Monday, November 20, 2023

Anonymous Asks (276)

“Should a Christian listen to secular music?”

Wow. I am SO the wrong guy to ask that question. Maybe IC will take a second crack at this one next week and do better.

I love the old hymns, by which I mean pre-1940. (There was a rah-rah kind of self-involved lyric-writing popular after WWII that I cannot stand, epitomized in the Gaither style that dominated the new hymnology from the mid-fifties on.)

From then on, in my humble estimation, popular Christian music has only gotten worse.

God Manifestly Seen and Heard

So far as church meetings go, if all we do is sing those great old hymns together to the accompaniment of a piano or organ until I have passed from this vale of tears, I’m good. It works for me. Bring on Thou Art the Everlasting Word and let me die with it ringing in my ears while they still function.

I realize I am a total outlier in this regard.

As for what I listen to at home or in my car, hey, I tried. I really, really tried. But people love their Christian music and they want their in-church music experience no more than two or three decades behind the secular world, trailing the music charts just far enough to be nostalgic and broadly appealing, but not so far that they feel completely out of step with the world around them. To me, that’s dreadfully twee at best, and incredibly uninteresting. I put up with musical mimicry of the world in church out of a sense of duty and love for other Christians, but the whole “worship team” thing leaves me cold and always has. I have to grit my teeth to get through it, because I know what good, original, truly creative music sounds like, and I’m not getting that in church these days.

A Wee Bio

I gave my life to the Lord Jesus in the early 1980s after several years on the fringes of the secular music industry in various roles, including a fair bit of songwriting and, later on, even the occasional (unpaid) performance. As a newly minted follower of Christ, feeling it my solemn duty to forsake all potential influences toward evil (rock ’n’ roll being primary among them), I trashed or abandoned my secular cassette collection and set about introducing myself to the joys of Larry Norman, Steve Camp, Charlie Peacock, Michael W. Smith, Petra and so on. (I will not count Stryper among them, because the hair and costumes (see photo above) confirmed they were terrible without me ever hearing a note. Nor was I ever a big fan of Amy Grant, who was, like, the biggest thing in Christian music EVAH! But you get the general idea.)

There was also a brief, guilty flirtation with Bob Dylan during his Slow Train and Saved period, to be quickly deplored once he (sort of) apostatized and went back to doing his Dylan thing. Oh yeah, and a few months of excitement when U2’s lyrics hinted at some kind of serious, committed spiritual intent, as opposed to Bono’s globalist-lite propaganda of the last two decades. But once I attended a youth rally and saw a bunch of Christian teens swaying blissfully to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For like they were having an epiphany, I was off the U2 bus for good.

Clone World

Needless to say, the Christian music scene did not hold my attention past that initial flirtation, which was largely motivated by the phantom guilt of allowing myself to be “in the world” at all. I saw Steve Camp once and respected his sincerity and his lyrical content, but it was patently obvious to me that he was musically derivative, to say the least. When he wasn’t being a Christian Elton John or a Christian Rick Springfield, he was a Christian John Cougar Mellencamp (don’t ask). If he had a single truly original moment, I missed it — and Steve is my absolute all-time favorite of the entire bunch.

Camp’s finest musical flourishes were unabashedly provided by unbelievers like Jeff Porcaro of Toto fame, legendary session bassist Leland Sklar, and Paul Buckmaster, best known for his work with Elton John. Camp was at his creative peak with the greatest number of unsaved musicians around him, which tells you something about the inherent dissonance of having a Christian music industry at all.

I still appreciate a few of his songs, but I haven’t listened to him in years. The Christian music industry is clone world.

Christians Performing

But my biggest problem with the Christian music industry is the performance aspect. If you like people wailing and shaking and grimacing while they blather on about “Jeeee-zuz”, good on you. I really don’t. If you want to have them shimmy, mince and pout through your car stereo or call them up at home by way of Alexa to stack suspiciously familiar harmonies and steal shamelessly from greater talents with fearless abandon, have at it. But please don’t bring your amateur divas and fifth rate singer-songwriters into my church and have them do their commercial thing in front of me, and definitely don’t try to flog me their wares on the card table by the church’s front door. I am fine with the world doing that, but Christians should be doing way, way better, not imitating the lamest and most pathetic aspects of popular culture.

There is nothing performance-oriented about New Testament Christianity. Compared to the give and take we find between average, spiritually gifted Christians in 1 Corinthians 14, I estimate even our tamest modern preachers are performers to far too great a degree. I wish we could get them back to being decent, clear Bible teachers engaged with their audiences and sparring back and forth with them like Jesus did. But add to that ongoing frustration with modern Churchianity the excruciating ordeal of sitting through “special music” that is neither special nor musical? No thanks. And if I don’t enjoy it in church, why on earth would I ever listen to it at home?

Dogs and Their Vomit

After the early nineties, I went back to secular music in good conscience provided it was lyrically honest and not musically cynical, meaning that the artists in question displayed some originality rather than simply trying to cash in on prevailing trends. I trust you will not equate this to the dog returning to his vomit. In other ways, my apprehension of the Christian faith, my love for the Lord, my commitment to the good of his people and my knowledge of scripture have continued to grow by leaps and bounds. But despite being an intense lover of music, I have just never enjoyed modern Christian attempts to mimic the world, and I never will. Johnny Cash mumbling The Man Comes Around will do me just fine. Love him or loathe him, Johnny was not imitating anybody.

Obviously, I don’t agree with every lyric on every secular album I purchase. How could I? Christians have genuine hope and genuine answers to life’s questions that even the cleverest unsaved minds do not. That doesn’t mean I don’t find sincere unbelieving thoughts challenging, interesting and useful. I do. They remind me what my unsaved friends are uncritically absorbing and regurgitating to one another, and they help equip me to meet my neighbors, friends and unsaved family members more or less where they are.

Sometimes they remind me why I love the Lord so much. He fills the holes in the hearts of the wounded. He is the answer some of the best and most creative musical thinkers are looking for. They don’t know it, but they are.

My Two Cents

Most of all, the best of secular music (though not much of the current nonsense) is beautiful, original, professional and adventurous in a way most Christian musicians on their best day will never pull off. If a sound can make you feel like heaven is coming down, it’s usually not a sound you will ever hear in church.

That’s my two cents. Obviously many will differ, probably violently. We return you now to your regularly scheduled programming.

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