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The Truth about Christian Music

Lights. Cameras. Fog Machines. Are we really lying when we worship?

My wife visited a mega-church in South Carolina a couple of years ago and relayed her experience to me: the service started with Macklemore’s ‘Can’t Hold Us,’ complete with flashing strobe lights and thumping bass. The band then smoothly transitioned into an equally upbeat worship song. At first, I laughed out loud, and then I got philosophical (I do this a lot) and started wondering what it means that Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is so similar to club music that a worship band can create such a smooth transition. Should Christian music sound just like today’s top hits? Or, as is often the case, should it sound very similar but perhaps just a little bit worse?

Music is deeply entwined with culture. “Country” isn’t just a genre of music… it’s driving F-150s, going to the rodeo, little bit of chicken fried, cold beer on a Friday night… it’s a lifestyle. The same could be said for rock, hip hop, jazz, classical, R&B, alternative, folk, grunge, metal, EDM. There is the music – and the accompanying lifestyle. But CCM doesn’t have its own sound, not like country. Instead, it mimics the sounds of other genres. If we hear a song for the first time and can’t make out the lyrics, it is not obvious whether it is Christian or not.

Why does this matter? Dr. Jeremy Begbie has a lot to say about this in his book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.  He argues that the musicality of CCM doesn’t accurately portray what it means to be Christian. There are 2 assumptions in play here: 1) popular music becomes popular because it is easy to listen to, and 2) CCM incorporates the sounds of popular music in order to appeal to its audience. Thus, CCM is usually very easy to listen to. It only uses a few chords, it resolves quickly and often, and it lacks musical tension and discord…

We are called to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, to lose our lives in order to find them. These are not easy pills to swallow. Christianity is not always easy… in fact sometimes it is extremely difficult. But this doesn’t easily translate into palatable music. If we look at the original hymnal, the book of Psalms, we don’t just see one type of song. It’s hard to imagine singing Psalm 22 like a pop song: “I am poured out like water and my bones are all out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death…” (22:14-15) If CCM reflected these somber parts of Christianity as well as it does the joyful parts, there would be more discordant notes, a feeling of tension and lack of resolution, and it would be harder to listen to. (There are Christian artists that make stuff like this… it generally doesn’t sell well.)

As with most things, there are good parts and bad parts to the current Christian music scene. The good is that so many people consume CCM. And don’t get me wrong; the joy of the music is part of the Christian story. But it’s not the whole story. We have been saved in Christ and we should rejoice, absolutely, but the Christian journey doesn’t stop there. Truly living into Christ is unbelievably difficult. There will be trials and tribulations (James 1 and Romans 5). There will be times we will want to shake our fists at God, yell at God, be mad at life itself. We should not feel discouraged from doing so; this happens in the Bible all the time. Though these concepts of Christianity might not be covered as often in the sounds of K-LOVE, they are just as central to it.

If our music fully represented the Christian lifestyle, it would convey joy and sorrow; bright, poppy melodies, and dark, somber discord. I worry that if we only hear the one side of this equation, we consciously or unconsciously favor that side. However, this unbalanced preoccupation with the joy found in Christ can make us forget about the trials, or even make us feel like we’re doing something wrong by facing suffering honestly. Tension and pain are not foreign to the gospel, but rather central to its message. We must go through Good Friday to reach Easter. Don’t skim over the more unpleasant parts of the gospel, because it is through crucifixion that we experience the eternal goodness of resurrection.

God’s peace,

Brandon J Miller

If you’d like to hear some Christian music that exemplifies this somber discord, check out some of the following songs:

Lowland Hum – How Long?

Josh Garrels – Ulysses (The link is to a full Josh Garrels documentary; Ulysses is the song he is playing at the beginning)

Lowercase Noises – Famine and the Death of a Mother

The Collection – Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing

The Sing Team – Satisfied in You

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Brandon Miller

Brandon Miller is currently a student at Duke Divinity School and a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. He and his wife Meredith live in Durham, North Carolina

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