Bunnie Diehl has been having an interesting effect on many people over at her site with her discussions of popular “Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM). This is the kind of thing that never fails to incite heated bouts of disagreement among Christians (which I do not see as always unhealthy). It seems to me that the ultimate question is about the purpose of CCM. (I should say first that I think it is rather strange that CCM is the only “genre” of music that is defined not by its musical style but by its purpose or motivation.)
What is the purpose of CCM? Well, from its very beginnings it was designed as a sort of alternative to the “worldly” music of the ’60s and ’70s. It was also used to attract non-Christians who liked the “devil’s music.” To me, this has created cross-purposes: first, CCM is an alternative to whatever is popular in the mainstream culture. This is a problem because in order to present an alternative, one must know what is popular; however, by the time one has figured out enough of what is popular and attempted to imitate it, the popular music world has moved on. This makes CCM about two or three years behind the times. Felicitous inconsistencies happen, of course. P.O.D is a band that was doing “rap-core” long before anyone heard of Papa Roach, etc. They paid their dues and made it in the mainstream industry by building their fan base and playing tons of shows. And, for the most part, they’ve kept their integrity and continue to preach an explicitly Christian message in many of their songs. But for every P.O.D. there are twenty bands copying secular styles because they see that it sells. This is the reason for the popularity of those “If you like “Bad Secular Band A,” try “Good Christian Band B” posters one finds in Christian book stores. That’s fine to an extent, but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to musical originality and creativity.
When I was in high school and college, I went to a music festival in Washington State, which consisted entirely of Christian bands. At this festival, Matt Wignall of Havalina Rail Co. (now just “Havalina,” I believe) made a comment that has always been in my mind in these sorts of discussions. Essentially, he said that Christians should never copy what is popular in the mainstream. If Christians really wanted to follow a God who is Creator, they would be the ones whom everyone else followed. They would be the ones creating original, artistic and creative music. They would be the ones ahead of the trends (which is not always good for business, unfortunately). So the first purpose of CCM, and one with which I whole-heartedly disagree, is to create an alternative universe of copies of secular music, and usually bad ones at that. This has not created a parallel world of good music for and by Christians; on the contrary, it has created an ever-narrowing ghetto of, usually, bad art.
The second purpose, ostensibly, of CCM, is to evangelize. In order to do this, common wisdom goes, one must water down the “message” enough so that non-Christians (who would usually not be interested in anything speaking positively and openly of Jesus Christ) would pick it up. There are a number of problems with this approach. For one, it is a bait-and-switch. It says, “Hey! Check out this band, they’re really good!” What is waiting in the wings of those words is: “Yeah, then maybe you’ll not notice it’s a Christian band until you’re hooked, and the message (whatever it is) will somehow be absorbed by subconscious osmosis.” Since when has this ever been the Gospel approach? What’s a better way? Stop copying and start making good, creative music. If the message is offensive (and the blood-marred cross usually is) people may still pick up the album simply because it is good.
On Bunnie’s blog, someone raised the issue of poetry in relation to this. It’s a good point because poetry can often be hard to pin down as to its exact message. However, very little of CCM can be called poetry without a stifled laugh. Bob Dylan is poetry. Vigilantes of Love is poetry. Over the Rhine is poetry. Plus One is not poetry.
The second problem is the very nature of a message watered-down enough to infiltrate the ears of the enemy. Is this song about God or about my boyfriend? Much of the time it is literally impossible to tell. Is this song about my eternal salvation or is it about living the good life? Don’t really know.
Now, does that mean that good music made by Christians is never open to interpretation? Of course not. But what it probably does mean is that I, as a Christian, will definitely find more meaning in a song made by a Christian than a non-Christian will, even if they clearly recognize a definitive Christian worldview in the song. But the fact that Christians can make good art without either bashing them in the head with “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” (some people need some bashing, don’t get me wrong) or watering down the lyrics so that they are simply sugar and niceties is often enough an entry point into a deeper discussion. Platitudes do not open the doors to discussion about the deeper mysteries of this life, let alone about the eternal mysteries of the Triune God and His salvific work.
These two purposes, of an alternative to “bad music,” as well as an evangelistic tool, create an ambiguity in CCM that is hard to undo. If you want an alternative, it is probably going to be using the instruments of “secular music” (not that I think there is a such thing as “sacred” and “secular” instruments) to make music that is “safe” and “wholesome” for Christians. If you want an evangelistic tool, it usually means either bad theology or such unclear messages that the song could have been written by a 13 year-old in her “artistic” stage. Both usually end in the realm of bad art. One example is the current fad of “worship music.” Why in the world would anyone need 18 cds with “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” on them? These cds are usually composed of some popular artist doing “their take” on the the same eight songs that are on every other worship cd. Tell me that’s not only for the money. Fernando Ortega is able to create good contemporary worship that’s not all about “me”; why is everyone else so lazy?
Another example, not limited to Christian music (I hate that term; music can no more be “Christian” that carpentry or law or medicine! Only people can be Christians. Music, carpentry, law and medicine can be done by Christians, but they are not, in and of themselves, Christian. In fact [paraphrasing a quote attributed to Luther], I would rather have a good heathen physician than a lousy Christian one.): the proliferation of “best-of” albums after the artist has put out one or two albums! That’s just silly. You would think, in a sane world, that one would have to earn the right to put out a greatest hits album. In fact, you would think that one would have to have some hits. Not so. You only have to need some filler until your next album (if you ever have a next album).
Anyway, all of this (much too long) rant is to say that I think the whole idea of CCM is a bad one–unless of course you want to feel good about yourself because you chose the “good” alternative to all that bad “worldly” music. Personally, I would rather have some good art that challenges me and makes me think, even if made by a non-Christian, than garbage made by a Christian. I’m not sure that Christian music affirmative action should ever be supported.
One of the best takes on the whole “Christian” marketing ghetto I have ever seen is All Star United’s song “Smash Hit.” Two of the best stanzas:
“Join his name to any cause
Drop his name to get applause
They never get enough
Nothing here to be ashamed of
Those ever loyal fans
They wanna get their hands
On His newest merchandising
Ignoring overpricing” [emphasis added].
Bring on the flamers (if they read this far)!