago) where Christians need to stop living separate from the world they claim to care about. Christian music is a perfect example of (as Donald Miller put it) Christians taking their ball and going home. Result: a mockable industry with no influence on music or culture outside of it's narrow target audience.

That doesn't mean there aren't good "Christian" musicians, I just wish they would be musician who are also Christians.

I still love Michael W Smith though. Lamu, Secret Ambition, Kentucky Rose... fantastic.

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah I respect ol' Smitty. Truth be told, his name is a glaring exemption from my 34 albums list. ("Lamu"! Wow.) The first "rock" music I ever heard, my first cassette ever, some fanastic 80s songs and a pretty genuine guy.

Stewart said...

While i would agree that "Christian" music can be fluffy, copy cat, etc. etc. I feel there is a major issue you have not dealt with...that of worship. I can worship God via any music reflects on our wonderful creator. I've had "secular" music stir my emotions way more than "Christian" music. But music that Smitty calls "prayer songs" ie that sing directly to God, are to me, a cut above other music including "Christian". There's nothing like good lyrics which acknowledge the wonder of our God and do so directly to Him. That moves me the most.

Jon Coutts said...

Stu: I wasn't really talking about the quality of the music in this genre (although I probably hinted at it), but like any genre there can be some good and some bad. I do think that, like radio pop, this industry aims to sell. That's fine, I mean, you have to make a living, and if you are an artist of any genre or faith you face a dilemma in this regard. I also hope to sell some books someday.

Problem is, if you are going to carry that label "Christian" and yet have sales as your driving focus, even use it as a tool to reach a certain audience, well, then you've not only compromised the label but perhaps brought it great dishonour and maybe even misled some people.

As for "worship" music, I don't disagree with you that "worship" can happen all sorts of places, and yet that a certain aim of a certain music will be precisely that. How badly a lot of it fails and hoe misleading it is that we've made (a certain style of) "music" a synonym with "worship"---well, that's another discussion. I do think "prayer songs" would be a better name for the whole genre. Way better.

I'm not sure the "worship" music I've heard is a cut above other "Christian" music. Probably some is some isn't. I personally don't care for much of it anymore, but probably I'm not doing the work I used to do to find the good stuff in the pile.

Stewart said...

Jon: would you say "marketing" Christian music is wrong? What about someone who really enjoys the stuff that makes you puke...who's to say what quality is?...or what songs have better content? The reason i ask all this is because analysis of any music is such a subjective deal...not that your opinions aren't valid or anything. Is there some kind of objective tool we can use to evaluate music?

Dave M said...

I think with most forms of art Time is the great leveler. I don't know what kind of music will last from this sub-culture, mostly because I don't know any of them anymore. The measuring stick for me is if songs can stand on their own two feet once the time of their release has passed. Will people still care about the Jonas brothers once their tv shows have stopped airing? Once there is no word of mouth and you dust off an old record that isn't being talked about anymore how does it rate? There is certainly value to enjoying something because it is new and people are excited about it, but real quality has to be able to outlast it's hype.

Jon Coutts said...

I'll agree with this mark of quality, and also agree that quality of music is a tough thing to evaluate without subjectivity playing a major role.

My point is mostly, however, that "marketing Christianity", is a dangerous and potentially perverted endeavour, and just may be the bane of Western evangelicalism, and something our generation needs to repent of. It has a hard line to walk as it is, keeping the sharing of its faith from coming off as solicitation, but it crosses this line in horrendous way when profit is involved.

Even then, we're off my basic point, which is that this is an industry which takes the label "Christian" upon itself too presumptively, and perhaps even erroneously.

Jeff said...

"Lamu" has definitely stood the test of time.

Tony Tanti said...

Stu, I think you're missing Jon's point. There's good and bad music everywhere (quality) and it's totally subjective. Great music is likely defined, as Dave M has said, by the test of time. But I think Jon's point is that the label "Christian" in music is problematic regardless of quality.

And there is no doubt that "Lamu" has stood the test of time, not so sure about Tonio K.

Stewart said...

yes it is dangerous to reduce Christianity to marketing...if this is what you're getting at then I concur. George Beverly Shea has stood the test of time in many ways...ever heard of him?

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah I remember George Beverly Shea. And Tonio K was awesome, so let's not even begin to compare MWS with him! Actually, the problem with the "test of time" evaluation is that you are bound to the time you are in, so if 80s music seems absolutely ridiculous as a period (or even a genre?), then whatever may or may not be great within it will not be recognized. Although given time it would, so maybe that proves Dave McG's point.

I guess I've begun to make that marketing point, but even before that my orginal point was simply that setting off this or that thing (be it music or food or hobby or what have you) as "Christian" or not-Christian is presumptuous, potentially misleading, and even erroneous.

ESPECIALLY when it is used (as it has been in church circles for years now) to set off a certain industry, and now over time also to set off certain styles and lyrical "standards" (if we are so generous as to call them that) from others, deeming the others, by implication, non-Christian.

On what basis is this distinction made? Who makes it? What gives the person the right? Is there an elevated or set apart music, or listener, who can make these distinctions? I think there may be "set apart", or sacred, music, but the only one who does the setting apart is the Holy Spirit.

People may be the ones to voice recognition of that setting apart, but not in droves, as an industry driven and nearly mindless distinction which becomes a genre description more than anything. This comes closer to taking the Lord's name in vain, I'd say, and lest it seem I'm picking at things, I think has pretty wide and harmful repurcussions for the church and its relation to not only the world, but the world of music.

I think it is related to Acts 10, and the Lord's injunction to Peter to not call something evil that God has called good.

Jon Coutts said...

Best Tonio K I could find:

but Romeo and Jane was an amazing song.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm tracking you on this one, Jon.
"Christian" really is a poor adjective. One that I have a difficult time imagining Jesus using.
To me, it seems that Jesus was always about taking the ordinary and impregnating it with meaning - not making something new and special that was set apart. Like communion. For the first disciples, from what I gather, it was taking a feast and viewing it as something deeper. But now, we've made it this altogether separate activity (a "meal" of a cube of bread and a shot of juice) - that's totally indistinguishable from something people would encounter in the rest of their lives. To be clear, it's still precious to me - but I can't help but wonder what it would be like to encounter it as they did.

But, I think, if we're set on using "Christian" as a describing word - then it's got to reflect this kind of usage. Christian ought to mean "filling the ordinary with new meaning" - subversive as opposed to overt.
For example, when I coach as a Christian, it doesn't mean that I make everyone pray before the game. It means that the values of Christ infiltrate the system I put in place (ie: I ask my captains to view their role as a position of service, not one of privilege. They're the team water-boys).

Jon Coutts said...

well said Jon.