On the Insufficiency of Christian Music

Insufficiency of Christian Music

Image modifed for use, original image credit

Music is so powerful, both for expressing positive emotions like love and gratitude, and for expressing difficult emotions like sadness, frustration, and grief.  In fact, in the counseling world (my profession-on-pause), music therapy is recognized as a very useful and versatile professional tool.  At the children’s hospital that we use (frequently), there are often volunteers playing popular songs from kids’ movies on the violin or flute in the busy hallways and waiting areas. I shared in my Miracles in the NICU post how meaningful it was to me when another family that I met in the hospital returned after their child was discharged and delivered a CD of Christian music to me (along with chocolate). And just this week in the ICU, where storage space is minimal and visitors pack knowing that they’ll often have to carry their possessions from place to place, I saw a family member carting a guitar on his back between the waiting area and his loved ones’ room on the unit throughout the day.

Traditionally, there has also been a strong connection between music and spirituality.  In the Bible, before King David was king, he was a renowned harp player who was sought out to calm King Saul’s chronic fits with his music.  Later as king, David often made it a priority to seek out musicians to praise God. And on one particular occasion, he got so lost in the music dancing in public, his wife was embarrassed and irate at his behavior.  And throughout his life, David wrote passionate songs about his spiritual life, ranging from despair to contentment, some of which appear in the book of Psalms.

So, I often wonder, given the power of music and its connection to spirituality, why is Christian music almost universally subpar, at least in terms of contemporary tastes?  Lest you think this judgment is unfair, try this experiment. Have someone who is unfamiliar with contemporary Christian music scan through the radio stations, listening to only a few seconds of the songs they land on- not enough to really hear the content or themes- and see if they can pinpoint when they hit the Christian music. I bet they can, and I bet they shoot you an exasperated look that says, “There, can we turn this off now?”

How is the terribleness in contemporary Christian music so recognizable?  It’s a lack of true emotion in the singing, like everyone is on Valium.  It’s the absence of a beat, or even of impassioned guitar strumming.  It’s the same 20 phrases being recycled in each new song.  In fact, I think that if I walked around with a notepad eavesdropping on polite small talk after a church service and wrote all of the Christian-ese phrases that I heard repeatedly, then recorded that over a teenager practicing guitar chord progressions, I’m reasonably certain it would shoot to the top of the Christian music charts:

“It was on my heart

I could feel it in my soul

I felt led

To give God the control

Be blessed!

I’m blessed!

I’m giving God my best!”

What particularly bothers me are the Christian songs that are supposedly about ‘trials’ and suffering.  Ever since I was a child, I always found music to be the perfect companion during difficult times.  When I became a Christian in my late teens, I was frustrated to find that none of the Christian songs supposedly about difficulty, disappointment, frustration or grief resonated with me; I got the impression that the trials the artists are crooning about in those songs consist of their insurance premiums going up and their daughter asking permission to attend a secular music concert.

I don’t understand the Christian music industry’s (and/or maybe mainstream Christians’) insistence on subdued, watered down music.  Life is difficult, spirituality is passionate and complex, and we humans are emotional error-prone people.  All of that is the perfect inspiration for some serious, deep, varied, epic, intense, crazy, cathartic music.  So where is it?  Seriously, are there some indie labels I should know about? We even got a new Christian HD radio channel locally that is supposed to be “edgy?” …”pop-sounding?”….”next generation” Christian music?  But the music is aimed at Christian teens, so while a *few* of theses artists’ songs sometimes have beats (LeCrea, Trip Lee), the lyrics often lack depth and deal with themes like parents and peer pressure.

So. When I want a musical accompaniment for difficult times, it’s rarely Christian music.  That’s unfortunate.  Not because there’s anything wrong with listening to any type of music- “Christian,” “secular,” or other.  But because for me, my faith is a big part of my journey through difficult times.  And music is a big part of it too.  So I wish that contemporary music and spirituality would get along better so all three would integrate for me.

Anyway, soon I’ll share my own “hospital playlist” with the silly and serious songs that have stuck with me during our many hospital stays with June.  Most of the music is not “Christian,” (Christian-ese translation: it’s secular or not made by Christians for Christians) much of it is not even meant to be particularly uplifting, clean, or inspiring (Ludacris?).  It just resonates with me at the moment. But a few Christian tracks that do seem to hit on deeper themes- and maybe even have a discernible beat- made the list too, so I’ll be sure to share those also.

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7 thoughts on “On the Insufficiency of Christian Music

  1. Excellent, Lisa. I have been bemoaning the “downhill slide” of Christian music for a long time. You’ve summed up my feelings perfectly.

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  2. Hi Lisa, I’m a friend of your brother.

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m a lyrics guy, so the microwaved terminology and mandatory catchphrases of contemporary Christian music are a big disappointment, especially since there’s simply no reason for it. They can and should be sincere and contain the same artistic value and humanity of any other poetry, if that is what the spirit has given you. If “paint-by-numbers” is what is actually sincere to you, that’s great, but to constrain the mystery and awe of God to such one-dimensionality by saying that’s all his followers are capable of is a bit less than honest. “Infallibility” is for scripture, not art. If one is going to be slave to convention for convention sake, then why depart from hymnals in the first place?

    Being a shameless hipster, I was disheartened when the great Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was popularized in the “Shrek” series, rather than the great Buckley cover (or the original for that matter), but try getting any equivalent of the amazing line “love is not a victory march It’s a cold and it’s a broken Halleluja” past today’s corporate Christian music overlords. It’s a shame that not only do we fail to display relevance, vulnerability, and life contained in our Christian experience, but that we have that responsibility fulfilled an popularized by mediums who do not profess to be and are often the very antithesis of the Christian representative to whom that responsibility belongs.

    All the best to you,
    Daniel

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